Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Jewel of Black Film History Appears

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

If anyone involved with film in its earliest days realized how important their work would become, they probably would’ve taken greater care to preserve the medium for future generations. But, at the time, few seemed to believe cinema would last beyond its initial novelty. So, when a silent film surfaces, it’s cause for celebration. Such is the case with the recent discovery of an untitled, unreleased film from 1913.

Comprised into 7 reels, the movie is unique for two reasons:

  • it’s an early concerted attempt at a feature-length project;
  • it stars a mostly-Black cast.

At the start of the 20th century, film was still expensive, and movie studios – really just a gathering of adventurous artists – put out “shorts” that would often last only a few minutes. In this particular film, refurbished by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, we see a rare depiction of a Black middle class. It features Bert Williams, the first Black star on Broadway, and already a veteran of music and stage. Williams competes with other men for the affections of a young woman played by Odessa Warren Grey. The film had three directors; one of whom was Black. With titles, it would have run for about 35 minutes. The movie was made in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary period beginning in the 1890s when a variety of Black artists – writers, singers, dancers – expounded upon their creative intellects and showed the world that they and all Blacks were human, too.

The film is part of a collection of 900 unprinted negatives produced by the now-defunct Biograph Company of New York. In 1939, Iris Barry, MOMA’s founding film curator, acquired the cache in 1939. In 1976, a MOMA film curator began copying the film and realized its historical significance when he spotted Williams amidst the characters. But, not until 2004, did the museum begin both restoring the film and searching for its origins. The research team showed the material to film historians; looked through a number of old movie trade papers; and even hired a lip reader to extract potential clues from the movie scenes themselves.

Their efforts have paid off. Now, we know the names of just about everyone appearing in the film, as well as its producers. It’s been fully restored and is scheduled for a premier showing this October 24.

A strange fact is glaringly obvious: Williams, of all people, appears in black-face; the antiquitous cosmetic concoction often used by White performers on stage and in film at the time to portray Black characters. Why Williams did that is unknown. It may have been a mockery of the technique itself, or perhaps an attempt to make him more appealing to White audiences. Regardless, this is an important historical find and it should be treasured for the cinematic gem that it is.

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Devon and Leah Sari Still: A True Father – Daughter Team of Hope

WCPO Devon Still and daughter Leah_1401905649321_5942107_ver1.0_640_480

With all the bad news surrounding professional athletes these days – as if there ever is any other kind of news surrounding professional athletes – I think it’s important to focus on Devon Still, a defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. This past June Still learned his daughter, Leah Sari, has Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer, in her abdomen. The Bengals granted Still a leave of absence from team activities to tend to her. They cut him from the team earlier this month, however, but then, resigned him to the practice squad, which means he retains a paycheck and his health insurance. In order to raise awareness about pediatric cancer, Still coordinated a fund raising drive in which donations will be made on the number of sacks the Bengals make this season.

On September 8, the team announced it will donate all proceeds from the sales of Still’s jerseys to pediatric cancer research. Three days later they signed Still to their 53-man roster, since they had a spot available. As of now, they’ve raised in excess of $400,000. More importantly, Leah Sari has responded positively to an intense round of chemotherapy at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and has a major surgical procedure looming ahead. But, it’s great news.

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It’s just as good that there’s a father who places so much emphasis on the health of his child than he does on his career. But then again, that’s what the overwhelming majority of fathers do anyway, including those in professional sports. It’s sad, though, the media doesn’t place the same degree of attention on Still as it does the miscreants they claim populate professional athletics.

Thanks to fellow blogger Jueseppi Baker for highlighting this story.

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Banned Books Weeks 2014

ABFFE

I should have mentioned this earlier, but it’s “Banned Books Week” in the United States – a time set aside every year to acknowledge the sanctimonious morons who have decided they are the ones who can choose what the rest of us can read and see. It’s the usual assault on free speech and freedom of expression moralists have been waging for centuries; a battle we writers and bloggers understand will never really be won. This is an annual event the American Library Association hosts every year. I personally feel it should be a year-long event and not relegated to a single week. The ALA maintains a list of frequently challenged books, but this year’s list features books that include the usual transgressions: sex, homosex, nudity and other various and miscellaneous adult-oriented themes that some think should be shielded from the eyes of America’s overweight, technologically-savvy youth.

Below is just a partial list of this year’s offensive tomes. For the complete list, check out the ALA web site.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Thorndike Press; Little, Brown.
Removed as required reading in a Queens, NY Middle School because the book included excerpts on masturbation. Challenged on the tenth-grade required reading list at Skyview High School in Billings, MT because “[t]his book is, shockingly, written by a Native American who reinforces all the negative stereotypes of his people and does it from the crude, obscene, and unfiltered viewpoint of a ninth-grader growing up on the reservation. Pulled from Jefferson County, WV schools because a parent complained about the novels graphic nature. Challenged in a Sweet Home, Oregon, Junior High English class because of concerns about its content, particularly what some parents see as the objectification of women and young girls, and the way alternative lessons were developed and presented.

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits, Dial Press.
Challenged in the Watauga County, NC High School curriculum because of the book’s graphic nature. After a five-month process, the book was fully retained at a third and final appeal hearing.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, McClelland and Stewart.
Challenged, but retained as required reading for a Page High School International Baccalaureate class and as optional reading for Advanced Placement reading courses at Grimsley High school in Guilford County, North Carolina, because the book was “sexually explicit, violently graphic and morally corrupt.” Some parents thought the book is “detrimental to Christian values.”

Akram Aylisli, Stone Dreams, Novella published in Druzhba Narodov.
Burned in 2013 at various locations around Azerbaijan. The novella is sympathetic to Armenians and recounts Azeri atrocities in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia twenty years ago. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stripped the author of his title of “People’s Writer,” and a pro-government political party announced it would pay $12,700 to anyone who cuts off the ear of the 75-year-old novelist for portraying Azerbaijanis as savages.

Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History, Prentice-Hall.
Challenged, but retained in the Volusia County, Florida, high schools, despite a thirty two-page chapter on “Muslim Civilizations” that covers the rise of Islam and the building of a Muslim empire. Protestors believe the Volusia high schools are using the world history textbook to “indoctrinate” students into the Islamic religion and recommend student volunteers tear the chapter out of the 1,000-page book.

Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Doubleday.
Challenged, but retained in the Northville, Michigan, middle schools despite anatomical descriptions in the book.

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, HarperCollins.
Temporarily removed from the Alamogordo, New Mexico High School library and curriculum because of what one parents calls “inappropriate content.” The British author wrote in “The Guardian”: “Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the twenty-first-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature – you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, Knopf, Vintage International.
Challenged in Legacy High School’s Advanced Placement English classes in Adams County, Colorado, because it was a “bad book.” Challenge on a suggested reading list for Columbus, Ohio, high school students by the school board president because it is inappropriate for the school board to “even be associated with it.” A fellow board member described the book as having “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.”

Norani Othman, ed., Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism, Sisters in Islam.
Banned by the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs in 2008 on the ground that it was “prejudicial to public order” and that it could confuse Muslims, particularly Muslim women. The Malaysian High Court overturned the ban on January 25, 2010, and on March 14, 2013, the Federal Court threw out the government’s appeal to reinstate the ban.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Pantheon Books.
Removed, via a district directive, from all Chicago, Illinois, public schools due to “graphic illustrations and language” and concerns about “student readiness.” After students fought back via Facebook, twitter, protests and radio and television programs, the school board issued a letter telling high school principals to disregard the earlier order to pull the book.

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Set Up

09-11-01_raising_the_flag

“They’ve bombed the World Trade Center in New York,” my mother said.

“Who?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We just heard about it.”

It was a few minutes before 9 A.M. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and her phone call had awoken me from a sound sleep. I had lost my job at the bank almost five months earlier and had taken to sleeping late throughout that summer. I had my alarm clock set for 11 A.M. My father had an appointment with his eye doctor at 1 P.M. Exactly one week earlier one of the doctor’s colleagues had implanted some radiation pellets into his left eye; another attempt to destroy a small tumor that had formed behind the eyeball. The doctor had made his first effort to eliminate it nearly seven months earlier by cauterizing the blood vessels around the tumor. But, it had regenerated. The pellets could only remain in his eye for a maximum of seven days.

After my mother had called me, I really couldn’t go back to sleep and finally got up around 10:00. Turning on the TV, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsing. It had just occurred, and I was watching a replay. “What the hell happened?” I kept asking myself.

I thought back to Memorial Day weekend, when I visited New York with a close friend, Phillip*, who had lived there for five years. He had attended New York University, beginning in 1991, and after graduating, decided to stay and try to build a long-desired career in the film industry. When that didn’t go as planned, he returned to Dallas. Yet, Phillip kept his tiny one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village; subletting it college students. He hoped to move back there one day.

I had first visited New York with Phillip over Memorial Day weekend 1997. We stayed with some friends of his who lived across the Hudson in New Jersey. I had no desire to patronize the World Trade Center back then. Seeing the Statue of Liberty from a boat was enjoyable enough, but a cluster of office buildings wasn’t exactly akin to viewing the remains of Tenochtitlán.

But, before our 2001 visit, I told Phillip I’d visit the World Trade Center complex – just to say I’d been there. Then, as we made our way to Manhattan’s financial district, I stopped. Literally. In mid-stride.

“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked me.

I was silent for a moment. “Nothing,” I finally said. I don’t know what it was, but I had suddenly developed a sickening feeling as I looked at those two gargantuan structures just a few blocks away. I don’t remember exactly what I said afterwards, but I shifted my focus to an Indian restaurant Phillip had wanted me to try out. My appetite had evaporated, yet we made our way back up to the Greenwich Village area. I grew hungry, though, by the time we reached the restaurant. I couldn’t explain to Phillip why I’d abruptly changed my mind about the World Trade Center. I couldn’t explain it to myself.

As I sat alongside my father in the waiting room, we stared at the TV monitor snuggled high up into a corner. An older couple sat opposite us, and, of course, we all wondered aloud who had wreaked such havoc on us and why. None of us actually cared why. We just wanted retribution.

But, thirteen years on, I know why Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in so brutal a manner. It’s not like they all woke up one morning and decided to highjack those planes because they had nothing else better to do with their time and money.

 

Forgetting Afghanistan.

On December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union unexpectedly invaded Afghanistan. Back then, the average American probably couldn’t locate the landlocked nation on a map. It was the U.S.S.R.’s last concerted effort at a land grab. At the time, however, the United States was preoccupied with the Iran hostage crisis. Before then, most Americans probably couldn’t find Iran on a map either. In retrospect, though, the quandary was the U.S.’s first battle with radical Islam. President Jimmy Carter appeared thoroughly inept in his handling of it; a fact that cost him the 1980 presidential election. Ronald Reagan rode into the White House with a promise to help the mujahideen fighters drive out the Soviets. The Cold War was still very active; the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. locked in a never-ending battle of hearts and minds. In March of 1985, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166, which allowed for much-needed financial and military support to the Afghan warriors. Within two years, the U.S. was shipping up to 65,000 tons of arm supplies and covertly spiriting a bevy of military operatives and specialists into Afghanistan via Pakistan. When the Soviets finally left Afghanistan in 1989, the Afghan people expected the U.S. to live up to its Reagan-born vow. We were supposed to stay and help the impoverished country move from its medieval environment into the 20th century. We never did. President George H.W. Bush simply didn’t see it as a priority. Neither did Bill Clinton. People don’t forget something like that.

Blindly supporting Israel.

The U.S. and Israel have one major thing in common: both were founded by White Europeans fleeing religious persecution who ended up displacing the indigenous peoples through violence and intimidation. As of 2013, the U.S. has been providing roughly $3.1 billion annually to support its only true ally in the Middle East. This small nation of 7.1 million was formally established in 1948 and now has the highest standard of living of any country in the region with a 95% literacy rate and an average life expectancy of 79. It’s not that its neighbors are bitterly envious of Israel’s global success. The harassment of non-Jews by Israeli police and government has always bordered on the criminal. But, any criticism of Israel’s actions is met with a harsh rebuke by its supporters. President Barack Obama is repeatedly accused of abandoning Israel; a declaration born more out of political partisanship and racism than fact. Yet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received scant criticism about his refusal to acknowledge a “Palestinian state,” or a “two-state solution.” The ongoing battle between Jews and Palestinians is a little like the English-French divide in Canada, but more pointless. Israel’s assault upon Lebanon in 2006 was met with silence, even as news of atrocities at the hands of the Israeli military seeped out, along with images of civilians fleeing to the island nation of Cyprus. The U.S. also remains mum on Israel’s constant push into the West Bank; forcing out entire families and destroying Palestinian property. Other democratic nations always seem to look away.

 

The United States should have seen 09/11 coming. There were plenty of signs: the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; the 1996 assault on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October of 2000. There’s also plenty of blame to go around. On September 12, 2001, people kept asking how something so horrifically grand could happen. Didn’t anyone suspect that planes could be used as missiles? Didn’t anyone believe it was imprudent to overlook the expired visas of foreign nationals? Didn’t someone think box cutters and pocket knives could be so deadly? Didn’t somebody alert authorities to the curious behavior of Middle Eastern men at flight schools? Well, yes to all of the above. Various people at various times had already expressed concern about those things. And, it goes far beyond just the infamous “August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing.”

There’s nothing that can take back the horror of that late summer day more than a decade ago. People launching themselves from the top floors of the World Trade Center towers is one of the most blood-curdling things I’ve ever seen. We’ll never just get over it. And, while I’m no security expert, I know the U.S. should never set itself up for catastrophe through an imaginary veil of isolation.

09/11 Memorial.

*Name changed.

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In Remembrance – September 11, 2001

sun-shining-through-the-clouds

“Humankind has not woven the web of life.

We are but one thread within it.

Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

All things are bound together.

All things connect.”

Chief Seattle, 1854

 

September 11, 2001.

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Doctorate in Dumbass

Alleged proof that humans and dinosaurs lived and played together.

Alleged proof that humans and dinosaurs lived and played together.

As if the state of Texas hasn’t embarrassed itself enough by keeping Rick Perry in the governor’s office for nearly 14 years and electing the maniacally right-wing Ted Cruz to a prominent U.S. Senate seat, we now have this gem. The Institution for Creation Research, which has been attempting to educate people about the veracity of the Christian Bible through scientific research since its founding in 1970, is now making an even more concerted effort at validating the Genesis story of “Creation.” Nine Ph.D.-bearing individuals from such esteemed institutions as Harvard University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory assert that Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution are nonsense, with no basis in fact, and that the universe was created by God between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

“Our attempt is to demonstrate that the Bible is accurate, not just religiously authoritative,” said Henry Morris III, CEO of ICR, a nonprofit with 49 staff members and an annual budget of roughly $7 million. “The rationale behind it is this: if God really does exist, he shouldn’t be lying to us. And if he’s lying to us right off the bat in the book of Genesis, we’ve got some real problems.”

Yea, if God lies, then you know we’re all in trouble. ICR rightfully notes that most non-religious institutions in the U.S. have taught the theory of evolution for nearly a hundred years now. But, they complain it’s been a lopsided deal; no other theory of how the Earth and its inhabitants came into existence has been presented. The frustration gave birth to a new educational forum: creation science.

ICR argues – among other things – that humans lived among dinosaurs; Noah really did build a massive vessel in advance of a catastrophic global flood; and the Grand Canyon formed in months, not over millions of years.

“Most Christians are like most people,” Morris said. “They don’t want to be thought of as weird. They don’t want to go against the majority.”

ICR highlights discrepancies in scientific proclamations, or conflicts within what they consider to be purely hypothetical statements. For example, Jason Lisle, an astrophysicist and ICR researcher, points to the “spiral winding problem” as proof that galaxies cannot be billions of years old. If stars had been bouncing around for billions of years, he says, they’d look more like CDs than what we see through telescopes, which are hurricane-shaped spirals. Another problem, he believes, lies with oceans. They should be more salty, if they were billions of years old. Finally, there’s the inescapable dinosaur quandary; if dinosaur bones actually were millions of years old, Lisle proclaims, paleontologists wouldn’t be able to recover traces of soft tissue from them.

I personally believe in a “Great Creator,” but that’s just my belief. I have no proof. There is proof of the sun and the moon and radiocarbon dating, which should lay a lot of this nonsense to rest. But, it doesn’t. People will believe whatever they want, and that’s their right. Trying to make a science out of it, however, moves the discussion into another realm.

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Maidens of the Medieval Seas

Two years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared once and for all that mermaids – now known by the politically correct term of “aquatic humanoids” – do not exist. But, considering that tales of the luscious watery vixens have existed for eons, it’s not likely people will stop believing in them any time soon. Drunken sailors notwithstanding, these mythical figures have appeared in Paleolithic (Stone Age) cave drawings, dating some 30,000 years ago. They also show up in stories from the Orient where they were the wives of sea dragons; in Australian Aboriginal folklore where they were often called “yawkyawks”; and, of course, in Homer’s classic “The Odyssey.”

Mermaids took on a more evil persona in medieval Europe where – not surprisingly – the Roman Catholic Church viewed them as the diabolical spawn of Eve; proof, they declared from their ivory towers, that women were harbingers of doom. Drawings of the creatures during this period often show them with mirrors and combs; both signs of vanity and lust. But, there are plenty of them! It seems that, while mermaids were viewed with some level of disdain, they still fascinated scores of medieval artists.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 – 1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 –
1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

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