Friday, August 26, 2011

Grandma Was Just That Way

Sometime in the late1920's, my grandmother and grandfather moved North from Tennessee looking for work. My grandfather found work at GM. He died before I was born. When I was a youngster in Detroit, I remember my grandmother working at Crowley's Department Store decorating cakes for a living. After she had a stroke on a downtown street after work one day, she was left paralyzed on her right side, so she moved to Arkansas and was attended to by a black woman who was every bit as old as she was.

My brother and I spent several summers on "vacations" with our parents visiting my grandmother in Elaine, Arkansas, in the early sixties. The film, The Help, reminded me of seeing the colored cafes and white-only drinking fountains in the small town.The one movie theater in Elaine had a separate entrance for blacks which led to the balcony. The white kids went through the front door and sat on the ground floor. These things do not exist anymore, but it wasn't that long ago when they did. I can bear witness to it.

Back to my grandmother: she lived in a rickety, clapboard house with wall paper, peeling from the humidity off the nearby Mississippi River. The house was across the street from the area's cotton gin and storage silos, where Uncle Ivo worked as the manager of the operation by day. Throughout the daylight hours, Miss Elizabeth, a black woman in her sixties, waited on my grandmother's beck and call. She was my grandmother's constant companion and attendant, until Uncle Ivo got home from the cotton gin later in the day.

"Just ask Miss Elizabeth for anything you want," my grandmother would say. "She'll make you a sandwich or a milk shake. Whatever you're partial to."

Miss Elizabeth didn't say much, but she smiled a lot. Between taking care of my grandma's personal hygiene needs, and feeding four extra people in the household, she sat quietly off to the side, or in the kitchen, gently rocking while cross stitching samplers or mending old clothes.

Having us there wasn't a bother for her. My mother cooked us dinners while we were there, and Miss Elizabeth could go home early on most days when we were there. She would grab her bag of stuff and trek almost a mile down the road to another house that looked more like a shack, with a houseful of family sitting around, and she was glad to be home. Her only day off was Sunday, which she spent at church with her family and friends.

"I don't know what I'd do without Miss Elizabeth," I remember Grandma saying. "I can't go to church anymore, so she reads the good book to me, and it soothes me."

Reading the Bible was the least of the services Miss Elizabeth performed for her in the course of a long day.

My mother couldn't help but ask. "How much do you pay her?"

"Forty dollars cash a month, under the table, and she's glad to get it."

"That's very reasonable considering everything she does for you, Mother."

"It's a good thing I'm a God fearing Christian woman. Who else would hire an old nigger woman like that?"

What ingratitude! I thought. Even as a kid, I was struck by her matter-of-fact, racist attitude.

But by the standards of her community, in her day, she believed she was being charitable. Sad but true. Well, those days are mostly over, thank goodness.

Not since the novel and the film, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, has this ugly reality been depicted with such humanity and humility than in The Help. I urge everyone to see this film while it's still in theaters. It has Oscar written all over it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Help - There Is a Difference Between Service and Servitude

My wife and I saw The Help over the weekend and found it to be a moving and an enjoyable film. It depicts an era in American history which will soon be lost to living memory. I know. I'm getting older and I remember the way it was. My brother and I spent several summers in Arkansas in the early 1960s and saw Jim Crow at work in the sleepy cotton town of Elaine.

To find humor from the black perspective in the South during the Jim Crow days isn't easy, but to find heart, soul, and a relevant message delivered in an impeccable period piece is even rarer. This film portrays upper crust, Southern Americana, with a mud pie and a whipped creme dollop on top! All that chocolate, supporting a fluffy, white confection, an apt metaphor. Brilliant!

This film shows the heart wrenching sacrifices these brave ladies made for their families and the injustices they endured against themselves, in an era when a misplaced look or a muttered word could get you fired or lynched.

The struggle for civil rights has been a long, hard battle in this country, and like all great battles, it is made up of one campaign after another, fought over time across the vast American landscape. It is made up of millions of smaller skirmishes, whose victim's wounds go untended and unredressed.

The dehumanization and intimidation of another human being, to support a corrupt class system, is despicable. For those who say this movie is an exaggeration, open a history book or google the Civil Rights Movement. This film puts a face on the outrage perpetrated against these ladies, and honors every woman who ever put on the maid's starched uniform.

The Help made me remember something sad about my maternal grandmother....

Next time!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Zydeco Culture and Gator by the Bay

The music and dance style that sprang out of West Louisiana, known as zydeco, has its roots in Cajun music and the Cajun two-step jig, also called the Louisiana Limp. In 1755, the English, who now owned Canada, expelled the French Canadians for refusing to pledge allegiance to the English crown. Many of these people migrated to Louisiana and became the Cajun people.

Some say zydeco's roots run deeper than that, all the way to Africa from slaves, who held tightly to their music and culture, and to the Caribbean, with rhythms imported from Haiti after a slave rebellion there. Blend in the influences of Les Gens Libres du Couleur (Free Men of Color) and a unique black culture developed in West Louisiana called Creole.

With the addition of the accordion to establish a vigorous, syncopated rhythm and a metal corrugated rub board (once a common wash board), Creole music took off in another direction and a new sound was born. Then, in the 1950s, a blues player named Clifton Chenier added amplified instruments and recorded his music - zydeco music he called it - the local people loved it and it spread.

Modern zydeco music thrives in big cities and small towns across much of America. There is even a group of zydeco dancers in London, England. The basic sound has evolved and been influenced by pop music, hard rock, rap, reggae, and hip hop. The music has a joyful and happy sound, but it can also be bluesy, soulful, and sad. The rhythm is always vibrant and infectious.

This is music that makes people want to get up and dance. The basic foot movement is slow-quick-quick-slow, with or without a rock step. In California, where there is a strong swing dance influence, many dancers use the rock step like in East Coast Swing. Zydeco is more fundamental than swing dancing and easier to do. That is one reason why it is so popular. A person can get out on the dance floor with very little instruction or practice and have a great time.

For decades, Zydeco music was looked down upon by the New Orleans music establishment as bayou or swamp music. Not until Buckwheat Zydeco and Beau Jocque, and others, started making money, getting radio airplay, drawing big crowds, and getting media attention did they invite their country cousins into the New Orleans musical family. But make no mistake about it, the epicenter of zydeco music is still Lafayette and the surrounding area.

In San Diego, we have an active zydeco dance club named Bon Temps (Good Times) that hosts a weekly dance of zydeco and Cajun music, and on the second Saturday of each month, the club gives free lessons and holds dances with a live band. Some of the bands come from Louisiana, while others are home grown like Theo and the Zydeco Patrol, The Swamp Critters, The Bayou Brothers, and the San Diego Cajun Playboys.

Bon Temps organizes a yearly event every May over Mother's Day weekend called Gator by the Bay, which draws over 6,000 people. It is held on San Diego Bay at Spanish Landing for two full days of music and dancing on two large dance floors. One of the 2,160 square foot dance floors is primarily for Zydeco/Cajun performers and the other is for blues, jazz and contemporary music acts.

There is something for everyone. For a taste of Louisiana, the food court serves up jambalaya, crayfish, gumbo, roast turkey legs, and lots more. Throughout both festival days, dance lessons from top instructors in several styles of dancing are given for free.

Not a bad way to spend Mother's Day.  Put the Gator by the Bay festival on your calendar for May 2012. You'll be glad you did. This is a family friendly event.

Laissez les bon temp rouler!


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Take Me Back To The Sixties

Take Me Back To The Sixties

As close to being there again as I dare get! Enjoy it along with me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Detroit Shout Out 3 - The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

A wonderful surprise on the last stop of my Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel book tour in Detroit was The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on E. Warren Ave. This awesome building sits nicely on a landscaped city block, flanked by the Detroit Institute of Arts on one end and adjacent to the Detroit Science Center on another. For people who think modern architecture lacks style and passion, they need to see this unique museum. This building is just one of a number of signs that this city is far from defeated.

The museum has two levels crowned by an eye catching glass and steel dome which covers the Ford Freedom Rotunda on the upper level. The dome illuminates the Ring of Genealogy centered beneath it on the floor. The ring is comprised of brass tiles engraved with the names of notable African-Americans from American history. The General Motors Theater, the Museum Store, the Research Library, and the four exhibit areas radiate from this expansive, circular public area.
The lower level is dedicated primarily to the museum’s educational mission with classrooms, an Orientation Theater, a large Multipurpose Room, and an exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen Project. The museum cafĂ© is also on this level.  This is one of the best museums I’ve been to in the United States. It was an honor to speak here about about my novel, Zug Island. Many thanks to the museum staff for being so helpful and making me feel welcome.

In addition to its museum and education functions, this venue can be hired out for business, corporate, public, or private gatherings with a full array of services. The Charles H. Wright Museum is truly a community resource and a welcome addition to Detroit’s long overdue recovery. For more details, check out their website at

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Michigan Mania - The Ann Arbor Art Fair

On my recent trip to Michigan to promote my novel, Zug Island, I stopped by the Ann Arbor Art Fair held annually in July on the University of Michigan campus. I hadn't been there in over thirty years, so I was anxious to go again.

Despite a punishing heat wave and threats of thunderstorms, the crowds braved the weather and made Michigan's premier art event a success once again. Artists from all over the country come to display and sell their art work, their crafts, and their unique clothing.

"The Ann Arbor Art Fair is my biggest venue of the year," says Jan Kaulins, a  photographer and print artist from Manitou Beach, Michigan. "This is my busiest time and most important event; I've been coming here for longer than I care to admit."

This sample of his work, "Liberty and State - Ann Arbor," was created from nine individual bracketed digital exposures which produced this high dynamic range photograph. The subjects of much of his work feature Michigan and Detroit sights accented with his distinctive flair for color.
If my memory serves me right, the art work and displays at the Ann Arbor Art Fair have always been top notch, but one thing is definitely better than I remember from the past - the food. The variety and quality of the ethnic fare was better than many sit down restaurants I've been to lately. I can't wait to come back again.

Michigan Artist - Jan Kaulins- link