Saturday, May 16, 2015

National Slave Ship Museum: A fully-functioning slave ship sailing the Mississippi to entertain you, how about that?

Today I find myself in a bit of an emotional quandary. The National Slave Ship Museum, a project that I thought had died quietly already, appears to be alive and well. According to a local station, the New Orleans City Council approved last night a proposal to build this museum. But raising my eyebrow at this questionable endeavor proposed for the New Orleans Riverfront is not what troubles me. What's really tearing me up is that I must write my objections about a project that is the dream of an elder and a fellow lover of Black History in Louisiana, and encourage him to do no harm.

The National Slave Ship Museum is the dream of black, “amateur historian” Lloyd Lazard, 74. He first proposed the project in the mid-90s, going so far as to lobby the Department of the Interior and gain a thumbs up, reports New Orleans City Business, and he's been at it ever since. I applaud this kind of tenacity, but what will happen after Mr. Lazard passes on?

In 2005, the proposal for the museum was included in a riverfront revitalization plan for New Orleans (.pdf). In 2013, the key players stepped forward again and registered National Slave Ship Museum, Inc., with the state of Louisiana as a non-profit corporation. Antoinette Harrell-Miller of Kentwood, Louisiana, a genealogist, is listed as a director. Clifton James of the Urban Design Research Center, the architect who designed the proposed complex that's pictured above, is listed as its agent along with Lazard.

I'm not against museums about slavery or any attempt to educate the public about this sordid era of American and world history. Also, I'm glad that a group of black Louisianans have taken the initiative to stand up for Black History amid idealizations of the past fostered in this state.

My concern is that this project sounds like something that could easily devolve into a garish, Disneyesque-knock-off theme park (Epcot not Magic Kingdom). If not so grand as Disney, then maybe it will be the colorful Yeehaw! of Opryland in Nashville. So, one minute a slave ship, the next a party on deck with a brass band. I mean, this is New Orleans.

On the Council's approval of the plan, WVUE reports:
The proposed $170 million museum will include a life-size interactive slave ship built inside a new five-story building and a riverfront park with an amphitheater and two replica African villages.
The museum complex will also include a Creole Caribbean African restaurant, an herb and vegetable garden, a DNA lab, an exhibit and meeting space.
As a part of the museum experience, visitors will have the opportunity to travel aboard a fully functioning replica slave ship that will sail to Natchez, Miss., and Scott's Bluff in Baton Rouge, located near Southern University.” (emphasis added by me)
Does this sound like a museum that will educate the nation about the loss of thousands of lives during the Middle Passage and the enslavement of millions of Africans around the world through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? Or does it sound more like a Fantasy Land complete with riverboat rides?

A "fully-functioning replica slave ship" sailing down the Mississippi River with tourists would be an abomination.

The loss of black lives under the slave trade and the enslavement of black people in America should be treated with the same solemnity and sacred care shown victims remembered with the United States Holocaust Museum not the brashness of a theme park passing for museum.

The people involved in this project (Lazard, Harrell-Miller, James) seem to be sincere, community-oriented people and activists. Lazard wants to not only feature American slavery but slavery around the world. Still, their vision for a museum about the dehumanizing horrors of the slave trade feels short-sighted and distorted. As you may grasp, this vision to approach slavery as consumable amusement "museum" is the root of my objection.

Louisiana has a problem reconciling with its slavery history. The tourism industry here repeatedly prefers to sugar coat or blatantly lie about slavery's atrocities, and it sounds like this proposed venture will be no different. For instance, one article at the Uptown Messenger, after mentioning that Lazard sees a vision similar to the World War II Museum and the Holocaust museum (or the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center), continues with this quote from someone else who may be involved:
“One component of it is incredible horror and destruction, but they’re mostly places of hope and victory and heroes,” said Michael Mayer, a West End boat builder.
Well, that's just what America needs given its current dysfunction on race and the Black experience, a slave ship museum that lets visitors leave feeling they've been in a place of hope surrounded by victory and heroes. Instead of grasping the depravity and horror of it all, folks can stroll along with their children saying, "See that! Everybody's overcome. Slavery all worked out for the mutual good."

I hope that's not what Mr. Mayer meant, but that's what I envision happening. How would that outcome be helpful?

Also, any comparison between the Underground Railroad and a slave ship is ludicrous. Through one black people seek self-determination; through the other they are chattel.

This project calls to mind that slave-ship video game that turned out to be a promotion for a slavery documentary. Thinking it was real, people protested, wondering who would want to interact with slavery as entertainment.

And another thought arises: How strange that the white man who turned Whitney Plantation into a slave museum painstakingly ensured visitors could not leave comforted and thinking "it's all good," but with this proposed slave ship museum we see a group of seemingly sincere black people bending over backwards to make a slave ship experience enjoyable, to fashion black suffering as an attraction. Is it possible this project needs a dash of white guilt?

I can't help but feel this project has probably mushroomed into a toxic cloud of imprudence since Lazard first shared his dream.

Gena Haskett of Los Angeles, writing on Facebook, also cannot fathom how such a presentation of the Middle Passage and slave trade would be acceptable to anyone concerned about education and African-American history.
"Will they re-create the rapes, the physical abuse and the tossing overboard of sick and dying Africans? Sea water and feces are not good smells to have near a restaurant. I have more questions but I'm feeling queasy from the ones I just presented. Not good. Not good at all to base it on abduction ships."
New Orleans, my hometown, has a rich history that includes being a major port through which slaves came from Africa, and as anyone can gather through the state of Louisiana’s plantation tourism, the enslavement of Africans was big business throughout the state. But this plantation and slavery tourism has always been painful and problematic.

With the exception of the Whitney Plantation exhibit that focuses on the lives of slaves instead of the "genteel" lives of their masters, the cruelty and horrors of slavery have been largely sanitized by the local tourism industry. Certainly this sanitizing has served not to tell the public the truth but to glorify and mythologize the antebellum South.

So, despite the most likely good intentions of the people involved to date, I am concerned that the proposed National Slave Ship Museum ultimately will fall into this same kind of minimizing that trivializes the hellish lives of the enslaved or turn the tragedy of the Middle Passage into some kind of amusement park ride.

I am also concerned that in the end the slave ship museum will be little more than a money-making operation no matter its “non-profit” status now, and so it will become just another way black bodies are exploited by the local, state, and Federal governments as well as major corporations. Nonetheless, I am not asking simply that this museum project end.

I am asking for national dialogue and complete transparency in the process, including sourcing, research, staffing, management, and funding. Also, since it’s called the National Slave Ship Museum, I ask that that the national community be made more aware of the plans. We need a deeper discussion about whether this is project is on the right road and much broader oversight. New Orleans, after all, is not the guardian of the legacy of slavery alone nor may it alone presume to speak for the millions killed or crippled by the slave trade.We are, after all, still living with its damage.

But how did this slave-ship museum project get this far? Why didn't one of our black city council members declare, "Hell no! On our ancestors' graves and again, no! Not like this. Never like this."

Please sign the petition demanding that the New Orleans City Council sends this museum's planners back to the drawing board. Click here and sign.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Let's take race out of the Freddie Gray case a moment and see what we have

While I agree there is a racial bias element in the Freddie Gray case that needs to be addressed, let's just remove that important factor for a moment. Let's remove it and see if we can all agree that the Baltimore police officers who arrested Gray did not do their jobs well and that failure resulted in a young man's death.

In one critical point, the Baltimore officers did clearly not follow state law. So, they are at the least guilty of criminally negligent homicide (or whatever Maryland calls it when you put another person's life in danger). Let's calmly consider the facts we know.

In 2013, the state of Maryland adopted a seat-belt law. Every passenger and driver must wear one. According to news reports, despite that law, Freddie Gray was not secured in the police paddy wagon by a seat belt.

Since Gray was handcuffed and shackled, he could not be expected to put on his own seat belt. He was in police custody and therefore at the mercy of the police. So, when the officers did not secure him in a seat, the put his life in danger. Since he died as a result of the officer's failure to follow state law, they are responsible for his death,

In a recently released report, "investigators say that Gray was mortally injured in the van and not during his arrest." Further, it's said that his spinal injury was the result of him slamming against the back of the van (Gray's spine was severed at the neck).

Another prisoner who was in the van says that Gray appeared to be trying to injure himself. I argue that it doesn't matter in this case. If the officers who put him in the van had put a seat belt on him, he would not have been able to throw himself anywhere.

According to a CNN report, the officers did not seat belt Gray because you have to get into an intimate space to put a seat belt on some. They were afraid he would bite them. Oddly, they could handcuff him, and later an officer shackled him, but they say they couldn't get close enough to him to put a seat belt on?

Most people in Baltimore city police custody are not seat-belted in paddy wagons, says CNN's source, but police have begun to seat-belt paddy wagon passengers since the Gray incident.

Bottom line, it doesn't matter how crazy Gray was in the back of that van. If he had been seat-belted, he would not have been slammed into the back of the van. Whether he did it on purpose is irrelevant. Once someone is in police custody, his body is under care of the police, and in this case police actions prevented a man from putting a seat belt on himself, and then they did not do it for him. That's negligence.

I can't help but think here about the meaning of Habeus corpus -- "you have the body." They had his body.

Where is the compassion of the people excusing the police in this case? Is a nation that never holds police accountable for anything really a free nation?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

That Baltimore riot: Black people are America's canary in the coal mine and more tales of global unrest

As I said on Rita Arens's post at, I'm ready to say more about police brutality and the Baltimore riot, but it's probably the more of what's already been said. When will it all stop? 

Of course, I'm "against the violence," which is why I agree that police officers need to be held accountable for being so violent and aggressive with black people, our youth included.

We have grown men and women officers who repeatedly get shoulders to cry on when they overuse force--people who are sworn to protect and serve the people--but many of us have no compassion for young people rioting in the streets of a Ferguson or a Baltimore. We lose all patients even when those young people have good reason to be angry, and science tell us their brains have not reached maturity yet. 

Yes, some of the people rioting are violent-loving opportunists who saw a chance to be destructive or loot and they took it. But make no mistake here--a lot of those people are also angry and lashing out because they believe there is no justice in America for people who look, sound, and live like them and no chance for a productive future. People without hope have little to lose.

But to put this last week in a global perspective, white European youth (Spain and Greece) have been rioting for at least the last five years. First it was for lack of economic opportunity and against austerity measures (reduction of government help), but some in Greece have rioted this year because of the increase in police violence against them and the crackdowns on young activists that have happened in the wake of these riots.

Really, I've been surprised that we haven't seen more black and brown youth rioting across America. They have higher rates of unemployment and are hassled more by the police. 

Hassled is such a weak word when I recall that Trayvon Martin was presumed to be guilty although he was the one dead in the grass; Mike Brown was shot at least five times and described as a beast; Tamir Rice was gunned down like a rabid dog at age 12; and Freddie Gray was stopped for essentially being afraid of the police yet died with broken ribs, a lacerated spleen, a crushed vocal box, and his spine severed at the neck. (As you can see I haven't even addressed the Latinos, Native Americans, and older black people who've been killed recently such as Walter Scott nor the myriad instances of increasing police overreach or negligence that did not result in death.)

There's a saying that "when America's white community catches a cold, its black community gets pneumonia." I submit that a similar thought works: In America, black people are the caged canary in the coal mine

If America doesn't pay closer attention to the real issues stifling the lives of poor black people -- if America keeps isolating issues in the black community as "the black problem," it won't be long before the whole nation needs gas masks.

Related: Baltimore Fox station stokes racial tensions with fake story, December 2014

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

This year's Voice on NBC will drive you to drink

Every year or each season, I post on NBC's The Voice because I think it is the best vocal competition on television (Sorry, American Idol).  This year the singers are exceptional and are giving each other one of the best runs for the effort yet.  However, I'm just getting around to posting about this season because I've been preoccupied with a few brick and mortar projects.

Seriously, it's harder than ever to decide who to vote for after performances, which is why I've said this season could drive people to drink.

Last night Rob Taylor of Team Christina and Deana Johnson of Team Adam Levine were voted off, so it's down to the the final eight, and here they are:

If it were up to me, the competition would boil down to Kimberly and Megan, but I think Sawyer or Corey have a good chance given the strength of the young girl vote with these shows.

This doesn't mean that I don't enjoy watching performances by all of these performers. I do have two, however, who are the least likely to move me emotionally, and that's Corey and Joshua. I give Joshua the edge. I'm a fan of people like James Taylor and Paul Simon, though, so if he puts out a recorded a memorable song of his own, I may buy it.

Below this paragraph, I've posted some of the performances that I've really enjoyed so far.

Kimberly Nichole killed it as usual on Monday night, but I'm posting her song from the previous week because it's one of my favorite songs, "House of the Rising Sun," partly because it's about New Orleans. Has anyone else noticed how often New Orleans or Louisiana's popped up this season? (The contestant from New Orleans, Tonya Boyd Cannon, went home during the last of the battle rounds, but Rob and Megan also have Louisiana roots.)

For Meghan, I'm posting two videos and another by Little Big Town. First, here's Martin Linsey's performance from last night, a cover of Marc Broussard's "Home."

Here's Megan Linsey's cover of "Girl Crush." While I do like some country music, I had not heard this song before, which was originally recorded by Little Big Town. I enjoyed it not only because of Megan's outstanding performance, but also because of the song's lyrics. They struck me as far above average in depth and complexity.

After the show, I listened to Little Big Town's version, and I preferred Megan's cover, so I bought it. All I can say is that Megan must have grown up listening to a lot of soul/R&B music.

Litte Big Town: "Girl Crush"

Finally, I would remiss if I did not post Koryn Hawthorne's moving, soulful cover of Ed Sheeran's "Make it Rain." She threw her whole existence into that performance and sounded like she was channeling Mahalia Jackson and a few other gospel greats.

And one more thing, Reba McEntire's new song, "Going Out like That," is one for the playlists. She sang it on last night's show. I like it when I first heard it a few weeks back.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Toni Morrison's Amusing Interview with Stephen Colbert

I don't know what I was doing in November 2014 that caused me to miss Stephen Colbert's laugh-out-loud interview with great American novelist Toni Morrison. She is just as funny as he is when discussing her work. But they also discussed race as a social construct and her work's influence on President Obama before he was POTUS.

What intrigued me most is her admission that she had only recently read Beloved from beginning to end. Of course, she read it when she was working on it, but when she read it last year, she read it not as its author but as a relaxed reader. She saw nothing she'd change, she said, but she would make a change to the Bluest Eye if she wrote it again.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Stop don't talk to me from Orange is the New Black's Twitter trending (Video)

This video of the Orange is the New Black song "Stop Don't Talk to Me" is trending at the moment of this post on Twitter. I can see the humor even though I have not watched the Netflix hit since season one, but I guessed the cast song must have been based on a scene from the show. Well, yes it is, this one here.

I tried the second season, but I opted not to continue because I had too many other things to do. Actually, I was a scaredy cat. I sensed it would be darker than season one and didn't want to experience the heart-pounding state of suspense the show puts me in sometimes.

Fast Company has the details on how this song came about with a push from "Vine stars," such as the one below, Lycia Faith, who has more than a million followers on Vine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Yes, Pharrell, subconscious plagiarism is a thing (Video)

My better post the "Blurred Lines" case is this one: "Borrowed Grooves: Electric Guest, the Clash, Katrina & the Waves all did what Robin Thicke over-did," but Google keeps sending folks to my old post about Pharrell Williams's hit "Happy." That post answers whether "Happy" sounds like another song, but I also mention "Blurred Lines" in it.

I realized my blog had a bump in hits this morning and figured the rise in visits was due to yesterday's ruling against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. The judge decided that the duo's big hit of last summer copies from Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give it Up," and awarded Gaye's family nearly $7.4 million. The judge was right, but anyone who's read my old posts knows that I've said that since I first heard "Blurred Lines."

In my post on "Happy," I said that mega hit from the movie Despicable Me 2 sounds familiar because Pharrell captured one of the sounds of an era, the 1960s. I applaud him for that because he did it well. However, he and Thicke continue to claim that "Blurred Lines" merely captures the sound of the late 1970s. They claim among other things that it's a tribute to Marvin Gaye, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong there. Perhaps they are even lying to themselves.

Unlike some people who think Pharrell knowingly copied Marvin (meaning he didn't change the main groove of "Blurred Lines" enough from "Got to Give It Up"), I allow for the possibility that Pharrell fell to subconscious plagiarism. In other words, he didn't realize how much "Blurred Lines" sounded like "Got to Give It Up."

Pharrell actually wrote "Blurred Lines" (Thicke gets a courtesy credit that pays him cash). But I'm annoyed that Pharrell seems not to even consider the possibility that he plagiarized subconsciously or at least that he borrowed too much of Marvin's hit. I guess his ego is much larger than he'd like to think it is with his namasté  bowing and the talk of humility he affects on The Voice

However, the judge ruled against Pharell and Thicke not only because of the similarities between the two songs but also because of the various stories the duo's told about how the song came about. Thicke probably did the most harm there.

In my old post, I wrote:

Thicke admitted that he wanted "that [specific] groove" from that specific song. Anyone who's old enough to remember Marvin Gaye's musical evolution knows that the Motown singer later veered away from the standard Motown beat to do his own thing. As one of his later releases, "Got to Give It Up" was very different from other songs we listened to on the radio in the late 1970s, and even though it was the disco era, "Got to Give It Up" didn't feel like common disco.

All Thicke had to do was pay the copyright holders of "Got to Give It Up" for sampling Marvin's "groove" before he released the song, and he would have been legally covered, but he didn't.

They didn't just pay up; they did a preemptive strike against Marvin's family and sued them in advance. How tacky can you get? And Karma really wasn't having that tackiness. So, as someone punned on my Facebook page, now they have to "give it up." (Sam Smith settled with Tom Petty, and Smith really probably never heard Petty's "Won't Back Down." It's unbelievable that Pharrell would keep claiming "Blurred Lines" is 100 percent his genius when we all know he's probably listened to "Got to Give It Up" a lot.)

All the so-called professional songwriters and producers up in arms over this ruling, declaring it sets a bad precedent, need to give it up, too, give it up and have their ears checked.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Head Games"--Yes, I did do an anti-abuse art project

This video features the art piece "Head Games." It documents a project I did for a required course in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans in Louisiana. The course is Form and Idea. Creative Writing Workshop students have had to take the course through the Film, Theater, and Communications department; however, this is the last year the course will be required for students in the creative writing MFA program.

The course has been replaced by craft courses in the students' specific disciplines, such as poetry and fiction.

My instructor was Henry Griffin, a screenwriter and film professor. He's a passionate and enthusiastic educator, consuming vast amounts of literature, film, and music. While I see the need for craft courses, even applaud their addition, I also think the program may lose something by not exposing its students to this interdisciplinary course.

For the final assignment, Griffin required us to take a piece of art from one genre--a song, a movie, a book, a painting, etc.--and adapt it to a different art form. I chose to turn Joni Mitchell's classic 1975 song "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" into the papier-mâché piece you see in the video.

The idea came to me when I saw local artist and fellow poet Valentine Pierce on Facebook showing off a wig head she'd covered with newspaper via papier-mâché. She did it for practical reasons--to show off hats at the French Market that she's created , but her photo caused me to recall seeing wig heads covered that way when I was a child. And then I remembered making a paper mache duck with my mother when I was bout 8 years old. She was an elementary school teacher.

One of the restrictions for the project was to not do anything you've mastered. We had to do something that we've never done before or had not done in a long time. Paper mache fit the bill for me. Previously I had thought about turning the song into a movie poster, but my drawing's rusty, and the 3-dimensional aspect of the head appealed to me.

Mitchell's song is about a woman enduring psychological abuse and control-freak tactics, so I curated tweets from the #WhyIStayed Twitter campaign launched by Beverly Gooden last year and typed them up, printing them on the laser printer. Later I pasted then on the top of the head. Throughout the piece I also used Joni's lyrics handwritten on different types of paper (newsprint, construction, printer, tissue) and some of the psychologically crippling words I've heard or read before.

The head represents a woman trapped by mental abuse, one who doubts herself, and fears leaving her abuser for whatever reason. That could be financial fears, fear of losing social status, fear for children, or fear for her own life. Sometimes it's all of the above.

Instead of using Joni's actual song, I used the karaoke back-up because I don't want her people to get on me. :-)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Is Justin Guarini supposed to be like Prince figure in this Dr. Pepper commercial? (Video)

Okay, so you may recall Justin Guarini as the runner-up to Kelly Clarkson in the first season of American Idol, and then, unfortunately for him, that horrid movie called, From Kelly to Justin. But did you recognize him in this Dr. Pepper commercial featuring him as "Li'l Sweet"?

I'll tell you who I thought of when I saw it, especially when you throw in the falsetto singing Li'l Sweet uses; I thought of His Royal Purpleness, Prince, and I wondered if this was Dr. Pepper's way to leverage Prince's appeal without having to pay the mega-star. Of course, Prince would never do anything as silly as the Li'l Sweet commercial. Silly, but cute, too, I add.

I'm happy Justin has some work.

What do you think?