‘I Am Not Your Negro’

A dozen great reads from 2017

From a Lewis Carroll lark to a rambling Road Dog to a play about a baby to art out of ocean garbage, twelve ArtsWatch stories not to miss

A dance critic walks into an art show. A man and his dog travel the byroads of America. A pop song sinks into a writer’s soul. A jazz pianist walks into the wilderness. A play about a baby strikes a theater reviewer close to home. On the southern Oregon coast, artists make huge sculptures from the detritus that chokes the sea.

We run a lot of stories on a lot of subjects at Oregon ArtsWatch – more than 500 in 2017 alone – and a few stand out simply as stories that want to be told. Put together a good writer and a good subject and chances are you’ll get a memorable tale. Here are a dozen such stories from 2017.

 


 

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A look back at a dozen stories from 2017 you won’t want to miss:

 

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

We’re all mad here … so let’s party

Jan. 31: “What do you do with your existential frustration? If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with. But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!” A.L. Adams got down in the existential trenches with Shaking the Tree’s We’re All Mad Here, a piece performed and largely conceived by Matthew Kerrigan in homage to the great absurdist Lewis Carroll. “Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan ‘Gulliver’ Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: enemies of the people

Plus: ceramics shows all over town, Brontës and Carnage onstage, Shakespeare on Avenue Q, madrigals and music from the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”

As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.

In Ibsen’s play the newspaper editor is a collaborator and the “enemy” is a whistleblower.

This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.

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James Baldwin: Fighting white supremacy

James Baldwin understood that capitalism lurked behind slavery and white supremacy in America, even if that side doesn't quite emerge from 'I Am Not Your Negro'

James Baldwin’s great project, as I might derive it from Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” was to try to understand the African American experience. That involved some specific questions: why the catastrophe of slavery fell on black people in America; what it did to them psychologically; how the culture of white supremacy that it bred continues to oppress them; how they might cope constructively with this history and this present, and how things might change.

Baldwin’s project was deeply serious, his conclusions generated by personal anguish and anguished thought, and his words are majestic, still. “I Am Not Your Negro” (which has begun runs at Cinema-21, the Hollywood Theatre and Kiggins Theatre, after playing the Portland International Film Festival and the Portland Black Film Festival) is awash in those words, those descriptions, those insights, that anguish.

The film does other things, too. It tracks the intersection of Baldwin with other black leaders of the ‘60s—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. It shows how Baldwin’s reading of the media around him, specifically Hollywood movies, changed as he began to become aware of the deep racism that infected the system. And it shows how Baldwin came to place the blame for America’s “race problem” squarely where it belonged.

James Baldwin, center, is the subject of “I Am Not Your Negro”/Magnolia Films

“But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” Baldwin says in the film. “It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives—it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.” African Americans, of course, are the stranger, and “maligned” is a rather tepid word for the evil that white people visited on them.

He continues: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

“You need it…” Peck’s film leaves the talking to Baldwin, his descriptions and explanations of our racial history, of the crimes white people committed, the lives they distorted, because they “needed it.” It’s a powerful film because Baldwin’s truth is so powerful.

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