Down to the River Jordan: The World the Enslaved Made Print E-mail

210929132117 slaves virginia(The Truth Seeker September, 2023)

Before the Florida Department of Education issued its curriculum directive this past summer that slavery in the United States produced “personal benefits” for the enslaved in the form of a well-stocked resumé of trades, useful after Emancipation in 1863, the board members might have consulted a seminal document in the literature of the oppressed—Angela Davis’s 1971 essay, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.”

These days we’ve rightly exchanged the conditional designation, “slave,” for enslaved person. Fifty years ago, Davis prophesized this nominative shift; she cataloged how Black women resisted the shackles. Among the first scholars to gather the evidence, she argued that a woman (daughter, mother, wife) was equal to a man in undermining the slaveholder, surreptitiously and openly, at her peril. “If she was burned, hanged, broken on the wheel, her head paraded on poles before her brothers and sisters, she must have also felt the wedge of this counter-insurgence as a fact of her daily existence.”

Noise Is a Necessary Obscenity Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20230823(San Diego Reader August 23, 2023)

I’m not sure why but my hearing capacity is large and, lately, my ears have grown scarily irritated by noise. That’s putting it mildly. I wish I could annihilate lots of sounds, silence their obnoxious producers—the rifling of popcorn from a plastic bag behind me at the Rady Shell or the vibratory menace of subwoofer speakers quaking like the San Andreas from a car stopped beside me. But no can do. I hear it all, the soft, the loud, the aural invasion of my everyday life. On planes I listen to Wayne Shorter on earbuds and affix, over them, form-fitting earmuffs, the sort workers who guide planes into their slots on the tarmac wear. If I don’t, I go screwy with the dopey chatter, the squalling babies, the engine rumble, and, for me, the audible internal terror, set to buzz, like a Geiger counter—turbulence. My ears need their privacy, dressing them, as I must, behind a curtain. No wonder I prefer a life writing alone in my double-paned windowed home office.

Still Unsettled in the Promised Land Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

s l1600(Los Angeles Review June 1, 2023)

GENESIS • One hundred years ago, the most fearsome cultural critic in America was Edmund Wilson. Writing in 1931, Wilson noted in an essay that even though the Great Depression ravaged the country, “Americans still tend to move westward, and many drift southward toward the sun.” With economic displacement rampant, he thought our “westward expansion” had come to a “standstill.” Nowhere was this more tragically apparent than in San Diego, which he visited in 1930, the city where I’ve lived since 1982. With 150,000 people at the time, Wilson named it, inelegantly, “the jumping-off place.” What was it, he wondered, that magnetizes people to move here and feel suddenly unmoored? At first, the cause eluded him. But one consequence was clear: the suicide rate.

Review: A Universe of Fizzled Stars: On "Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California" by Matthew Specktor Print E-mail

Always Crashing(Quillette March 17, 2023)


Always Crashing in the Same Car is an exuberantly affectionate stroke of self-schadenfreude that defies category, and yet is weirdly categorial in its defiance. It’s a memoir of desultory personal loss disguised as an inquiry into the rise and fall of a 1970s Hollywood elite and its sensibilities. Its author, Matthew Specktor, novelist and a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, is haunted by what he has sort-of/kind-of achieved: minor notoriety and major obscurity in Tinseltown. Specktor relates tales of eight west-coast writers, musicians, directors, and screenwriters, who managed to wring latter-day decline out of youthful success: a night sky of aborted careers, burst egos, sabotaged comebacks—a universe of fizzled stars. Specktor didn’t have their success/decline but dearly wishes he had.

Once You Know Who They Are, You'll Know Who We Are Print E-mail

lyflyfyr(First published in Times of San Diego February 19, 2023)

The Negro is America’s metaphor. — Richard Wright

1 /

In the latest volley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his educational propagandists are hellbent on removing the “radical elements” of the College Board-approved AP course on African-American studies for high school seniors. They plan to eliminate “contemporary topics,” meaning “instruction in” Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, reparations, and critical race theory. I’ve been meaning to punch back at such suppression sooner than now but I, a White American, have been busy studying one of my favorite writers, the great African-American music critic and autobiographer, Albert Murray.

San Diego Smart: In Search of (Local) Intelligence Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20230208(San Diego Reader February 8, 2023)

The first thing you realize once you start investigating “intelligence” is that no two people—whose personalities and abilities, capacities and traits, are as different as their DNA—use the word the same way. It’s one of those concepts like pleasure or truth or value where the variety of individual variation makes a reliable definition unlikely.

If, on my block in Clairemont, I ask ten neighbors what they think they are smart at, I’d get unique profiles from each. One has an affinity for native-plant gardening, another is a crackerjack piano teacher, another is a pickleball champ, still another’s Master’s in computer graphics is in such high demand that soon she’ll move out of Clairemont. Each person is better-than-average and one-of-a-kind, a credit to the species. So they will all say. It’s hard to control for self-aggrandizement, the stats tell us: When 64 percent of Americans rate their driving skills as excellent, the same folk score drivers of their own age and skill at 22 percent.

Will No One Rid Me of This Troublesome Orange Jesus? Print E-mail

Thinker Trump(First published in Times of San Diego October 2, 2022)

Now that I know that just thinking about classified documents will declassify them, my mind is being overtaken by thoughts I dare not think for fear that thinking them makes them come true.

Just the other day I was thinking about that famous line of Henry the Second, King of England, when in 1170 he supposedly said (though, remember, it’s not clear that he said it but perhaps only thought it and said later that he had said it), “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

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