Cover of The New York Times Magazine’s Culture Issue Leaves A Bad Taste

New York Times
The New York Times

Busy weekend, I didn’t get to read Sunday’s New York Times until today. The headlines were dated but there is no better place to get a hefty weekly dose of news about art and culture. However, the cover of The New York Times Magazine stopped me cold. There in neo-classical, alabaster, pearlescent glory is the image of Lena Dunham, representing “The Culture Issue.” Help me please! This inane myopic attempt succeeded only in portraying culture as so much white bread – bland and unappealing. That cover image also begs the question – can you really equate Dunham with culture? She seems more of pop tart to me. When I saw that cover I wanted to scream to someone at the Times, “Seriously?”

How does anyone who actually understands the breath and depth of culture think that an image that is the visual antithesis of the cultural vibrancy today, would possibly resonate. I thought we’d gotten past the white bread focus on culture. Today we’re consuming the rustic, unbleached flour, brown, black, spicy, seeded, hearty, unsliced, tasty, tear-off-a-hunk-with-your-hands stuff – the cultural equivalent of an organic bread basket.

Inside “The Culture Issue” was better – more colorful, relevant and diverse – as culture should be. Dunham’s cover challenged the content instead of complementing it – like using Wonderbread to illustrate artisanal baking.

Are People Still Passing?

The film is about a light-skinned African-American nursing student, played by Crain, passing for white.
Pinky is a 1949 American drama, directed by Elia Kazan, about a light-skinned African-American nursing student, played by Jeanne Crain, passing for white. The film also starred Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters. All three actresses were nominated for Academy Awards.

“Racial passing refers to a person classified as a member of one racial group also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.”Wikipedia

When some people learn that characters in my novel, Provenance,  are “passing” they ask, “Do people still do that?” Sometimes I want to respond, “Is there still racial discrimination against people of color?” or “Do you think people with white skin color have a social, professional and economic advantage over people who are black, brown or Asian?” If the answer to either question is yes, and it is; then yes, people still pass.

In the 21st century, passing is not the past. Examples: Filmmaker Lacy Schwartz, recently profiled in an article in the New York Times, shares her remarkable story of passing in her 2014 film, Little White Lie; Bliss Broyard’s 2007 best seller, One Drop, was about the revelation that her father, former New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, was passing; Stanford professor Allyson Hobbs’ new book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life was just released today. I did a  Google search on the word “Passing” and the first two terms that came up were “passing racial identity,” 588,000 results and,  “passing for white,” 86,300,000 results. In 1929, Nela Larson published her novel, Passing; it is still in print today and available through all major book retailers and as Kindle and audio editions. As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than two hundred scholarly articles and more than fifty dissertations.

Yes, passing is still something people do and just like race, it is something we still talk about.

Throughout Provenance my characters pass in the traditional way, pretending to be white; but they also pass by rejecting their history and heritage, though they are clearly identified as a person of color. As I wrote and researched the book, I learned what it was like to pass in the early 20th Century, when the novel begins, and into the 21st Century as race relations in America evolved. I realized that passing is as much about how you see yourself as it is about how others see you. Yet, is it okay to embrace an identity that enables you to live out the dreams you have for yourself – regardless of the skin you’re in? I can’t answer that. However, I suspect that until we rid ourselves of the construct of race, people continue to pass in one way or another.

You Look Like…

masked image croppedIn my novel, Provenance (Creative Cache, September 2014), several characters, during the early part of the 20th Century, feel they must take advantage of their racial ambiguity to reach beyond what society prescribed for them. That was then, and it is now. Evidence, a recent article in New York Magazine about ethnic plastic surgery to blur racial identity. In the 21st Century, when some have declared that we are post-racial, why are we still adding to the arsenal of effects and affectations used to deny our provenance.

Seems the themes in my novel are as relevant as ever.

Ruby Dee, Imagination and History

“Live out your imagination, not your history.”
– Steven Covey

"For Colored Girls" New York Premiere - Outside ArrivalsLike so many others, Ruby Dee has been on my mind all day. She was a woman of great courage, commitment, intelligence and beauty – all of which she used to live out her imagination and thwart history.

In an interview with NPR she said that as a child, she didn’t know any black screen idols,

“It occurred to me that I was not white,” she said. “It occurred to me that being what they call ‘colored,’ being a Negro, was some kind of a disadvantage.”

Yet she dared to live out her imagination – and then some. In a scene from my novel, Provenance, one of my characters says in frustration,

“We are so used to people of color being and doing what other folks say we’re supposed to, that sometimes we can’t see what’s possible. Carrying around the expectations of others is such an unnecessary burden.”

In Provenance, my characters struggle with the same history of racism that has prescribed the lives of black folks for generations. Racism could have deprived us of Ruby Dee’s radiance – thank God her imagination enabled her to see what was possible. Living out your imagination, not your history is what Miss Ruby Dee did. It is how I try to live my life and, it is what my book, Provenance, is about.

(Thank you @AshiLabouisse for tweeting the Stephen Covey quote today.)



What Impact Art?

The visual arts are a primary theme in my novel, Provenance. Throughout the story my characters use art to enlightened, inspire, rescue, and even redeem themselves; demonstrating that art is more than just paintings and pictures. Art has impact; it is a social, political, economic, educational and cultural force.

In a recent video posted by Big Think, curator Sarah Lewis illustrates that point with images and history. Well worth watching.

Help? Writers Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Help

Help KeyWriters are loners, we just are. Nothing is better than solitude to focus on the inner dialogue that ends up a work of fiction or fact. Trouble is that in order to share our work with others we have to engage – with people. We need help.

Brad Spinelli, author of Killing Williamsburg, shares insight and innovation with seven great reasons writers need to tap and cultivate valuable human resources. Read  7 Things I’ve Learned So Far by Bradley Spinelli on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog. Then go out and get some help.

When Titans Take the Corcoran, The Cost of Studying Art Goes Up

Art WordWith the spoils of the Corcoran Gallery of Art going to already well-endowed institutions like George Washington University (GWU) and The National Gallery of Art, access to the art world just became more inaccessible.

The Washington Post reported that the Corcoran School of Art’s tuition is $16,000 less than GWU $47,000+ tuition and with a $1.56 billion endowment and a history of needs aware admission practices, will the less affluent be further challenged in their desire to study the arts? The National Gallery, as well as the Smithsonian’s, low stipend or unpaid internships already limit access for students without significant  financial resources, food and rent in the DC metro is ridiculous! That reality further compounds the problem of access.

While both institutions may well be appropriate stewards, the decision to divvy up The Corcoran between two Washington titans makes the already insular art world less accessible to students with talent and dreams but without means.

Four Drafts and Counting…

Edited Manuscript - iStock_000008245569XSmallI am finalizing my fourth draft of my novel, Provenance. The first draft, of which I was extremely proud and actually sent out to agents, was atrocious. I wrote the second draft after a kind and knowledgeable literary agent gave me feedback on my first draft (thank you Miriam). I hired a developmental editor to read and comment on the second draft and while it was better I had more work to do.

The third draft was a slavish concession to every comment the developmental editor made on the second manuscript, including to turn my too-long novel into two novels. I tried, but the separation did not feel right for me or my characters.

I am currently working on the fourth draft. Trusting my writer instincts, I am putting the book back together with a much leaner profile. The exercise of having torn the tome asunder has actually made the book better. In addition to working on my manuscript I have faithfully attended my writers group and I’ve taken writing classes with authors like Barbara Esstman and Con Lehane, to better hone my craft. I have read more than 70 books – some on the craft of writing, some fiction, all an education and thank goodness for Goodreads otherwise I would have lost track by now. At four drafts and counting, I’m a better writer, writing a better book.

According to author Louis Sachar, I have two more drafts to go. In a recent talk at the 92Y in New York that was reported in GalleyCat, Sachar said that an author must “always be willing to rewrite.” He shared that each of his books typically required him to write six drafts – three or four for plot and character development and in the last two drafts he adds the artistry. It is nice to know that I am not unique in realm of revision. After craft comes art, one draft at a time.