Thursday, June 18, 2015

Margaret Walker's Century

The other week I drove from DC to the coast of Connecticut to join a panel at the Poetry by the Sea conference honoring African American poet and novelist Margaret Walker, whose works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966), based on the story of her great-grandmother during the slavery era. I learned about Walker while researching the book and documentary Soul of a People.
    This year marks the centennial of Walker’s birth, and Jackson State University, where she nurtured generations of writers for decades, has organized a slate of events to celebrate. Hopefully the world will know Walker’s vital work much better as a result.
    I thank my friends at Turner Publishing for posting my piece Young People Finding a Passion for Expression about Walker and her surprising formative years as a young woman working with other writers in a depressed Chicago during the late 1930s. Read the post here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day, Arbor Day and Where Nature Meets National Security

Seventy years ago outside the soaring stone Louisiana capitol building in Baton Rouge, the governor gave an Arbor Day speech that linked planting a tree with securing liberty. Then he put his foot to a shovel to make it happen. What was that tree that would protect the American people? The cork oak!
    Little-known fact: at the middle of the 20th century the United States imported nearly half the world’s cork. It was crucial (as an insulator) for the defense industry’s wartime production of planes, ships and equipment. For years during World War II and after, Arbor Day celebrations across the U.S. featured governors and other officials intoning to live and radio audiences how citizens could help keep America free by planting a cork oak. In response, 4-H groups, boy scouts and garden clubs requested the seedlings and planted trees to do their patriotic duty.
    So for Arbor Day and its successor Earth Day, here’s a reprise of the quixotic tale of the wartime campaign to save the U.S. from Fascism by growing cork oaks across America! Thanks to Chesapeake Bay magazine for publishing this first installment of an elaborate tale of nature and national security.
    And thanks to All Things Considered for airing another slant on the story.
    Digging deeper, I have been intrigued to find more about how cork – that elusive substance of desire and wine stoppers native to the Mediterranean – was a big deal in the mid-1900s. Companies like Crown Cork and Seal and Armstrong Cork – both still going today in different forms – found their work with Nature's cork entailed unnatural geopolitics. What began as a simple trade in bark and bottle caps snowballed into an elaborate global drama, bringing along sabotage, espionage, and…
    More to come. Do you have a cork oak story of your own? Let me know.
    Happy Earth Day!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Experience America, Experience Mingering Mike

The Experience America exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum blends, with a fresh eye, pieces from the museum’s permanent collections – including a number of stars from the Federal Works of Art Program exhibit of a few years ago, featured in my Smithsonian piece. Others come from private collections. Together these paintings help break down the silos separating images from the 1930s and '40s and portray America and American realism in a new light. It’s a refreshing and inviting exhibit.

Upstairs, the rooms devoted to Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits reveal a new form of outsider art: the LP oeuvre of a recording artist who never released a disc. The album covers track the career of a soul star from DC's streets, Mingering Mike. His vision comes complete with liner notes, lyrics and cardboard records hand-painted with grooves suggesting hi-fi tunes the appropriate length. You can also see his platinum hits. The exhibit is a fascinating little gem. There’s a fun piece about the artist on Studio 360.

Enjoy them both.