Saturday, July 12, 2014


Me, 1962 or so. 

High school dramatics saved my life.  Not the life everyone saw with me walking around, a good girl getting good grades, but the REAL life where I had dragonfly wings and could sing in a strange key no one could hear.  Even writing was not a comfort in those days with the “creative writing” teacher demanding that I demonstrate the robin’s rain call I claimed I knew  (I did.)  Everyone praised too quickly -- no one really “grokked.”  Teachers would ask me to “help” and “befriend” obviously unhappy classmates, never hearing the shrieking in my own head.  I needed a community of people like me.

Onstage one can shriek -- in costume -- even in high school and certainly in real university theatre classes. What I learned was the necessity of empathy, the vicarious inhabitation of other people’s worlds and motives.  The Blackfeet reservation was “grad school” where the trade-off for the survival of the group versus survival of the individual was “for reals,” truly life and death.  Being “nice” was a defensive pose but no guarantee of not starving.  White skin helped but it was a minority identity.  The whole delicate diplomacy of advance and retreat according to race, gender, status, is always a dance.

Queens of the Ball

Last night I watched “Paris Is Burning” for the first time (you can find it online).  It was filmed when I was circuit-riding through Montana with 19th century frontier Methodism as a script, so I never heard about it at the time.  I don't think many people did.  It’s a movie about dressing up and posing as the person you “really” are.   I mean, REALLY are. The other aspect is about forming groups:  “houses,” as in couture; “family” to replace the one that threw you out; "voguing" and "throwing shade" as ways of extravagantly interfacing one’s most flamboyant showing-off self with all the competitors and sympathizers, judgers and defenders.  Very tribal.  A rumbling rhumba.

I don’t think anyone has ever interpreted “Paris Is Burning” -- the whole phenomenon of a minority blazing out in a protected setting -- in terms of a Native American pow-wow.  Surely fancy-dancing is not so different from voguing, a way of yearning and mocking at the same time.  No 19th century warrior or hunter danced in a whirl of bright ribbons and ostrich feathers, but neither does the 21st century dancer have to fear the cavalry will come to shoot them dead as they once did.  (Gays still might worry.  Hispanics?  We're all worrying.)  The two forces -- self-expression and community solidarity -- combine in a very powerful way on that grassy campground next to Browning.  The families, like "ball houses” act in the same competitive way, driving each other to higher achievement, but sheltering the vulnerable.

Portland, OR, Leadership Forum

In the Nineties I still had heard nothing about this movie and even now it’s discussed more in terms of Gay than Black, New Orleans in Harlem.  In that decade I was working for the City of Portland, which was trying to come to terms with the Black population it acquired in wartime when Kaiser brought in shipyard labor.  Affirmative action meant that I was working with Blacks, getting to know them at least a little bit.  They knew that movie. 

When I got on the bus and saw an empty seat next to one of my Black coworkers, I hesitated to sit there and he saw that, so then I was determined to sit there.  We talked about golf.  He’d stop by my desk and ask if I had any hand cream and I’d give him some from the tube in my drawer.  (We worked so much with paper that our hands were always dry.)  Then I thought I’d be generous and gave him a tube of his own -- too late seeing that he took it as rejection, not wanting to share a water fountain.  We step on each other's toes.

There were enough Blacks that they interacted among each other, less guarded than otherwise.  One of them, a young (and according to them, very spoiled) woman would occasionally “vogue.”  When I imitated her, everyone was both amused and nervous.  It was indiscrete.  Was it hostile?

These ladies are in my old nabe in Portland.

The men of color were careful not to be anything but conventional in a white way.  One older dignified man was constantly treated like a slave by our little white hen of a boss, I think because she was afraid of him.  Me, too.  I mean, she was afraid of me, too.  He and I became sympathizers.  He was a strong church person and since I was thinking about all those issues, I decided to attend his church.  He met me there, thinking I would feel isolated, and his small son came along as chaperone so no one would get the wrong idea.  People were dressed as for a coronation, fabulous upper-class Brit couture with hats like herons spreading wings.  Everything was patterned.  The music was soaring.  It was another moment when people who usually had to keep their heads down for safety were able to really cut loose, not in a low way, but as an entitlement to the best, most powerful, most splendid.  Star power.  Status.

Octavia St. Laurent

People in middle-class white America don’t much dress up for church anymore.  Even the pastors are not so likely to wear robes and enter in procession with the choir.  There seems to be a feeling that it would be “fake,” pretentious.  But poor people don't admire dressing down.  The funeral practice on the rez now -- if the family can afford it -- features pall-bearers wearing new matching cowboy shirts with emblematic armbands.  

Priests still dress up, though the Pope now dresses down.  It's a matter of distinguishing oneself in the vocabulary of wardrobe.   (In the wonderful comic strip called Francis,” he tries on Benedict’s fancy red shoes and finds himself in Kansas!) 

Francis demonstrates empathy.

Somehow the hippie/back-to-the-land/anti-arrogance/grunge levelers and deflators have gone a little too far:  they’ve damaged the joy of extravagance, the satirical flamboyance of dressing-up and “playing the role.”   The fairy godmother no longer helps us "go to the ball in in a fabulous gown."  

The “mothers” of the “houses” who are interviewed in “Paris Is Burning,” take a protective, encouraging but not unrealistic, view of their “babies.”  They know these youngsters have been thrown out of their birth families; they know they survive through shop-lifting, sexwork, low-pay drudge work, whatever they have to do; they know that they are constantly in danger and, in fact, one of the most appealing people interviewed is found dead before the end of the movie.  (Octavia St. Laurent has also died.)  In such communities an aquifer of tears is just under the surface.  If it converts to fuel, the fire consumes cities.  Not just Paris.

Religion as institution can enable and justify destruction.  But as small voluntary organic organizations like the former Elks gymnasium productions in “Paris Is Burning,” they can give life, a ground of being where individuals can take root for survival.  They must be kept secret, or at least confidential, so as to attract only those who are seeking them.  They cannot be produced by advertising campaigns like those the denominations fund in hopes of growth.  In fact, even the North American Indian Days pow-wow has become something like a State Fair with out-of-state carnival rides and gimcrack vendors.  $500 fee for a booth on the fairway.  Locals can't afford them.

Military "drag" is popular around the world.

A few years ago Tom Cruise came through to promote Scientology, claiming Indian spirituality as Euros constantly do.  Several people gave Cruise valuable gifts, like solidly beaded vests, expecting that he would reciprocate by maybe inviting them to stay at his place in Hollywood.  NOT.  He thought he was entitled to homage.  Sometimes gay people come to the rez, thinking that all indigenous people are levelers, innocent of social prejudice and ranking.  NOT.  Every tribe has its own gender arrangements, but all respect wealth.  Most are a little uneasy around African-Americans unless they've spent time in the city.

Maybe such organic communities as the ones in the film are on the internet now.  There's a LOT of dance on YouTube, amazing moves.  It wasn’t until the action shifted to pocket computers that filaments of empathy could connect people.  Maybe we need to see faces as well as hearing voices and music. I’m told that soon every school child on the rez will be given a “tablet”.  Let it happen.  We should hand out smart phones all over Central America.  Give them city, give them “houses.”  Call the tribes.  

This is the fifth step of this process of achieving deep meaning: connecting to all these others and what they are feeling.  Find your people.  This is a powerful way to move the out-skin world to the in-skin understanding of who and where you are.  It will take you back to expanding the repertoire of your own bodily instrument, your sensorium.

Hopi Homecoming Royalty

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