Just in time for Black History Month! Rent-a-Negro
Check out this web performance piece by conceptual artist Damali Ayo: Rent-a-Negro. As she points out, since it is no longer legal to buy one in this country, renting is the next best option. Impress your friends! Rent a Negro and take her to lunch at your club, for example. Many other examples of services are offered here. And be sure to check out other works by this sassy young artist, Damali Ayo. (Hey! It's a joke guys, but one that punches hard, right in our flabby consciences. Thanks to my friend Sylvia H-J for sending the link.)


Since I put up the note yesterday about Jubie Henderson and Fulton, KY, I've heard more from the Henderson family. The Jubie I knew is alive and well and living outside Memphis, TN. His father, also Jubie, was the artist who died some years ago. From the e-mails (from Jubie Jr.'s son and one of his brothers), they all seem like very friendly people.


Remembering a little incident in a big struggle

I got a surprise phone call yesterday from John O. Jones, editor of the Fulton Leader in Fulton, Kentucky. He'd found a reminiscence on my web site, about a tense time I'd spent in his town in 1966, and about some young town fellows who behaved very honorably and helped us out. Jones wanted permission to print my essay for Black History month. Sure! I'm glad people there are interested. Meanwhile, in case you don't subscribe to the paper, you can click to read Freedom Drivers, or, a Busy Day in Fulton, KY - a civil rights memoir.

Jones told me that Jubie Henderson had been a highly regarded artist in Kentucky and Tennessee, and that he had died, all of which was a big surprise to me. His son wrote me a year ago to say he was living outside of Memphis TN.


Not all equality is equal

A couple of days ago Laurence Monroe, who is French and a woman despite what you might think from the name, interviewed me for a book she is writing about Catholicism in the U.S. for a publisher in France. I told her I didn't know anything (or almost anything) about Catholicism, but she wanted to know about "Hispanics." She obviously had read my book Hispanic Nation very thoroughly, but knew that her French audience would be deeply puzzled by the ethnic dynamic I describe. They do ethnicity differently in France, as you know if you been following the big headscarf flap over there.

She got me thinking about some of these differences. America (I mean here that small part of America that is the U.S.) has had to accept wave after wave of immigrants, each group demanding its rights to its own interpretation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and each changing and enlarging the culture. The Americans already here have tried to force them into the older Dutch-English-German mold that this country started with, but instead the Poles, the Irish, the Italians, the newer German Catholics and German Protestants and German Jews, then the Russian and other East European Jews, and now millions of Latin Americans and Asians and some smaller numbers of Africans break and reshape the mold.

The French try to make everybody who immigrates French, and they have a pretty clear idea what that means, from the most ironic intellectuals down to the reader of the police pages of Le Matin. Among other things, it includes speaking the language à la Académie Française, thinking with the logic of Descartes, and not wearing headscarves. Religion is optional. We Americans don't even have a consensus of what it means to be American, and those fundamentalist Christians who think they do have almost no influence over the American educated classes.

L'égalité à la française really isn't the same thing at all as "equality" in the American lexicon. The French version means that everybody should be equally subjected to the same laws. The American version means everybody has the equal right to "pursue happiness" even if there is a law that gets in the way. Here, people can be equal but different. Remember the legal principle that justified (rationalized) school segregation in the days before Brown v. Board of Education? In France, "separate but equal" sounded simply illogical, another example of the bizarre irrationality of Anglo-Saxons. They had a point.


The perfect idiot
In our view (editorial "we" -- this is the opinion of all of us, Lion, Bear, Glib & Fox), Alvaro Vargas Llosa -- son and literary heir of Mario -- has just demonstrated himself to be the perfect Latin American idiot, with his column in La Tercera (Chile) bestowing that label on such as Eduardo Galeano, Evo Morales, Hebe Bonafini, et alii. These are all people who believe that the system that has given Alvaro his great privileges can and should be changed. As I recall, Marie Antoinette held a similar view.

Regarding Alvaro, as they say in his native Perú, "Tenía a quién salir -- de tal palo, tal astilla." We now have a little dynasty of stylish cynics, so disconnected from the real world (as evidenced by papa Mario's foolish run for presidency of Peru a few years back) that, to preserve their high opinon of themselves, they have to call other people "idiots."


Sometimes it is a Fourth Estate
For a novelistic treatment of the problem discussed by Alfredo Torre (see previous note, below), but in Mexico, nothing more apt than La muerte de Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. In this case it's the newspaper owner doing the corrupting, but the whole system is rotten.
Embedded journalists: the Argentinean experience
Here's an important article on the many modes of corruption of journalists, with examples from Argentina, by Universidad de la Plata journalism professor Alfredo Torre, known in our house as Fredi (he's my kid brother-in-law). The cases he cites are more serious, but it reminds me of a little sample of such corruption that I experienced a dozen years ago when I was in Buenos Aires covering the first election campaign of Justicialista (i.e., Peronist) presidential candidate Carlos Menem. Shortly before I was scheduled to return home to New York, I interviewed a diputado (congressman) of the Justicialista party in his Congressional office, who said that I should attend an asado that Sunday for Menem and many Justicialista bigwigs. Sorry, I couldn't change my plane reservation without paying a high penalty. (And I didn't really need to hang out at a barbecue to write my story.) The diputado insisted and, ignoring my protests, commanded his secretary (a young man) to type out a letter to the airline's Buenos Aires manager on Congressional stationery, demanding that I be permitted to delay my reservations "in the interests of the Nation." So, I did go to the barbecue, which was a big waste of time journalistically (hard to interview a politician who has his mouth full), but did impress me on how readily a politician would abuse his power. Maybe my article on Menem (which finally came out in NACLA Report on the Americas) was less critical because of the savory beef, but somehow I don't think so.

Alfredo Torre writes, 'creo que a la prensa más que denominarla como "cuarto poder", habría que considerarla como un poder de carácter transversal. Es decir, con la potencial capacidad de atravesar otros poderes, cualquiera sean éstos.' Yes, that sounds right. If you read Spanish and care about the credibility of the stuff you read in the Latin American, or any, press, you'll want to visit Sala de Prensa and click on the first article, La negociación periodística, por Alfredo Torre.


Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity
Eggers, Dave. You Shall Know Our Velocity. San Francisco/New York: McSweeney's Publishing, 2002.

OK, I give up. Eggers is just too hip for me. So hip he's unreadable. I mean, I tried, I really tried. He does have skills -- the dialogue is stupid, but it's realistically stupid, since his characters are nearly believable saps, and he has fresh ways of describing scenery, and he knows how to plant narrative hooks like barbs that tear at your flesh. But, despite all the promise of hugely dramatic action, nothing happens! And after I got to page 260, I concluded that probably nothing was going to happen. Nothing I cared about, anyway.

Here's the story, as near as I could follow (in case you need to make conversation about this book but don't want to invest the time to read it -- good idea): Will Chimielewski, the narrator, is soo terribly distraught over the death of his boyhood friend Jack that, when he gets a load of money for no very good reason, he feels compelled to travel to distant countries with his other boyhood friend, Hand, to give it away. Huh? That's a compelling motive? Will can't do anything right, and the obtuse Hand is even worse, and neither has taken the trouble to learn a thing about Senegal, Latvia, or any of the other countries where they stay as briefly as possible, so they (and we the readers) never get to know any of the people they run into, and Will's panic attacks that something terrible is about to happen (like getting dragged around by his penis, or being horribly assaulted some other way) all turn out to be baseless fantasies, because in all this stupid sojourn, nothing happens! Or if it does, it has to be very subtle, because I saw no sign of it even when I skipped to the final pages.

Guess I'm just not hip enough for rarefied pointlessness. I still like stories that go somewhere, where there's some build-up, and the protagonist's and other characters' actions have consequences, instead of just one damned inconsequential thing after another. I know, it's very Aristotelian of me: beginning, middle, and end. But it's a formula that's worked for thousands of years, and there may still be some life in it.

Salon is quoted in a blurb on the back: "Eggers is a wonderful writer, bold and inventive, with the technique of a magic realist." I think that's exactly right. Problem is he doesn't know how to tell a story.
Hurry Up, Please, It's Time
I liked this disturbing poem by Moustafa Bayoumi, Hurry Up, Please, It's Time in the bilingual journal Terra Incognita. Angry, but also intelligent. Maybe you'll like it too.