Sunday, September 20, 2009

Obama the Witch Doctor:

In the middle of the night I woke up and thought, just short of anxiety but wondering about myself, concerning my future initiation to orisa Sango ~ "THEY'RE going to shave my head and cut holes in it to insert (incredibly complex) "medicine" that will change me (that's the idea...) into something I don't even know what." This morning I awoke and have to wonder if I'm that different from the people who approve of this:

Yesterday my friend Ruffino asked me what term I used to categorize him and his family. I had to do some back history, describing how at first I had told someone about "the Mexican family" that I'd made friends with, self-conscious about saying it even as it came out of my mouth. I'd made friends with his father, Ruffino senior, who runs a small local "Mexican" grocery, thrilled to have someone to ferret the secrets of "Mexican" cuisine from, without bothering to discover his personal history before declaring his ethnic one, ie that he was a chef in a Greek restaurant in Chicago before he came to my hometown. Then I learned that Milly, Ruffino junior's wife, is Colombian (great! another cuisine to learn about!) added that to the guilt of rushing to add Mexicans to my crown of diversity jewels, and I decided to switch to "Chicagoans". Which didn't stick, so, now, I confess to Ruffino that I put them in the "Latino" category, but I'm not happy about it today. "At least you get the official category right." says Ruffino. Here in Smalltown, or Anytown, USA, he and his family get plenty of experience with racial prejudice, or is it color prejudice, or just "you're different" prejudice - or are they all the same thing?

When Napoleon, Jack, Brent, Toby & I were having conversations during the You'll Always Come Back workshop, the subject kept coming back, of course, to color, race, history of race relations, slavery, slave-owning, not being prejudiced, maybe being prejudiced and not recognizing it, etc. etc. - I started feeling really embarrassed about the whole mess, and advanced that I knew that it was likely, probably certain, that I personally would expose some not-so-seemly aspects of my mental construction during the show, and quite possibly discover that I'm a cad. Brent, I think it was, commented that I was brave to try it, and THAT really made me feel embarrassed ~ simply learning how to be civil does not qualify in my book as heroism. Changing the way I think is the least I can do.

My readings in post-post-deconstructionalist anthropology lead me to wonder if our brains require "the other" to even function at all. Problem. And then there's the fairly well set in stone metaphoric qualities we ascribe to colors - Light/White is good; Dark/Black is bad. Not all cultures have the same associations for colors, but languages change slower than you might think. The light dark polarity may go to our #1 fear, believed by some to have originated millions of years ago when The Dark was a big problem for edible diurnal humans, so we may be somewhat stuck with ours... You, you there, the other-colored one, the Socialist, I need you so that I can define who I am.

Seems like I remember reading that there was a point when Obama chose to be black, versus bi-racial, perhaps hoping to get the jump on categorization. Of course there's the single drop of BLOOD, versus the who can pass as what syndromes, still active in our thinking. Or at least in mine. Another thought that popped into my semi-dreaming mind a few nights back happened when I imagined my post-mortem state in the Yoruba otherworld, realized I couldn't SEE the color/race of these "others" I'd joined, and then realized, with yet another humiliating shock, that "they" are not "others"; we're all we. How did I miss that?

Ruffino joked that I was "white with a black heart" (hee! double meaning there!) & called me the "Guru of Diversity." So what's the connection between here, where I am, and the Yoruba? ~ My friend Ajala, priest in what we call a cult, deep in the heart of darkest AFRICA, is quite a bit further up the creek than diletantes like Conrad & his heart of darkness could even imagine. THEY sacrifice things there, cut off the heads and the blood flows out, and not only that they believe that the deities require it. Blood is thought to be a Sacred Offering for heaven's sake!

I'm cooking chicken for lunch, & no I didn't raise it myself, or chop off its head & personally witness the blood flow out to enrich the earth and feed the forces of nature, before I take my portion. There was no squawking, de-gutting, etc. (as there was regularly back when Cebah was in charge of chicken conversion.) It came all neatly dismembered, stacked on white plastic with more plastic wrapped over, a present really ~ an important aspect of which was that I didn't have to get mixed up personally in the killing/bloody part. But just up the road a ways, near my friend Floyd's place, there's a big metal building, tucked away behind a hill so it can barely be seen. You can't get very close to it - that's forbidden - because inside it thousands of chickens live out their short lives where the sun don't shine, and you can't turn around, and death, tho ever-present, is no big deal & blood is just another by-product. I'm going to go photograph the "plant" today, at a safe distance of course.

Then there's the Civil War, which I can't get around in YACB's frame of history, something's got to be made of it, but what, artistically speaking, is there to make something out of? "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on - Glory Glory Hallelujah, etc." (Vintage is a metaphor for blood, if you didn't notice...) The God(s) of War want Blood! It's the greatest sacrifice. It preserves our way of life. Be a hero. Let's do it over there so we won't have to do it here. Where now? Afghanistan...

I have an (unprovable) theory that the quotient of human (and animal) blood sacrificed to maintain life remains constant to population throughout history, or in other words, we spill, quart for quart, gallon for gallon, as much a flood of blood as we ever did, and maybe we always will, whether it gets offered to the god of our fathers or just hits the dirt. Maybe it's our uncivil identity. In which case can we really categorize the Yoruba way of sacrifice as particularly primitive?

Some years back a friend, herself a devotee of the orisa, warned me that "If you want to know what ostracized means, just go ahead and mention that you're studying a traditional African religion." I thought she was being over-reactive, if not naive. But the red flags do go up now ~ artistic, or any sort of freedom to question who we are, where we came from, and where we're going comes with small print fetters of factionalization. The politics of fear. And where's the great center of fear in the world still located? In blackness, no doubt.

Maybe an even worse problem for me is desire. I think black guys, specifically, are hot. But then I can somewhat justify that with the realization that pretty much all healthy men of any ethnicity look hot to me. Whew! That was a close one. Maybe I can get by by just being labeled simply queer - is that ok? Am I accepted? May I do the initiation thing too?

Rob + Dan, photo by William Cox

So what about Hope, the theme of Obama's campaign? Is there any left? When the formula "witch" + "doctor" (= African) is evoked, what's the appropriate response?

I've decided to start with myself, by testing the theory of categories and how my mind uses them to create meaning; I hereby declare that I will no longer use verbal category tags such as white, black, latino, biracial, gay, etc etc. to qualify the status of my friends. I will try to see beyond Democrat and Republican. I may not be able to restrict my food choices to the plants and animals that I personally kill, but I'm going to try to remember that they died so that I can live. Every time I eat. And I may not have the nerve to defy the god of war, but I'm not going to forget that (real) human blood is being shed so that I can go shopping.


William said...


Dan Dutton said...

Thanks William! I felt like my mind was running on a Mobius strip while thinking about this. Strange days we're living in! Good tho!

Cathy said...

Thoughtful and thought-provoking. I wish there were a way to incorporate musings like this into YACB! To me they seem an integral part of the work, and a critical context for watching it. It might help encourage the audience to move beyond any surface sensationalism and appreciate the layers and nuances beneath.

Dan Dutton said...

I'm working on that! It was one of the main points in my conversation about YACB with Napoleon ~ how do we make sure (can we?) that the layered aspect of the work is apparent?

Maybe part of the answer (besides making all the effort possible) is that YACB is all that it contains, and that includes a community and the community's conversations... so there are adepts and novices by nature of the process. I am planning to incorporate as much as possible.

Maybe there could be an introduction, just before the dance/nucleus part that forms the concert-styled aspect of YACB, that would reveal some of the process hidden in the music, dance & visual art. (I'm thinking of having the whole performance be 12 hrs, from noon to midnight, with a 2 hr concert ~ a compressed nucleus ~ in the typical evening hrs.)

Cathy said...

Maybe a small booklet of some of the poems, too.

Dan Dutton said...

The poems are coming in there somehow. They'll be on the fabric for the skirts (some of them) ~ & I'm thinking of having them read, or recordings of them being read, as part of the longer (12 hr) event.