Monday, September 09, 2013



I will continue down the path which Bill Berkowitz has put me on with another version of Scission's new Cultural Monday.  I am the worst person in the world to deal with culture.  Even though I read about everything I can lay my hands on and always have, I have never been able to write even a decent book report, let alone review literature of any kind.  I almost never see the symbolism.  In fact, I don't believe, that most of the time, the authors ever see the symbolism.  I think most of the time  literary critics, university professors, high school english teachers and an assortment of snobs are the one's who actually create the symbolism.  How come you never read a book where the author at the end relays to you all the deep meanings of what he or she has written...maybe because there really  isn't any.  Don't you just hate me.

Further, if it were up to me and I was running a bankrupt city the first thing I would do to raise some cash is sell the closest city owned Art Museum.  Really?  Can someone explain to me who decides what is art and who decides what it is worth and why?  I am all for your local artists making a little cash for their work, but their work is really no more significant, less so usually, then the worker at the local plant who puts the brake linings in your new car.  I don't claim to never view a painting or a photograph or a sculpture that I really like and admire, but that seems pretty much a matter of individual feeling to me.  I wouldn't give you thousands of dollars for any of it.  Millions for a Mona Lisa, I don't think so.  I am just a yokel, I suppose.

Art films, never much liked them.  Classical music, hey give me some rock and roll.  Dare I even mention folk music.  I always wondered just who the "folk" in folk music were/are.  Who are these people who wear nothing but flannel shirts and work boots and who all sing the same song with different words while hopping the next freight train passing through town.  Maybe they existed once, decades and decades and decades ago, who knows, but I don't believe all the old Okies heading west were that guy, nor do I believe they were that woman in the long dress, with the stringy hair, and the sad eyes, standing gallantly by her man.  And then there is the problem that apparently almost none of these poor folks, hard working folks, were anything but white.  What's up with that?  Really, there are folk songs I like, but mostly I find the stuff slow and dull and pretty much all the same.  Yeah, yeah, we all love the oh so political lyrics, but hey, go write a poem.

Speaking of poems.  Now I do like a lot of poetry.  Couldn't tell you why.  Couldn't interpret much of any of it, but as the Supreme's said of porn, well sort of, I know the stuff I like when I see it.

I like baseball and consider it an art, not always, but sometimes.  As I said before I like good rock, good metal, good goth...and I even enjoy a television shows like Justified, Nashville (I know), China Beach, Sons of Anarchy, and, of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  

So, the likes of me, doing something called Cultural Anything is an abomination, but oh well.

That brings us finally to today's post.  I have recently been watching the DVD set of the series Boardwalk Empire. I do get a little tired of seeing people getting their heads blown off and all that, but I have been particularly intrigued by the character known as Chalky White.  Chalky is Atlantic City's premier black bootlegger and all around urban gangster sort (we're talking prohibition times here).  The Grio says of Chalky,

 ...he’s a gangster involved illegal trade, but he also serves as a defender of his community against often violent white racism and a provider for the needs of black people whether they participate in the underground economy or not. More than just a procurer of outlawed whiskey, White is the political leader and moneyed savior of Atlantic City’s poor black population. 

Actually, I think that is a little over the top...the "savior" part. 

Grio goes on,

 Chalky is a devoted family, he spends his time outside of the home running his business and making sure the black population gets their proper cut of the burgeoning illegal liquor economy. It’s not that we’ve never seen a black man as husband and father, but to share in the same body two ideas that seem at odds with one another (criminal mastermind and loving husband/father) challenges us to think of black men beyond the binary of good versus bad, that one could be both wedded to the streets and his take care of his responsibilities his family left at home....

Loop 21 adds, 

... what makes him most compelling is not simply that he is complex – a man who ruthlessly runs an illegal liquor enterprise and dotes on his Morehouse College-bound son – but that his complexity represents a real, if forgotten set of black men who lived during that era.

One of the most powerful scenes I have recently seen on television is the one in Boardwalk Empire where, as Loop 21 describes:

 ...we witness an exchange between a prohibition-era black political boss and the Klansman he believes lynched one of his employees. Chalky White, played brilliantly by Michael K. Williams (who previously played the homoerotic killer Omar on “The Wire” ) tells the bound white man a story about his father, the most talented carpenter in Elkin, Texas. After building a majestic set of bookshelves for a white employer, Chalky’s father is lured out of town and lynched – likely to avoid paying him for his work and for the sin of being an artistically gifted Negro. At the conclusion of the tale we see Chalky White unfolding a set of carpenter’s tools, at which point the captive Klansman gulps and asks what he plans to do with them. The reply, uttered with sneering contempt encapsulates every reason why “Boardwalk Empire” has quickly become one of the best-written shows on television. “Well,” the Chalky says ominously, “I ain’t fixing to build no shelves.”

Chalky ain't playing the victim.  No sireee... I think he actually said, by the way, that he wasn't fixing to build "no bookcase."

Loop 21 again, 

Where the bootlegging at the heart of “Boardwalk” was largely run by whites, the numbers racket was, at least early in its history, a black and Latino enterprise. And Casper Holstein, who was the most powerful of these bosses, would be worthy of his own HBO series. At his height in the mid 1920s, Holstein controlled a large swath of the Harlem numbers racket, pulling in $10,000 daily. His wealth made him a major force in politics both in Harlem and his native Virgin Islands.

What made him stand out, though, was the significant role he played in helping fund the Harlem Renaissance. Holstein donated money to black colleges, dropped large financial contributions on Marcus Garvey’s movement and set up a fund for aspiring black writers, several of whom later became recognized figures in the Harlem Renaissance.

Chalky White is a fictional character but this is literally a case of art imitating life. Given the nature of the world he inhabits and the demands of the storyline, a character like him probably isn’t long for this world. But there’s something to be said for the fact that there are plenty more where he came from.

I have to admit I feel a little out of my league getting into all this, not the least of reasons being, quite simply that I am white, so what do I really know.  I wasn't even sure if I should write this stuff.  Surely there is someone out there who will view this from an angle that might cast the whole thing as racist.  I thought long and hard about that, but figured to do ahead with my thoughts anyway.  I was helped in this decision by the piece I am posting below from the blog site We Are Respectable Negroes and the writing of  Chauncey Devega.  His piece is three years old, but I am just getting around to watching the show, so, well, you know...

Chauncey DeVega is editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes, whose work has been featured by the NY Times, Alternet, the New York Daily News, the Utne Reader, the Week, and The Atlantic Monthly. Writing under a pen name, Chauncey DeVega's essays on race, popular culture, and politics have appeared in various books, as well as on such sites as the Washington Post's The Root and PopMatters.

Black Revenge Fantasies, White Manhood, and Historical Memory: Boardwalk Empire's Episode, "Anastasia" Reviewed

HBO's Boardwalk Empire is a lush television series. Do not be mistaken: Lushness does not necessarily mean a completeness of superficial physical beauty or the trap of ephemeral and pretty things. Lushness can also be depth. It can be intelligence. Lushness can be breadth and reward. As noted philosopher Slavoy Zizek said of the seminal dystopian film Children of Men, some artifacts of popular culture reward "deep viewing." For those who study film, popular culture, or the semiotics of mass culture, this means viewing a film with obligatory seriousness, intensity, and broadness of field.

For scholars of film, this understanding is a wink to the concept understood as "Mis En Scene." Translated: Boardwalk Empireframes a shot in such a way as to encourage a careful attention to clothing, the positioning of the characters relative to one another, and of the scene at large. The most damning observation that one can make of a television series such as Boardwalk Empire, a period piece set in the 1920's, is that it is a wax museum come to life. On its worst of days, and in the hands of a lesser steward, Boardwalk Empire could be the pitiable performance of a once great Motown band singing at a county fair when all the magic is gone, and the agents involved are in full denial about how far low they have fallen. Boardwalk Empire is none of these things--it is a window into the past, carefully constructed, and indelibly committed to the best that dramatic television can offer.

Boardwalk Empire is set is the great age of Prohibition-era America, when flappers danced upon the stage, temperance societies of now empowered (white) women reigned for a moment as they spread the wings of their now found political agency, and gangsters (with their liquor) were king. This is also the moment when white ethnics--those Italians, Irish, Greeks, and others--fought to burn away their ethnicity in the crucible of a soon to be found full whiteness in the post-World War One moment, as they become erstwhile Horatio Algers, when like James Cagney, they came to understand that "the world is mine."

The setting that is the literal boardwalk in Boardwalk Empire is also a complement to how race was made in early 20th century America. The sites, sounds, and spectacle of this space, the World's Fairs and mass culture were locations for race makingthrough popular culture. Moreover, the iron cage of white manhood, its imagined fraternal order, and the creation of "normal" bodies were all made real through the accessible spectacles featured on the boardwalk of places like Atlantic City, P.T. Barnum's enterprises, the "freak show," Ripley's stages, andthe great midways of cities such as Chicago.

Boardwalk Empire contains all of these elements. It has acknowledged the racist spectacle of The Hottentot Venus. The marquis of the theaters featured in Boardwalk Empire's deep scenes all signal to this history. Cigarette store Indians are omnipresent. Black popular culture is the ether of The Roaring Twenties, all the while black folks are dismissed as schwartzes who don't polish the crystal ware correctly. As whiteness exists only in juxtaposition to blackness and the Other, black folk are peripheral to Boardwalk Empire while being central to the American mythos. This is especially clear in Sunday's episode, "Anastasia." Because popular culture, especially television shows such as Mad Men andBoardwalk Empire, traffic in the malleability of historical memory, the white gaze doesn't see "us," but "we" are forever there.

The greatest moment of Boardwalk Empire's "Anastasia" episode signals to the power of blackness in American memory, and of this country's popular culture at large. To this point, Nucky, Steve Bushemi's (main) character, the top dog of Atlantic City, is playing chess not checkers. If politics is "what have you done for me lately?" and "who get's what, when, and why?" Nucky must reach out to Chalky, Omar of The Wire fame and the boss of the African American political machine in Atlantic City. Ultimately in"Anastasia," realpolitik trumps white supremacy and provincial notions of the supremacy of white bodies over those black and brown.

There is also a fantasy element to collective memory whichBoardwalk Empire is so keenly aware. Some viewers may indulge dreams of flappers, finely tailored suits, and bootleg liquor. For those with a blue's sensibility, our freedom dreams may be a bit different: How many of "us" have ever gotten to sit across from their sworn foes? To make them render onto Caesar? To act out justice upon their bodies?

In "Anastasia," Chalky indulges this dark dream--an Inglorious Bastards moment--of providential justice. He sits across from the Grand Cyclops of the KKK in Atlantic City. Chalky, in the longest monologue on the show to date relays a tale of class, race, and "uppity" negroes who dared to step out of line. For this, Chalky's father swung like strange fruit. And as Chalky opens up the leather clutch that contains his father's tools to torture the Grand Cyclops, we understand that pain will be a form of cathartic vengeance.

Here, suffering rendered onto the enemies of black folk, the Knight Riders, Klansmen, Klanswomen, and others is also a fantasy of sorts. How many black Americans can really recount a family story--one that is "true"--of relatives hung on the lynching tree, of uppity negro Catcher Freeman runaways, and where we, all of us, had grandmas who had Colt revolvers hiding under the hemline of their dresses ready for any white man (or anyone for that matter) who crossed them?

And we certainly cannot forget the stories about former chattel who ran away and came back as Union soldiers--much to the chagrin of their former masters; of slaves who posted bounties for their "owners" during Reconstruction; slaves that evicted masters on the plantation as they built a nation under their feet, or of the ultimate "go to hell letter" written by Jourdan Anderson to his white "employer." These are collective memories that may or not be literally true. Nevertheless, this does not take away the power of these communal truths because collective memory is none diminished by appeals to empirical truth.

In relief, Boardwalk Empire is a story of class, aspiration, and the Horatio Alger myth. Boardwalk Empire is also a tale of revenge and fantasy on the part of "us" against "them." Per our tradition, some questions about the Easter Eggs and Mis En Scenes of Boardwalk Empire:

1. What have you noticed in the background? What is your favorite shot of the series so far?

2. Of fashion choices and body sculpting. Am I the only person who has noticed something amiss with Lucy's beautiful breasts, or the choice of "female grooming" to this point so far?

3. Harlem. I need to see Harlem in its heyday. As an Easter egg,Boardwalk Empire could feature some former Harlem Hellfightersas badmen and now gangsters. Alternatively, some former white officers in those famed units would make for suitably complicated characters that are nonetheless racist, but somehow "progressive" for their contemporary moment in Jim Crow America.

4. On that note, Steve Bushemi's character dismisses the obviously "racist" cop during their meeting. Am I being cynical, or does the white racial frame always find a way to protect itself through a narrative where white racism is an outlier and most white folk are always good people--despite the politics of the epoch?

5. The Romanovs. What a great meta-narrative for this episode asBoardwalk Empire is a show centered on the pretenses of class mobility, uplift, social betters, and striving towards the good life.

6. As we saw with the slashing of Jimmy's prostitute lover, do the little folks always have to suffer for their associations with the marginally more powerful?

7. Why the emphasis on premature babies? Is this some signal to technology, progress, and America? Or is it a wink to a fascination with abnormal bodies during the early part of the 20th century?

8. We have Chalky as the bad black man and one of the machine bosses of Atlantic City. Are we going to see The Queen, the real queen, who was marginalized by the Hollywood myth-making machine in Lawrence Fishburne's movie Hoodlum?

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