Archives for category: Art

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, shares ideas about teaching in difficult times.


My high school and GED students always loved wrestling with the ideas presented by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bruce Springsteen. I’m sure they would now agree that America needs both – Coates’ Between the World and Me, centered around Coates’ letter to 15-year-old son, and the 71-year-old Springsteen’s Letter to You. Actually we need both masterpieces and Kamilah Forbes’ HBO adaptation of Coates’ advice on how to “become conscious citizens of this beautiful and terrible world.”

Coates’ Between the World and Me tackles “the question of my life,” which is “how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream.” It focuses on the fatal police shooting of his fellow Howard University student, Prince Jones. It illustrates how “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

But as Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review, such assertions “skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made,” but Coates occasionally acknowledges there have been improvements. Kakutani writes, “His book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.” And, seeming to concur with that interpretation when discussing the HBO presentation, Coates says it is evidence that “the story America tells about itself and how it tells it is a statement on how much things have changed.”

In the wake of the string of murders by police of unarmed black Americans that are now videotaped, the brilliant 80-minute program prioritizes the police shooting of Prince Jones in Prince Georges County. The location is important because Between the World and Me described the county as a “great enclave of black people who seemed, as much as anyone, to have seized control of their bodies.” But even there, “Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all of the fears that marked it from birth.”

It takes a full book, however, to recount the story of Coates who was raised in Baltimore, the son of a Vietnam veteran, who was a Black Panther and a librarian. As a student, Coates missed the wider historical context of racism. But the Howard faculty did “their duty to disabuse me of my weaponized history.” He reached a balance, however, and as an Atlantic Magazine reporter he drove a revision of the history of the New Deal, the post-WWII Fair Deal and the GI Bill. Despite the good they did for white people, Coates documents the lies perpetuated by these chapters of the “American Dream.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, that leads to another set of truths found in Springsteen’s lyrics, as well as his autobiography, exploring the “Pax Americana” of his youth. He explains how working class kids or, at least, white youth during “the American Century,” were “destined to live the decent hardworking lives of their parents … if they could scoot through these years of wild pounding hormones without getting hurt or hurting someone else.” Bruce was acculturated into a value system where you “remain true to your crew, your blood, your family, your turf, your greaser brothers and sisters and your country. This was the shit that would get you by when all of the rest came tumbling down.”

As told in “My Hometown,” when Springsteen was 8-years-old, he would sit on the lap of “my old man,” a troubled World War II veteran who was the beneficiary of the GI Bill, and see its bounty, riding “in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town.” Springsteen’s dad would “tousle my hair and say son take a good look around, this is your hometown. This is your hometown. This is your hometown. This is your hometown.”

But even this dream for white industrial workers was foreclosed. Deindustrialization led to racial violence and with the shotgun blast which signaled, “Troubled times they had come to my hometown.”

It is no criticism of Coates’ wisdom to say it should be complemented by Springsteen’s story of economic injustice done to “black and white” which derailed the progress that was once real. “The Boss” sings of the tragedy which undermined much of the best of the “American Dream:”  “They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.

Your hometown. Your hometown Your hometown.”

Three decades later, Springsteen’s “American Skin” also supplements an understanding of the mindsets which have murdered so many black bodies. He begins the story of the “41 shots,” in Harlem, which kill Amadou Diallo as he tried to give his wallet to the police, through the cops’ eyes as “as they cross the bloody river to the other side.” Springsteen then sings about a black mother giving “the talk” to her son:

If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama, you’ll keep your hands in sight”

He concludes:

Is it a gun (is it a gun), is it a knife (is it a knife)
Is it a wallet (is it a wallet), this is your life (this is your life)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

During this era of “Deaths by Despair,” which took off in the white working class America that helped boost Trumpism, Springsteen is the “last man standing,” the only survivor of his original band. He also uses multimedia poetry to make sense of America’s “dark evening stars. And the morning sky of blue…”

He has:

Got down on my knees
Grabbed my pen and bowed my head
Tried to summon all that my heart finds true
And send it in my letter to you

The CD doesn’t include the word “Trump.” I only saw what I believe is one clear reference to  him in “The Rainmaker.” It begins with “Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun. We’ve been praying but no good comes.” As they face, “The dog’s howling, homes stripped bare,” they admit, “We’ve been worried but now we’re scared.”

This fear opens the door to “the Rainmaker, a little faith for hire.” And the Rainmaker says that “white’s black and black’s white.” 

Getting back to the essential contribution of HBO’s Between the World and Me, Bruce Springsteen is my favorite poet/musical artist, but Kamilah Forbes draws on an all-star cast who place Coates’ “tactile, visceral” account of the “central truth” about the “domination of black bodies” in a profound context.  I’d say the amazing power of the images of the “entire diaspora” successfully allow Coates to speak the hardest truths without becoming excessively morbid. To really grasp Coates’ contribution, his indictments of America must be read along with the celebration of the multicultural, multigenerational expressions of black families, music, dance, art being sketched on the screen, and indomitable energy that Forbes brings together.

(I must also add that those touching scenes remind me of Springsteen’s videos of family, friends, and fellow musicians.)

The film version of Between the World and Mecombines historic and contemporary images family photos and videos, such as a baby boy feeding a candy bar to his dad, as well as historic battles, and the joyous dancing of children who would be killed, unarmed, by the police. Coates’ descriptions of Howard University as his “Mecca” juxtaposes the exuberant expressions of college students’ performances with that of tailgate parties of alumni reliving their Howard energies. Coates concludes this compilation of photos and films by saying they hold “power more gorgeous than any voting rights act.” 

Coates’ book – as opposed to a television special – had the space to acknowledge that white Americans also are a “new people.” They are “like us, a modern invention.” Coates concludes, and the awesome cast of the video also demonstrates how, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

I expect Coates would agree that both the indictments and the glories of American culture can be best understood when his books’ horrific truths are juxtaposed with both – the multiple genres of the HBO presentation and Bruce Springsteen’s versions of history which are also presented in multiple genres of lyrics, music, autobiography, and film.    

Just watch, listen and enjoy!

In my endless search for ways to lighten and brighten your days (and mine), I found this wonderful comedy trapeze act.

Enjoy!

This is a beautiful https://www.popsugar.com/fitness/swans-for-relief-raises-money-for-dancers-amid-covid-19-47449883?fbclid=IwAR0VmXIqHyeeNP0X7SGh9mR-YShob4sj9yXYToYexWwlzJ1Bg02pGMgEp6Y of 32 talented dancers from around the world performing “Swan Lake.”

They are raising money for dancers whose income has been cut off.

Each dancer is alone, in isolation caused by the pandemic

They give a different meaning to the word “discipline,” which is often associated with punishment. These dancers are models of exquisite self-discipline.

The performances are beautiful and sad, when you consider that these young women practiced and worked for years to reach the peak of their profession and now have no audiences.

Certainly there are more tragic stories today, about lives and livings lost.

But pause for a few moments of beauty.

The media has been churning out stories about the exodus of people from cities, to escape crowding and coronavirus. People, they say, are rushing to the suburbs.

New Yorker Peter Goodman dissents. He believes that city life will bounce back in time. New York City already is healthier than most other parts of the nation, though mass transit has not yet recovered from the pandemic. Everything ground to a halt in mid-March, and city life is only now beginning to resume, but with masks and social distancing.

Goodman argues that “Cities are the Engines of Democracy, Innovation, and Growth and Schools Play a Major Role.”

As cultural life revives, so will cities.

Ambitious young people flock to them for exposure to museums, dance, concerts, theater, and civic life and diversity of people and experiences.

An interesting article on a real estate website called Curbed.com says that the “urban exodus” story is mostly a myth. True, there has been flight from two of the most expensive places in the U.S—San Francisco and Manhattan (but not Brooklyn!)—but the flow out of cities has not accelerated.

But a nationwide, pandemic- or protest-induced urban-to-suburban migration taking place on a scale that impacts both urban and suburban housing markets in a measurable way? There is zero empirical evidence to support such a trend. None. Nothing. Zero.

Earlier this month, real-estate-listings giant Zillow published an exhaustive study examining every conceivable housing-market data point related to cities and suburbia to see if there are major divergences that suggest an urban-to-suburban migration trend.

Are pending home sales between urban and suburban areas different now than they were before the pandemic? They aren’t!

Are suburban homes selling more quickly than homes in urban areas? Nope!

Are suburban homes selling above their list price at a higher rate than urban homes? Not at all!

Are urban homes seeing price cuts at a higher rate than suburban homes? If anything, the opposite!

Are home valuations accelerating faster in suburban areas than in urban areas? Urban zip codes have a slight edge!

Are suburban home listings getting a larger share of search traffic relative to urban areas now than they were last year? The suburban share is actually down 0.2 percentage points!

There is a German saying: Stadtluft macht frei (“urban air makes you free”). It has been true for centuries. It will be true again.

Dr. Michael Hynes is the Superintendent of the Port Washington School District in New York and a friend of Sir Ken Robinson.

The Legacy and Impact of Sir Ken Robinson

The world lost an inspiring and incredible human-being on August 21, 2020. Sir Ken Robinson, the gifted author and educator, and one of the world’s leading thinkers made an incredible impact on everyone he met. You may know him from his famous TED Talk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity”. It happened to be the most viewed TED Talk of all-time. To think people cared to watch an 18-minute discussion about school and creativity more than 66 million times shows us what an amazing orator he was. More important, it highlights his ability to connect with people who cared about what he had to say.

Most people know him from his multiple TED Talks. Not many knew that he led an incredibly multifaceted career before he hit TED stardom. Sir Ken was Director of the Arts in Schools Project, an initiative to develop arts education throughout England and Wales. He also chaired Artswork, the UK’s national youth arts development agency. Sir Ken was also professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to the arts. I’m just scratching the surface of his esteemed career but this gentleman was also Senior Advisor for Education & Creativity at the Getty Museum. His contributions to the field of education and the world are vast.

I could go on and on about his legacy and his ideas concerning creativity. He deeply cared about the education system our children and teachers are “trapped” in because he felt it needed to be transformed. His quotes are legendary. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

2. “Creativity is as important as literacy”

3. “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

I was blessed and fortunate to work with Sir Ken a few years ago and stay connected ever since. This past April I had the pleasure and honor of spending time with him for his new podcast series related to teaching from home. Sir Ken is like that old friend you don’t see for a while; and then when you do meet up again, it’s like you saw them yesterday. He made you feel like your work and ideas mattered. Sir Ken had the uncanny ability to use his humor to draw people in and then use his superpower of connecting with you to seal the deal.

I saw that someone penned, “Sir Ken’s loss offers everyone in the field of education an opportunity to honor him by reflecting and acting on his wisdom.” As Pasi Shalberg, another icon in the field of education wrote me earlier today, “His words would have been heeded now more than ever. We must carry his message forward, Mike.” I couldn’t agree more. We all must carry his message forward every single day.

In one of his last TED Talks, Sir Ken discusses how life is your talents discovered. He concluded his talk by saying, “Nothing is more influential as a life well lived.” I can’t think of another human-being that I know of who has lived a life more well lived than my dear friend. The world lost a great man but his ideas will live on.

Favorite video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MSgCut1Ils when he speaks to the Dali Lama.

The Phoenix Chamber Choir of Vancouver recorded this wonderful parody of a song written by Billy Joel about the rigors and tedium of quarantine.

Enjoy!

Ty Burr, reviewer for the Boston Globe,loved the TV “Hamilton.” I’m happy to learn that it was not “adapted” for the screen. It’s the Broadway show in full, gloriously produced. It was filmed in July 2016, a hopeful time. It was impossible to buy tickets. They were being scalped for hundreds of dollars a seat. Lin-Manuel Miranda set aside multiple free performances for high school students. Ordinary folks couldn’t buy them at any price.

Here is the review:

“Hamilton” arrives on TV — specifically on the Disney+ streaming platform, which costs $6.99 a month — as both a long-awaited event and an almost painful jolt of pre-Trump nostalgia. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash about Alexander Hamilton, one of the men who fashioned a country by the people and for the people, became famously hard for the people to actually see, with sold-out shows and ticket prices running to four figures. What might have been a theatrical release in the time of pandemic comes to the home screen, which, honestly, is where it belongs. As history — as a grounding in and reminder of where this whole thing started — “Hamilton” is facile yet irresistible. As soul-affirming entertainment, it is overwhelming.

(Short answer for anyone left still wondering if this show lives up to the hype: goodness, yes. On the most basic musical-theater level, you’ll have the earworms of songs like “My Shot,” “Helpless,” “Washington on Your Side,” and many others stuck in your head for days.)

The production, a filming of a June 2016 performance at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, has been brought to the screen with intelligence and craft, eight cameras pulling us “into” the show without sacrificing the sense of spectacle. (There are a few choice Busby Berkeley-style shots from overhead, just for fun.) Taking place from 1776 to 1804, “Hamilton” is constantly in motion, with the large cast of characters and ensemble players whirling through Miranda’s songs and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. Thomas Kail directs the filming as fluidly he did the original show but with judiciously edited close-ups that preserve the visual flow while heightening the dramatic conflicts. More than ever, Leslie Odom Jr.‘s Aaron Burr is revealed as the shadow star of “Hamilton,” rendered nearly Shakespearean by his lust for power and inability to stand for anything.

The title character’s story is pretty compelling, too, as readers of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography know. Born illegitimate in the Caribbean, Hamilton bootstrapped himself into the American Revolution as one of its finest minds and most reckless personalities, and “Hamilton” places him in the context of a scrum of strivers: Odom’s Burr, aching to be in “The Room Where It Happens”; the Marquis de Lafayette (Act 1) and Thomas Jefferson (Act 2), both played by the puckish charmer Daveed Diggs; the godlike yet touchingly human George Washington (Christopher Jackson’s performance acquires a powerful graciousness in close-up); the blissfully tyrannical King George III (Jonathan Groff) with his show-stopping patter songs. Slightly off center-stage are the two Schuyler sisters, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), who married Hamilton and put up with his infidelities, and Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), as politically astute as her brother-in-law and less rash. The dramatic themes and recurring musical motifs that define these characters are part of what makes the show so richly satisfying.

These are all powerhouse singers, actors, and dancers, and they capably negotiate Miranda’s lickety-split lyrics, as percussive as hip-hop and as multi-layered as Sondheim. People who dismiss “Hamilton” as “that rap musical” are always shocked by the actual breadth of the show’s sonic palette, which includes pop, R&B, and a full history of show-tunes. But there’s no denying that having our great white founders played by the descendants of slaves — and having them engage and debate each other in the cross-rhythms of the people they enslaved — is a masterstroke that brings everyone into the tent of the American dream, on stage if not outside the theater. (For anyone having trouble following the rapid-fire lyrics, closed captioning will be a boon of this televised version — but even subtitles might have trouble keeping up.)

At the center of “Hamilton” the musical and “Hamilton” the phenomenon is Miranda, who took the project from a ridiculous light bulb over his head as he was beach-reading the Chernow book to 11 Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. He’s a compact, sad-eyed imp of a performer, and as Hamilton he seems slightly out of his element among his strapping co-stars, most of whom have stronger or more trained voices. I saw the show on Broadway with Javier Munoz, who was Miranda’s alternate and who replaced the star after he moved on; Munoz gave a galvanizing, muscular performance, and yet the essential Hamilton remains Lin-Manuel Miranda, and seeing this filmed version is a reminder why. Especially in the final scenes, after tragedies of his own and others’ making have brought Hamilton crashing to earth, the actor conveys a sorrow that’s beyond bone-deep — that conveys something about the frailties and follies of trying to be a great man or build a great country.

That’s never not relevant, and perhaps now more than ever. What does “Hamilton” even mean in 2020? The America in which the show took Broadway by storm was five years ago, but it feels like a different century. Barack Obama was president and the recasting of the Founding Fathers as people of color, singing history to modern beats, felt absurdly fresh and forward-looking. What one wouldn’t give to get back to that future.

Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac” reports that today is Woody Guthrie’s birthday. He may be America’s most beloved and most often sung folk singer. Everyone sings “This Land is My Land,” but not usually with all the lyrics. Guthrie was radical in his politics, having experienced the hard times of the Depression. At one point, he lived in an apartment in Queens owned by Fred Trump, and he wrote a song about how Trump didn’t rent to black people.

Today is the birthday of Woodrow Wilson — aka “Woody” Guthrie, born in Okemah, Oklahoma (1912). Woody Guthrie never finished high school, but he spent his spare time reading books at the local public library. He took occasional jobs as a sign painter and started playing music on a guitar he found in the street. During the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s, Guthrie followed workers who were moving to California. They taught him traditional folk and blues songs, and Guthrie went on to write thousands of his own, including “This Train Is Bound for Glory.” In 1940, he wrote the folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” because he was growing sick of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Woody Guthrie once said: “I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. […] Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.”

Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac” notes that today is Frida Kahlo’s birthday.


Today is the birthday of Frida Kahlo, born in Coyoacán, just outside Mexico City (1907). She was born in her parents’ home, La Casa Azul — the Blue House.

When Kahlo was 18, the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar. Her collarbone, spine, and pelvis were fractured. She was bedridden for several months, and it was during this time that she first took up painting. Her mother rigged up an easel that would fit over the bed, and, using a mirror, she painted her first of 55 self-portraits. She showed her early efforts to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who encouraged her to keep at it.

Kahlo said: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” She first met the painter Diego Rivera in 1923, when she was 15. He had been commissioned to paint a mural at her school, and she would watch him work for hours. In 1929 they were married. Rivera was notoriously unfaithful and even had an affair with Kahlo’s sister Cristina. The couple divorced in 1939, but they remarried soon afterward and remained together until Kahlo’s death. They led largely separate lives, and both artists had affairs throughout their marriage.

Kahlo’s work was championed by surrealist André Breton and painter Marcel Duchamp, who arranged exhibitions of her paintings, which often combine brilliant colors and striking images from Mexican folk art. She said: “[Critics] thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”