Monumental Sins

Several years ago, upon my return from a trip abroad, my work colleagues asked me where I’d visited. Was it Paris? Amsterdam? London?

“Auschwitz,” I said.

Stone silence. Uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Averted glances.

I have an odd penchant for paying visits to sites of self-inflicted human catastrophes. I have stood in stupefied shock before the dome at Hiroshima and the flash shadows on buildings of people going about their daily activities when the bomb exploded.  I have regarded the remains of the Auschwitz gas chambers so hastily blown apart by the panicked SS guards before they force-marched thousands to their deaths in the snows of 1945. I have gazed upon the anguished Holocaust sculpture at Dachau, the prototypical Nazi concentration camp. I visit these places, unromantic as they are, because they are places of sober reflection, and subjects unsuited to our throwaway modern selfie culture. As I see it, a visit to such sites triggers cathartic reflection about the level to which humanity can descend if it is less than careful.  Their psychological and ethical import will endure so long as humans exist.

Now let us turn to American monuments. Monuments there are testaments to victory, to the triumphant forward march of the American Way, regardless of its moral implications. The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. Mount Rushmore.[1] Amid this ocean of reassurance, where does one turn for proper moral perspective, especially in light of the fact that the country’s diaper-clad president publicly bewails the dismantling of monuments celebrating the achievements of the Confederacy, such as they were?  One wonders if the US, not to mention the world, will survive its infancy.

Where are the American monuments that evoke soul-searching, in the manner of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or Dachau? The memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing? Ground Zero?  The memorials in those places pay tribute to the innocent dead, as they should.  But those events, while tragic, represent one-offs and provide paltry occasion for higher moral reflection. America in those places was the victim. Where, however, are the memorials to the victims of America? Where is the memorial to the Native Americans wiped out in the nineteenth century, to the Trail of Tears? Or the tribute to the Blacks slaves on whose shoulders the economy of the young United States was built?  Where should Americans go to weep for our accumulated sins?

I suggest Hiroshima.


[1] Those seeking solace from the sting of the US defeat in Vietnam can find it at the Wall in Washington, DC, a memorial dwarfed by surrounding monuments. A strong athlete might jump high enough to place a quarter atop it.

Racism and the Tar Baby

I doubt that many read Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) these days. The Uncle Remus guy.[1]  He was de riguer reading for children in my day, and his stories involved an old black man named Uncle Remus sharing tales about the Old South, typically with animals as stand-in for humans. Disney made a few animated movies about Chandler’s stories, as I recall. One recurring theme throughout the stories was the rivalry between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit and the unsuccessful attempts by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit, in the manner of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

My favorite Uncle Remus story as a child was “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” which begins with Brer Fox hatching yet another scheme to snare Brer Rabbit.  The gimmick has Brer Fox creating a human baby out of tar, placing a hat on its head, and situating it in the middle of a path frequented by Brer Rabbit.  Brer Fox lay in wait behind a nearby briar patch for Brer Rabbit to pass by, which he does, soon enough. Brer Rabbit approaches the black baby and greets it.  Infuriated by the disrespectful silence of the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit threatens violence if the cheeky Tar Baby does not show due respect by removing its hat.[2] Further silence. Brer Rabbit loses his temper and punches the Tar Baby. Of course, his paw becomes stuck in the Tar Baby’s head. Brer Rabbit belts the Tar Baby with his free front paw. Same result. Brer Rabbit attempts to kick the Tar Baby into submission, achieving the same predictable results. After head-butting the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit is entirely stuck.

I wonder if we might learn something from this story. Perhaps we might consider the Tar Baby as black America, and Brer Rabbit as the system that resorts to violent measures to cow dissenters into submissiveness should blacks not know their place. The more wedded to violence, the more hopelessly we find ourselves ensnared in the tar of racism.

So, what happened to Brer Fox, you ask?  We left him hiding out in the briar patch. Did he eat Brer Rabbit? Well, no. While Brer Fox contemplates how to kill his prey, Brer Rabbit implores his captor not to hurl him into the briar patch. Eventually, Brer Fox does just that, and Brer Rabbit escapes to a nearby hilltop, from where he mocks Brer Fox.
“Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox–bred en bawn in a brier-patch!”

So who or what does Brer Fox represent? To me, he represents the US justice system. So how is it that Brer Rabbit escapes justice? You tell me.


[1] A quick biography of Harris can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Chandler_Harris

[2] (“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’
ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me
howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.)  The text of the story can be found here: http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/texts/remus.htm

In Defense of Zoe Saldana’s “Nina”

Recently Zoe Saldana, an actress of color, tearfully apologized for portraying African-American singer Nina Simone in the 2016 biopic Nina. Saldana has come under heavy criticism for darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to appear more like Simone in the film.[1]  The more I read about this situation, the more I wonder whether any African-Americans had expressed interest in playing Nina Simone. Has anyone raised this question? I wonder further whether Ms. Saldana might have been better off had someone else who looked like Nina Simone but lacking in acting talent been cast in the role. In any event, the movie was fraught with inaccuracies and was universally panned.[2]

I happen to enjoy Nina Simone’s music, admire her defiance toward American racism, and believe there is a good biopic about her waiting to be made.  Along these lines, what if Ms. Saldana, a woman of color, happens, like me, to be a passionate admirer of Nina Simone?  What if Ms. Saldana’s dream has always been to show her respect for Nina Simone by acting in a film about her?  Why is that unacceptable?

In 2010 a biography of Nina Simone appeared.  David Brun-Lambert, its author, offered up convincing explanations for certain manifestations of her oftentimes prickly behavior.[3]  I read the book and came away with an appreciation of not only Nina Simone’s music, but also of her tenacity in pushing back against the racism that thwarted her dreams on several fronts and faced her at every turn.  Mississippi Goddam, indeed!  Now, Mr. Brun-Lambert is white.  I recall no politically-inspired condemnation of Brun-Lambert’s work. As far as I know, he issued no formal public apology.  Because of Brun-Lambert, many readers are closer to Nina Simone than they would have been without him.  I know that I am. If a white male can write an acceptable biography of a Black female, then why can’t a Jamaican/Puerto Rican female portray a Black female in a movie? What if viewers of Nina, intrigued by the film, took further interest in the music and message of Nina Simone?

I, for one, have a hard time accepting the fact that Ms. Saldana felt the need to apologize for portraying Nina Simone.  Ms. Saldana’s supposed sin lies in acting in the role of Nina Simone. But isn’t the portrayal of others the quintessence of acting? Criticism of Ms. Saldana’s performance should be based upon her skills as an actor, not upon the color of her skin or the make-up job. Shouldn’t we assess the film on its artistic merits instead of injecting issues of race into the discussion?

Has racial enmity come so far that art, which should count among its duties the bridging of racial differences–however constituted—must instead accentuate them?  Must we assign racial pigeonholes to our artists? Isn’t the Zoe Saldana case censorship’s kissing cousin, masquerading under the guise of political correctness?


[1] Before her apology, Ms. Saldana pointed to Elizabeth Taylor’s role as Cleopatra in 1963’s Cleopatra as precedent. The casting of Taylor in the role of an Egyptian has met with sporadic condemnation over the years. Nicole Kidman wore a prosthetic nose to appear more like Virginia Woolf in The Hours. That was an Australian attempting to pass for a Brit. But how, then, do we explain Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of an African-American professor in The Human Stain? Or Richard Gere portraying an American of Japanese descent in Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August? Why do such cases not come in for deeper scrutiny?

[2] Those interested in watching a worthwhile film about Nina Simone should turn instead to the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which contains ample footage of the actual Nina Simone.

[3] Brun-Lambert, David. Nina Simone: A Biography. Aurum Press, 2010.