8/20/18

Art Road Trip: National Museum of African Art


National Museum of African Art
Washington, DC

Placed here b/c Achebe was once on the UMass faculty
 

Click on images for bigger size 

Last month, I paid a visit to my one-time undergraduate mentor—now dear friend—Charles Loucks. We reminisced about what might have done differently had we had been aware back then what we'd like to know or do now. One thing I definitely would have done is study African art in a serious way. This made my trip to Washington DC especially sweet, as it's the only museum devoted entirely to African art in the nation.

Art is the ultimate subjective discipline. Why does one person love a particular style, but not another? Try as I will, for example, I simply can't generate enthusiasm for Japanese painting, yet I have friends who can't get enough of it. I'm that way about African art. I like the fact that even art that is produced for display retains elements of utility. I also admire qualities sometimes called "folk art" when they appear in Western art, though I'm leery of that label as it's too often used to suggest that it's not as accomplished as so-called "fine" art. Oddly, we often lump Picasso and Matisse into the fine art category, though both of them acknowledged their debt to African masks and sculpture.

Mainly I love the diversity in African art—even when universal themes are present, no two African cultures render these the same way. There's also an earthy solidity to form that appeals to me that also shapes color palettes. You'll see much more brown, rust, yellow ochre, and such like in African art. And I really admire the fact that there's little frippery present; if I had to pick the period of art I like the least, hands-down it's European Baroque.

To return to my regret, I am self-taught in all that I know about African art and—I'm sorry to say—it's not much. I have attached some things I liked from my July trip to DC and comments on why, but offer apologies if I've misinterpreted anything. 






This powerful piece is called Apartheid Laboratory and the symbolism should be obvious, right down to an evocation of an electric chair.




 Ethiopia was Christianized very early and a lot of its art evokes Byzantine icons.


This was worn on the head in Sierra Leone, a nation founded by the British to resettle freed slaves and akin to Liberia, which was set up for that reason by the USA. In each case, resettled slaves entered lands already settles by others and--in a great irony--conquered indigenous peoples. The above is in the spirit of original peoples.



 This is a helmet mask from Nigeria. Note there are faces on all sides.


 An initiation panel from Congo. Boys often lived in separate houses as they prepared to be initiated into adulthood. In some lands this involved painful circumcision as the boys were generally over age 12.

 This is from Gabon and all I can say is it makes me happy. To me it evokes a cross between a baboon and an old man. I'm pretty sure that's me and not its intent!

From Benin. Benin was once an empire with a warrior class. As you can see, they maintianed a horse cavalry.

This massive contemporary piece is a comment on eternity. It's forged of metal, looks like rubber, and depicts a snake swallowing its own tail. The latter is an image found many places in the world, including Ireland.

This frightening object was worn on the crest of the head. It's from Nigeria.

I really love this pacific Yoruba figure from Nigeria. It reminds me of Buddhas found in Southeast Asia.

Many tribes, kinship groups, and clans are headed by a figure whose status better translates as "Big Man" rather than chief. This is from Ghana and takes the Big Man concept literally!
Another one that simply makes me happy. From Cameroon.

More recent painting from Tanzania. A reminder that Africans are sailors and fishers as well. And maybe a reminder that if we trash the waters of the Indian Ocean, it deprives millions of their livelihoods.

8/17/18

New World Music: Summer of 2018




Appalatin, Vida

If you want more ammunition to defend multiculturalism, a few tracks from Appalatin ought to do the trick. Think immigrants from Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and a chance meeting in Louisville with a few native Kentuckians schooled in Appalachian bluegrass. Let the fun begin. On the ten-track release Vida, Quechua, Spanish, and English collide with various musical styles to create a unique synthesis. You'll hear some of the usual string band instruments—guitar, bass, mandolin—but also flutes, charango, trumpet, saxophone, bongos, congas, and triangle. What kind of music is it? It depends on the moment. "Primavera" is a flute-driven blend of pop, rock, and Latin acoustic. A folk rock song in English, "Flow Like a River," is a bit like Poco if it had dual flautists. By contrast, the instrumental "Pituco" is a folk/jazz mélange in which you'll hear panpipes standing tall amidst brass and other instruments normally viewed as more forceful. The other song in English, "Sweet Song of the Soul," could have been plucked from the Stax archives, except smooth Fernando Moya handles the lead vocals instead of gritty Wilson Pickett. Try the title track to catch Appalatin in a pastoral mood as gentle as a summer breeze. This is fusion music at its best; swing, pronounced beats, sweet melodies, balanced harmonies, and strong lead vocals offer a lot to like. As a footnote, if you're skeptical that the world needs another version of "Guantanamera," reserve judgment until you hear Appalatin's version. ★★★★


Various Artists, Small Island, Big Song

Among Australian Aborigines, songlines are akin to maps, except they do with words what print would do on a map; that is, the songs guide them through the outback. (They also connect them to sacred Dreamtime rituals.) Filmmaker Tim Cole and Taiwanese publicist BaoBao Chen pondered the question of whether such songlines cross water; after all, anthropologists have long noted cultural diffusion among the peoples of Oceania. They took three years, visited 16 islands, and then came up with an even cooler idea. Small Island, Big Song contains contemporary compositions, but they are shot through with both tradition and pan-Oceanic blends. There is, for instance, "Naka War War To'o," from Solomon Islander Charles Maimarosia, with wooden flutes driving the melody and hollow drums pounding out the rhythms for an assortment of other instruments. The effect is soulful and sounds like someone decided to merge Pan pipes and East African guitar to create club dance grooves. On the other end of the spectrum we find "Pemung Jae" from Sarawak's Alena Murang whose spare vocals and lute produce a song that's somewhere between blues and bluegrass. Do you even know where the Torres Strait Islands are located? You might want to Google them, because Mau Power and Sandro lay down some trance-like beats in which big bass thumps and woodpecker-like percussion set the pace for hip hop that's like a warm-up for a haka. Perhaps the best-known artists are Madagascar's Tarika and Ben Hakalitz of Australia's Yothu Yindi, but the joy of discovery is high on this album. You'll hear indigenous flutes and lutes, jaw harps, kora, and other such things mix with more familiar instruments. You will also travel from Taiwan to Easter Island with stops in-between. The poignant exclamation mark is that many of these traditions are threatened—not by cultural diffusion, but by climate change. Watch these clips also fro some truly gorgeous filmmaking.

Various Artists, SXSW Sounds from Hungary

There is a hook-shaped sweep of mountain ranges in eastern and southern Europe where the Carpathian Mountains sweep into the Balkans is home to some of the most amazing music on the planet. Hungary sits in the northwestern part of the hook. Its music is not yet as appreciated as that of Romania or Greece, but it's every bit as exciting. The South by Southwest Music (SXSW) Festival recently showcased Hungarian music and you can hear what you've been missing on a Rock Paper Scissors sampler. I was quite taken by a performer called Boggie. She's billed as a pop singer, but her music is more robust than that. She sings in French, English, and Hungarian and in each she does so with verve. Check out "Le Demon," which has the force of a nightingale on steroids. Her English "Run to the River" has the feel of a mysterious Tori Amos song, while "Quitte-moi" is French, but with a faintly Latin jazz beat as filtered through an African chorus. Belau mixes visuals with electronica explorations. Try "Somebody Told Me So" and "You and I," both of which feature the pop-ready vocals of Krisztián Buzás and she powers through the beats and programming of Péter Kedves. If you want something harder, try what the Bohemian Betyars call–and I can't improve on this–"speed punk freak folk with Hungarian folk Romani stylings." "Trouble is My Brother" is reminiscent of Gogol Bordello, while "Sinful Needs" is like a string band on a very strange pharmaceutical trip.  You can also hear tracks from the soulful Qualitions and the blues/rock/folk Rockjam. ★★★★


Diali Cissokho and Kaira Ba, Routes

 This is diasporic music from Senegal. Koru master Diali Cissokho now lives in North Carolina and his band, Kaira Ba, consists mostly of native Tar Heels. Their latest album surprises in many ways. There is, first of all, the integration of environmental and found sounds. "Alla L'a Ke," for example, opens with insect sounds upon which kora notes drip like falling rain. Then we hear some crystalline electric guitar and percussion that ease us into Cissokho's lead vocals and the backing chorus. It's nearly 7 minutes of groove and weave. "Night in M'Bour"—M'Bour is Cissokho's hometown—uses wind and insect sounds to prelude strong percussion and wooden flute. These give way to street noise and then an impromptu performance. "Ma Cherie" is also a kora/drum combo that slides into a swaying rhythm. Cissokho then commands a call-and-response vocal that includes a female singer answering his Manding vocals in English. "Salsa Xalel" is as the title suggests: a Latin feel overlaid with West African music. And there's "Story Song," with growly vocals, rumbling bass, and a soulful arrangement that even includes some rolling organ. You'll hear lots of stuff on this one: rock, soul, R & B, funk, and Senegalese. Label it pan-African. ★★★★

Nsimbi, Nsimbi

Nsimbi is a Los Angeles-based musical partnership between American singer Miriam Tamar and Uganda's Herbert Kinobe, with soukous guitar help from the Congo-born Jaja Bashengezi. All three are talented multi-instrumentalists—18 instruments among them—but my take is that should have taken more chances. I enjoyed this album more in pieces than as a whole. I was intrigued by the instrumental melodies and the power of Ms. Tamar's vocals, but there's not much poetry to the lyrics. For instance, I liked the high-stepping beats of "Flower of the Heart," but wouldn't you say comparing love to a flower is a tad clichéd? "Mujje" is a very much a dance club piece, but why is Kinobe posing as an LA-style DJ/rapper? We don't expect dance songs to be political, but somehow a love-overcomes-all message seems trite if you known anything at all about recent history in Congo or Uganda. There is lots to like on the album, including Kinobe's balafon on "Koona," Bashengezi's syncopated and contrasting guitar rhythms throughout, and the cool instrumental effect on "Moonglow" where the sounds bounce left to right akin to the effect of first decent pair of headphones you ever bought. I really liked "Gonna Be Alright," which sounds like '40s swing music grafted to light jazz and filtered through early rock 'n roll. Overall, though, I longed for more East African music and less LA rap and processing. ★★½

8/15/18

Markley's Ohio Explains American Despair


OHIO (August 2018)
Stephen Markley
Simon and Schuster, 496 pages.
★★★★★

One of my college students recently said to me, “I hear people use the phrase ‘since 9/11’ a lot, but I don’t really know what that means.” If that shocks you, consider that she was two when the towers fell; the only reality she has ever known is the post-9/11 world. I must tell her to read Stephen Markley’s new novel, Ohio. And so should the rest of you—especially if you’re still trying to figure out why Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

The question of when America began to lose its innocence rages from the halls of academia to backroom bar booths. Was it the JFK assassination, Vietnam, urban race riots, Watergate, the energy crisis, or something else? However it began, 9/11 was the tipping point in which the assumption of American invincibility toppled from its pedestal to be replaced by bleak narratives of decline, division, and deficiency—the City on the Hill transformed into Babylon on the cusp of the fall. Consider, for example, that no one challenged the very premise of Trump's “Make American Great Again” slogan. Remember when Jimmy Carter was excoriated for suggesting that the American Dream was in jeopardy?

Excuse the digression, but you need to consider these bigger questions to appreciate the chilling power of Stephen Markley’s Ohio. It opens with a funeral: that of Rick Brinklan, who was killed in Iraq. As some townspeople spout the usual fallen hero nostrums, his best friend from high school, Bill Ashcraft, prefers to blister his brain with drugs and booze rather than take part in the charade; he sees Rick’s death as senseless. Markley takes us inside the generation that came of age of age with 9/11—high schoolers in an already-depressed town faced with individual searches for identity and meaning. Rick became a knee-jerk patriot; Bill became an anarchist jerk. Yet they both hated the same things; both railed against their impotency within a chaotic and faith-challenged universe.

Markley takes us back and forth between 2003 and 2011, the latter date one in which four high school acquaintances pass through their hometown of New Canaan, Ohio: the cynical Ashcraft; soft-spoken Dan Eaton, who lost an eye in Afghanistan; Stacey Moore, a doctoral student; and Tina Ross, a beautiful woman with deep hurts and secrets. There is no such town as New Canaan, but Markley situates it in Northeast Ohio; that is, near rusted out cities such as Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. It’s also where you’ll find Kent State University. Cue Neil Young and a lot of unpleasant history. Markley’s New Canaan is akin to Richard Russo’s Mohawk on steroids. Or maybe I should say crystal meth. The very existence of towns such as these—of which there are myriad examples—calls into question the nation’s future. New Canaan is a place where factory workers have given way to Walmart greeters and convenience store clerks, the fate of the high school football team is a diversionary passion, and vultures circle to prey on the desperate: real estate speculators, home equity loan sharks, drug peddlers, military recruiters, right-wing hate groups, evangelists….

Markley divides his book into four sections: “Bill Ashcraft and the Great American Thing,” “Stacey Moore and a Theory of Ecology, Literature, and Love Across Deep Time,” “Dan Eaton and the Murder That Never Was,” and “Tina Ross and the Cool at the Edge of the Woods.” Each section unspools personal narratives, but also spotlights changes in New Canaan since 9/11. Ashcraft is the one who wanted to get away, but only partially did so; he has seen much of the world, is deeply alienated, and now lives underground, though he carries with him New Canaan’s narcotic haze, alcoholic stupefaction, and hopelessness. Moore, an out lesbian and literature scholar, is the one closest to escaping New Canaan, though she has never forgiven the hypocrisy of New Canaan Christians—the ones who quote Jesus in one moment and pop pills and sleep around the next. Dan Eaton is the quiet vet still pining for the girlfriend he gave up to serve three military tours. Call him a semi-tragic figure—a guy who wants to be decent and kind but isn’t sure what those words mean anymore. Ross is darker—outwardly beautiful, but her body scarred from self-inflicted cuts. She is also the key to unmasking New Canaan’s monsters.     

Markley is masterful at character development—not just their actions, but also their internal thoughts, dreams, and nightmares. This makes the book work, as his is a large cast—not just the four central figures, but also pivotal dramatis personae such as the vivacious, wild, and sometimes vulgar Lisa Han; Eaton’s ex-girlfriend Hailey, whose life is as compromised as his; Cole, Tina’s salt-of-the-earth but dull-as-dishwater husband; and Kaylyn, the slutty but outwardly goody-two shoes Christian girl who is nothing but trouble. There is also Ben Harrington, the sensitive musician who dies young; and a bunch of ex-football players, a few of whom have turned dangerous.

That’s a lot and it’s to Markley’s credit that he makes his characters live—even the ones who are dead. He also embeds a mystery within what is essentially a tragedy. Ohio is a tough book and a slow read, but it’s also one of the most honest works on post-9/11 America I have yet to encounter. You feel despair, desperation, and flickering hope on every page. If this sounds depressing, it is at times, but if you want to understand the mindset of those who turn to opioids, bigotry, misanthropy, and charlatans, Ohio is the ticket. Some early reviewers have given up on Ohio and more’s the pity; Markley makes it clear that self-anesthetizing doesn’t work, a list that includes head-in-the-sand ignorance.
 
Rob Weir

8/13/18

The Idiot Good, But Not Pulitizer Material


The Idiot (2017)
By Elif Batuman
Penguin, 423 pages.
★★★

The Idiot was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and I can see why. So why did I give it just three of five stars? This is the kind of novel people who care about serious literature want to love. How readers outside the academic world will receive it an open question. My take is that the book is impressively written, clever, and sometimes blindingly funny, but also self-indulgent and overly showy.

Parts of the novel are semi-autobiographical. Ms. Batuman is indeed a child of Turkish immigrants, attended Harvard, has a facility with languages, and is highly intelligent. The idiot it about how she began to know herself, a discovery that included the realization that she was destined to become a writer. She obtained a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford and has been able to follow her vocation.

Batuman's debut novel—she has also has penned a memoir and has toiled as a journalist—follows Selin, her thinly veiled alter ego, through her first year at Harvard, her first crush, and her transition from prolonged adolescence to adulthood. I wonder what people at Harvard will make of this book. By one reading, Harvard is indeed a holdout against dumbed-down curricula; from another it's a bastion of cluelessness when it comes to functioning in the everyday world. Selin's first year is spent studying linguistics and engaging in deep contemplation over topics such as Noam Chomsky's belief in transformational generative grammar versus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language relativity. That's pretty heady stuff for anyone, let alone a first-year. Selin also studies Russian, Hungarian, and several other languages; she is multilingual, not bilingual. Her days are spent studying well into the next morning, trying to find time to spend with her new friend Svetlana, and pining over an older Hungarian student, Ivan. She's besotted with Ivan, which is odd given that much of her contract with him is through email, a new thing in 1995, when this book is set. Those conversations often wrestle with whether there is any meaning at all in language, and if it's possible to exist beyond words. Does this make Selin a towering intellect, or the book's namesake idiot?

One thing is certain; she's socially gauche. She knows next to nothing about being a young person, about campus culture, or affairs of the heart. Nor is she very good at practical things such as what to do in a bar, how to choose food, or how to tutor young people. Selin's journey, both physically and psychologically, takes her from New Jersey to Massachusetts, then to Paris, Hungary, and Turkey. She is often so far outside her element that her travails imbue this novel with humor bordering on absurdity. Much of the time Selin drifts through situations as it she's a character in an opéra bouffe. The reader wonders what she actually sees in Ivan, who frequently comes across as a self-centered jerk hiding behind a wall of half-baked ideas posing as profundity. Is Ivan really deep intellectually, or just in the barnyard sense?

Many of us recall early college years and can relate to Selin's feelings of uncertainty and struggles with self-esteem. I think, though, that Selin would have been a stronger character if cast as a first-generation Turkish immigrant, not one born in United States. It stretches credulity to imagine how anyone so interested in other languages and cultures could've gotten to Harvard having learned so little about of American society. Batuman's attempt to write around Selin's awkwardness through passing references to a broken home and a doting-but-domineering mother are not quite convincing.

I admired Bautman's honesty in casting her alter ego as neither heroine nor victim. Selin's attempts to tutor or teach are painful to read. I related to this, as I have personally witnessed former colleagues who needed to find other work, because they simply lacked the disposition to instruct others. On the other hand, the writer who must write has become a tired convention in modern literature. It's also self-serving. One feels as if Batuman is seeking affirmation for her life path, though no one disputed that in the first place. As a literary device, this contrivance means that some of the book's drama and revelations induce more shrugs than huzzahs.

There's also a matter of tone. If the goal is to show readers how new thoughts can blow a first-year student's mind, Batuman hits the target. Yet the tone is such that Batuman also appears to toot her own horn in ways that seek to convince us that she has a superior mind. Maybe she does, but is this necessary to advance the plot? As a title, The Idiot is ironic; Selin is both at sea, but she has more than adequate tools to make it to shore. Through her heavier emphasis on her intellectual confusion rather than coming to grips with growing up, Batuman will thrill academicians more than casual readers. As one who straddles the worlds of higher education and community life, I must give The Idiot a mixed review. It's not at all clear to me that Selin/Batuman has yet mastered life beyond the ivied walls of Harvard's Widener Library.

Rob Weir

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8/10/18

Heartworn Highways Revisited Features New Outlaw Country


Heartworn Highways Revisited (2017)
Directed by Wayne Price
MVD Visual, 86 minutes, Not rated.
★★★★

In 1981, documentarian James Szalapski (1945-2000) released Heartworn Highways, which he made
in 1976. It gathered rave reviews for its fly-on-the-wall look at "outlaw" country musicians, those who wanted nothing to do with industry formula and sought to recover the unpretentious simplicity of earlier generations. His cast of characters included Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, Steve Young, Steve Earle, and Townes Van Zandt.

These days, country music is slicker than ever, making it practically inevitable that a new generation of outlaws would emerge to challenge booted poseurs. Wayne Price directed Heartworn Highways Revisited in 2015, and it didn't gain immediate release, which is its own statement about industry control. The film follows a new breed of musicians who chose to say no to industry clichés, generic production, and safe messages. We toss around labels like "Independent" and "Americana," but it's not easy to make a living when you're outside the country music system. Today's crop of outlaws draws inspiration from–—you guessed it—the folks Szalapski filmed forty years earlier. Price's film could be subtitled "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same," and it's all the more poignant in that that both Guy Clark and Steve Young were in the last years of their lives, and David Allan Coe was bankrupt, memory-challenged, and in poor health. (All three show up in moving cameos and you wouldn't need a degree in medicine to diagnose that Clark was at death's door.)

Heartworn Highways Revisited isn't a shot-for-shot remake, but it's 100% faithful to Szalapski's approach and structure. That is, it doesn't advocate, preach, or judge; in fact, there is no external commentary at all. Price simply points the camera, rolls the film, follows the musicians, and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Of those he films—including John McCauley III, Jonny Fritz, Shelly Colvin, Langhorne Slim, Nikki Lane, Phil Hummer, Andrew Combs, and Bobby Bare Jr.—most are not household names. Probably the only ones you might know are Shovels and Rope, Justin Townes Earle, and McCauley's band Deer Tick. But if you follow the musical links at the end of the article, you'll probably wonder why these folks aren't headliners.

 One of the conclusions you are likely to draw is that there are two Nashvilles: the one that's a monument to the industry, and the scrape-by city of those who make music because they must, not because they think they can make a lot of money. Many of today's outlaws have contempt for folks like Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith. Fritz jokes, "What's the difference between a country music concert and an Americana music concert" Answer: "There are no Republicans at an Americana concert!"

McCauley and Fritz play roles akin to that of Clark in the original film in that they are often the pivots around which things happen in the outlaw subculture. You can decide for yourself whether these folks are heroes or fools, but let's return to the continuity theme. Price does as Szalapski and allows images to speak for themselves. If you've seen the original, you will recall Townes Van Zandt's ramshackle DIY homestead; in this film, you will see several analogs: mold-covered houses, shabby interiors, urban farmyards, and tool-and-debris-strewn properties. Price juxtaposes official Nashville—auditoriums, tourist traps, glitzy lights, and posh clubs—with strip mall streets, roadhouses, sweaty bars, fried food, grit, and life on the margins. Everyone in the film seems to be overly tattooed, clouded in cigarette smoke, and working their asses off to stay afloat. Shovels and Rope play more than 150 gigs a year, and you will see that it buys them a very modest lifestyle. In fact, only Shelly Colvin and Justin Townes Earle appear to sustain a standard of living that is remotely middle-class.

Whether or not you approve of their choices—and who are we to judge—outlaw musicians exude a raw honesty that is indeed lacking in mainstream country music. I'm not even sure it is country music. Deer Tick is often a damn good alt.rock band, and the balladry embraced by others could just as easily be called "folk" music. The outlaws are absolutely correct to note that what you see on Country Music Television is as processed as Cheese Whiz. In that spirit, let me offer a listener's guide to this film. Check it out and then download the film. My favorite songs are marked with an asterisk.

Rob Weir

            1. "Ashamed" * and "In Our Time" by John McCaulley III and Deer Tick

            2. "Fever Dreams" by Jonny Fritz

            3. "Visit Me in Music City" by Bobby Bare, Jr.

            4. "Birmingham," by Shovels and Rope

            5. "Back to the Wild" * by Langhorne Slim and Kristin Weber

            6. "Am I That Lonely Tonight" *  by Justin Townes Earle

            7. "Tour Song" * by Robert Ellis

            8. "Gone, Gone, Gone " * by Nikki Lane
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8/8/18

The Heritage Explores Black Athletes, Activism, Money, and Fake Patriotism



The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism
By Howard Bryant (2018)
Beacon Press, 238 pages +index, etc. 

Once upon a time, black athletes were acutely aware of the "Heritage." That is, they recognized that sports were inseparable from the quest for racial equality and social justice. ESPN analyst Howard Bryant sees Paul Robeson as the "original conscience and soul" of the Heritage, and Jackie Robinson as "its godfather" (39). Bryant capitalizes Heritage throughout his book to call attention to how black athletes after Robinson saw themselves as his (metaphorical) sons and daughters.

Earlier figures such as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis certainly brought pride to the black community, but they were also co-opted. Owens exploded the myth of Aryan superiority with his feet and Louis with his fists, but both were used as symbols of the "Good American" (33) in the war against fascism. Never mind that American society was nearly as racially closed as Hitler's Germany.

Robinson was different. He (re) integrated* Major League Baseball in 1947, but at a great personal cost. The title of his autobiography says it all: I Never Had it Made. Singularity is a heavier burden than honor; everywhere he went Robinson faced bigotry, discrimination, and hatred. When he signed with Brooklyn Dodgers, General Manager Branch Rickey advised Robinson to have the courage "not to fight back." Or so hagiographies report. Robinson was a proud man who eventually earned the right to strike back. That too was a burden. New York Post sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once dubbed Robinson, "the loneliest man I've ever seen."

Activism was a key component of the Heritage—as was the fallout that came with it. Robinson died at just 53, but he looked decades older. Nonetheless, by the 1960s numerous black sports heroes embraced the Heritage and paid the tab: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, John Carlos, Tommie Smith…. Some did well despite their activism; others (Flood, Carlos, Smith) did not. Each left a lot of money on the table because they refused to ignore race prejudice and felt it their duty to uphold the Heritage.

So how did we get to the point where quarterback Colin Kaepernick can't get a job in the National Football League because he knelt during the National Anthem? How did he become the household name, not those for whom he kneeled—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling…? Why does the NFL uphold the rants of racist owners such as Jerry Jones and threaten to make another Kaepernick of future kneelers? Bryant bluntly asserts that it's because black bodies only matter on the playing field.

He doesn't stop there. In passages certain to ruffle feathers, Bryant also blames money and the militarization of American society. His cast of villains will surprise: O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. Although he understands the allure of big money, he sees those three as having undermined the Heritage. Whereas Owens and Louis became (literal) posters for the Good American, Simpson, Jordan, and Woods became corporate shills. Bryant doesn't invoke this example, but those who've seen Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) will recall a scene in which Pino (John Turturro), an Italian American, launches N-bombs in front of his erstwhile black friend Mookie (Lee). An incredulous Mookie asks him how he can do that when his favorite player, Michael Jordan, is black. Pino responds that he doesn't see Jordan as a [expletive]. Exactly! That's the problem, as Bryant sees it. Jordan was part of a generation of black athletes who made millions by not being black. The Good American gave way to a green-washed myth of a post-racial society. Woods went so far as to call himself a multiethnic "Cablinasian" (39-41).

Would that it were true. Bryant is (mildly) sympathetic to how hard it would be for any young black athlete to turn away from the millions that come their way by setting aside politics. He's crystal clear, though, of what that entails: repudiating the Heritage. But Bryant isn't letting anyone off the hook. It would be comforting for white society to construct a narrative in which black people sold out their own. Whites have been doing that for years to absolve any responsibility for black poverty, drug-infested neighborhoods, or the existence of gangs.

If you think The Heritage is just another sports book, think again. Howard Bryant is also a keen observer of American history and sociology. What happened to the Heritage is only partly explained by greenbacks. Bryant places the decline of the Heritage within a broader context of what happened to protest across American society. It has been on the wane since Ronald Reagan's beat-down of labor unions and feminism. What began in the 1980s went into hyper drive after 9/11. Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003, when singer Natalie Maines expressed displeasure with George W. Bush. To dissent in a nation founded by revolutionaries has become, paradoxically, un-American.

Bryant calls attention to the "collision" (ix) that occurred between sports and the military—one that wrestles over the question of "who's the patriot" (203)? If you think all the military pageantry you see in sports venues is heartfelt and spontaneous, you are naïve; it's as orchestrated as a symphony and as fake as a World Wrestling Federation match. Don't be fooled by the Roger Goodells of the sports world. Every time you see a flyover, a vet singing "God Bless America," or some tearful reunion between veterans and their families, the U.S. Armed Forces paid for these to be staged. You read that right; owners of pro sports teams cash Department of Defense checks funded by your tax dollars for scripted melodrama. The military sees these things as recruitment tools for an all-volunteer military that's having trouble filling out its ranks. Jerry Jones' outrage isn't that of the wounded patriot; it's the complaint of a man whose cash cow is in the slaughter line.

In many ways, Howard Bryant's book is the sports version of what Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman called "manufacturing consent." His remarks will anger sunshine patriots, but their outrage would be better directed at the hokum, not kneeling players.

You'd better get used to the latter. Not all sports are on board with NFL-style authoritarianism. The National Basketball League has begun to embrace black activism—as well a sport in which 75 percent of the players are black should. LeBron James is part of a new generation that wants to reclaim the Heritage, and he's taking his activism to the big stage of Los Angeles. Or did you think he went to the Lakers because he was dying to have Lonzo Ball as a teammate?

Of the Heritage, Bryant writes, "It is a responsibility the black player will carry until America values the black brain over the black body, and the black people, like all others, rise through education and not touchdowns. Then sports for black people can finally be reduced to what it should have always been in the first place—just a game" (238).    

Rob Weir

*Jackie Robinson was not the first black player in the Major Leagues. The American Association, then a professional league on par with the National League, had black players until 1887. It was pressured to ban them by the National League.

8/7/18

Yankees Going Nowhere without Repairs


Now pitching for the Yankees, Charley Brown. Hold onto to your socks!

In March I predicted that the Yankees weren't good enough to supplant the Red Sox atop the AL East. The Yankees' misplaced hope of doing so ended last weekend. The Yanks are now playing for home turf in the Wild Card game, if they even get that far.  

Don't get me wrong; if the Yankees make it to the postseason, they could catch lightening in a jar and win a championship. I doubt it; this team has too many flaws, and it's not too early to start thinking about 2019. Here's where the fixes should begin.

Manager: I also noted in March that you don't hand a $180 million payroll to a guy with zero experience. All managers were once rookies, but Aaron Boone had never even been a coach. It's starting to show. Am I being unfair given the number of injuries the Yankees have endured? Nope. Ask yourself this question: Can you fathom a Joe Girardi team looking so listless against the Red Sox? Girardi took squads that didn't really have the talent to compete and made them better. I also said that if the Yankees were going to replace Girardi with a neophyte, Hensley Muelens should have been the choice—a guy who speaks Spanish, Japanese, and Dutch. 

The rational thing would be to demote Boone to bench coach and let him learn the ropes. An interim Buck Showalter return makes sense.

Pitching: Can we just stop with all the nonsensical numbers? Anyone who has followed baseball on the field rather than on data sheets would have told you that the Yankees needed starting pitching—even before Jordan Montgomery went down. This must be Priority # 1 for next year. It's a risk, but Clayton Kershaw should be the top target, followed by Dallas Keuchel, and Patrick Corben. Gio Ganzález is worth a look if the price is right. Of the late season pickups, I'd take a chance on Lance Lynn, but I surely would not break the bank for J. A. Happ.

As for the bullpen, sign Zach Britton, as there is a high likelihood he is still rebuilding arm strength and will return to lights-out effectiveness. That would give the Yankees a way to avoid overworking Chapman. If the price is right, put out feelers on Andrew Miller or Cody Allen.

If the deal is right for a starter, toss in Betances to get one. We know he will never be a closer and best to move him while some think he could be.

Hang on to Domingo Germain, who will be good when he gains experience. I'm not seeing a high ceiling for Giovanny Gallegos, though, and he's expendable. So too is Luis Cessa, who would be better in the NL, like Ivan Nova. I also wonder if we've seen the best Jonathan Holder will ever be.

Time to Part: I love Brett Gardner and I told anyone who'd listen that the Yankees were dumb to sign Jacoby Ellsbury. (Who's the fool now?) Alas, it looks as if Gardy is done. As of Monday, Gardner had just 10 steals and had scored a mere 66 times. You need more of both from a lead off hitter. Just dump Ellsbury. Period.

Greg Bird is the next coming of Nick Johnson, sans his discerning eye. It's not imperative that Bird be replaced, but my instinct is to dump him before he breaks down completely.

Neil Walker, like Brandon Drury, was a perplexing signing from the start. Waive[ sic] him goodbye. Tyler Wade is a solid AAA player who can't/won't get over the hump. I'd advance a player who has untapped potential and part with Wade. While I'm at it, the only player the Yankees have who was hitting over .300 is sitting in Scranton: Ronald Torreyes, who is exactly the kind of heart and spirit the team needs.

One of two things needs to happen—either the Yankees need to put up with Giancarlo Stanton's mediocre defense on an everyday basis and make Gary Sanchéz their DH, or they part with the latter in a monster deal. He can't catch, which is why the Yankees top two picks were receivers.

Dump the Stat Heads and Get Real: Stat charts have their place, but only people who only watch box scores think they're the only answer. Here are some measurements that are worthless: WAR, UZR, OPS, WHIP. Here are some gloriously old-fashioned ones in need of revival: BA, H, BB, R, OBP, K, and W-L. (WAR is meaningless unless there actually is a replacement player!)

Remember how the Stat Heads dumped on Derek Jeter for his poor fielding and lack of power? What a bunch of idiots! In any baseball game, a Web Gem that doesn't affect the game one way or the other is just a parade preceding the circus. Jeter made nearly all the plays that mattered and, frankly, that's all that matters.

Jeter also had nearly or more than 200 hits per year for most of his career. No one will approach that this year; Stanton leads the club with just 120. The sabermetrics crew will also tell you strikeouts don't matter. Of course they do! You have to homer or be on base to score—pure and simple. On this year's Yankees, Aaron Judge has walked 66 times and struck out 137; Stanton has whiffed 145 times. (Sanchéz has fanned 67 times in just 66 games.) Only one other player, Aaron Hicks, has walked more than 50 times. Put it all together and in 110 games, just four players have more than 100 runs (Stanton, Andujar, Gregorius, and Judge). Even this is deceptive, as the Yankees lead MLB in homers. No matter who tries to talk you out of it, the Yankees hitters really are an all-or-nothing.

This won't change until less emphasis is placed on launch angle and more is paid to on-base-percentage, cutting down swings with two strikes, and bringing back the shame of striking out, failing to advance runners, and not plating a player from third with less than two outs.

I don't care how much crow management has to eat, grovel and bring back Chris Chambliss as hitting coach!

Here's the only pitching stat that matters: wins versus losses. It's usually correlated with a low ERA and low WHIP, but not always. A great pitcher adjusts according to the situation. In an 8-2 game, for instance, that pitcher stops nibbling and doesn't sweat a solo homerun or a single here and there; he knows that more trouble comes from walking players, rising pitch counts, and a tired bullpen. He also knows that efficient outs top strikeouts. 

Free Agent Eye Candy: No to Bryce Harper. He would be Ellsbury all over again, a pricey redundancy. Where would he fit in an outfield that already has Hicks, Stanton, and Judge, with Frazier, Florial, Amburgey on the way? Spend on pitching, not more mashing.

Maybe yes to Manny Machado. They could then dangle Gregorious as trade bait. But only if Machado doesn't cost so much that pitching is again ignored. Machado is a great hitter, though his defense is so-so at shortstop. Let me be Old School once again and quote a time-tested adage: good pitching beats good hitting most of the time. That's why the Red Sox just made the Bronx Bombers look like bums.  

Rob Weir