The greatness of the other perspective!


The impulse to restrict: Many people have commented on the greatness of Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech Sunday night.

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is due to so much pain in someone else’s,” Nyong’o said as she started, referring to the life of the woman she portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.

We’ll admit it—we wouldn’t have thought about that if she hadn’t said it. On the other hand, once someone has said such a thing, do you get to celebrate at all? Should Steve McQueen have jumped for joy in the way he did?

We don’t know the answer.

(We see where Nyong’o is now in Paris, being approached there, as Hemingway said he was, by the group he called “the rich.” We hope her resistance is great.)

Nyong’o’s speech had a series of grace points. That said, we were most struck by something she said to McQueen as she thanked him for all he had brought to the film:

“I am certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”

What an unusual expression—at least, unusual in these parts. We thought of the Djimon Hounsou character in In America, telling two children about his conception of Halloween, a conception which came from within a different culture:
MATEO: Halloween is called the Day of Ancestors, when the dead come back and we hear their voices.

CHRISTY: How do you hear them?

MATEO: You hear their voices through the men dancing.
There was more to what he said.

What a blessing, to be allowed to hear an expression from within a different culture! We don’t have cosmological views ourselves. But our own culture has developed a very limited, highly parochial sense of the mystery of the cosmos. It’s a treat to hear an expression from within a culture which may be a bit less restricted.

Nyong’o was exceptionally intelligent and searching in her remarks. So, we thought, was Cate Blanchett, who spoke with great intelligence about how good it would be to have more films which explored the perspectives of women. Our media tend to focus on Hollywood’s endless inanities. It’s easy to forget that there are people within its orbit who are so bright and so mature, who have so much to offer.

It has been almost thirty years since Paul Simon’s Graceland, an album which explored how much people have to gain from other cultures around the world. Then too, we have the impulses which are routinely being expressed at Salon.

This morning, Salon was headlining this complaint: “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.”

Different people will react to this piece in different ways. The presentation notes that white women in the U.S. have been belly dancing since at least the 1890s. Eventually, Randa Jarrar says this:
JARRAR (3/4/14): Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

When I have argued, online and in person, with white women belly dancers, they have assured me that they learned to dance from Arab women and brown women. This is supposed to make the transaction OK. Instead, I point out that all this means is that it is perfectly all right with these teachers that their financial well-being is based on self-exploitation. As a follow-up, white belly dancers then focus on the sisterly and community aspect of belly dance. They claim that the true exploiter of belly dancing is Hollywood, and the Egyptian film industry, which helped take belly dancing out of women’s homes and placed it directly under the male gaze. Here, the argument white belly dancers try to make ignores the long history of white women’s appropriation of Eastern dancing and becomes that this, the learning and performance of belly dance, is not about race and appropriation, but about gender and resisting the patriarchy and how all of us belly dancing together is a giant middle finger to men and their male gaze-y ways.
Different people will react to this piece in different ways. We think we hear a call to return to ancestral caves.

We’ll each be permitted to do the things our ancestors were doing before the 1890s. Please don’t step outside those ancestral lines!

In Graceland, Paul Simon traced the ways the music he came to perform moved through New Orleans and up the Mississippi toward a literal and figurative Graceland. At one point on the album, Linda Ronstadt explained where she came from:
In early memory, mission music
Was ringing 'round my nursery door
I said take this child, Lord
From Tucson, Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
She won't bother you no more

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the veins...
As a child, Ronstadt heard music with origins to the south. She wanted to sing it.

On Sunday evening, many people gained from the expansion of Hollywood’s pitiful orbit. In our view, Salon sometimes seems to be trying to shove everyone back into ancestral boxes.

This has been tried around the world. Powerful pulsing of love and all, we’re not sure the project has ever quite worked.


  1. Great Salon link -- a click-bait troll speech if ever there was one. Randa Jarrar should feel lucky to have the option to return to a homeland that is virtually devoid of any minority populations whatsoever to offend her, something not many Americans can say.

  2. Our culture's cosmology is by far the coolest. General Relativity plus the Standard Model. People all over the world are invited to participate, and some of them do!

  3. Brilliant, Bob. Just brilliant.

  4. "We’ll each be permitted to do the things our ancestors were doing before the 1890s. Please don’t step outside those ancestral lines!"

    That's absurdly unfair to the piece and the author. She's engaging with an entire history of Orientalism and the appropriation of Arabic cultures by white people. It's similar to the entirely valid critiques of Jared Leto trans gender folks have been voicing. It's about power and culture, which is why the author explicitly talks about black face and drag. I appreciate's Bob's take on lots of things, but this is way of the mark to me.

  5. "In Graceland, Paul Simon traced the ways the music he came to perform moved through New Orleans and up the Mississippi toward a literal and figurative Graceland."

    Well, I guess if the African bands such as Boyoyo Boys, Juluka, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo that inspired this album came from New Orleans up the Mississippi, Bob would be correct.

  6. He doesn't have to have hired slaves from Mississippi to play on his album for the music inspired by African slaves brought to that state to have influenced American music. We all know that Simon went to Africa and hired African musicians for his album. We also all know that the people from African brought to America as slaves influenced Southern music, including jazz and blues, which in turn influenced Elvis. Why be so obtuse?

    1. American music is also influenced strongly by Celtic folk music brought to these shores by poor whites. It is also influenced strongly by French folk music brought to the very deltas of Mississippi.

      Indeed, American music is influenced by every culture who lived here, including Native American, and Mexican music, hence the brief salute given by Linda Ronstadt to her musical roots.

      Simon recognized this very clearly on Graceland, and Bob's oversimplification of that album is what you expect of a pseudo-intellectual who thinks he knows more about music than he actually does.

    2. It's good that we have real-intellectuals like you who really do know more about music to tell us what it's all about.

  7. The article by Randa Jarrar was offensive. Bellydancers from around the world (not just white Americans) should and often do travel to the Middle East to study, learn about music and culture. Unfortunately, some are naive, or their teachers don't parlay the importance of respecting the culture. That may be one of the sources of Randas rants. If she, as a writer had done her research (which all good writers should do), she would know that there are lots of dancers of all ethnicities trying to raise the image of "belly dancing", find ways to make it sustainable with dignity, and studying diligently as life long students of the art. Meanwhile, there are lots- in the Middle East and in the US who really drag it through the mud. She must have seen those and missed the beautiful dancers, the women whose lives are healed through dance, the depressions that are lifted, the back aches that go away, and the happiness that is shared through BD. Any of Ms. Jarrar's real points got lost in a poisonous haze.
    There is a lot out there that can offend folks from the Middle East, but being more offensive than thou doesn't get the point across. Some of her valid feelings have been riduculed and rejected, as they should be because of how she presented them. At least it has folks thinking and talking.