". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Song for the Season & Our Times-- "The Borning Day", Harry Belafonte

One Christmas, when I was 19, I discovered this, an emotionally wrenching, yet beautiful track, "The Borning Day,"  moving in its simplicity.

Though "The Borning Day" was included on Belafonte Christmas albums, it seems that he first recorded it in 1963, for Streets I Have Walked , a world music album,  long before the marketing, qualifying concept "world music" had arrived. This song was my second entry into Caribbean culture, after the book of poetry that I found in my high school library, that contained not only the first African American poets, and those brilliant writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but some Afro-Caribbean poets too.  The language, the landscapes, even the words, in English as they were (the Caribbean poets were all from the English Caribbean) were all doorways into new worlds, new ways of seeing, and certainly new ways of hearing.

Ever since the first time I heard it, "The Borning Day" has been the iconic Christmas song for me, even before all the traditional Christmas carols with which I grew up singing (and believe me, I cannot sing now, and I could not sing then either, but then it didn't stop me singing carols at the top of my voice -- ouch!).

Pigeon peas & rice, though the Caribbean poor couldn't afford the saffron in the rice we see here.

Lyrics to "The Borning Day" here.

Hear it:

More on Belafonte (and Langston Hughes) here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Tis Of The Season -- Angels and Birds and Blessings

It's a lovely day here, with temperatures higher than they've been.  Though the wind, when it hits, while walking where it flows, is chill, it's not a strong wind.

Doing some preliminary Christmas food shopping, on my way to Raffetto's (est. 1906!) this morning, it seemed a good time to for my annual meditation about

Christmas while gazing at the simple, traditional Nativity scene St. Anthony's puts up on the Houston side of the church. This is something I make time to do every Christmas at least twice, once in the daytime and once at night. I tend to enter what perhaps resembles a state of prayer, leaving me feeling refreshed and thankful for my privileged life.

I am also thankful for St. Anthony's, the anchor of this neighborhood where I've lived my adult life for the most part. The church, the friary, the convent and the school have saved our immediate blocks from being entirely taken over by billionaire giganticism and become 100% an alcohol, Chanel and restaurant corridor, where only the bloated plutocracy can afford to live and eat.

Today, there was something new going on with the Créche: birds, just our plain old street sparrows and pigeons. They filled the stable, among the Holy Family, the angels, the humble cow and the donkey, with their chirping and cooing, swooping and fluttering, perching upon the wings of angels for a minute to puff and chatter. They were happy birds, dancing upon the festoons of evergreen within and without the stable, in air that was invigorating, not freezing. Some of the sparrows were not flying, but hovering in place, over the manger, beating their wings at the speed one associates with humming birds, not sparrows.

The birds' happiness made me so happy that I burst into tears.

This must have had something to do with St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, who is credited in Church history with creating the first nativity scene, because he wanted people to understand the depths of poverty into which Our Lord was born, and the pure miracle of a birth that was for the sake of peace on earth and good will to all men -- and animals and the earth itself.

So, right there, on the sidewalk next to Houston Street, filled with honking and sirens, on my way to buy pesto and pasta, I was given a Christmas blessing.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Polish Trilogy - Henryk Sienkiewicz & Jerzy Hoffman.- Winter Solstice Is Coming!

Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905 "because of his outstanding merits as an epic writer".

His epic was addressed the wars and political events the resulted in the first dismemberment of Poland, that led inexorably to dissolution as a state. At the time the author received the Nobel Poland, as a nation, no longer existed.  Certainly, contributing to his selection, was the passion and devotion with which the author worked to keep the world's mind upon the issue of the plight of the Polish people and Poland's dissolution.  The reestablishment of the nation-state of Poland didn't happen until after the end of WWI -- the Second Polish Republic, or, the Second Commonwealth of Poland.

Known in Poland as "The Trilogy", the volumes are:

1884 - With Fire and Sword (Polish: Ogniem i mieczem); set in the period of the Cossack uprising against the Polish Nobility in what we know as Ukraine.

1886 - The Deluge (Polish: Potop); set during the Polish-Swedish war.

1888 - Fire in the Steppe (originally published under the Polish title Pan Wołodyjowski, which translates to Colonel Wolodyjowski); set during the Turkish invasion of Poland's eastern frontier.

These books have been turned into very fine epic, historic films, that contain everything anyone can want from such fare: swashing, battles, sieges, duels ( cannon  pushed and dragged through the snow), stunning location scenery, romance, intrique and betrayal, love and romance, ballrooms and love, and at least in one of them, strands of magic and sorcery.

The last of Jerzy Hoffman's Sienkiewicz adaptations was With Fire and Sword, Released in 1999, it was the most expensive Polish film ever made at that time -- the year the Polish Film Festival began, as well as the year Poland joined NATO. It was something that could now happen since their independence from the USSR, as the Third Polish Republic in 1991.

Its New York opening was somewhat of a sensation. It was lauded with much more respectful enthusiasm than the local cinestes usually accord historic, period films. As well as recognition of the film's high cinematic values, the enthusiasm perhaps reflected the respect felt for Poland's long struggle for independence from the USSR -- solidarity! That said, the film is splendid in every aspect.

Husaria! My favorite!

Previously Hoffman had filmed The Deluge (1974), which may be my favorite of the three. A nominee for Oscar's Best Foreign Film, it lost to Amacord.  The first of the films Hoffman produced was Colonel Wolodyjowski (1969).

As we see, while the 16th century is viewed as Poland's gold age, the 17th century was one of struggle and hardship for Poland*, which only got worse as the great powers of Prussia, Russia and Austria vied to slice off her parts for themselves. Despite the hope and faith of the Polish nobility (one of whom even bore Napoleón a son), Napoleón not only did not reestablish Polish independence, he betrayed them, even while keeping the Polish beauty as his mistress and bringing her to Paris.

Nor did the Congress of Vienna reunite Poland's parts nor recognize it as a state.

More here concerning the Sienkiewicz novels, the Hoffman films, and ... Tolkien.

This trilogy of films is a perfect viewing experience for the short, dark days of the winter solstice.

*  Recall, this is the era of Dumas's The Three Musketeers.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tonight - Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NYC City Center

"The Life of Odetta" is the performance tonight.

Yesterday at least 25,000 peacefully marched and protested here in solidarity with the March in Washington D.C., protesting police brutality and the actions that include results such as unjustified death, executed with impunity, with no consequences to the perpetrators.

Those who demonstrated against this yesterday were surrounded at all times by police in riot gear, carrying the same weapons as the military, surveilled by helicopters and drones.

Yesterday was also NYC's unwelcome situation of hosting the annual Santacon -- thousands of really drunk college revellers who are really obnoxious and badly behaved.  Mostly, need we say, white people.  Not a cop was in sight where they charged and held up traffic, barfing and insulting those around them.  Anyone who objects to these hordes descending upon us the second Saturday in December, making our lives difficult -- we're called grinches and anti-liberty.  Nevertheless, the hipsters of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the organizers wanted these jerks to pee and vomit this year, refused to participate.  Can't have a Santacon without participating bars serving discounted drinks  . . . .

Under these circumstances, an Alvin Ailey (a New York dance company, it was founded in 1958) choreographed dance biography of the performer of "Freedom Trilogy" (1962), in the heart of the Civil Rights era, seems about as appropriate as NYC can be.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Kongo Mangaaka and -- Phoenician Hippoi

Maps, oliphants, raffia textiles, masks, crucifixes and nkisi.

Oliphants, still carved today in Kongo and Angola, were among the ornamental objects presented by the Mani-Kongo to European powers, including the Pope and the Medicis, as "business cards", initiating a relationship between them, himself and his kingdom for trade and mutual benefit.  Thus there are many of these found in public and private art collections from the Mediterranean up to the northern royal collections of Sweden and Denmark. Oliphants are still being carved in Angola and elsewhere. Nkisi are still being made there and in Cuba, at least. Power vessels containing power materials have been discovered by archeologists in Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana.

The invitees were academics at the graduate level or museum / gallery people, most of which are also part of universities, such as both Yale and Princeton. However, el V was the only one in this company, including the Met curators of both this coming exhibit (September 2015) and the Met's African, Oceania and South American wing, to actually have been in Mbanza-Kongo.  As told when it happened, and almost didn't happen, it's very difficult to get into Angola.  The powers do not want outsiders.
Before the the early 19th century all surviving objects are nonrepresentational -- abstract and geometric -- whether sacred or ornamental. This break into respresentational occurs, presumably due to the change from European partnership with the region's rulers, to colonial invasion into the interior out of their long confinement on the coasts. Now there is direct conflict instead of trade, that includes the destruction of culture and folkways.

This is the era in which objects first appear, such as female wooden sculptures depicting the rulers' desire for population, particularly of men (recall, entire regions of Central Africa were depopulated by then by centuries already of the slavery industry, taken to everywhere in the New World).

A nkisi. Ritually prepared materials -- power packets -- would be secreted within the figure.
It's from the early 19th century as well that were created another variety of the nkisi power figures, mangaaka.  These were huge in size, taken and removed from nodes of mercantile communities.  These figures were, scholars speculate,

A mangaaka.  Very few of these large nkisi have survived.
the last line of defense of communities that had been barely surviving, subjected to intense stresses, such as loss of both population and trade, from colonial invasion by Portuguese, French and Belgians. The mangaaka have been ritually cleansed of their secret power packets somehow, before the European invaders and / or pirates seized them, and thus got into European collections.

Named hippoi by the Greeks, because of the horse heads at stem and stern.
So, it may be asked, how does one get from mangaaka to Phoenician hippoi? The Met currently has up for a while longer a special exhibit called "From Assyria to Iberia, the Dawn of the Classical Age."  Most of the objects are borrowed from other institutions and collections, which is why this is a "special" exhibit (with no photography allowed, not even cell phones).

After our session finished at noon, after the networking, and so on, we were given passes to the Met's galleries. El V and I had lunch in the museum restaurant, before going through the "Assyria to Iberia" galleries.  As usual, I am

struck by the refinement of the Assyrian artists, particularly in the cylinder seals. Each time I look at these objects I am more impressed by the Assyrians than the last time. Their visual imagination expresses a spirituality that we can't comprehend emotionally, yet is deeply striking: the human-beast composite figures of

Cylinder seal depicting a Mistress of Animals, surrounded by horned beasts.
guardianship and expressions of power. The griffons, and especially, the Masters and Mistresses of Animals.  What is that all about, really?  Their sacred tree?  There seems at least some deep influence of these figures and designs upon the Scythians, who show up quite a lot later.

We spent a long time looking at a panel that showed cargo being taken off a Phoenician hippoi ship.  Trade was much the focus of this exhibit. Just as with the coming Kongo exhibit -- many of the objects in that show are pieces sent to European princes (including the Medicis!) by the Mani-Kongo, who controlled the most extensive trading system on the continent, back in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

It was an emotional day, from the sense of tragic sadness and desperation felt in those sculptures of women cradling and nurturing -- not infants as the western eye always interprets initially -- but grown men, just made small, in the vain hope of repopulating the land.  While in the meantime, the women have been taken off to have their wombs forever repopulating the slave breeding and trading industry in the New World.  Then this joy in the exquisite refinement and achievement of what artists could create so very long ago, in the millennium before the ACE.

Not only is the detail exquisite -- in the round one can see each toe of the boy's foot -- it's also mysteriously, even tenderly, erotic. Note the placement of the lioness's paw around the boy's shoulders, holding his throat to her mouth ....
Yet, there too, the sense of tragedy.  A bit of ivory work that may perhaps be ranked by the world's art historians in these matters as the most perfect of ivory work in the world, surviving.  There was a matching ivory panel to this piece, but it could only be represented by a photograph, because it was looted from the Baghdad museum in 2003, never to be seen by the public or scholars again.

This ivory was from the elephant herds living in what we now call Syria. They were hunted to extinction long before ACE for the sake of their tusks, so what goes round, comes around?  We look at the ivory tusks from these elephants of the Middle East, all that survives of their DNA, and think again of the ornamental oliphants given to European princes by the Mani-Kongo, whose elephants too are nearly hunted to extinction for their ivory.

But what survives from a temple in the Phoenician port of Spal, which today we know as Seville, is gold. Gold has no dna ... nevermind . . . .

At that thought, our feet and backs couldn't take any more marble floors. We left to meet up with the people visiting NYC from North Carolina who wish to do some events around The American Slave Coast after publication. This includes the largest bookstore in the triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), historical black college radio, and so on and so forth, and hopefully a gig or two presenting at one of the academic institutions which will finance this jaunt. While we were meeting, we were observed for long minutes by a drone garbed in Christmas lights, through le Café's large windows facing the street . . . .

After that we stopped in at the Grad Center's Christmas party, came home to eat rice and vegetables and read.

Somehow . . . it felt like the Christmas season had started.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Death of Tolkien's Smaug Inspired By Longfellow's "Hiawatha"

From the UK Guardian, in the Books section:

Hiawatha faces Megissogwon, manito (spirit) of wealth, who is impervious in his shirt of wampum, the hard shell beads once used as currency. After a day-long battle, Hiawatha has only three arrows left. Victory appears impossible until --

Suddenly from the boughs above him
Sang the Mama, the woodpecker:
‘Aim your arrows, Hiawatha,
At the head of Megissogwon,
Strike the tuft of hair upon it,
At their roots the long black tresses;
There alone can he be wounded!’

And so, thanks to a bird’s revelation of his fatal vulnerability, another monstrous symbol of material wealth is brought down by a bowman almost at the end of his arrows.

There is much more background to this, and how it was discovered, here. The discussion in the article of the relationships among Hiawatha, the Kalevala and Tolkien's epic are illuminating.

Guttenberg "Hiawatha" here.

Jeff Thompson's National Geographic illustrations of Hiawatha and Megissogwon here.

I love this convergence of the Eddas, The KalavalaHiawatha and The Hobbit's Smaug so much -- particularly, as the article's author notes, that both Longfellow and Tolkien were language professors.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Katharine Graham: Personal History (1997) / Torture Report - Bush Era Crimes

This weekend I read fairly non-stop Katharine Graham: Personal History (1997) the memoir of the publisher, president and chairman, eventually, of The Washington Post. The book reads very fast, and never flags in interest.  Reading through hers and the Post's experiences during the

years of Johnson and Nixon - Vietnam era -- the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and impeachment -- was fascinating.  Reading Graham's memoirs intensified my viewing involvement with China Beach.

Graham was born (1917) very wealthy, and raised in an emotionally dysfunctional family with materially austere upbringing in terms of regimens, possessions and clothes, though there were lessons, art, literature and a great deal of other intellectual enrichment, that included the high achieving friends of her parents (among her mother's life-long closest friends were the Steichens). Dysfunctional as it all was, Graham herself managed to have very close relationships with both her parents and all her siblings.

Surrounded all her life by servants, even after marrying a (relatively) poor fellow, she barely learned to cook, never ironed a piece of clothing, or even knew how to shop for clothes. She lived through all of the changes the 20th century was fated to experience -- including a very slow coming to consciousness of women's systemic subordination as unfair. She overcame a great deal, and in her memoir at least, comes through as person who doesn't aggrandize herself at all -- in extreme contrast with her narcissist mother.  However, she may not have realized just how much she still was viewing the world from the perspective of the truly powerful and privileged.  She was a centerist in everything, which her position provided the privilege to be.

It was her plutocrat father (who, among other accomplishments organized setting up the World Bank) who initially bought the small circulation, struggling

Washington Post at an auction (1933).  By then both Isaac Eugene Meyer and his wife, the poor German Lutheran Agnes Ernst, daughter of a bankrupt alcoholic feckless fellow, both preferred the political life in more tolerant D.C. to living in New York, where antisemitism was intense.

Eventually Graham's husband, Philip Graham, who was one of her father's best friends, was not only publisher, but given the controlling shares of the family owned Washington Post.  When Philip, after severe mental illness, committed suicide (1963), Katharine Graham took on the paper that both her beloved father and husband had given so much of their lives.

I finished the book (625 pp.) last night.  Woke this morning to the even more hair raising sense of déjàvu.

OMG! Bush46's debacle of Iraq, Blackwater, CIA, torture and lies, committed under cover of the waving bloody shirt of 9/11. What was going on during the Iraq invasion - rendition era -- lying about it, keeping it secret -- is part what Nixon and Co.'s men believed they had the right to do.  Breaking laws was their right, and they despised the laws and the people who believed in them.

If this Senate Intelligence Investigative report of CIA torture came out next year, when the new r-Senate conveys, one doubts strongly this would have gone public.  It took an independent publication -- The  New York Times, for the Pentagon Papers*,

and the Washington Post for all the president's men, the Watergate and Ellesberg break-ins, funded by private campaign contributions, lied about by Nixon and his cronies from first to last -- to inform the public.

With the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the media, Nixon's lawsuits to stop, halt and desist repeated all the same tired lines we've been hearing for decades whenever the gummit, the intelligence community (and the civil police forces), Homeland Security, etc. etc. -- that none of this can be made public because of national security.  And this applies to content about matters and actions taken place long before the present administrations, content already published, etc.

The Washington Post is now owned by the eviLe fellow who owns amazilla. This is the ultimate consequence, which surely she had never suspected, of taking that privately held family media company public.

I admit to have been thinking about this even before reading Graham's Personal History.

UPDATE:  The Supreme Court ruling on amazilla employees overtime standing in lines to be searched for theft -- it did not escape this reader's notice that Katharine Graham had no sympathy at all for labor unions -- except way back in the day when she was f*cking a labor guy in SF when she was just a kid, with her first journalism job gotten for her by her daddy.

PLUS: The surveillance choppers are flying again, now that the rain from whatever storm has slackened, because the Eric Gavin protests have not quit.  On the subway to and from medical appointment, many a group of young were observed chattering with exhileration, carrying fresh packages of baby wipes -- presumably as remedy from tear gas?  Moreover, which hasn't been mentioned as far as I know in the media, here at least, many of these groups of the young are not English speakers, but clearly here from Europe in solidarity ....


*   The official title is United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, is a United States Department of Defense history of the United States' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.