Fri, Mar

Florida Brings Back An Old Version Of White Supremacy.  Also, LA Culture and the Watts Tower Documentary


GELFAND’S WORLD  - White supremacy comes cloaked in various guises. Not the least of these is the old idea that slavery wasn't so bad for the slaves. In its original incarnation, it was the assertion that slaves weren't really full human beings, but were somewhat childlike, and could at best benefit by some limited vocational training accompanied by whipping as required. Anyone who saw the recent opera Omar got the slavery story as told by the slavers, alongside the reality as felt by the slaves.

We can see that same white supremacy argument once again in the words coming from the latest Florida school curriculum change -- the one that will teach that slavery included some vocational training that might be of use to the slaves. We could try to parse that argument, but to do so is not only distasteful, it risks being taken as a purveyor of such filth. So suffice it to say that Florida is proposing to teach an assertion that could only be true in the event that slavery was something other than what it was.

Just to make clear what is being said here, let's imagine for the moment that you could be taken from your home and put in jail, without access to any legal rights, there to stay. You would be assigned work duties as the caretakers chose, and you would suffer physical punishment (caning comes to mind) as they saw fit. If some other jail could use your skills (maybe they need crops picked or cement carried) then, for the appropriate price, the other jail could buy your services and have you shipped (in chains, naturally) to your new home. No attorney could spring you, nor could your relatives buy your freedom unless the jailer agreed to the sale.

We don't accept this sort of thing in our beneficent modern civilization (well, except by the Russian Federation when Russia is stealing Ukrainian children), but real slavery prior to the end of the Civil War was the ultimate horror show, where people's children could be taken from them, and couples could be separated because one of them was a salable commodity. The classical defense of this system, that not all slaves were subjected to the cotton fields and to beatings, is beyond discussion.

Until now, where it will be part of the policy of the state of Florida.

And all this so Ron DeSantis can prove to Republican voters that he is more conservative than Donald Trump.

In the past few days, one Black congressman from the Florida delegation chose to dispute, ever so gently, that part of the proposed curriculum. He was blasted and taunted by the DeSantis enablers, to the point of being accused of forwarding White House propaganda and repeating Kamala Harris

Florida education spokesmen claim that the new curriculum actually includes much about the evils of slavery. It is curious, therefore, that they -- and the DeSantis people -- are so thin skinned about one modestly phrased suggestion about cleaning up the curriculum.

Instead, those in power have managed to include that right wing buzz word of the day, "woke," to suggest that there is something malign about Democratic criticism and, at least in one case, the criticism by one Republican.

Perhaps the conservatives have some definition of "woke" that is different than the standard, in which case it is just the latest right wing insult. If "woke" simply refers to being aware that there were great crimes and injustices in the earlier half of our history, that is something that requires teaching at least in some part of the standard public school curriculum.

Let me point out one other problem with these attacks on those who would criticize this right wing party-line of the day.

It is common practice in the south and in some border states to avoid the realities of slavery with denialisms such as "they were friends," implying that there were good masters who treated slaves like their own children. It is denialism because the fact of being owned is the ultimate ugliness. Not only was it a horrible thing, it remains a scar on our history that needs to be exposed. Perhaps Florida may wish to negotiate about when and what grade level such education happens, but it should never insert the old white supremacy argument into the official curriculum.

The Watts Towers

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival presented a documentary about the Watts Towers and their creator, Simon Rodia. I Build the Tower was made almost twenty years ago by Edward Landler and Brad Byer, after a filmmaking process that itself dragged on over a couple of decades. The film is available on DVD. 

Edward Landler was present and took questions, along with representatives of the museum and art academy that has been built alongside the towers.

The documentary makes clear that Rodia had personal problems, being a serious loner who had a major drinking problem. The drinking led to the breakup of his marriage and the lifelong failure of any relationship with his sons. But along the way, Rodia stopped drinking, settled in Watts while buying a triangular lot, and proceeded to build several towers using steel reinforced concrete adorned with bits of glass, old bottles, sea shells, and inlaid paintings. Rodia used colorful materials, causing the towers to have an otherworldly look. A presence no less than Buckminster Fuller praises Rodia's work in an early part of the film.

The filmmakers show the area in southern Italy where Rodia came from early in life, and subtly convey to the viewer that the physical style of the towers (if not the manner of construction) has similarities to the structures present in the architecture of that Italian region, as well as to wooden structures built for festivals.

The film includes comments by Rodia himself, recorded late in his life from his then home in northern California. The film reminds us that the last five years of the 19th century and the remainder of the 20th century were the first time in which we can see people (and historical figures) as they actually were, in the cinematographic moving image. In this case, we get the somewhat crusty, somewhat English-language-challenged, real Simon Rodia, in his own words. He turns out to have been a competent construction worker with skills as a brick layer and maker of serious surface textures, an angry man who railed on about taxes and the lack of money, who created something unique.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)