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Mississippi: A March Resurrects a Movement

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Overcoming disunity, out-of-fashionableness, poverty, and aching feet, the civil rights movement was reborn Sunday on the grounds of the Mississippi state capitol, before the executioners’ eyes of 700 Mississippi troopers and police, armed with M-1s, live ammunition, and tear gas.

The ragged band that had begun as one mystical prophet in Memphis, that became 100 in Hernando, that became 1000 after the baptism of spit in Philadelphia and tear gas in Canton, had become 15,000 Sunday afternoon. And they were 15,000 Mississippi Negroes, their biographies etched in their bent spines and gnarled hands. There were a few clergymen, 100 New Left types, a small group of 1930s liberals like Paul O’Dwyer, and a handful of dreamy Dylanesque kids, but mostly they were the porters, maids, and high school students of Jackson, giving a great movement the rare gift of a second chance to redeem its country’s greatest sinner.

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The anemia of the civil rights movement, inflicted by ghetto riots, integration next door, and the rhetoric of LeRoi Jones, has been cured — at least for a moment — by a cathartic wave of blackness and bitterness. One senses that the obscenely banal comments of the President and the Attorney General after the tear-gassing in Canton were too much for even the generous, ecumenical soul of Martin King. They helped the paralyzed move­ment turn a difficult corner; ex­cept for the student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this is still a reformist rather than revolutionary movement, but its opposition is now total and its energy renewed. Next week the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will have 35 organizers in the 15 rural counties the march passed through, and SNCC will have a dozen. Mississippi II is about to begin.

The mood of the march redirected the too many dreams deferred since the hike from Selma 14 months ago. The unseating of Julian Bond, the failure of the war on poverty, the triumph in Alabama of Mrs. Wallace, the gerrymandering of the Mississippi congressional districts, and the tear-gassing in Canton, they have all driven the ambrosia of liber­als — love — out of the Movement. The spirit of Gandhian agape that hung like a halo over Selma, with its nuns and angelic-faced students, was gone, replaced by a clenched militancy fueled by a despair expressed by Martin King’s admission that his dream of Washington 1963 has turned into a “nightmare.”

The march created its share ot small, memorable moments. Singing, Sunday-dressed kids on unpainted porches waving Amer­ican flags. Marlon Brando limp­ing along anonymously between a 66-year-old cotton picker and a 16-year-old student from a segregated Jackson high school. The shame in the eyes of the old Negroes when they turned away from pleas that they join the pilgrimage. Bob Parris, who started this particular arc of his­tory in 1961, hovering unnoticed and sad on the edges of the crowd. (He is now quietly organizing in Bolivar County.)

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But more enduring than such vignettes is the hard political significance of the 21-day journey down sunbaked U.S. 51. The confirmation of Martin King as the soul and pivot of this movement; now even the kamikazes of SNCC admit “King’s got balls,” after the trials of Philadephia and Canton. The barring of the NAACP from the climactic rally program at the capitol because “they are part of the Administration, not the Movement,” as a militant minister put it. The new path SNCC has charted for itself, as it begins to march to the sound of a different drummer. Every SNCC worker explains the slogan Black Power differently, and so does every journalist. (In Canton, when Stokely Carmich­ael screamed, “This will separate the men from the mice,” the AP wire quoted him as saying, “This will separate the men from the whites.”)

Cleansed of its tumescence of hate, Black Power is an obviously effective strategy for about 40 rural counties in the Black Belt. Explained intelligently, it is perfect psychotherapy for Negroes ashamed of their blackness. As a stance, it is certain to capture the loyalty of many young ghetto Negroes who have felt themselves orphans since the assassination of Malcolm X. But as a program for a movement, it is the fantasy of victims.

Saturday night, about 2000 marchers, plus about another 9000 Jackson teenagers, filled the grassy athletic field of all-Negro Tougaloo College for what Car­michael called “a party.” Sammy Davis sang show tunes and then flew out on a private jet to Las Vegas after march leaders tried to shame him into staying for the procession to the capitol the next day James Brown, who makes Elvis Presley look like a paraplegic, re-created the am­bience of the Apollo with his blues. Marlon Brando told them, “You are the heroes of America … I should be out there and you should be up here.” Carmi­chael, addressing their buried pride, said, “I know you’re out there. Smile so I can see you.” Dick Gregory said he “wished LBJ was the Pope, so that way folks would only have to kiss his ring.” Then the rally ended about 10 p.m., and the leaders retired to continue their public debate that has gone on since Memphis, when Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young went home, and Bayard Rustin rejected  King’s plea that he come to Mississippi to handle the logistics of the 220-mile procession. To the fury of much of the Movement, Rustin claimed he had to finish an ar­ticle for Commentary. SNCC was dissuaded from the civil disobedience, the NAACP barred from the platform because of Wilkins’ antagonistic remarks, King’s most gifted aide, Andrew Young, chosen to emcee the capitol rally, and the divinely inspired Meredith granted the longest speaking time along with King.

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Toward Capitol

At 11.30 Sunday, the procession, 3000 strong, began to file out of Tougaloo toward the capitol, nine miles away. An FBI agent rode in the first car and an integrated SNCC couple in the second, a Black Panther bumper sticker was flapping on the rear. They were singing, “We’ve got the light of freedom …”

The conflict between SCLC and SNCC was played out all along the march. When SCLC arganizers distributed American flags, SNCC’s Willie Ricks took them away, and the Reverend John Morris gave them out again. The SNCC kids chanted “Black Power” and the SCLC staffers chanted, “Freedom,” and usually carried the marchers with them.

What two weeks ago had seemed a meaningless contrivance for the media was slowly transformed into a moving spectacle as the column inched through the unpaved Negro slums of Jackson. Wave after after of Jackson Negroes poured into the column, dressed for Sunday church, badly concealing their pride, and many clutching American flags, that were waved like magic wands every time whites on the sidelines showed their Confederate flags.

It was hot, about 95 degrees, and on almost every block a Negro family was waiting to offer ice water to the marchers. They threw kisses, smiled, prayed, and many joined the swelling, uneven line.

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At a shopping center there was the surrealistic scene of 30 whites, their faces looking like they were recruited from central casting, shouting epithets and taking pic­tures of the marchers. They were guarded by a cluster of 10 Negro highway patrolmen. A little kid with the words “Give me free­dom or give me death” crudely painted on his CORE tee shirt tried to give one of the whites a Black Panther bumper sticker and a Negro patrolman pushed him back into the march.

When the column passed the next large clump of whites, the pilgrims broke into a rendition of “Dixie” and the whites looked like they were watching Robert E. Lee’s tomb being vandalized.

By the time the exhausted, sweat-drenched marcher’s reached the capitol it was almost 4 p.m. Sullen whites, about 1500, ringed the appointed rally area. Shoulder to shoulder, encircling  the stained-glass capitol, stood 700 state troopers, city police, and guardsmen, defending the government of Mississippi from its own unarmed citizens. On the platform sat the unique leadership of the Freedom Movement, and one could not help but measure men like Martin King, Reverend Ed King and Larry Guyot of the MFDP, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and even emotional, visionary Carmichael, against the leadership of white America. Martin King or LBJ, Reverend Andy Young or Cardinal Spellman, Guyot or Ronald Reagan: who are better qualified to lead this nation?

Inscrutable James Meredith spoke first and was honored by a standing ovation from the platform as well as the multitude.

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They Larry Guyot, the panda-like chairman of the MFDP, rose to talk, unspeakable memories of white violence charging his voice and sending tremors through his body. He said, “Black people must learn three phrases starting at birth: white supremacy, neo-colonialism, and black power.” With that, Carmichael, perched on the edge of the platform, leaped up screaming like a teeny bopper at a Rolling Stones concert. Guyot closed with the prophetic words: “This is not the end; this is the beginning.”

Then is was Carmichael’s turn in the subtle contest for the heart of the resurrected Mississippi Movement. Lean, lithe, with bulging eyes like James Baldwin, he took off his shades as he began his talk with the words, “I want to talk to black people across the this country …”

In private, Carmichael’s description of the ideas behind his slogan of black power is persuasive. But excited by 15,000 black faces, network cameras, and a five-minute deadline, the 25-year-old leader of SNCC was reduced to slogans to explain a slogan. He transposed his words, spoke in a false Southern accent, and at the end the rehearsed chant of black power organized by the SNCC staff failed to engulf the rally.

Then it was time for King, the 37-year-old preacher who holds the unity of this amoeba-like movement in his healing hands. The speech he offered was merely a variation of his inspirational sermon delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in 1963. He told of his growing nightmares and his enduring dreams in the rolling, hypnotic cadences of the rural preacher. But it was the humane, incorruptible mystique of the man that won the crowd, his crescendo phrases winning affirmations of “amen” and “Say it, brother” again and again.

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Then it was 6 p.m. and it was ending. Meredith still had the shotgun pellets lodged in his body, a beaten marcher was still in a Canton hospital with a collapsed lung, 5000 newly registered voters were in the rolls in 15 counties. The crowd reached out to grab strong but unfamiliar black hands and sing the holy song of the movement:

“God is on our side. We are not afraid …”

SNCC’s Willie Ricks, who has the look of a Times Square evangelist, began to scream, “Black power, black power, black power …”

But he was drowned out by the rising voices of 15,000 Negroes singing, “We shall brothers be — black and white together — we shall overcome — someday.” ❖

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From Liberty in Miss. To Justice in D.C.

The Gap Between

LIBERTY, MISSISSIPPI — In the mythology of the Movement, Amite County is synonymous with the Ninth Circle of Hell.

It was to this impoverished, re­mote area of southwest Missis­sippi, on the border of Louisiana, that Bob Parris (Bob Moses) came in August of 1961 to at­tempt SNCC’s first voter regis­tration campaign. Beaten twice and jailed three times, Parris left for Jackson four months later.

It was in Amite County that Herbert Lee, a 52-year-old father of nine, was shot to death on September 25, 1961, by a member of the Mississippi state legisla­ture, E. H. Hurst. Lee had been one of the few local Negroes to attend Farris’s voter-registration school.

It was in Amite County that Louis Allen, a witness to Lee’s slaying, was shotgunned to death in his home on January 31, 1964, after he had made contact with the Justice Department. Amite County Sheriff Daniel Jones, six-­foot-five, is the son of Brian Jones, who reportedly leads the Klan in the area.

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It was Amite County that, be­cause of its history of lawless­ness, saw not a single volunteer during the 1964 summer project. It was Amite County that, until six months ago, had only one registered Negro voter, despite the fact that Negroes make up a majority of the county’s population. It is Amite County that today remains totally segregated, and has never experienced a civil-­rights picket line or a direct-ac­tion demonstration.

Amite County is rural, red-­clay country outside the flow of history — but not just in terms of civil rights. It has missed the in­dustrial revolution as well. Amite is only 80 miles south of Miss­issippi’s capital, Jackson. Its county seat is called — for some reason buried in history — Liber­ty, population 650.

Great numbers of teen-aged Negroes escape to Baton Rouge and Chicago each year because of the unyielding poverty of the county. Experts estimate that the out-migration from Mississ­ippi, in general, has been four Negroes in ten.

Many Negroes in primitive Amite own their own farms, which makes them less vulnerable to economic reprisal by whites than their urban brothers.

This independence, however, probably accounts, at least in part, for the extraordinary record of physical violence in the county.

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Marginal Farms

Most of the Negro farms are marginal enterprises. Attendance at the all-Negro Central High School during November dropped to 50 per cent because so many children were needed to chop cane and pick cotton on the farms. There is only one brick Negro home in the whole county and that one was financed by an FHA loan. More than 90 per cent of the Negro homes have no in­door toilet. Fewer than one in five have telephones. Almost all depend on wells, dug by hand, for water. Food must be pur­chased in Liberty, where Negroes can still be beaten up at random in the street, sometimes by other Negroes paid to do the deed. No white man has ever gone on trial in Amite County for violence against a Negro.

A week in Amite is a bruising experience. Negroes lie to civil­-rights workers and invent ail­ments rather than face the reg­istrar in Liberty. A meeting in a wooden shack called a church approaches Gandhian “agape” with the singing of hymns and preachments of love thy enemy. A 60-year-old farmer tells how his cousin was castrated in 1962 and asks whether there is “any place on earth where colored folks are treated meaner than in Amite County.”

The Movement in Amite, aborted in 1961 by the killing of Lee and the repeated jailing of Parris, was resurrected 11 months ago. At that time, 22-year-old Marshall Gans, a rabbi’s son from California, came to live on the farm of E. W. Step­toe. At the point he began can­vassing the community there was only one registered Negro in the whole county. The man, notorious in the area for being an Uncle Tom, was actually escorted to the courthouse by E. H. Hurst, the man responsible for Lee’s death.

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On Staff

Steptoe, 56, with a face tramp­led by time, is a legendary fig­ure in the county. He first tried to register in 1953. In 1954 he founded a local chapter of NAACP, but saw its first meet­ing broken up by the Klan and the county sheriff with a gun. In 1964 Steptoe was the only Negro in the county willing to shelter white volunteers. Now he is on the SNCC staff.

There have been no flashy Freedom Days in Amite. No dra­matic marches on the  courthouse. No inspirational rallies with big names. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer have never set foot in this isolated community. There have just been long hot days dur­ing which a couple of  SNCC workers and a couple of local Negroes walked the gravel roads talking with terrified, barely literate Negroes.

In June of this year Carol Ro­goff of Brooklyn and Hazel Lee of Panola County, Mississippi, joined Gans and Steptoe in the tedious, repetitive drudgery of organizing. Finally, on June 14, 1965, 22 Negroes went to the courthouse and were registered.

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High Point

By November several hundred Negroes had their names put down on the registry books, but that was the high point. The rest are still frightened, and only fed­eral registrars can induce them to risk the fate of Herbert Lee.

Fear and Love. These are the polarities on which the embry­onic movement in Amite rests. In most other parts of Missis­sippi the civil-rights movement is in disarray. Activists who have been in the state for a year or more are burned out.

On the other hand, the govern­ment’s million-dollar Headstart program is siphoning off young militants who might otherwise have become the Movement’s second generation. The newly formed, integrated, and moderate Mississippi Democratic Council is challenging the radical prophets of the Mississippi Free­dom Democratic Party for the tiny Negro vote. Many of the best SNCC organizers have moved on to Alabama’s black-­belt counties.

Mississippi is no longer a bloody frontier. Bureaucracy is making the rigors of saintliness obsolete.

Amite County is even a generation behind cities like Jackson and Greenville. Eleven years af­ter the Supreme Court decision, not a single Negro in the county attends an integrated school. Seventeen months after the sign­ing of the 1964 civil rights act, not a single public accommoda­tion is desegregated. Three months after signing of the 1965 voting-rights bill, no federal regis­trar has yet appeared in Amite County (Goldwater took 93 per cent of the vote in 1964).

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Special Dignity

The Movement in Amite is in an earlier period than anywhere else in the country. It is pure and religious, uncontaminated by organizational in-fighting and hy­per-militancy. It is just two soli­tary organizers and a handful of local Negroes. The constituency is farmers, who have the special dignity of people who work a meager soil.

But there is also deeply rooted fear and submissiveness.

Five murders of Negroes, including Lee and Allen, since 1961 remain unsolved and unin­vestigated. A few months ago, for the first time in history, a local Negro dared to file a charge against a white who beat him up on the street in Liberty. The charge was thrown out of court.

“Negroes feel,” said Carol Rogoff, “that the courthouse in Liberty is owned by white folks. They remember how Lee was shot right next to the court­house.” She admits that many Negroes remain afraid to be seen with her in public. Even the most rebellious local Negroes think a demonstration in Liberty must wait for another age.

An incident that happened in Amite dramatized the total vulnerability of Negroes to random violence. Four of us — Miss Rogoff, Miss Lee, a local woman named Juanita Griffin, and myself — were putting up posters for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service election. A man in a pick-up truck without a license saw us and began to chase us in his truck by driving up a narrow gravel road. The driver let out a woman, a child, and a Negro who were riding with him. He made three passes; the last time, driving at us head on, he forced us into a ditch. Cursing, he followed us until we reached the main road.

The following day we spoke to the FBI, who claimed “no Jurisdiction.” “File a complaint with Sheriff Jones,” the agent said. The Negro riding with the driver would not talk to us, and cer­tainly not with the FBI.

Yet, the fledgling movement here is characterized by a kind of love. Most Negroes in Amite are deeply religious. Meetings are usually held in churches. There is no tradition of freedom singing. Instead, meetings are begun with Baptist hymns like “Jesus, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race” and “Lord, Come By Here.” Nobody knows “We Shall Overcome.”

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Four Meetings

I attended four meetings dur­ing a week here. The first was held in the Mount Pilgrim Church on Steptoe’s land. It was here that Parris conducted his voter-registration classes in 1961. Herbert Lee is buried in the churchyard and his 15-year-old son was among the 75 people who filled the 10 wooden benches.

Reverend Curtis Dawson, who first tried to register in 1961, spoke to the meeting.

“We must love everyone,” he began, as amens welled up from the benches.

“White people from the North care more about us than we care about ourselves.”

“Yes, Lord, say it, brother.”

“They do everything for us. They go farther with us than we go with ourselves, but we have to redish (register) for ourselves. We can do that for them.”

“Right. Amen.”

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At another meeting the Rev­erend explained the right to vote in a Biblical analogy.

“God told Moses,” he began, “to pick up a stick. But Moses said it was a snake. But the Lord insisted he pick it up, and when Moses did, it turned out to be a sword. And that’s how go­ing to the courthouse in Liberty seems. Right now it looks like picking up a snake, but once you pick it up, it will becomes the sword of freedom.”

Unfortunately, most of the Negroes of Amite do not have the inner certainty of Moses. Until the federal government con­vinces them that going to regis­ter is not like picking up a snake, Amite Negroes will not register in numbers large enough to di­lute the terror, much less alter their condition.

“Lord, Come By Here. Federal Registrars, Come By Here.” ♦

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Art and Craft’s Trickster Forger Is an American Original

Knocking out the first-rate forgeries that fooled 60 American museums? That was a curiously mundane miracle, something for Mark Landis to do while watching TV. A frail and ascetic Mississippian who resembles Michael Stipe playing Truman Capote, Landis sketched and painted minor Currans, Averys, and Cassatts with one eye on last century’s reruns. He could carry on a conversation as he flipped back and forth between a print of the original and his quick copy, committing to memory a line or brushstroke and then re-creating it with all the thought a military barber gives to buzzing any individual head. As Landis tells it, this “memory trick” is just a thing that he has always been able to do: “In Sunday school, they always tell everybody to make use of your gifts,” he says in the sympathetic yet gently unnerving doc Art and Craft. “And copying pictures is my gift.”

That sense of godly duty colors the next phase of Landis’s troublemaking. Again and again this recluse would pack up his handiwork, assume a new name, and schlep around the U.S., conning regional museums with the story that a dead sister or mother had bequeathed them these forgotten sketches and paintings. He called this his “philanthropy”; sometimes he dressed as a priest. “You can learn everything you need to be a good priest from the Father Brown DVD series,” he says, the words touched with a blasé pridefulness, like he’s telling us a truth so obvious it shouldn’t need to be spoken.

Landis wasn’t asking for money, and he had forged receipts and letters of provenance from the great auction houses; plus, the art itself usually wasn’t the biggest of big-ticket items — there were plenty of reasons the museums themselves overlooked the fact that Landis’s frames came from big-box stores, or that he artificially aged his canvases with smeared coffee, or that, often, other institutions already counted these same pieces in their collections.

Was this a crime? A prank? The con of an egotist eager to prove he belonged on gallery walls? Or acts of gently deluded kindness? Landis’s explanation: “I went on philanthropic trips in Mother’s car.” Art and Craft lets museum registrars sputter about getting duped (one insists Landis should be in jail). The film devotes a clutch of scenes to Matthew Leininger, the onetime museum registrar who exposed Landis’s fraud with an online image search, but its 90 minutes mostly steep us in Landis’s hermetic existence. He paints. He watches
TV. He worries aloud that his father, who was too honest to make it as a businessman, must be disappointed in him. He measures time by how many years it’s been since the hurricane hit or his mother passed. He tells us that in Bible school he was called a bright but mischievous boy, and at the Menninger Clinic he was diagnosed as schizophrenic — but that the doctors were impressed by that memory trick.

Despite some cutesiness, the film’s a fascinating portrait of loneliness, of talent undirected toward purpose, of the mysteries of the mind. Hunched and trim, he shuffles through the Piggly Wiggly, or from his microwave to his television, stoic and moving even as Stephen Uhlrich’s plunking score smothers his life in wistful quirk. There are too many scenes of him headed no place in particular, but the filmmakers admirably avoid making any pat conclusions. They don’t even cue us to laugh when the curators of Landis’s inevitable gallery show don plastic gloves to handle copies Landis has sent — hobbywork that, back in his apartment, sat in careless stacks, ready for Walmart frames.

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The Island of St. Matthews Captures a Waterlogged Town’s Memories

For decades, floods arrived in Westport, Mississippi, with such regularity that destruction seemed routine. People had grown accustomed to loss — to seeing homes perennially waterlogged, their appliances and furniture drenched and ruined.

A lock and dam now regulate the water; Westport has enjoyed a generation’s worth of dryness. But the deluge had already washed its history away. Photo albums had long since fallen apart or vanished, heirlooms had spoiled and decayed. The Island of St. Matthews reflects on that absence.

Its director, Kevin Jerome Everson, found that his parents had lost everything to the floods of the Westport area, and he here returns to the community as an effort to reclaim some of its past. What emerges is a kind of commemoration.

Everson’s approach combines documentary portraiture with the more oblique methods of the avant-garde, and the result is not so much an exploration of a time and place as an evocation of them, as if the object of the film were to convey a sentiment rather than tell a story.

Everson’s background in visual art is evident in his taste for obscurity, which manifests itself in static long takes in which very little happens. This tendency occasionally grows tiresome — one shot in particular of a lock glacially opening may try the patience of even seasoned James Benning fans — but for the most part it yields a sort of hypnotic beauty.

At its best, the film does the job of the albums lost to the floods: It captures a town’s history.

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Near Vicksburg

Incubator Arts is under siege. Sort of. Playwright Sara Farrington will re-create the Siege of Vicksburg, a bloody Civil War clash that forced Mississippi residents into hundreds of caves dug into the city’s hills. Farrington’s play focuses on three such spelunkers: a confederate woman, her teenage daughter, and their slave.

Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Tue., March 11, 8 p.m. Starts: March 6. Continues through March 16, 2014

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Pratibha Parmar’s Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth Is an Admiring Overview of Her Life

“People really had a problem with my disinterest in submission,” says Alice Walker about her four decades as a public figure. “They had a problem with my intellect, and they had a problem with my choice of lovers. They had a problem with my choice of everything.”

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Color Purple is a controlled maelstrom in Pratibha Parmar’s admiring overview of her life and work. Parmar presents her subject as a pioneer in black feminist thought, a wholly accurate emphasis that nevertheless detracts from Walker’s considerable literary achievements.

The documentary also excludes critics who have legitimate disagreements with Walker, such as those who say she propagates notions of gender essentialism. But Walker’s life is so eventful — and her contributions so important — that the hagiography is worth forgiving. The film begins with Walker’s origins in the rural South and follows her through her 1967 marriage to a Jewish lawyer (their nuptials were legal in New York, but not in Mississippi).

Walker became a cultural lightning rod with The Color Purple, which was met with accusations of recycling racist narratives about the dysfunctional black family. Parmar skims over Walker’s post–Purple work, but does devote considerable attention to Walker’s ongoing feud with her daughter, Rebecca, and the writer’s campaigns against female genital mutilation. (Warning: there is a split-second view of a clitoridectomy.)

“Activism is my rent for living on this planet,” Walker declares. Parmar forgets, though, that art exists so we can think about something other than the rent.

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Dent May On Do Things, Mississippi, and Briefly Quitting Music

Dent May’s output can be divided into two distinct halves: biting, old-timey sardonicism (2009’s stripped-down, snark-soaked The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele) and clear-eyed, enabling positivism (2012’s synth-heavy, ukulele-free Do Things). A gentlemanly uber-pop classicism governs the whole – May’s love for the Beatles, Morrissey, the Beach Boys, Randy Newman, and show tunes generally informs his songwriting – but a clear divide exists.

So it’s a relief to call the cell phone number supplied by the Oxford, Mississippi musician’s publicist and to reach neither sardonic May or positivism May, but earnest May. Tired May. Congested May. Psyched to be talking about and writing music May: an itinerant wedding/party DJ and music promoter who tried to quit music in the wake of Magnificent Ukulele and found that music couldn’t quite quit him.

Are you okay? You sound like you’re coming down with something.
I have bad allergies; Mississippi is like one of the worst places for allergies.

Where are you right now, and what are you doing?
I’m in Oxford, Mississippi. I just ate lunch, and now I’m walking around our historic downtown running some errands before my band departs for a short East Coast tour.

What are the errands?
I have to go to the music store to buy some cables, there’s some emailing and planning that has to happen; then, of course, we have to pack the van up. None of these errands are too exciting; then again, if they were, they wouldn’t be errands.

What happened to the ukulele, man? Where’d it go?
(Laughs) I had no intention of playing the ukulele for more just that one album. And I don’t know, I haven’t played the ukulele for a couple of years now. I just wanted to move on, to keep expanding my palette instead of constraining it. I don’t want to go down as the “ukulele guy.” I want to show that I can do other things, and to keep myself interested, keep people on their toes.

Three years passed between your first two albums. How has life changed for you in that period?
I was kind of fed up with music, so I stopped, but I learned that I love music. Hard work is what gives us meaning and purpose in life. I’ve gotten over a lot of the fears and anxieties I had about putting myself out there and touring. I already have a house booked to record the next album, in Florida by the beach, with a grand piano inside. I’m really excited.

The songs are definitely a continuation of the songs on Do Things; they’re very open and very simple, but I feel they reveal a lot of complexities. The album will use a lot more organic textures; it’ll be less retro and feature more piano and live horns, and I might invite other musicians to play. [May played all of the instruments on his first two albums.] I want each album to be more and more ambitious; I want to keep improving as a musician and as a person.

Since your debut, you seem to have made a bit of a shift in terms of approach. On The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele, it felt like you were having a laugh at the expense of cultural caricatures; on Do Things, you seem to be in a more positive, inspirational/aspirational frame of mind. Before you were like a comedian; now you come across more like a counselor or life coach. Is that a change that you were aware of?

It was definitely something that happened over time, rather than a conscious decision. After the ukulele album, I didn’t write a new song for two years. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. In the future, I want to find a balance between the (Good Feel Music…) approach and the (Do Things) approach, But I don’t want to laugh at people more. I wanna make people happy.

Growing up, how did you start writing songs? Was there anyone in particular who you were inspired by early on?
Not really. My first music experience came while attending a performing arts school. I grew up in my parents’ church singing in choirs. I took guitar lessons in the sixth grade and learned pop songs: Weezer, Third Eye Blind, Green Day. My parents listened to soft pop like The Bee Gees and John Denver.

So much of rock’n’roll is about trying to be cool – and to me, that’s cheesy.

Going back to the first album, I’ve always wondered if any of the songs were self-directed, or aimed at people you know.
People always ask me who “Howard” is, and who “College Town Boy” is. The truth is, yeah, it’s mostly about me; it was really my existential crisis manifesting itself in these characters. When I wrote that first album, I was living in a college town and trying to figure out my life.

On “Home Groan,” you explain in broad terms why you’ve stayed in Mississippi, but there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the song. What are some things about Mississippi that outsiders might not be aware of?
The best aspect is the people. Southern hospitality is a real thing: people are nice, easygoing, and wonderful to be around. It’s inexpensive to live here. I lived in NYC briefly and people can be terrible. The drawback is a lack of artistic and cultural opportunities, which is part of the reason that I started booking shows down here.

Tell me about the title Do Things. How did you come to use that, and what did it signify for you?
It had to do with that long period of time when I didn’t do much songwriting or anything of note besides partying with my friends. It’s kind of like an inspirational song, but I wanted it to be vague enough that anyone could adapt it to their situation.

“Do Things” was the first song I wrote for this album. I was really sick, had the flu; that song was me cheering myself up, motivating myself again.

What is “Rent Money” about? The metaphor at the center of the song seems really cruel if you think about it as involving a woman in a strictly mercantile sense, but looking beyond that, it’s bigger and maybe more common sense in terms of commitment – like “shit or get off the pot.”
Kind of. It’s a very literal song. Like, I’ve been strapped for cash a lot. It’s a struggle. It’s fantasizing about being financially comfortable. I want to be able to buy a house and support a family someday. You gotta hustle; you gotta do your thing.

A lot of people listen to [Do Things} and are like “oh, this is a fun, sunshiny album to listen to at the beach,” but it actually comes from a dark place.

Dent May plays a veritable avalanche of CMJ events this week: the Beats Per Minute showcase at Delinquency on Wednesday, October 17; the Forcefield PR showcase at Glasslands and the Paw Tracks/Carpark showcase at Cameo Gallery on Thursday, October 18; the Panache showcase at Public Assembly on Friday, October 19; and the Moscot showcase at Moscot Shop and the Village Voice showcase at the Cake Shop on Saturday, October 20. And, you know, don’t look now, but Dent May is standing behind you right now, reading off your iPhone over your shoulder, scheming on your girl, giving you bunny ears.

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Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story

Racism, rebellion, and filmmaking ethics intertwine in Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, a documentary by Raymond De Felitta that focuses on a 1965 NBC News piece by De Felitta’s father, Frank, about Booker Wright, a waiter and shop owner in Greenwood, Mississippi. In that 47-year-old film, the good-natured Wright admitted to his—and, by extension, all African Americans’—use of a subservient smile to mask anger and hurt at segregation, a candid confession that further fanned the flames of racial tensions in KKK-saturated Greenwood and led to Wright losing his job, having his establishment trashed, suffering a severe beating, and, three years later, being shot to death. Director De Felitta’s excessive use of mournful piano and expressionistic visuals (a grasshopper trapped in a jar, headlights peering through the dark) interferes with his otherwise graceful black-and-white aesthetics, which place a premium on not only archival clips and photos, but also on past and present close-ups of Mississippi men and women. Frank De Felitta’s guilt over having aired the footage is moving, yet it’s ultimately countered by this piercing film’s stance—promoted by the subject’s proud children and grandchildren—that Wright’s statements, far from a slip of the tongue, were an intentional act of courageous defiance.

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‘Avant Music Festival’

Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha starts and ends at the river, and so does avant-garde composer Eve Beglarian’s minimalist tone poem Songs from the River and Elsewhere. Here, Beglarian distilled the aquatic sounds after spending 2009 kayaking down the mighty Mississippi on her own Buddhist journey. The path to musical nirvana continues on Saturday with trance-inducing, incense-burning drone sherpa Randy Gibson’s electronic compositions “The Third Pillar in Primal Imperfect Palindrome with The Souvenir of The Second Pillar,” “The Floating Cirrus over the Pumping Slush,” and “The Highest Moving Chordal Motif from Apparitions of the Four Pillars.” Apparently, he’s not into the whole brevity thing.

Fri., Feb. 17, 8 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 18, 8 p.m., 2012

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Baby Doll

Dir. Elia Kazan (1956).
Tennessee Williams concocted this mad Actors Studio farce, Kazan’s only comedy, in which a Mississippi child bride who refuses to allow her glad-handing husband to touch her, gets seduced (maybe) by his hated, ultra-ethnic rival. New York archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman warned that seeing the movie was in itself a sin.

Mon., March 7, 7 p.m., 2011