Monday, August 31, 2015

Slices of Life

“For me the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.” Alfred Hitchcock

Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a cranky lesbian feminist poet in “Grandma,” a film directed by Paul Weitz that I fear will never make it to Northwest Indiana.  Among other things, Elle embarks on a quest to help a granddaughter get an abortion.  Weitz directed Tomlin in “Admission,” where she played Tina Fey’s horny mother, the type of role increasingly assigned to old folks that makes me cringe.  Wes Craven, director of such “slasher” movies as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream,” passed away unlamented by me.  Weird Brit Alfred Hitchcock knew how to induce fear without needless violence or blood.

Ten years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Robert Blaszkiewicz wrote a NWI Times “Slice of Life” column entitled “The heartbreak of New Orleans: Our lost city.”  It begins:
I close my eyes and the sights, sounds and smells of New Orleans rush back:
warm beignets smothered in powdered sugar and steaming cafe au lait; the menagerie of street musicians, artists and tarot card readers on Jackson Square; a streetcar rumbling along St. Charles Avenue, passing its majestic mansions and soaring live oaks; a tray of boiled crawfish and oysters on the half shell, washed down with a cold beer.

I open my eyes and see these pictures of a disaster in some Third World country. The words tell me the location, but I can't wrap my mind around it. It's no longer the New Orleans I know.

I've traveled to this city pretty much annually for the past 18 years to visit my wife's family, most recently this past March, when my son tasted his first French Market snowball and chased pigeons around Jackson Square.

Saturday evening a large crowd gathered at Gary’s Genesis Center for a National Civil Rights Hall of Fame event to celebrate a “New Generation of Leaders” and commemorate the 1972 National Black Political Convention at West Side High School.  At the IUN table near me were historian Ron Cohen and Communication professor Eve Bottando, who plays both polkas and rap on accordion.  Her dad worked at City Hall under Mayor Hatcher as a sound technician.  Mayor Karen Wilson-Freeman gave us all a hug and later noted from the podium that she had intended to attend college in Flint, Michigan, but Mayor Richard Hatcher encouraged her to apply to Harvard and vouched for her.  Former athletic director Earl Smith, Jr., solicited my help in launching a Gary Sports Hall of Fame.  Attending the celebration were students from Gary schools and Valparaiso Law School, where Hatcher taught for many years. 

Urban League director Vanessa Allen opened the proceedings by singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Negro National Anthem.”  Reverend John E. Jackson, pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ and active in Black Lives Matter, gave a spellbinding invocation during which he characterized Jesus as an African radical.   With tickets just $25 we nonetheless received a full-course dinner (salad, rolls, chicken, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, and cake). The “New Generation” of honorees were offspring of distinguished leaders such as deputy mayors Jim Holland and Richard Comer (community activists Dena Holland Neal and Denise Dillard).
above, Rev. John E. Jackson in 2014 with Jeremiah Wright & Charles Dockery; below, Ras Baraka & John Ford

Representative Charlie Brown, historian Dolly Millender, and Mayor Hatcher recalled their excitement when 4,000 delegates descended on Gary during the 1972 convention, including the widows of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and how inspirational the workshops were to the delegates, many of whom went on to become elected officials in towns and cities.  The two keynote speakers were Tuskegee mayor John Ford, who attended the convention, and Mayor Ras Baraka, whose father Amiri Baraka, was its co-chair. Three years ago Reverend Jesse Jackson told Michael Puente of WBEZ:
  It was important to have [the National Black Political Convention] in a city where the mayor was the host.  We couldn’t have had the same convention if the climate had been hostile.  Mayor Hatcher was the driving force.  He chaired that convention into reality.
Black nationalist Amiri Baraka, the former poet Leroi Jones, told Puente:
  When we got there, Hatcher had put these red, black and green flags on all the signposts.  It was very exciting.  There were black delegates from all 50 states, just like it was a convention for the Democratic or Republican Party.  The convention’s main objective was to establish a black political agenda for the nation, but coming to a consensus wasn’t easy.  There were heated back-and-forth discussions and some delegates threatened to walk out when they couldn’t come to terms.

Former City Court judge Douglas Grimes introduced Johnny Ford, who has served eight nonconsecutive terms as Tuskegee mayor.  When Grimes, a Republican, said that Ford switched to the Republican Party in 2003 when an Alabama state representative, some folks booed but then cheered when Grimes pointed out that he rejoined the Democratic Party.  A dynamic speaker at the ripe old age of 73, Ford credited Hatcher with inspiring him and many others to run for elective office.  Ford first won election as mayor by a hundred votes after transporting 150 Tuskegee University cheerleaders, football players, and other students to register.  Ford did a bit about black mayors boarding a Freedom Train; with the addition of each passenger, including New York City’s David Dinkins and Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, he’d belt out in falsetto the sound of a locomotive whistle (woo woo).  The crowd appeared to love it. He drew laughs when he quipped that D.C. mayor Marion Barry got off the train for a smoke but then got back on.   He praised Booker T. Washington for founding Tuskegee Institute and financing court challenges to disfranchisement laws.  He also brought up, to loud applause, the World War II Tuskegee Airmen and bragged about founding the National Conference of Black Mayors and the World Conference of Mayors.

On the cover of Rolling Stone are Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, former members of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. and subjects of the hit movie “Straight Outta Comption.”  Dr. Dre (Andre Romelle Young) admitted that spending five months in jail following a 1994 high-speed attempt to flee police while drunk was transformative, affording him time to reflect and plan out his life.  Having produced Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar, and Aftermath Entertainment.  Dr. Dre has a net worth of over $500 million.

Jeremi Suri’s “The Global Revolutions of 1968,” required reading for Jonathan Briggs’ seminar students, emphasizes the present chasm between popular aspirations and political institutions.  He cites two more optimistic scholars, Paul Berman and Arthur Marwick, who believe that the utopianism of the late 1960s led to positive political and cultural consequences, in particular the breakup of the Soviet Union and an expansion of personal freedom.

Sunday Dave’s family came over for Chinese food and to celebrate Angie’s dad John’s birthday.  The weekend ended with Cub ace Jake Arrieta hurling a no hitter against the L.A. Dodgers.  The final two batters, the former Phillies double-play combination of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, were 2008 World Series heroes and for years my favorite players.

I missed Cracker Campout 11 at Pappy and Harriet’s but enjoyed reading an interview with David Lowery in the Desert Sun. Lowery teaches music courses at the University of Georgia but considers Pioneertown, California, his home base.  He told Bruce Fessier:
  It’s where we recorded our biggest albums.  It’s where we rehearsed for a long time.  Until fairly recently I had a place up there.  Camper [Van Beethoven] and Cracker are spread all over the world, so if there’s any place we come together anymore it’s Pioneertown.
 Selma Bayer and three of her great-grandchildren
Selma Bayer, one of my favorite people, passed away.   She was spunky and politically active till the very end.  At Thanksgiving she was a hoot playing charades.  Rest in Peace.  Granddaughter Kirsten Petras posted a Sue Fitzmaurice quote: “When I get old, they’re never going to say, ‘What a sweet old lady.’  They’re gonna say, ‘What on EARTH is she up to now?!’

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