Thursday, February 2, 2017

Do Yourself A Favor, See "I Am Not Your Negro"!



“I Am Not Your Negro”.  Where do I begin to discuss a film that packs such a wallop you are literally reeling when it ends?  So I guess I’ll start with the subject of the film, the writer James Baldwin who is arguably the greatest American writer of the 20th century. To describe Baldwin as a man ahead of his time does not fully embrace his importance as a cultural chronicler, nor does it adequately describe the genius of his artistry. There really aren’t words to encompass all that James Baldwin was/is.  His writing was certainly prophetic, both from the standpoint of his perspective on American society in general and Black American society specifically and his predictions on where America was/is headed.  “The Fire Next Time”, two essays on race in America could just have easily been written today as when it was published in 1963.  The first essay "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation," should be required reading for all Americans as it lays out so perfectly the race issue and why America cannot resolve it. The second essay “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind" does an equally magnificent job of dissecting the Black Church and its role in preserving racial, social & political hierarchy in Black communities throughout America. If you only have time to read one Baldwin book before seeing “I Am Not Your Negro”, I recommend “The Fire Next Time” as it will provide the perfect context for the film. Then if you really get ambitious, move on to “Notes of A Native Son” and “Nobody Know My Name”, both of which will provide more insight into Baldwin’s always on point intellect.

James Baldwin never shied away from his role as artist/activist, using his international celebrity to cast a spotlight on the plight of Black people at home and abroad. One of the reasons he was so revered by Black America was because of this willingness to speak truth to power and his clarity as to how such forthrightness affected his people. Whether he was addressing a room of college scholars or debating William Buckley, he remained focused on presenting truth as he saw it, no matter the consequences.  I could say that his particular place in American cultural history was partly determined by the tumultuous era in which he was most popular but that would diminish his impact that actually spans several decades.  I re-read Baldwin often because the work is so present which is not surprising since as he states in the film, the past is the present.

So, let me now move on to my reaction to “I Am Not Your Negro”.  There couldn’t be a better filmmaker for this film then Raoul Peck. His exquisite use of archival footage juxtaposed against present day imagery along with an inspired soundtrack made this so much more than a typical documentary. The flow of the film is seamless, giving the audience a complete picture of Baldwin’s time and our time and illustrates how difficult it can be to tell the two apart. His meticulous choice of footage from the 1960s is impeccable, making it difficult to separate the brutality of that time from what we are barraged with on social media daily.  Peck via Baldwin assures us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, a situation that may have some feeling pessimistic about the future but that James Baldwin asserted was not his position. He remained an optimist until his death; always seeking the humanity in White America since he maintained it would either find it or destroy itself trying to avoid finding it. Clearly we are seeing this prediction playing out today as illustrated by Peck’s insertion of images/footage of mass shootings and other destructive activities carried out by white people against each other. There is a powerful scene where whites are apologizing, and Peck underscores how hollow these apologies are as he mutes the faces of the speakers, making them appear as ghostlike images. Throughout the film, he uses numerous graphic devices to keep from falling into a predictable format and that serve to add texture to the film. Although Peck based the narrative on an unpublished book, “Remember This House” that James Baldwin was working on at the time of his death, it was incumbent upon him to bring this manuscript to life and he exceeded my expectations in this area. I was excited that along with giving the audience a wonderful profile of James Baldwin, they were able to learn more about Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. beyond the usual conversations around each of these mythic men.

As we bemoan the start of 2017 because our political landscape is seemingly sinking into a deep pit of despair, we should celebrate the brilliance of James Baldwin and embrace his prophetic writings as we steel ourselves for the battle ahead. As Raoul Peck so deftly illustrates, Brother Baldwin would expect us to soldier on and keep our eyes on the prize. A luta continua.

Please make it your mission to see “I Am Not Your Negro” at The Angelika Film Center at Mockingbird Station before it leaves town!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

I am heartbroken. I am preparing to leave for Costa Rica this afternoon but had to write this before I got out of here. I owe my champion that much.


Muhammad Ali gone. I’m trying to wrap my head around this loss. This loss of not just a sports icon, although surely he was that; not just the loss of one fine brutha, because he was undeniably that too; not just the loss of a political lightening rod because lawd knows he fit that bill; but the loss of an era because he represented the best of a time that was so affirming for so many of us African people.


Muhammad Ali burst on the scene as a young, brash, self assured sho nuff brother at a time when Black people all over the world so needed a voice that spoke loudly and confidently. His metamorphosis from Negro to Black represented that of an entire Black World and in so many ways helped us all stand a little more firmly on a Black ideological platform. As a striving artist trying to define a Black aesthetic in my work, I know I felt a certain kinda way looking at this fine black brother stand up to the white power structure and refuse to fight their war. I know I puffed up just a little more when he refused to be subservient to the white journalistic world and spit back at them retorts that made their heads spin, never letting them put him in some “dumb boxer” box. I can still recall how proud I felt that this King of the athletic world wasn’t afraid to have strong political views that didn’t include kowtowing to white folks and extolled loving your blackness because all of us needed to be reminded of this daily in order to stay strong in racist America.

Muhammad Ali was a complex man; a man who many didn’t realize was a latent artist. Like his father, he loved making art, and like his father, was never directed/allowed to follow that path. I wonder what would have happened had he been encouraged to follow his talent in art rather than boxing. According to his biographers, art and physical education were the only two subjects he did well in as a student in school (I suspect he had dyslexia, a learning difference that didn’t get much attention until long after Ali had graduated). When I saw some of Ali’s work a while back it was evident that he had a keen eye for design and color and his comical piece depicting the epic Ali-Liston fight had a nice political bite, I couldn’t help but to wonder if Ali wouldn’t have been at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement were his art aspirations realized. I saw an interview with artist Layla Ali (no relation to Muhammad Ali but ironically having the same name as his daughter albeit spelled differently) where she explained her need to make art. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, that essentially she had to make sense out of the electrical/spiritual energy that was rolling around in her head vis-à-vis artmaking or someone would get hurt!  What would have happened if Muhammad Ali had made that journey into his creative energy persona rather than his athletic energy persona? I wonder if his world of hurting someone physically would have been one of hurting someone psychically? 

















I know this is a conversation that is veering way off the course of talking about Muhammad Ali’s life as a Black Icon, but is it really?  When I think of the power of art to shape society, I think of why so many African people are never encouraged to follow that path. I think of how young Black boys throughout urban America (who are just like young Cassius Clay) can demonstrate ability in the arts but not have that cultivated in favor of pumping them up as athletes. I think how they can be used as athletic pawns in the game of professional sports only to be discarded once past their prime, and left with nothing to renew their humanness so they self-destruct.  Muhammad Ali was one of the lucky ones in so much as he at least wasn’t left broke at the end of his usefulness to the sports world. But he was left physically broke and in some ways was defanged because his ability to articulate verbally was no longer possible and his disease rendered him incapable of pursuing his creative side. What would Muhammad Ali the painter be telling us if he were articulating the political views of the Ali I so love? How potent would his visual messages be to us about what it means to be Black in a time when #blacklivesmatter is the hashtag of the era?  Granted, he may never have reached the worldwide stage as an artist and therefore not gained the platform to influence in the way that he did as an athlete, but I can’t help thinking that someone with his charisma and self-assuredness would have made his mark in a big way, no matter what the limitations inflicted by the so-called mainstream artworld.

 A great athlete is gone, of that there is no question. I mourn his passing as much as I mourn the passing of all our Black champions of justice. But I also mourn the fact that Muhammad Ali was never given the chance to express himself any way except through his physical prowess in a country that devalues the creative impulse of African people save that which white America can capitalize on financially.  I mourn the fact that Muhammad Ali may have been just as valuable to Black America as an artist as he was an athlete. Rest in Peace Brother Ali. You deserve your rest.


Vicki Meek is a retired arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas & Costa Rica. She writes a blog Art & Racenotes and a column ART-iculate for TheaterJones.com, both exploring issues around race, politics and the arts. Contact her at www.art-racenotes.blogspot.com.



Sunday, May 8, 2016

Eclipsed: A Black Global Situation

Last night I saw “Eclipsed”, a riveting play by Danai Gurira, and I had to sleep on it before I attempted to speak on it. This is not a review because it’s been reviewed to death already by people more interested in and knowledgeable about dramatic structure than I am. No, what I want to do is speak about this play from the standpoint of how it moved me to think about a number of things regarding the intersection of art and social/political issues.

      I knew the premise behind the play before seeing it, thanks to the huge amount of press it’s garnered due to the inclusion of award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o in the cast and as the person who shepherded it on to New York stages (The Public first and now The Golden).  I was, however, not truly prepared for how I would respond to embracing these realities when confronted with them via a theatrical performance rather than a newspaper or online article and what thoughts would be evinced. Bear with me as I weed through some of mine in the aftermath of this wonderful production.
        I was also no stranger to the topic in that I try to keep up on the realities of African politics and social issues via The Guardian and http://www.afrol.com.

      Danai Gurira has written a piece that both dramatizes the tragedy of civil war while also illuminating the particular burden placed on women and girls living within these conflicts. This “womancentric” view of war made me reflect on how easy it is to forget that we as Black women (and women of all ethnicities for that matter) always bear a burden during war that is totally different from that of men since we are the creators of humanity (until such time as men figure out how to create babies without female eggs!).  That we can be conscripted to officially take lives as a result of now being members of the fighting military, or police forces, places us in a role that is in many ways the antithesis of our natural one i.e. creators of life.  An aside: I think this play particularly resonated with me because I saw it on Mother’s Day weekend.

       “Eclipsed” also made me aware that stripping a girl of her humanity by making her both a product and by-product of war, mirrors what I see happening daily to Black children/women/families throughout America who live in violent warzones aka Urban America. Where we differ, however, is in how the world views both situations. The children, especially child soldiers, coming out of civil war conflicts throughout the world are viewed with a certain level of compassion and more seen as victims than captains of their own fate. Organizations are created to provide re-entry services for these children, allowing them to receive psychological counseling to deal with the horrors of war along with a myriad of other services. Black children living in Urban America who turn to gang violence as a way of surviving in a violent community are typically seen simply as thugs and only worthy of punishment not compassion and no such services are available to them.  Mothers who birth these children are usually maligned as deficient or worse, totally negligent because how else could their children become such “monsters”.  Gurira takes you on a journey that makes you understand the psychology underpinning the dehumanization of the Individual as she weaves each child/woman’s story about how that character arrived at her position. You feel empathy for each one because you know none of them had a choice in their situation. You feel for them because each one was taken as a child by the warlords and systematically raped into compliance and ultimately complacency. Only two of the characters escape this placement in society, but only after embracing the politics of their captors and becoming dispassionate killers like their male peers.

       Well I couldn’t help thinking as I watched these African young women struggle to hang on to their humanity, just how difficult it is for young African American women & girls (and men & boys) to retain theirs as they live in a society that devalues them and ignores their circumstance, one that so often puts them in a constant state of danger.  The subtext that Danai Gurira threads through “Eclipsed” is the importance of retaining one’s given name (your ultimate tie to family/society/history; all the characters are nameless throughout most of the play) and how something as simple as that forces one to remain human and thereby compassionate and empathetic (remember the importance of removing of Kunta Kinte’s name in Roots?). The playbill has an insert from the #knowhername movement and a list of each Boka Haram kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls’ name so that you are clear how important knowing the names of these victims is to having them remain “real people” not just statistics. At the performance I attended Jill Scott joined the cast onstage after the performance to share a story of her friend’s disappearance in high school, the story of an African American girl who was never found and whom no one but her friends and family probably ever knew was missing. It made me think of the numerous African American girls who go missing every day that never get the media attention that even one white girl does. I loved that this opportunity was taken to make the American audience aware that this is not only some story about a foreign situation. It also made me cringe thinking of how fast these 276 Nigerian girls faded from the international media limelight and how anonymous they were even at the outset of their abduction. This play was both a powerful and painful reminder of how much Black lives don’t matter across the globe, especially those of Black women and girls.

       I know I’ll be thinking about this production for quite some time and will likely write some more about it as I sift through my emotions about all that it evoked. But for now, I will reiterate what the cast implored its audience members to do “Know Her Name”. Know her name whether she’s a child abducted by military kidnappers across the globe or a domestic abductee by American human traffickers or rapists/hostage-takers, Know her name and never forget her worth.  #blacklivesmatter #blackgirlslivesmatter #knowhernameabout

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It's Jazz Appreciation Month, But Who's Appreciating it Really?

Screening at South Dallas Cultural Ctr. April 29 & 30 at 7:30 pm FREE!
I’ve written several essays on jazz and its place in American culture but somehow I always come back to the discussion of why isn’t it elevated to the status it deserves. So here we are at the end of yet another National Jazz Appreciation Month and here in Dallas the so-called jazz scene still finds musicians not being paid a decent wage on gigs (if they’re paid at all!) and audiences still disrespecting them while they perform by talking loudly or clinking silverware and glasses.  We also still have just one opportunity to hear this important music on the radio on UNT’s KNTU station, albeit not all day.  My foray into the radio world via WRR to play jazz was a short-lived one because there wasn’t any commitment to fund the program and since I was producing it myself, it couldn’t continue once I retired and was no longer on the City of Dallas payroll (I used comp time to make that show happen!).

So I have to start this blog entry by saying America’s classical music has never enjoyed the status that Europe’s has, at least not in its birthplace. It’s revered around the world but in America it remains second-class music despite the fact that the State Department has routinely used it as a diplomatic tool in its diplomacy efforts. I am inclined to think that because this music was a creation of African Americans and has its roots in the Blues, it will likely never gain its place in “high culture” circles, at least not until it can be completely whitewashed and claimed as something other than music derived from the Black Experience. 

I am always struck by the lack of attention Dallas jazz musicians receive when I go to the few places around town that routinely feature jazz. Admittedly, having a jazz musician for a brother has made me totally intolerant of audience members who don’t come to hear the music but come only to socialize. If you want to impress your date by taking them to a jazz club, impress them by shutting up and listening so that when the musicians take a break, you can chat her up about what y’all just heard! OK, I forget, most of these folks have no idea what they are listening to since too many of them are ignorant of the jazz standards or what musicians are riffing as they improvise.

And let’s not talk about how MIA the music is in school music curricula because therein lies the greatest sign of jazz’s second-class status. Most schools never introduce students to jazz, not even in their band programs. If they do provide some jazz education, often the music students get to play is some watered down composition by composers I never heard of, not jazz classics like those found in the vast catalogs of Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk or Mary Lou Williams.  So an American student studying piano will learn to play Chopin but never even hear Ellington’s name uttered.  No one can convince me that the reason we find ourselves constantly having to fight to get jazz appreciated every April is because this music was created by the least appreciated Americans i.e. African Americans.


As I go out this weekend to see Ornette: Made in America at South Dallas Cultural Center, I wonder how many people will be in the audience to learn about one of America’s most game changing musicians. I wonder if Ornette Coleman, a Texas native, is well known by music lovers in North Texas. OK, no I don’t because I already know the answer. Nah!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Miles Ahead Left Me Miles Behind...


I wanted to like Miles Ahead, I really did. I went to the movie anticipating a wonderful cinematic experience, not my usual one of disappointment whenever the topic is Black folks.  I knew I would love Don Cheadle’s performance and the fact that he had a hand in writing this screenplay made me hopeful that it would be wonderful. Well, to say I was underwhelmed is an understatement.

As a diehard jazz fan, I hoped for more emphasis on Miles’ musical genius and less on his pathological lifestyle. Yes, we all know Miles was fuckin’ nuts and was a misogynistic narcissist, and I wouldn’t have minded being re-minded of that but to be sledgehammered throughout the film about this aspect of who Miles was just diminished the narrative’s goal of telling us Miles just wanted to control his product. I don’t know if Don thought we wouldn’t keep watching if there wasn’t excessive violence or what, but he really miscalculated some of us audience member’s ability to engage a narrative that didn’t employ the usual Hollywood bullshit! Since the story was a fictionalized account of Miles’ life with references to real occurrences, I am assuming Cheadle had some creative license to steer this story in whatever direction he saw fit.  How disappointing that he steered it in the path of sensationalism rather than intellectualism. Miles was one deep muthafucka and this story could have been much more intriguing if Cheadle had chosen to dig deeper into where Miles’ music came from and how it developed rather than taking the easy way out and reducing the creative process to the cliché of being guided by a muse i.e. a beautiful woman in this case. It didn’t help my mood that the movie was preceded by a commercial for some luxury car that had Muhammad Ali fighting himself to illustrate the point of striving to be your best self juxtaposed against a white guy playing chess who was doing the same (black man:savage brute; white man: intellectual). 


Maybe I’m just being too sensitive about racial shit and maybe I should not expect so much from movies but I can’t help but wonder how a black man could not think this film is doing Black people, Black culture and Black music a disservice. As I said, no one thinks Miles Davis was a saint and no one believes he died of natural causes but to spend over 2 hours driving home the point that his demons were more relevant than his contribution to America’s classical music seems like a colossal waste of film & time. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

How Goes Mississippi, So Goes the Nation...

As I sit and wait for my very delayed flight in the Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, I have time to reflect on the previous day’s activities here in Jackson, Mississippi. The fact that I was invited to go to Jackson on the exact week South Dallas Cultural Center opens Jonathan Norton’s “Mississippi Goddamn”, a play that examines the complexity of Black life in Jackson during the height of the civil rights battles, is not just ironic, but uncanny. It’s uncanny because the topic of the meeting I was invited to attend i.e. the challenge Southern performing artists face mounting work for the stage has everything to do with the failure of the civil rights movement to eliminate the historical impediments to cultural equity. This failure lies at the root of the challenge where artists of color are concerned. Carlton Turner, Executive Director of Alternate Roots the host organization for this convening, eloquently laid out the history of Mississippi’s failure to thrive, citing some damning facts about the state’s national standing in areas like health care, education, economic development and arts funding. He opened our discussion by stating that if we are to see substantive change in our country, it needs to start in Mississippi because if Mississippi can come up, the whole country can. With this as our start point, we began a day of exploration into how to make shifts in the current modus operandi where arts/cultural support is concerned. We explored it from the standpoint of how presenters see the problem, how disenfranchised artists view it and how major funders see it. We revisited the Culture Wars and their affect on the country’s commitment to support for culture & the arts. It was, however, pretty much agreed that although these attacks on the NEA were a devastating blow to the arts in this country, the reality was that most organizations of color never received substantial support from this agency. So the net effect on their bottom lines due to the reduction in NEA funding was negligible. We talked about how organizations like NPN/VAN, NALAC, and South Arts are working to reduce the inequities by developing programs that directly address these inequities. One participant who wasn’t a part of an arts organization but represented an agency involved in social justice work made a telling comment when she observed that we couldn’t expect the ruling majority to respect our culture when there is no respect for our very humanity. Of course, the current #BlackLivesMatter movement is putting a spotlight on this reality like no other since the Anti-Lynching Movement of the early 1900s. The gathering of participants was multi-generational, multi-racial and multi-disciplinary so many viewpoints were expressed. The dialog was robust and honest and at no time did I feel like I was wasting time talking about a topic I often avoid these days because so much time is wasted talking about it but too little time spent on finding workable solutions. The Mellon Foundation and New England Foundation for the Arts were the major national funding organizations in attendance (they actually underwrote our attendance) and I was impressed with their willingness to just listen and absorb rather than dominate the dialog. I was equally impressed with the white participants doing the same thing when the participants of color told their stories. The often-stultifying habit of whites trying to explain racist practices or at least their role in eradicating it as a way of distancing themselves from the privilege they derive from the system was not in evidence at this convening. Everyone acknowledged that a lot of work must be done before we see any real equity but at least those in the room committed to influence their own sectors to get on board with the effort to make substantive changes in how southern artists/organizations in general and southern artists/organizations of color in particular are invited to the table both regarding policy making as well as receiving grants/funding. My hat goes off to Alternate Roots, Turner World Around Productions, Mellon Foundation and New England Foundation for the Arts for making this convening happen and all the other work they are engaged in to make cultural equity a reality rather than an on-going conversation.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Stagger Lee", dope for a true theater junkie!

I consider myself one of the blessed ones when it comes to knowing my history. I grew up in a home where Black History was readily available on the shelves of my parents’ library, a library that we Meek kids utilized constantly for our reports at school, presentations during Black History Week (yes it was once only a week!) and just to argue a point with our friends, many of who knew nothing of our history. In addition to having a wealth of information at home, my parents made a point of exposing us to Black artists in all the arts disciplines. We experienced musical, theatrical, dance and literary performances regularly, so the tradition of attending live arts performances was instilled in me at a very early age. I grew up seeing the Negro Ensemble Company, which set the stage for my theater snobbery, a condition for which I offer no apology! Their performances were a must see in my household. Douglas Turner Ward pretty much walked on water as far as I was concerned! So it is not without a strong basis of historical context that I am writing about Will Power’s latest piece “Stagger Lee’ and placing it among my all time favorite theater works. There are so many things about this piece that moved me starting with the narrative that continues the Black theater tradition of exploring the Black family seen in the seminal “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, continued in the powerful “No Place To Be Somebody” by Charles Gordone, twisted a bit but still clear in “Jelly’s Last Jam” by George C. Wolfe and totally explored in the 10 cycle plays of August Wilson. Power takes us through our historical battle to maintain dignity and continuity right up until the present. That he uses music as the vehicle to move us through the history seems particularly appropriate given the role music has played in keeping Black life vibrant and resilient. I have never been a big fan of musical theater, mainly because I don’t like trying to follow a sung story line. But the lyrics and music in “Stagger Lee’ are crisp and unpretentious, making it easy to keep track of the dialog so I never felt like I was being entertained solely for the purpose of entertainment. Each song pumped more urgency in the message and the actors performing them seemed to understand that. We had no showboating on their part, something that can easily happen in a musical presentation, but only a straightforward delivery of the lyric with the right amount of emotion for the scene portrayed. I was privileged to have seen the first staged reading of “Stagger Lee” and unfortunately missed the second one but was eager to see how the work progressed. I am a sucker for the process involved in art-making so I love that Dallas had an opportunity to witness “The Making of Stagger Lee” because it allowed some of us to see Will Power’s process and appreciate his creative journey on this piece. I was familiar with Power’s previous work after being introduced to him when he presented as the keynote for a National Performance Network Annual Meeting many years ago. I was intrigued by the dynamic young speaker and made it a point to research his work. This is a playwright/poet/activist/lyricist who approaches storytelling with a truthfulness that is refreshing given the amount of light-weight stuff I’ve seen presented by too many Black writers. That he manages to convincingly compress 400 years of Black life into a 105-minute production is a testament to his commitment to telling our story with authenticity no matter how brief the storytelling session. The fact that he does it in song and dance without ever conjuring up a sense of trivialization speaks volumes about how seriously he takes his job as storyteller. An even more impressive fact is Will Power’s ability to take several Black folk stories, weave them together in such a way that never has us feeling like they aren’t every much a part of today’s narrative as conscious rap is, also speaks volumes about how deeply committed to telling the truth Will Power is in his “Stagger Lee” tale. However, the thing that convinced me that “Stagger Lee” has the “stuff” needed to qualify as excellent theater is the fact that I cried in the second act, probably just as heartily as I laughed in the first act because the truth of Black Life as we see it being played out today was never so real as the scene of all those actors beating that wall of Black struggle. The final stroke of genius was that fleeting “Long Lost John” figure appearing as a hoodied youth with his hands raised in the now iconic gesture of today's #BlackLifeMatters movement; it took me out; I was done. Someone asked me if I thought that figure needed to be on stage longer and I told her absolutely not! The fact that he played like a side-eyed image that you weren’t quite sure you saw, you know, like that glimpse of someone as you’re walking down the street, out of the corner of your eye you think you spotted someone but when you turn to verify it, they’re not there? That’s what our current situation feels like to me. We made some progress over the 400 years, but in the time it takes for a glimpse, it can be gone. I thank Will Power for “Stagger Lee”. I thank Patricia MacGregor for her clear-eyed direction. I thank Camille Brown for her brilliant choreography. I thank Kevin Moriarty for knowing this work needed to be mounted by a major Dallas theater and I thank all the actors in “Stagger Lee’ for bringing Will’s vision to such perfect fruition. A luta continua...