Sunday, December 04, 2011

Brother Outsider

I was in Philadelphia, from Wednesday to Saturday, attending my second People of Color Conference. My first experience of the conference took place in Denver, and I wrote about my impressions of that conference on this blog. Learning from that experience, I decided to be very selective about the talks and workshops I would attend, and so had a much more pleasant time than before. It was also fun to be with KH and A.

The highlight of the conference, for me, was the screening of the documentary feature film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, directed by Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer. A Communist briefly in his youth, a lifelong pacifist, and an openly gay man, Rustin has been erased from traditional accounts of the civil rights movement in the States. He mentored, however, the younger Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized the 1963 March on Washington. After the screening, during the Q&A, a black female teacher from Alabama swore that she would fight to right the records when she returns to her state. A black male teacher, who teaches History, affirmed that his own research had led him to the same conclusion as the film's, that Rustin was a crucial figure in the struggle for civil rights. I was happy to hear the two teachers speak in support of the film and the figure.

The other film screening was also interesting. Why Us? Left Behind and Dying, another documentary feature film, followed a small group of inner-city African American high school students from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who explored why HIV infection rates are disproportionately high in black communities. Guided by documentary-maker Claudia Pryor Malis, the students interviewed research scientists and public health experts from both the USA and Africa, as well as HIV/AIDS activists and people in their own neighborhoods. Many causes were examined, including genetic, gender, social and psychological factors. The film was a frank and thoughtful look at a tough topic.

My interest in the conference turned out to be very much related to LGBT matters. I attended the workshop given by Rye Country Day School on the introduction of a Gay-Straight Alliance student club in the Middle School. The club caters to seventh and eighth graders. The students interviewed for the short video were mostly articulate about why it is important to support friends who may be LGBT. After the workshop, I was persuaded that more diversity work should take place in the Middle School at my school. Those years are crucial for the formation of identity and perceptions of others. The students grow more closed, more cynical, more brittle, when they go into the Upper School.

Before attending the workshop on the African American Iconic Images Collection, I had not realized that Philadelphia was a city of murals. Originating from the Anti-Graffiti Network in the 80s, the non-profit group has since been incorporated into the city government as the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Their murals encompass more than African American subjects and more than traditional mural techniques. The program evolves with changes in the city's neighborhoods. It is now looking to curate a collection of Latino images as well. It is also open to new artistic methods, such as the use of LED lights.

I took an afternoon off to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The twenty-five-minute trek from Marriott Downtown was worth it. The Rodin Museum, passed on the way, was unfortunately closed, but there was plenty to see at the PMA. It had a large collection of Impressionist art. I was particularly drawn to the landscapes of Camille Pissaro, which showed a great sensitivity to movement in the picture plane.  In one painting, a road disappeared into a vanishing point while a train sped towards the viewer. The painting of a walled garden was divided by strong horizontals.

I was also very pleased to see Marcel Duchamp's early paintings (like his wonderful The Chess Game) and later readymades, including the bicycle wheel and the fountain. His cubist Nude Descending a Staircase (Number 2) was also on show. The Mexican Modernists had their own gallery here. David Alfaro Siqueiros's War and The Giants were sculptural images. I cannot remember the name of the artist of my favorite image of the afternoon. A man was shown pulling his shirt over his head. The bent muscular torso was rendered enigmatic by the hidden head.

I ended my walkabout in the Museum's reconstruction of an Indian temple. It was a dark and silent space, in which to rest one's feet and recover one's breath. A temple to art now, it was a refuge from the city's unquiet life. I was sitting out, for a while. Bayard Rustin drew inspiration from Gandhi's belief in non-violence, and put his body on the line for causes that he fought for. That was a form of self-transcendence that is beyond me.

The next afternoon, I walked around the historic district in the direction of Penn's Landing at the waterfront. In Washington Square I saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the war dead in the American Revolution. The entire square used to be a burial ground. The diagonal path took me through Independence Square, and then to the Carpenters' House, where the Continental Congress first met to discuss action against Great Britain. From Penn's Landing, I walked to the Korean War Memorial, put up by George W. Bush, and then to the Vietnam War Memorial. Pine Street, lined with beautiful houses on both sides, led me back to the downtown area. I stumbled upon Giovanni's Room, an LGBT bookstore, with a white-haired man behind the counter, before walking up Queer Street, 12th Street, back to the hotel. I had the illusion of taking quite a chunk of American history in my stride.

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