Thursday January 12, 2012
A woman with her head scarf lifting gently in the wind swings on a swingset at the Santa Monica pier. She is singing songs from old musicals with a high school friend who is back in town on her college first-year spring break. On this warm night, they are laughing like children because they are in the same place, and they have missed each other.
In the small hours on the night of a New Hampshire primary, two women lean against each other at the Democratic headquarters. They have volunteered to hand out fliers with the locations of polling places -- and they stayed out late, hoping the fliers would not be torn down before the next morning. Now they are buzzed on lack of sleep, with their heads together, talking to keep awake.
In both nights, these people have been apart and are reunited. They are wholly relaxed. You know how it is when someone you are very close to and have not seen in a few months, a year, walks into your room, warm and alive -- someone who’s transplanted to the opposite coast and the other end of the phone is suddenly there, and you almost can’t believe it? And at the same time, it’s as natural as sitting in the sun, and you can’t talk fast enough to fit in all you want to say.
They felt that way.
In the first scene, one woman is Syrian, and one is Irish. In the second, one woman is gay, and one is straight. These things happen all the time.
Here is the question in my mindas I look toward Martin Luther King Jr. Day: How can we help people understand what a time like these feels like? We means me and anyone along with me, and I am also one of the people who miss this feeling.
As I learned today about Multicultural BRIDGE’s upcoming film series, I thought about this question. BRIDGE will show a new documentary up and down the county: "Race -- the Power of Illusion."
"Anthropologists, biologists and geneticists have increasingly found that, biologically speaking; there is no such thing as ‘race,’" BRIDGE’s announcement explains, but that illusion has power.
Media can create illusions, and I create media. I try always to be aware of what stories I tell and how I tell them, but this is a good time of year to focus still more closely. As I wonder about this documentary, I think of professor Ernest Brown’s class on African-American music. I think of him with great respect and affection. In that semester, he took us from West Africa to Broadway and rap, and along the way he showed us illusions.
He showed us unrealistic black characters that popular culture -- white popular culture -- had created and repeated endlessly in theater and jokes and songs. They were caricatures. And they were the images popular media insisted on.
The frightening thing is that these characters out of the 1800s still exist. The wise-cracking sidekick, the wild child, the old man or woman giving advice -- since professor Brown introduced me to these illusions, I’ve seen them in all kinds of media.
But when have I seen a black man or woman at center stage, at full strength, in a movie or a book? Zoe in "Firefly" is one of my favorite characters on screen -- and on the page, Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s "Beloved." Please tell me yours; I would love to know more.
And I remember a blogger I admire who wrote about a commercial or short film made in India, I think in Kolkata. She wrote in frustration, because the film showed only poor areas. Where were the young Indians she knew, the heading to work and to class with their books and cell phones and briefcases?
Imagine a filmmaker who comes to New York City and walks the streets, filming graffiti, buskers and angry teenagers in the cold. How would you feel about the city after this film?
And then imagine a filmmaker who brings a camera into dance studios -- ballet, jazz, modern. Imagine the camera walking into a high-end French restaurant kitchen to talk with the chefs -- who all come from Mexico. (I’m borrowing this one from Anthony Bourdain). Imagine talking with a graphic designer from Korea who creates displays of birds, enlivening a museum with a luminous sense of humor; or an investment banker from Mumbai; or a wildlife conservationist from Namibia, in the city to lecture at Columbia. Imagine black children in chemistry classes, and asking questions about the Egyptian temple at the Metropolitan Museum or Art, and singing in the choir.
How can we show scenes like this more often?
I know this is not a new idea. And yet somehow illusions hang on. The only way I know of to dispel them is to create stronger images -- show people a world as vivid as the yoga dance class I caught a glimpse of last weekend, 100 people in one room moving as though they would leap clear into the air, and the teacher’s voice and the quickening drum beat winding them like a spring.
And let me be clear -- I want to replace caricature and fantasy with what is real, what is happening already, what is natural and friendly and ordinary.
Media, including newspapers, we’re supposed to see what’s really there. (And here I’m drawing on Terry Pratchett for that expression.) We’re supposed to find every viewpoint and see out of everyone’s eyes. We’re supposed to show the community what it is and what it can be -- and I think what that means, at the core, is to bring people to people.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep on someone’s shoulder -- or walked up to someone in the glow after a dance or a reading or a play and started talking unselfconsciously in admiration -- then you know the feeling.