December 11th, 2011

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History Is the Stories We Tell

This essay talks about the disconnection between black people and the Civil War, largely caused by whitewashing of history.  The version told in most history books and other sources is not a version that resonates with black people.  It tends to de-emphasize slavery as the fundamental source and conflict of the war.  Granted, there were other issues at stake, quite serious ones -- the questions of sovereignty and economics and so forth.  But the linchpin of all that was the idea that it was okay to own and abuse other human beings.  Gloss over that, and large parts of the history cease to make much sense.  And of course, pointing out that the book is wrong or incomplete tends to get you kicked out of history classes (although it's a great way to learn more about actual history).

So then, if you don't like the way history is being told, you can let it stand or you can do something about it.  Black people often say it's not their job to "explain" being black, or black history.  But if the people doing most of the talking aren't talking about the whole picture, it's unlikely to get told unless somebody else steps up and fills in the rest of the narrative.  Everyone's perspective matters.  It's an individual choice whether or not you have the time, the energy, the knowledge, etc. to contribute to telling off the history of your people, whoever you consider them to be.  Collectively, however, somebody had better do it right or the very expensive lessons will be lost. 

It's hardly fair to blame people for being ignorant and uninvolved -- the black students who don't connect with the Civil War, the white students who idolize it -- when the relevant information is absent or obscured.  If you want people to understand history fully, then it has to be written and filmed and discussed fully.  All of the perspectives need to be represented and compared so that the complexity of the situation carries through.  Of course that can be difficult and unpleasant; humans are messy creatures.  But it's less messy to learn from history than to repeat it.

So here I am, an eclectic, with heritage from all sides of this fool conflict.  Ancestors are only human; they've all made mistakes, sometimes ghastly ones.  There's no point hiding from that or pretending that anyone's family tree is free of rotten fruit.  I can love the Southern part of my heritage without thinking it was right  about slavery.  I can love the Northern part without thinking it was right  to compromise over cannibals with forks.  I can love the little threads of black and Native American heritage even though clinging to those got me dissed by a lot of folks who think that looking  white means being  white.  My ancestors' choices don't have to be my choices.  I can look at the past and the present, and choose which ideas I think are the most promising for the future.

Both my parents are retired teachers.  I grew up in this very house, which is lined with books.  I got into some very hardcore history books at a very young age.  I've long been fascinated by the way these different threads weave together, and how different people tell wildly different versions of the same story.  I've always wanted to look at things upside-down and backwards. 

But I can point to a key experience that hooked me on the Civil War and black history in a major way, because we just ran across it recently: Roots.  That miniseries did a splendid job of portraying slavery as an atrocity, its impact on black people, and some hints about the wider impact on white people and Africa and America and what-all else.  My parents and I talked about the episodes after watching them, or sometimes during them, and what they meant.  I was fascinated by Roots, and that got me looking at some other stuff like black rebels, the Underground Railroad, similarities between the oppression of blacks and of Native Americans, famous black poets and other personages, etc.  It was an early experience in compound vision, seeing history told in different ways, learning how to identify what was probable truth, what was propaganda, what was outright falsehood, what was partial truth slanted to someone's advantage. 

So when my_partner_doug and I found an anniversary edition of Roots, we grabbed it, and we're going to watch it over suppers after finishing the latest season of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  We'll probably watch the extra features too, which talk about the impact the series had.  Just looking at the package in the store brought back all kinds of memories of my first encounter with it, the conversations, the explorations it inspired.  And none of us would have that if some folks hadn't sat down and decided to tell that side of the story, chains and floggings and soul violence and all.

History is the stories we tell: true and false, glorious and disgraceful, collective and individual.  It is all our ancestors' mistakes and discoveries, triumphs and corrections.  History is what the present makes of the past, and what the past makes of the present.  It is our experience and exploration of what has been as we try to figure out where we are and where we want to go.  The more complete the maps we have, the better our journey is likely to be.  The more perspectives we have going into the making of said maps, the more accurate they are likely to be.  So if the book is wrong, or incomplete ... try to fill in the gaps.  It makes a difference.
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Diversity in Images

Recently I tore the Internet apart looking for racially diverse reference photos as background material for Schrodinger's Heroes.  Mostly what I found were white people and porn.  It's amazingly difficult to find legible portraits or snapshots of people outside a very narrow mainstream.  So I'm really happy when I see projects that promote diversity, like this one featuring portraits of middle-class black people from 1900.  Some of these may come in handy as references for my Steamsmith series.

Notice that this is an area where a problem perpetuates itself: ethnic diversity is not portrayed much in writing, which can undercut inspiration for artists and photographers.  It's not portrayed much in photography, which makes it hard for writers to deliver precise descriptions and hard for painters to create accurate portraits, which can lead to whitewashing of character illustrations.  And the wheels on the bus go round and round.
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Poetry Fishbowl Report for Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The December theme was "chocolate and other foods."  Most of the prompts came toward the middle of the day, and I wound up closing a bit earlier than usual because I'd already written something for everyone and doubled back to pick up the extras I especially liked.  A total of 15 people sent prompts.  There were 50 comments including mine, which is on the low side.  I worked from about 12:30 PM to 10:30 PM, so roughly 8 hours allowing for lunch and supper breaks.  I wrote 21 poems, most of those free verse but there was a double-ballad, an indriso, and some unrhymed quatrains or tercets.  Most of the poems were medium, though I also got some in all the other size categories.

There was one new prompter this time, Stephen Laird.  You have him to thank for the extra freebie.  Special thanks to minor_architect for handling the linkback poem; "Beggars' Night" (Monster House) has been reposted on my blog.  It's not complete yet, so you can still reveal verses by linking to a specific poem from this fishbowl or to the unsold poetry list.  Thanks also to my_partner_doug for managing the ticker.

We reached the $200 goal for an extra series fishbowl ... and, well, oops.  I should've offered a different incentive this month, because I'm not going to be very available for a sizable chunk of time, and most other folks are busy with holiday stuff as well.  So I'm going to shift the bonus to mid-January, and I'll offer you some other perk if the January fishbowl also sells well.


Read Some Poetry!
The following poems from the November 1, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl have been posted:
"Bittersweet Love"
"The Chocolate Goddess"
"Delicious Differences"
"The Evolution of Perception"
"Fruitless"
"Haunted Gatherers"
"The Leaning of Life"
"The Mouth's Calendar"
"Pat's Place" (Schrodinger's Heroes)
"Pigeon Soup" (Fiorenza the Wisewoman)
"Public Displays of Confection"
"Savour"
"A Shopper's Problem"
"Speechflesh"
"Sundrops"
"Truffle Power"

"Beggars' Night" (Monster House)


Buy Some Poetry!
If you plan to sponsor some poetry but haven't made up your mind yet, read the list of unsold poems from December 6, 2011.  That includes the title, length, price, and the original thumbnail description for the poems still available.  The currently sponsored poems have all been posted.  I've sent backchannel copies to the prompters.  The generally sponsored poetry poll is still open; I expect to close that tonight.

The donor perk-post is "Creating Sensation." The December donors include: idhren24, Stephen Laird, janetmiles, marina_bonomi, the_vulture, Anthony Barrette, and Shirley Barrette.


The Poetry Fishbowl project also has a permanent landing page.
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Poem: "The Leaning of Life"

This poem came out of the December 6, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from aldersprig.  It was sponsored out of general funds based on an audience poll.


The Leaning of Life


The rabbit was not made for the grass,
but for the rattlesnake and the fox,
the bobcat and the hawk.

Food makes the prey fat.
Predators make the prey fast.

This is the meaning of life,
and the leaning of it:
all that lives exists to be eaten.

Death is but the path to fulfillment.

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Poem: "Sundrops"

This poem came from the December 6, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by avalon_calling.  It was sponsored out of the general fund based on an audience poll.


Sundrops


Tears of the sun,
squeezed fresh,
cling to the twigs
of the fruit trees
becoming lemons

and in time,
lemon drops,
as sweet and sour
as the yellow light
that begat them.

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Poem: "The Evolution of Perception"

This poem came from the December 6, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from my_partner_doug.  It was sponsored out of the general fund based on an audience poll.  You can find Rubens Chocolatier online.


The Evolution of Perception


The first encounter with chocolate
is the merest slip of the tongue,
a glimpse caught from the corner of the mouth
as Hershey's melts smoothly away.

Then comes the contrast of black and white,
Trinidads with their decadent dark core
sheathed in sleek pale coats,
purring like tigers on the tongue.

In time Godiva rips off her wrapper
and flings herself between pink lips,
encompassing all that is tender and delicious
with the intricacy of maturity.

At last, chocolate comes to life
in the hands of an artist,
jungle lovingly sculpted into ecstasy
and leafed in delicate gold: Rubens.

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Poem: "Haunted Gatherers"

This poem came out of the December 6, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from wyld_dandelyon.  It was sponsored out of the general fund based on an audience poll.


Haunted Gatherers


In times long past,
ancestors roamed the forest wild,
suspiciously sniffing at leaves
to discern what might be safe to eat.

Today, the wrinkled nose
presides over ingredient labels:
high-fructose corn syrup,
monosodium glutamate,
artificial flavors & colors.
May contain allergens.
Or not.

Disgruntled shoppers
toss the packages
back onto the shelves

and resolve to start a garden.