Author: Maya Angelou

Review first posted April 2004

It took a while to decide to review this book. There is an unfortunately strong current societal meme which says if you are: (less victimized, &/or more financially secure, male, white, privileged, whatever) then you don't get to comment. I understand it's a natural reaction to the horror of being silenced due to not being recognized as even human, and I emphatically don't want a return to that. But as Angelou herself notes, bigotry perpetrated by those who have suffered bigotry doesn't make it right.

 

Too, if I am silent due to fear of censure but blame society for it, who is really at fault? I strongly believe in both facing one's fears, and in allowing all to speak, so meaningful dialogue occurs. How else to learn from each other? So here's the review. I feel contributing one's thoughts & experiences to on-going societal dialogue is good, even if — especially if — one's personal experiences are different than those of others. After all, wide variety in experiences makes for more interesting shared commentary.

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This makes me feel bad — so it must be bad!

On deeper examination of this issue, I believe the selfish desire to profit regardless of the pain or damage it causes others is behind the deliberately inaccurate reframing of cultural appropriation as something good. For example, I've seen terms such as "cultural evolution" and "anti-censorship" tossed loosely around as justification. Let's try unpacking these phrases to see what they really mean.

The concept of cultural evolution is an attempt to broadly apply the theory of evolution, based on biological natural selection, to a different intellectual field. However, if we more deeply explore the theme of cultural appropriation as a form of evolution, how do we account for the hurt and damage it causes in the unjustly appropriated culture? If we are matching this to some sort of biological exchange then aren't we perilously close to admiring what is in effect cultural rape? Do we really want to take that route to self-justification?

Fortunately cultures (unlike individual organisms) are not biological organisms, and therefore cannot engage in natural selection — there are no "culture genes," for example. As a consequence, trying to apply natural selection to cultures makes about as much sense as trying to apply it to, say, mathematics. True, mathematicians are biological entities which perform the math in question — but you cannot point to, say, a gene in the math itself that will lead to the creation of calculus from algebra. Similarly, you cannot point to a gene in a culture that helps produce authoritarianism or egalitarianism or whatever. Read the rest of this entry »

But why does it matter?

Well, I feel it's always easier to understand something when it's personal… so let's do a little thought-exercise. Yes, I know what this example will most properly describe is something more like a copyright issue, but work with me here; I'm trying to explain something conceptual in an emotive matter, and it's not easy. :)

So. Imagine yourself as the proud creator of something — a song, a painting, a story, a ritual, a dance… whatever speaks to you. You're justifiably proud of this creation because it came from your heart and your culture: it is a beautiful fragment of all that is quintessentially you, brought to life in your creation. You start to become somewhat known for your marvelous work, and one day a man comes to you and asks to talk to you about it.

You show it to him with great pleasure — you like sharing beauty! He is flattering and complimentary, and you realize he's going to write a truly amazing article about you. You open up to him, telling him things about the work's creation that you've not told anyone else — personal things. When he leaves you're very happy that more people will read about your beloved work, and maybe purchase things from you that are based on it. Life is good!

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A few years ago I was in a class about being a good ally to people of color, or POC. It is a sad fact that often any such class on allyship is least well attended by those who most need it. As a white woman I can certainly understand that — had it not been a required class I likely would not have chosen it, due to a fear of butting in where I wasn't really wanted. Regardless, I took the class… and found it a fascinating and enlightening experience. There were no men in the class, of course — it is vanishingly unlikely to see a man in any Women's Spirituality class — but there were more women of color than white women. I learned a great deal, and I hope I wasn't too obnoxious. ;)

At one point, and with some trepidation, I asked what it was that I could do to most help POC — what did they most want from white women? I was nervously braced to receive some anger or racism in reply, considering that most of the time POC have to simply swallow rightful rage at the social injustice they face on a daily basis. As a consequence the answer I received was extraordinarily startling to me: they wanted me to listen. Just listen — deeply and truly. I remember saying incredulously, "That's it? You just want me to listen?" Looking around the room, I received nod after nod after nod of agreement: yes, listen to them — no interrupting, no 'correcting' them or shouting them down, no telling them what I thought they should be doing. By truly listening I would no longer be ignoring, erasing, or appropriating them; rather, I would help to socially validate them, their beliefs, their needs… their very right of existence.

So that's what I've tried to do with all the POC I know, both on-line and off: I try to listen with respect and caring. Since I also believe in continuing to fight for a just society I have simultaneously attempted to share this received learning with all my white friends. As a feminist once put it, misogynist men are not going to suddenly start listening to women and decide to be good allies… but they ordinarily will listen to other men. If a man therefore truly wishes to be a good ally for women, he should speak up to stop misogyny when he stumbles across it in men around him, and if he can, take the opportunity to teach a more feminist perspective. Equally, most white people aren't going to truly listen to POC because that's not how they were taught — and so it is incumbent upon white people, not POC, to teach other white people how to be respectful to POC.

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Just got back from another personal first: a town hall meeting with my Congressional representative, Zoe Lofgren, at the Mt. Pleasant High School. She's a Democrat and has been this area's Congresswoman since 1995, if I heard her correctly. She mentioned returning home (this area) each week, and she's got that smooth way of responding to questions that says she often communicates with her people. I can respect that, especially compared to those (hopefully few) cowardly Republicans who choose to hide from, lie to, and ignore their people. As someone who lives in California — one of the possibly safest states to be in during the Trump administration — my heart goes out to the poor folks who live in those areas whose representatives are claiming ever wilder excuses to not hold any town halls or actually do their jobs and represent the will of their people. But enough of that… for now.

Returning to the town hall: apparently far more folks RSVP'd than actually attended — which didn't surprise me considering what an utterly gorgeous day it was today. Here are some quick cell phone snaps (apologies for the blurriness!) of the auditorium before Congresswoman Lofgren arrived. Incidentally, that gray-haired gent in the suit seated at the white table right in front of me was Dave Cortese, representing District 3 on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

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Well, PantheaCon is concluded for another year! Also, our ritual/performance of The Descent of Inanna was enormously successful — "House of Inanna" has been asked to do it again! There were far more audience members than we expected, which was a real delight — they filled the room and we even had folks standing in the back. Further, we had handouts for the audience so they could engage in a sort of call & response with the Narrator, and we made far more than we thought we'd need… but at the actual performance we had to ask the audience members to please share their handouts with the folks next to them! It was really nice.

So now that we've been through the entire play and some time has passed, I've had a few more thoughts on things I'd like to remember for future. A few of these are repeats from my previous post simply because I felt strongly that they were really important, but most of them are just me musing to myself again, or a happy pat-on-the-back. That said, enjoy and please feel free to contribute in the comments!

  • More rehearsals! I really, really want to make sure there's more time to rehearse. Quite frankly the vast majority of issues I saw — and there were blessedly few of them — had to do with people not being entirely confident in where they should be and when. Also there were a few stage directions such as: "The attendants… [are] carrying baskets and greeting each other as they wander around the stage." If we'd had a bit more time to work on learning how to do stuff like that I think it would've really added a visually striking element to the ritual.
  • A pat-on-the-back: the circle dances went really well as far, as I could see! Some of us practiced together while the stage was getting set up before the show, so we were all together and right on the money. I was one of the participants in the circle dances, so all I could see consistently during the actual ritual was my side of the circle… but from what I saw my side stuck together nicely. Yay! With just a bit more practice I bet we could have all of us moving smoothly and gracefully together!
  • Another thing I'd like to see as part of rehearsals: how to come out and bow after the performance! We had a singer who started and closed the ritual, but she wasn't at any of our rehearsals and so not only were we shaky on how to come out to bow… but we started doing so as she waited to sing. Yet another note to self: make sure EVERYONE attends at least a few rehearsals, if I'm ever organizing something like this — no excuses! Having the singer teaching a volunteer how to drum with her as the stage was being set up just before the actual performance? Can't have been confidence-inspiring. I felt bad for the poor woman.
  • For that matter: our Narrator was awesome at projecting her voice — but I suspect both she and the singer (whose voice filled the room less than the Narrator's did) would have appreciated a microphone. I hope someone thought to make sure there was a drink handy for the Narrator too, now I think about it.
  • I've already mentioned how I wanted more rehearsals for the performers. In future, though, I also want to remember that the stage crew itself needs a rehearsal — so they know what props go where, and when, and how to bring them onto the stage between acts, and how to not be seen behind the larger props that need moving while the performance is on-going. That kind of rehearsal would also give the stage hands time to figure out which props go where behind the stage too, so the various pieces are ready to be quickly and smoothly moved on or off stage. So: MOAR REEHERSLZ! :)
  • Speaking of changing scenes: since we were in two hotel seminar rooms we didn't have any sort of stage curtain. In such a situation I think having something to mark a scene's closing would be good — not just for the audience but also so the actors know to clear off or on as needed. A suggestion from the theatre-trained housemate: two tall poles attached on each side of a wide, very light, possibly decorated piece of cloth. Have two people (one to a pole) walk out downstage side by side at end of scene. The first one will stay on one side of the stage while the second one walks to the other side. The cloth will (at the very least symbolically) block sight of the stage as actors hustle off and stage crew hustles props on… and when everything is ready the second pole-holder walks back to the first, they both head off stage — and the next scene begins.
  • For that matter, I think a sort of "costume" for the stage hands would've helped build more of a sense of being part of the performance community. Heck, it could also function to help obscure the stage hands as they moved around on the stage. Maybe all-black clothing with an appropriate (dark) T-shirt that we could gift to them to wear?
  • Another thought re the actual stage: the backdrop needs to be sturdy — or the non-sturdy bits need to not be where people are entering and exiting — and people need to know precisely where those bits are so they don't bump into the fragile pieces and/or dislodge them. This fortunately did not happen at our performance, but there was some confusion as to where and whether we could exit between certain backdrop curtains. Oh, another thought: all the backdrop needs to be opaque! We don't want to give the audience an unexpected shock as a half-dressed actor wanders backstage behind the lacy curtain backdrop. Hmm… maybe a few more chairs for those backstage would be nice too — I'm not sure there were enough for everyone to sit quietly when it wasn't their time on stage.
  • If I can find one, I'd love to have a photographer present with a good camera too! We had a couple of folks taking shots from the audience, and I posted those I received on the website. Unfortunately many of the photos taken during the performance were either quite blurry or very dimly lit — we didn't want a flash disrupting the performance, you know? However, I was surprised and pleased at how excited the various participants were at the photos! I'd like to have better ones for us all, if possible — and I strongly feel good photos and videos make for good publicity for the group.
  • Having more than one set of eyes check all printed materials — well ahead of time! — is an excellent idea… as well as the best way I know of to avoid typos!
  • Something to consider for everyone who comes out on stage at any point, even if it's just for a bow at the end: body language! As well, if anyone intends to speak — or even thinks they might be called on to speak — planning ahead on what would be appropriate is an excellent idea. Everyone should know to carry their head high, smile warmly, walk with confidence, speak clearly, and move strongly. We may feel awkwardly shy, embarrassed, or self-disparaging — but when in the spotlight we want to portray ourselves as polished and professional in both language and behavior.
  • Something I need to consider for later: would it be helpful to have the occasional all-crew meal together? I think building a feeling of community amongst everyone is an important part of ensuring we're all committed to making the best show we can, after all. Or would this be something better done to celebrate the end of the show?

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Tonight I'll be at PantheaCon for the ritual of the Descent of Inanna performed by "House of Inanna" (my ATS belly dance troupe) and friends. It's been a fascinating experience so far, especially since I've not previously participated in any plays. Oh, I was the head of a green dragon during a play when I was maybe 6 years old, and I think I've been bit parts in other grade school plays… but that was usually a situation where the teachers were working hard to include everyone. Consequently there were often a lot of really pointless bit pieces that could be filled with the less popular kids, and I certainly qualified for that role as an awkward kid who was too smart for her own good.

Perhaps more relevantly, I have a strong understanding of teamwork due to both the horse shows my family attended while I was in school, and the occasional choirs in which I sang. I also learned about "being on" all the time while I was the second princess of Trimaris. That's all that's occurring to me off the top of my head… so yeah. This entire cycle of preparation for this ritual has been quite fascinating, and I thought I'd write down some notes for myself so that I learn good things from this endeavor — of both smart ideas I saw, and situations I would have done differently. Of course, if any of these ideas are of use to you, or you have any suggestions from your own experiences, I'd be delighted to hear from you. Also, I'm writing this as if I'm talking to myself, so the "you" being addressed below is just me.

  • The first thought I should keep in mind is this: putting on a performance seems much like a form of the project management in technology that I'm familiar with. There's a saying amongst the coders I know who're organizing timelines for their projects: figure out how long you think something will take — then double it! I suspect this goes for performances too; e.g.: if you think you'll need four rehearsals, schedule eight — and so on.
  • Make sure the folks in each part actually want to be there and want that part. Then make sure they're willing to put in the time to learn that part. It's probably better to have a role filled by someone less skilled but more willing to work their tails off, than someone extremely talented who is half-assed about the role.
  • Getting people to move in concert is harder than getting people to move individually. If you have a group chorus or troupe that are all supposed to be moving smoothly together, make sure to schedule time just for them to practice their part — and give them more of that type of rehearsal than everyone else. They'll need it — and once they finally "get it" they'll look great together! Plus knowing you care enough to work a little harder or extra with them is a huge motivator.
  • Keep in mind that just because someone can sing or dance doesn't mean they can act — and vice versa. If you have a truly beautiful dancer who is terrible at lines, for example, try seeing if instead they can dance their emotions. Be flexible to the needs and abilities of your participants.
  • If you have people who like to interrupt in the middle of rehearsal to offer their opinions and suggestions, try taking them aside later for a talk. Let them know that you really are interested in their thoughts — but in the middle of rehearsal isn't the place for that, as it disrupts everyone else. Ask them to keep those ideas in mind, and come to you with the suggestions once the practice is concluded.
  • Make sure the script and/or the music list is finished and ready for use before rehearsals begin. If you want to ask for feedback on the script or music, make sure you have plenty of time to listen and sift through suggestions so as to make the best choices that you can. Google docs are a fabulous way to share things like this. Thank everyone who participates and remember: even if you don't like their suggestions, they gifted you with their time and effort. Always, always thank them.
  • Props and set pieces can be produced while rehearsals have already started, but make sure they're all completed or nearly done before the first full dress rehearsal. That first full dress rehearsal should produce a lot of notes too: what isn't working yet, who can repair any damage, where does that prop or that costume have to be during this act and who will put them there, and so on. The second full dress rehearsal should hopefully have all those notes marked as solved… in a best case scenario, of course. By the third dress rehearsal there should be no more issues, hopefully — it should flow smoothly and well, and people can concentrate on polishing their performances rather than basic set or role work.
  • Rehearsals are when everyone memorizes their parts and learns their blocking, i.e.: where they stand or move on the stage. These don't have to be full rehearsals, of course — you can break them up by acts or by choreography or for stagehand prop movement training or whatever. Make sure everyone knows how to not block sight lines for the audience. Make sure everyone has attended at least a few of the rehearsals so they're not being taught basic parts of their role while everyone else is well past that point. If there's someone who never makes rehearsals, think long and hard about whether they're a good fit for their role, or not. Once everyone knows their part backwards and forwards, only then begin full dress rehearsals — since those should be nearly a piece of cake, rather than when the various roles are being learned.
  • Know when to delegate. If you don't have time to lead the chorus in extra rehearsals, make sure the most experienced or most enthusiastic participant knows the choreography really well — then make them responsible for organizing and teaching the chorus. Checking in periodically to make sure things are going well won't hurt, but unless there's a disaster remember to stay hands off. Conversely, if one of the chorus comes to you for extra teaching, either open those teachings to everyone, or refer them back to the assigned lead.
  • While it's true everyone has lives outside of the play/ritual/dance/whatever, make sure everyone keeps in mind that a professional, polished performance reflects well upon all of us. It will be important that everyone volunteers as much time as they can, and understands that this will take a significant chunk of effort. As a single example, in the last week before the performance there should probably be rehearsals every night, with people expected to participate in a majority of them.
  • If you're a performer, know your part. Practice it during every rehearsal you can get to, and then again later with other performers or friends if they're willing, and yet again when alone at home. If there's music, listen to it as much as you can; if there are lines, declaim them to your long-suffering family and pets! Practice your part repeatedly until it is second nature; until you can pick it up in the middle as if interrupted and still give a flawless performance.
  • If you're the director: be aware that while directing, you are "on" for your performers. Keep it positive — because whatever you say that is negative will carry far more weight than usual, and you can inadvertently crush someone through carelessness. Try hard to be kind: these people are all volunteering their time and effort to you. Try to suit people to their roles, as mentioned above. Give people a chance when you can; e.g.: if you've got someone who knows their role but is always late to rehearsal try pairing them up with someone who needs a bit more help in getting their role down pat. Sometimes more responsibility will help settle folks who're slightly careless with other people's time but good at taking care of themselves. However, also be aware that it's you that's going to have to do all the nasty shit: you're the one who'll have to "fire" someone from a role they can't fill, whether due to lack of talent or lack of practice.
  • There are lots of ways to direct. My personal choices follow: when directing, present yourself as calm and collected. Have the tools to hand to take notes, and do so re each rehearsal — perhaps even for the performance itself. Know the script inside and out. Be polite and as articulate as possible with your volunteers; don't let yourself get easily exasperated or angry. If someone is constantly flubbing their part or role, try to figure out if there's something in your instructions that's causing the issue. If not, try to figure out a non-humiliating way to better communicate with that person and help them fix things.

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Stagecrafting fun

14 Feb 2017 In: Craftiness, Dancing!, Random, Spirituality

I did a thing! Well, I painted a thing — for my ATS bellydance troupe's upcoming ritual of the Descent of Inanna, taking place this Sunday at Pantheacon. Woo!

This is my first time creating stuff for the stage, so I'm really quite pleased with how it all came out. The object in question is a moveable and reversible Ishtar Gate, with one side relatively true to the original and the other painted so as to be a gate to the Underworld. The husband of the troupe leader built the thing of lumber and canvas, then painted the background. It's cleverly done, too — the pillars are on wheels, and the crenelated top is removable. It's light enough, though also sturdy enough, that one person can push it around on their own (if necessary — it's smoother with two folks) when the Gate is completely assembled.

If I understand correctly, the artwork was supposed to be done by the son of the troupe sister who is organizing this event/ritual. However, when I walked up and asked if I could help, he gladly accepted. I think the poor guy was just realizing how little time he had to get so much done, honestly… because over time I ended up doing all of the "Heaven" side and finishing the "Underworld" side.

As previously mentioned, our gate consists of two tall pillars with a crenelated top piece. The troupe leader and the ritual manager explained that they wanted an Assyrian dragon, a lion, and a bull on each pillar, much like there are on the original Ishtar Gate. Admittedly the lions are actually only on the walls that line the road to the Gate, but they too are lovely — so we added them as well. The Underworld side has the demon Pazuzu on it, which is a neat trick for a couple of reasons. First, in my research for visuals on him I discovered that whenever he's depicted in a full-body pose (mostly in statuettes) he is invariably shown from the front — with one single exception that I know of, which has his lower body turned sideways like an Egyptian piece of art. Fortunately that one was enough for me to realize he had a scorpion's tail along with the four wings, clawed hands, raptor feet, etc. Secondly, he's a chronologically-later Assyrian demon rather than Sumerian like Inanna is. The reason for that is: "shut up!" she explained. :)

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(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher's Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today's issues)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

7) What are human beings really like: selfish and greedy or generous and kind?

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(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher's Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today's issues)

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

2) What do you think is the best answer to the question, "Why should I be a good person?"

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Bestiaries depict mythical, moralizing animals, but are also potential allegorical sparks that can bloom into brilliant mental bonfires. My bestiary is this mythologizing animal's fascinated exploration of beauty & meaning in the wonder of existence -- in the hopes of inspiring yet more joyous flares of intellectual passion.

Enjoy!

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