Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Beginning of Modern America

photo courtesy the author.

I'm reading Charles C. Mann's book 1491 (thanks to Sanjay Jain, who sent it to me after a very interesting discussion about an up-coming program at Laumeier).

This book is opening up my worldview about the dense, complex web of cultures that existed in the Americas before, during and after first contact. I'm just now reading about Atawallpa, the last Inka leader, whose empire was larger than that of China, the Ottomans and Russia at the time.

While Mann's ideas differ slightly from those of Jared Diamond, I am still shocked that I only heard of Atawallpa two years ago!

The first chapter of the book talked about the People of the Dawnland, Native Nations living on the Eastern seaboard who fought off snooping Europeans for decades, if not centuries. One false move, however, spelled the demise of the Dawnland peoples--due primarily to smallpox and other diseases, but finished off by guns and steel.

The image above is from Cook's baking store in West Allis, Wisconsin. The current story about the first Thanksgiving is not what we were taught in school--sadly, however, the axe seems the constant theme of the white invasion of the United States. No matter that Native Americans helped the Puritans survive, violence fueled by religious discrimination was never far behind a momentary detente.

What I love about the arts is that artists are constantly pushing at the boundaries of knowledge through their asking questions--and this type of tome--1491--fuels some of the most compelling artistic research in today's global cultural dialogue.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Photo by the author.

I am part of the 2011-2012 Focus St. Louis program, Leadership St. Louis [LSL]. (Thanks to Susan Barrett for sponsoring me in this great program!)

This weekend's topic was race--perfect timing given today is the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

Because of my generation's focus on multiculturalism in the arts, I have always been committed to foregrounding artists from diverse backgrounds, sexual orientation, etc... I suspect I have been most successful in looking for gender equality for obvious reasons, but that's no excuse, I can always work harder.

Perhaps it's from being from Canada, where being polite and non-confrontational are values I picked up, I've always felt uncomfortable with talking about certain issues, particularly race, except with Kevin and some other dear friends. At yesterday's LSL meeting all kinds of uncomfortable questions were asked and, as usual, I got a bit weepy at the injustice that still exists in our American culture (let's not get started on other parts of the world, shall we, and how sexism predominates in virtually every country since time immemorial!)

One exercise we did was add beads of different colors to a cup in response to answers. Most of the questions were based on working in a very big office (who is your boss, your direct supervisor, your work mentor, is technically one bead for me, and I only allowed each person one bead). The questions were less about our personal lives, but this is the diverse pool I came away with.

I got to participate in a real conversation about race in America with my smart African American, Asian and white colleagues in the LSL program, and a barrier has been broken for me. I'm planning on attending the MLK day event at Wash U tonight--not the best location, but it's the one I can attend.

This year I promise to be more broad in how I investigate issues of race and gender in my work.