AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

Serena Williams And Another Babe

I often think about Serena Williams. She is 31, and I have been watching her since she was 16 or so. Fifteen years, and not one went by free of her name or her image or purportedly learned opinions about her that turned out to be wrong. They came from veteran players, commentators and nitpickers.

Her father was faulted and thought nearly crazy for deciding to keep his two girls in school, let them graduate and teach them the game himself - which he learned from watching television and videos. He was thought a pretentiously arrogant fellow to think he could learn - and teach - what was necessary without having been a professional coach himself or a former player.

Richard Williams took his girls out of early competition because he did not want them to burn out and lose the edge their enthusiasm could bring if they held on to it, had the talent and properly developed, he assured - to despairing and unsympathetic laughter - that their father would make sure of it. Wow, give them an inch.

There was even talk about the poor taste of Serena and her sister when they returned to the game, began winning and seemed incapable of dressing correctly, or reasonably.

I remember the tight beads, flopping against her head but not imperiling her game. I heard all the rumors about her becoming an irresponsible all-night party girl. There was the interview with Jon Stewart in which he seemed to be joking about her ability to beat down most men.

"That is not a joke. When you see her, she is tall and looks so powerful, you have no doubt she would come out the winner against most men, including you," a musician friend who was at a party with her said after.

A woman whose intelligence is beyond even the slightest doubt disagrees with what I have to say next about Serena, but I firmly believe the exceptionally talented among us, while human, manage to remake myths by illustrating the kind of people who might have initially inspired them, back before way back.

The essence, in this case, is fairly obvious. In all her muscularity, the woman is real, but as close to the mythical Amazon as we can imagine. She is daunting in her talent, grace, power, command of the intellectual qualities essential to the game and focused ferocity - and so she is met periodically by the various, inevitable nests of waiting hornets, the ideologues who want her to be a servant girl of their cultural politics.

Fundamentally shy but capable of falling into all American obnoxiousness, she can threaten to push a tennis ball down the throat of a white woman officiating a match. That woman is instantaneously transformed by the paranoid right-wing commentators into a symbol of whites suffering at the hands of black girls who have become too free.

She ignores them, because they want her to go away and because she has matches to win.

As one former trainer of professional cyclists, a writer and a very shrewd observer, said about her, "For everything she had to deal with in her demanding career, full of pressures and disappointments in the thin air at the top, where you can head for the bottom if you misstep and cannot gain your balance, she did well with herself."

Serena came through - from being called a monkey to not finding for many years some romance that could shield her from the alienation all great athletes feel.

She has learned how to stand up alone, and to withstand the popping flashbulbs and magnifying microscopes.

Serena made it through her adolescence, through typical narcissism and bad taste and all the temptations set before a young girl with a big talent - the same temptations set before young girls who have no talent for anything other than breathing.

We watched as she did it all; that is on the public record.

Now she is in her early 30s, when athletes begin to fall apart and lose their gifts, and she decided to make herself into another, better version of herself.

That's a hell of a decision so late in a career, but she did it and continues to win with a humbling authority. She is a woman now, no longer the talented teenager protected and emotionally supported by her family. She learned much from her faith, her mother and her father, who turned out over hard time spent coaching his two daughters not to be a fool at all, or a pretentious loudmouth. Like the backwoods boxer who gets in the ring with a pro, he managed to lay out a professional with an unpredictable blow. It took out all of the supposedly invincible knowledge of the game and laid it down for all to witness, much to their chagrin.

Well now, it went on with the Williams sisters for too long to be denied, but somewhere there is still grousing.

There is something American and invincible, at once specific and universal, in the tale of Serena, reaching backward to myths and forward to calming the trepidation about seemingly all-powerful technology.

Hers is the esteem of individuality, the same quality that President Dwight Eisenhower recognized when he eulogized "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, a muscular Norwegian-American girl from Beaumont, Texas, in 1956. Against the will of many, she began her career with gold medals in the 1932 Olympics. Forever a scrapper against obstacles, Zaharias did not stop there.

In the 1940s and '50s, she triumphed in just about every sport she tried, including golf, track and field, basketball, baseball, swimming, diving, tennis, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling.

She was, said Eisenhower, "a woman who ... won the admiration of every person in the United States and all sports people all over the world."

That is, right here and right now, what we have to say about Serena Williams, a purely black American woman but beyond everything other than her own shining individuality. Revealing determined confidence and a terror of losing, she expresses the world's favorite theme whenever she gets to the peak of her game: "I want to live."

(Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley(at)gmail.com.)

© 2013 Stanley Crouch

Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.

Posted: September 19, 2013, 4:00 pm

Intervention Blues

Sept. 11 always results in profound emotional response to one of the most observed horrors witnessed around the world, snipping all distances of nations and religions. It broke the heart of the country because the powerlessness in the face of war or violence is so rarely witnessed in this nation. Nothing bigger has ever taken place in these United States, except for the carnage of the Civil War, but for all of that blood and gore, the slaughter of the innocent, other than those killed by accident, almost never happened. Even the poisonous spoils of the victors, usually rape, distinguished this nation in ways the Indian Wars did not.

The 3,000 people who went down in the towers erected in Lower Manhattan and near Wall Street brought home terror to all Americans, far more grotesque than any race riot or lynching ever could unless the numbers were equal - and have never been. When credit was taken, Osama bin Laden and the pictures of the men who hijacked those planes and flew two of them into the World Trade Center became known, the hot mess hit the fan.

Unprecedented pain turned into the national feeling of the need for revenge. Many blunders were then made, and they are now on the verge of being repeated. The American people, somehow, are not about to swallow the same falsehood that was soaked in so much blood before but defined by the previous administration as above all evil and run through with a moral sense of necessity. But let us take the long view so that we don't get confused or distracted. Some pictures might be truly worth thousands of words.

In Pablo Picasso's paintings, war comes down to two things: slaughtering the innocent and raping available women. In a universal sense, he had it right.

The lethal accuracy and equally lethal mistakes of technology - beginning with the longbow and on from there to long-range missiles and chemical warfare - keep extending when and how we can go to war. Human beings fight better now, most of the time.

Yet the country grows tired of clomping boots on the ground and casualties. Dead bodies are shocking, then sickening and then finally dull and out of place.

No military refinement has resulted in anything other than what we have known from antiquity to five minutes ago: The compromised morality of military men is a tinderbox of unpredictable danger. The victims suffer in silence or become pariahs or wait until it is at last safe to complain.

The war of the moment in the Middle East is Syria, where President Barack Obama's position is that the United States should step in hard and fast, but only slightly. President Bashar Assad's military has killed at least 1,400 people with chemical weapons, he says.

Sen. Rand Paul, the tea-party camera chaser, must be agreed with when he observes that 100,000 are dead already by more conventional means, and asks why, then, we should risk war over these 1,400. Hmmm.

As always, the region's politics produce strange, and often reluctant, bedfellows. The Shah of Iran was our man until his addiction to cameras made it impossible to argue that he was treating the people fairly. He was not only deposed but sent globe-trotting in search of medical help, dodging the mullahs who came after him.

The mullahs were opposed to free speech and the complexities of democratic modernity, part of which is science, but our concern was that they wouldn't stick with the fossil-fuel deals set back in Colonial times, deals that mostly profited us buyers, not them the sellers.

Through the years, anti-Islamic rhetoric rose along with gas prices, and our inability to handle a changing world meant that we became ever more committed to Israel as a struggling beacon of democratic practices in the Middle East - a nation unwilling to become a communist toy.

Israel was a creation of British colonial policy that received much American Jewish support because the revelations of anti-Semitic mass slaughter during World War II convinced Jews that they needed a safe and secure homeland. Christian nations had to be convinced to go along, since many of them were none too anxious on behalf of a people too many Christians considered foreign, or at least alien.

That was proven on the Muslim side when Serbia decided to do some ethnic cleansing by killing off apparent readers and believers in the Quran. Eventually, they killed far too many, and Britain and a coalition of countries, including the USA, came in to stop the killing and tear down the regime.

The point was clear: Western morality could be culture-coded, and if one did not have the right beliefs, one could be slaughtered with little consequence save a brief blizzard of moral opinion and commentary.

The light growls about intervention in Syria sour the milk of our human kindness, since we know how we were enthusiastically hoodwinked the last time. Ronald Reagan sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, but the dictator got carried away and invaded Kuwait, sparking the Gulf War he lost to the first President George Bush.

Next, following 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and the second President George Bush told us we had to go to war because Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and was pals with Osama bin Laden, too. Neocons duped Bush into thinking it would all be easy; the people would welcome our troops.

None of it was true, and billions of dollars went to filling the mouths of the Daddy Warbucks among us.

Now Barack Obama seems to want to hope for a Tinker Bell to keep our military in the air and beyond harm, too safe not to be pulled into another "dumb" war. This one would be dumb on Obama's watch.

(Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley(at)gmail.com.)

© 2013 Stanley Crouch

Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.

Posted: September 12, 2013, 4:00 pm

Miley, Donald And The Culture Killers

As the obnoxious cliche goes, Bill O'Reilly spoke truth to power last week after offering his latest easily disproven falsehood.

"Last night during my discussion ... about the Martin Luther King commemoration, I said there were no Republican speakers invited," he told viewers on Fox News. "Wrong. It was wrong. Some Republicans were asked to speak. They declined, and that was a mistake. They should have spoken."

He continued: "Now, the mistake is entirely on me. I simply assumed that since all the speakers were liberal Democrats, Republicans were excluded. So, here's the 'Tip of the Day': Always check out the facts before you make a definitive statement. And, when you make a mistake, admit it."

His correction didn't quite hit the mark. In fact, all members of Congress were invited to attend, and many Republican leaders were invited to speak - but remained as immobile as the statue of Abraham Lincoln.

Still, O'Reilly's idea of admitting to mistakes would cause a serious revolution among right-wing talkers at his network and beyond.

We would see a shift in the opinions of Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and the third national force in the projection of factoids, Rush Limbaugh, the fake right-wing tough guy. All of them are sinking in the ratings and in sponsor money. This means little to these millionaires in the short term, but it hits them where they feel it the most: their desire for attention.

They are joined in their descent by another old master of the intellectual and political belly-flop, the man with unreal hair, a big mouth and many claims to have very important information the country needs to know: the Donald.

Trump is now furiously fighting a $40 million suit, brought by the attorney general of New York, alleging that the fast but inaccurate one bilked 5,000 "students" out of as much as $35,000 each, the cost of going to what was called Trump University but is now renamed The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, since it's not a university.

The Trump part, says the AG, was also less than advertised, as marks who were led to expect a personal appearance by the Donald but had to settle for pictures next to a cardboard cutout of him. A woman at Bloomberg News joked that the cardboard figure was essentially the same as the real thing. Uh-oh.

Our pop-media millionaire is little different from Miley Cyrus, who created automatic and intentional controversy with her pursuit of a rock version of the car-crash fame our ambulance-chasing media can't resist.

All these Fox News people and Limbaughs, and their minor-league imitators, benefit from the same thing: the obsession with electronic speed that has grabbed the masses, and the media.

The bigger the blizzard of lies, the more digital attention. It takes too long to check facts, so they are dismissed as just opinions. That is their real power: It rhymes with national laziness rowing on a rubber raft of factoids.

When this young woman Cyrus seeks to tongue and vulgarly gesture herself into the seat of success, it's a reiteration of Madonna-style trash. It also brought to mind heavy metal's misogyny and hip-hop's way of stereotyping black youth as urban savages overcome by their hormones, males and females too hot to wait.

Cyrus and her ilk sell the same thing: not content or depth, only mud, paranoia and shallow self-righteousness, shaped for profit.

On our polluted American island, the decline into the superficial charts the descent of our culture into the fetishistic love of lifelong childish rebellion. Follow the children to Fantasy Island, where profit rears its head over human value, featuring the "art" of the factoid deal.

That is not new. It is what made the Crockett Almanacs of the 1840s so popular, with their bigger-than-life accounts and illustrations (him, gun in hand, and one leg each astride two racing buffaloes). He served in Congress and fought Indians before dying at the Alamo in 1836. He was there defending, among other things, the Lone Star's right to resist the abolishing of slavery by the Mexican government.

This is not well known, but it is a fact, there if one wants to know.

Maybe O'Reilly is right about the too far right, that correcting a factoid lets them claim some sort of integrity. That may be beyond the Donald and the others, and we'll be grimly amused to see their followers turn away as they crash and burn, if so.

(Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley(at)gmail.com.)

© 2013 Stanley Crouch

Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.

Posted: September 5, 2013, 4:00 pm

Dear Departed American Originals

We live in a culture waterlogged with cheap publicity stunts. It is essential to breathe the oxygen of life-affirming art and thought. It's always there waiting for you, no matter the distractions.

Yes, there is surely no accounting for public taste. But true thinkers and cultural contributors are still among us. Three of them died in recent days.

On Aug. 18, literary and influential cultural figure Albert Murray died, succumbing in Harlem, N.Y., at 97 after a few years of disorienting illness. Murray was of the same generation as Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow, and he produced much fine work, but was not as well-recognized as the other two men.

His books dispelled black nationalist and segregationist notions and embraced the polyglot nature of American culture. That put him in conflict with academic trends, to which he never submitted. Murray will be remembered and studied, which is all a largely ignored writer can wish for.

On Aug. 19, jazz master pianist Cedar Walton died at 79. He died at home in Brooklyn from a form of leukemia. What John Wayne called "the big C" rallied its troops until it took Walton out of here.

A first-class player and tunesmith, Walton was among the greatest of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, scalding, cooling, entrancing and romancing audiences from Greenwich Village to Japan and conquering Europe as firmly as Napoleon had.

After Blakey's band, Walton continued on bandstands and in recordings with major players like Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, George Coleman, Junior Cook, Joe Henderson and Clifford Jordan. With both bassists Ron Carter and David Williams, he formed a couple of the best trios in jazz history, using the marvelous drumming of Billy Higgins to bring it all together, boost the others up and create his position as the most versatile maker and blender of swinging beats in the jazz since 1960.

His own bands were distinguished by bracing interpretations of standard songs from the golden era of Tin Pan Alley and his own imagination. His last appearance at the Village Vanguard a few weeks ago showed him as much in highflying control as ever. The air shimmered with invention, and he seemed to bask in the joy his playing had brought to the basement club.

Walton was not only recognizably individual in his art; he was a grand master of a Dallas version of gallows humor. At a mortuary for a bandleader he had made much good music with, the conversation floated to a discussion of how differently the laid-out corpse looked from the man we all had seen so many times.

"Ah, yes, the corpse," Walton said, seeming to think deeply with a blank and droll face. "Uh, he was dead, wasn't he?"

The next day, Aug. 20, Marian McPartland breathed her last on Long Island at 95. An indefatigable pianist, she had come up through the jazz atmosphere that was far from encouraging to women instrumentalists who wanted to swing.

Being from England, she was even further from the roots of the music than white Americans who themselves have trouble being seen as capable of grabbing the bull of soul by the tail.

But McPartland never retreated. She had been taken prisoner by the music and was welcomed by so many giants that her confidence deepened. Pearly lines came from her instrument, and much of what she played was extremely melodic and harmonically refreshing. Like many jazz musicians, she never stopped her studies and kept ironing wrinkles out of her style until its refinement was seen and heard as one of its virtues.

For years on National Public Radio, she interviewed musicians from all of the styles and made her listeners realize that there is a very democratic quality to American jazz, just as there is to the culture she had made her own.

There is a welcoming Americana that Albert Murray expressed as well as our best jazz musicians. There will always be those who can hear it and will carry that spirit into what they do, from the sciences to the arts.

(Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley(at)gmail.com.)

© 2013 Stanley Crouch

Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.

Posted: August 29, 2013, 4:00 pm

Educators, Hustlers And The Hard Truth

Hustlers and hysterics come in all shapes and sizes. Democrats, Republicans and independents, believers, nonbelievers and agnostics, and whoever else needs representation to make sure the gang is all there.

What counts, and what can't be faked, is what we're investing in our strongest natural resource, our young population. That will carry us through world competition, market loss or dominance. Or it will not.

Since all of this is easily proven and quite obvious, we might think that we would have bipartisan agreement on the importance of education. Not quite.

The big sin that I see on both sides of the aisle is the mutual refusal to seriously look at what is inarguably being achieved in our most fruitful charter schools and our public schools. The record, which is indifferent to all distinctions other than ability, has no expression of prejudice against anything; it is entirely objective. That is the great virtue of technology and statistics.

Instead, we remain immobile. Some would say stuck in the mud. Neither New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor President Barack Obama has spoken up about these successes. Perhaps, despite their halfhearted battles, they remain intimidated by the teachers unions.

It's not enough to support choice, but we need to discuss what really works. Neither so-called progressives nor hard-core conservatives have actually addressed what has worked in this town - what has been done and is available to be expanded. It could have national consequences.

When Obama and Bloomberg are so far from proposing what works, they are in a photo finish with anyone who argues against whatever might threaten their Bible Belted base, far from familiar geography.

They may not get it - or not be willing to say it if they do - because they have been cowed by the zeal of teachers unions that fight for power as quickly as they can whenever faced with a challenge to their effectiveness.

Performance records usually never impress unions. Their preference is emotion and sociological jargon. Money is what is needed always and in all situations, to hear them tell it, seeing money as the eternal magic bullet. If the children come from poor or crime-ridden circumstances, you should not fault the teacher for not teaching them well. Teachers might work hard, but they are not God.

Hogwash.

Here in New York, both the Success Academies run by Eva Moskowitz and the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, a nonprofit supplemental education and youth-development organization, have shown what teaching can do.

Let us look at the most recent numbers, since numbers cannot be confused with rhetoric or defensive jargon.

Here are those of the Success Academy, where 77 percent of the students are poor: 82 percent of scholars there passed math, putting it in the top 1 percent of all schools in the state. In English language arts, 58 percent passed, in the top 7 percent. In science, 100 percent passed.

And for HEAF: 100 percent of its 2013 class graduated high school, and 100 percent of its 2012 graduating class returned to college for the sophomore year. Thirty-five percent of the students went on to graduate studies in law, medicine and other disciplines. That is three times the national average.

Inspiring students is central to getting them to consistently engage. Inventive inspiration comes from the relationship of the teacher to the student. Those committed to inspiring can move through all barriers, or all that we too often thought were invincible.

There it is - the hard truth. These aren't numbers from the Upper East Side or some suburban community. These are from Harlem and the Bronx, and are available to be disputed, if one can.

Read those numbers and weep, victims of the unions, if they have misled you for money and power, muddying the waters. When the public learns that this kind of success is actually possible, maybe our political leaders will be next. No holding breath allowed.

(Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley(at)gmail.com.)

© 2013 Stanley Crouch

Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.