Barry Johnson

 

Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out the way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.

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Elections elect candidates, but usually they do much more than that: They tell us about ourselves and about the state of the culture that surrounds us. A national election, the one we held yesterday, reveals the characteristics of the collection of subcultures that form the nation and the condition of the national culture, which imperfectly negotiates the union of those subcultures. Among other things.

Our national culture is in crisis. So are many of our subcultures, geographic and otherwise. Maybe we knew that before the election, but elections can insert exclamation marks that can’t be overlooked.

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America at its best and healthiest reflects its most profound founding principles, which our culture has saved for us. All people are created equal. They are endowed with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This election demonstrated how shallowly these assertions are held within the culture. All people are created equal, maybe, but some more equal than others. That I borrow from George Orwell (“Animal Farm,” 1945) demonstrates that this isn’t a new problem in Western cultures. Under the stress of war or even the day-to-day punishing grind and periodic crises of our economic system, the “more equal people” in Western democracies have found it easy to abandon principles like the ones in our Declaration of Independence. America did that in this election.

You can dispute this assertion. I’m not going to spend time attempting to prove it here. You saw this campaign and the results of the election. If you believe that it upheld our principles, that it wasn’t one long insult based on race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and size of bank account, then we’d have to have a long and probably fruitless conversation about it. All of these can limit the “equality” of a particular individual in our national culture, or help propel him to the top of the pyramid. I use the male pronoun for a reason.

A healthy culture preserves the best lessons from its history and gives an approach to solve the problems that arise in social life. Reason and the importance of evidence in arguments, for example, which existed before the Greeks but which they codified in such a way that we might use them today. Various expressions of ethics. The rub of liberty against responsibility. Our loyalty to ourselves and to something larger than ourselves. The sense of unity and purpose that larger “something” (whatever it may be) can give us. Our appreciation of tasks well done, both simple ones we do alone and complex ones we do with others. The wonders we have encountered, the discoveries we have made, the maps we have constructed so the discoveries and wonders don’t get lost. The importance of the integrity of language. The different ways that beauty appears to us.

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The Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company is visiting Portland for the third time this weekend at Lincoln Hall, bringing the new-ish production “Wallflower” (2014) to show us. Although it lacks the riotous circus surrealism of the company’s earlier shows, “Wallflower” is still an engaging dance work, once you get inside it a little.

The dance was made for the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, and it’s an abstract outlier in Pinto and Pollak’s work, which typically has narrative elements. “Wallflower” doesn’t really have little stories in it. It’s more about what happens when the museum closes, the lights go down, and the paintings come to life.

White Bird is showing Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak's "Wallflower" at PSU's Lincoln Hall this weekend./Courtesy of White Bird

White Bird is showing Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak’s “Wallflower” at PSU’s Lincoln Hall this weekend./Courtesy of White Bird

We know the dancers are “paintings” because of their colorfully abstract costumes, and we know they are in a museum because of the two stark white walls that dominate the stage. When you think about it, paintings are a form of “wallflower,” I suppose, in a positive way, and when they start to move around they continue to maintain their affinity for the wall. In “Wallflower” the wall is a prop that the dancers constantly lean against, touch with their hands, even crawl along with the help of their colleagues. They can escape the magnetism of the wall, but usually only with the help of a bridge of their friends. And when they find themselves without a helping hand, movement is very difficult, slow, made in laborious bursts.

Accompanying them is a soundtrack provided by three Japanese musicians. The music doesn’t provide a narrative hook, either, though at “Wallflower”’s climax it moves away from its odd peculiarities and occasional darkness toward something that sounds triumphant. Yes, “Wallflower” DOES have a climax, and though I’m tempted to give it a way—it would be fun to talk about its implications—I won’t. (A hint: Think about what might be lurking beneath the “painting”?)

Along the way, the dancers have some delicious moments, first in a series of duets (no, the possibilities of the duet have not yet been exhausted) and then a set of trios. And one dancer, Zvi Fishzon, spends most of the concert wrapped in a costume that allows him to play “sculpture.” Sometimes to humorous effect, though not always.

I had the museum in mind the whole time, and I wonder how viewers who didn’t make sense of “Wallflowers” that way dealt with the piece. It could be tough sledding.

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‘Procedures for Saying No’: The office cataclysmic

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "Procedures for Saying No" parodies office culture and gives a glimpse of the wildness within

I have spent many days working in offices (and observing other offices in operation), witnessing and participating in a multitude of tiny moments of friction, inner and outer, a rubbing together that often rubs out the actual work. In those days, years, decades, I have learned that the most delicate maneuvers, the riskiest and yet often the most satisfying, involve working around a directive from above. Or even better, an attempt to subvert the great historical tradition of the office itself. Because sometimes opposition is necessary, both for the mental health of the employee and for the health of the organization itself.

Not that opposition is necessarily all that risky. Sometimes it seems baked into the whole process. And that’s where we arrive at “Procedures for Saying No,” Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s fourth installment of its investigation of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the Journey Play project, with words by Robert Quillen Camp, who teaches at Lewis & Clark College, and direction by Rebecca Lingafelter.

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles star in "Procedures for Saying No" by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble/Owen Carey

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles star in “Procedures for Saying No” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble/Owen Carey

“Procedures for Saying No” takes place in a modern office, where very modern meetings to discuss very modern protocols and deal with very modern problems are called, in part to relieve the drudgery of the desk work. How boring is it? The packet each audience member receives before the show attempts to explore those depths, outlining a series of steps each of us should take to get into the proper state of irritated stasis—the tiny, time-wasting tasks we call busywork.

The stasis of the modern office. Or is it ennui? In either case, “Procedures for Saying No” doesn’t linger over its parody of the office environment. Eventually it takes a turn for the apocalyptic, though I was never quite sure how metaphorical that turn was, and whether the metaphor was psychological or something wider—social, political, anthropological.

Not knowing wasn’t a bad thing, maybe because the moment-by-moment action and discourse on stage by the PETE regulars (Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman, Cristi Miles), augmented by Linda Austin and Murri Lazaroff-Babin, was so captivating. Where is this play going, I asked when I took a second to consider larger questions. But then I was back into it. “One day you will go to work and you won’t go home.”

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Bing Sheldon and preserving Portland values

Farewell to Bing Sheldon, who believed in us more than maybe we deserved, plus more News and Notes

Among other things, the death of Bing Sheldon reminds us that the “new” Portland connects deeply with our past and repudiates it at the same time—even the parts that seem part of our DNA.  Sheldon, who founded SERA Architects, worked this paradox for much of his career, urging us to save the essential elements of the city by building with them in mind.

Sheldon’s 2012 interview with Portland Architecture’s Brian Libby about the fate of Old Town is a perfect case in point. If you are looking for an arch-preservationist, you won’t find one in that interview or his determination to demolish buildings that have “outlived their usefulness.” And if you are a free-marketeer, you won’t find an ally, either, because Sheldon thought that the public had an important stake in the development of the city, too. But we can’t simply stop all new building.

Libby quotes Sheldon: “Cities that don’t change, die. That’s what I believe.”

Bing Sheldon

Bing Sheldon

In Portland right now, our civic discourse encourages us either to be pro- or anti-development, primarily because the city is growing quickly, we have an affordable housing shortage, and old Portland is disappearing (as Portland Chronicle is tracking).  It’s a false choice. As much as I love them, all Portland bungalows won’t make it through this cycle, but we can make sure that the values they represented when they were built DO make it—affordable, pleasant, walkable neighborhoods with higher densities than we have now.

That’s going to take negotiation. What was Sheldon calling for in his interview with Libby? A meeting of Old Town’s property owners, developers, social service agencies and ethnic groups find a way to preserve the district by giving it new life. It’s a different problem than the one we face now, but our solution is similar. It’s called democracy.

I met and talked to Sheldon when he was the interim president of the Portland Art Museum, and in those encounters he was cordial, straight and curious, exactly the sort of person you’d want helping to decide things—like the Downtown Plan of 1972, which Sheldon helped shape into a document that was remarkable intelligent and far-reaching.

We need more Bing Sheldons, and maybe that’s the best eulogy there is.

*****

The University of Oregon has announced that the next dean of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts is Christoph Lindner, who is professor of media and culture at the University of Amsterdam.

Lindner is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work spans the fields of architecture, geography, media arts, visual culture, and urban planning and design, according to the press release.

“A&AA is ideally positioned to be a global leader in the study of design, visual culture, and the built, natural, and social environments,” Lindner said. “I am looking forward to working with everyone at A&AA, as well as with the wider UO community, in shaping this vision.”

*****

Portland’5 Centers for the Arts and ArtBar & Bistro have announced the schedule for the 11th Annual Music on Main summer outdoor concert series, a great way to glimpse a wide range of Portland bands for free. The concerts begin at 5 pm Wednesdays and end at 7 pm and are Southwest Main Street, between Broadway & Park Ave., next to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Food and drink are available at the ArtBar Bistro Starting at 4:30 pm.

Music on Main 2016 Schedule: 

July 6 – Orquestra Pacifico Tropical

July 13 – Logan Brill

July 20 – Kathryn Claire and Big Bridges

July 27 – Garcia Birthday Band

August 3 – Eyelids with Denim Wedding

August 10 – The Yachtsmen

August 17 – Mary Flower and the BBQ Boys

August 24 – Red Baraat

August 31 – Redray Frazier and Mic Crenshaw

September 7 – Pepe and the Bottle Blondes

*****

Just a reminder: If you’re keeping track of photography in Portland, Guy Swanson’s monthly Photo Happenings is the place to go.

*****

Maybe you don’t make it to the Governor’s Office very frequently—I NEVER do—but if you ever were inclined to drop in, this might be the time.

To Be Continued, 2015, installation by 2016 Joan Shipley Fellow Natalie Ball, to be included in "Selected Works" in the Governor's Office May 16- June 30.

To Be Continued, 2015, installation by 2016 Joan Shipley Fellow Natalie Ball, to be included in “Selected Works” in the Governor’s Office May 16- June 30.

The Oregon Arts Commission’s 2016 Individual Artist Fellows will be featured in “Selected Works” in the Governor’s Office May 16 to June 30. The 2016 Fellows include: Natalie Ball, Chiloquin (Joan Shipley Fellow); Fernanda D’Agostino, Portland; Laurie Danial, Portland; Tannaz Farsi, Eugene; Julie Green, Corvallis; Laura Heit, Portland; Michael T. Hensley, Portland; Aaron Flint Jamison, Portland; Jim Lommasson, Portland; Elizabeth Malaska, Portland; Brenna Murphy, Portland; Ronna Neuenschwander, Portland; and Blair Saxon-Hill, Portland.

The exhibit is free and open to the public.

 

At The Standard, they’re doubling up on the giving

Plus a Nelson Sandgren retrospective and CoHo's Summerfest

When the Portland-based insurance company,The Standard, was acquired by Tokyo’s Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company in March, local schools and non-profits, including arts groups, could have been forgiven for fumbling toward their worry beads. After all, The Standard has traditionally matched its employees and retirees gifts up to $5,000 on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Last year, that meant the company kicked in $1.1 million in the match. What would happen to that venerable, model program under new ownership?

Not to worry. Meiji Yasuda has announced that it will add an additional match to all donations made by employees during The Standard’s 2016 Employee Giving Campaign. During the 2016 campaign, employee contributions will be matched 2:1 up to $5,000 per employee, for a total gift of up to $15,000 per employee.

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Theater review: Jackie Sibblies Drury and the pain of history

Jackie Sibblies Drury's play starts off with some light-hearted misdirection and concludes with a stinger

The full title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play, which opened Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, is both informative and a little joke. In its entirety, it will fill up the rest of this paragraph: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

So, a play that says it’s a presentation, which is not quite true. And though it contains a presentation, the play also includes the collaborative process that generated the presentation. In fact, it goes back and forth between the two: a presentation that tries to stick to the Wikipedia facts of the history of German colonialism in Southwest Africa and includes projected images of the time in question, and a process that six actors conduct to make sense of those facts.

Those little misdirections aren’t the only ones embedded in that long title. The title claims the presentation is about the Herero, for example, but it relies mostly on German sources. The Herero, the dominant tribe in the region before they were nearly wiped out by the Germans, are mostly imagined. And before long the imaginations of the six actors cease to operate on the facts on the ground in Africa and start to incorporate images and history from American culture.

Chantal DeGroat presents a section of "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Repertory Theatre/Photo by Owen Carey

Chantal DeGroat presents a section of “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Repertory Theatre/Photo by Owen Carey

I’m getting ahead of things here, though, mainly because the misdirections themselves are a clue to the kind of theater Drury’s play represents. That nature is indicated immediately by the informal introduction delivered by one of the actors, known as Black Woman, who also functions as “kind of an artistic director of our ensemble.” And then in an early scene of the collaborative process the actors are pursuing, when things have broken down into multiple onstage conversations.

One of the actors, Actor 4/Another Black Man, says, “I don’t know if it’s theatre just because it’s in a theatre.” At this point, we start to think, “It’s going to be that kind of a night at the theater.” You know, a fluid couple of hours that’s going to play with theater conventions in an amusing way and possibly hint at some racial tension—half of the cast is African American and the other half is white, after all.

And sure enough, the first several scenes of We Are Proud to Present are in that vein, humorous in a lightly mocking sort of way. Actors! They are SO weird!

But We Are Proud to Present is a scorpion of a play, and its tail packs a serious punch made all the more deadly by the light tone of the beginning.

I left thinking that the cast (Chantal DeGroat, Joshua J. Weinstein, Vin Shambry, Chris Harder, Joseph Gibson and Rebecca Ridenour) and director Kevin Jones had accepted the challenge of Drury’s demanding script with the courage it takes to make that courageous script work. And that anything less would have been a disaster.

If you like your theatre-in-a-theatre risky, its probing of meta-theater and meta-history elements combined with its lancing of our culture’s racist overlay of anything having to do with race no matter where it happened may resonate for you. There isn’t a traditional narrative or the development of characters in the traditional sense, but Drury will leave you with some stunning theatrical images in your mind, and with some thoughts you may need to consider after you’ve left the theater. It even includes some singing, some rhythmic drumming and some truly awful jokes. I don’t think you’ll forget it very quickly.

*****

Drury, who is in her mid-30s now, started thinking about We Are Proud to Present when she lived in Chicago and started doing internet research on a play that was going to be about a black German actor who could only get roles as African Americans, which he spoke in heavily German-accented English. (That sounds like a cool play, actually.) Google led her to the history of Sudwestafrika, a German colony, and the country’s largest tribe, the Herero, which the Germans proceeded to attempt to exterminate. And she started researching the topic at the University of Chicago, where her husband, an anthropologist, was going to graduate school.

She took that research to Brown University, where she earned her MFA in playwriting, and used it to create her master’s thesis, incorporating her experiences at Brown with both the collaborative playmaking process she favors and with the students and classes. At Artists Rep, the introduction that Actor 6/Black Woman (DeGroat) reads at the beginning of the play isn’t part of the supplied script, for example.

Vin Shambry, center, and the cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury's "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, center, and the cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

The history of the Herero delivered in the Presentation sections are informal—it’s less than the Wikipedia entry delivers. But the actors in the play aren’t historians; they are attempting to devise a play or a presentation, and so they begin to search for characters. They don’t have much to go on, just a stack of letters written by German soldiers to their loved ones back home. The letters help sketch the Germans, but they never mention the Herero. So, while the white actors plunge into the creation of characters, the black actors are left out.

Actor 2/Black Man (Shambry), who is on his way to some serious problems with the whole enterprise, snaps: “This is some Out-of-Africa-African-Queen-bullshit y’all are pulling right here, OK? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people.” And then we plunge into some thinking about who tells the stories preserved by “history,” and also a cautionary scene that illustrates the problem with imagining history that hasn’t been recorded, a grotesquely funny speech by Actor 4/Another Black Man (Gibson) that involves the killing of tigers and sex with many wives, “as dark and fertile as African jungle soil.” The fact that Southwest Africa/Namibia isn’t remotely jungle-like is a small part of the joke.

The history and the play is going to get increasingly tragic, just read Wikipedia: The Germans killed 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero estimated to live in Namibia to make way for German farmers. And as we start to get re-enactments of that history in the play, they exacerbate the racial divide in the cast. This is foreshadowing, but that’s all I’ll say.

*****

I am usually uncomfortable around talk about the Dominant Paradigm, Dominant Discourse, Dominant Ideology, Dominant History—whatever you want to call the conceptual and cultural sea in which we swim. Part of it is just that in real life it all seems more heterogenous, complex, contradictory than something easily labeled “Ideology,” with a capital I, indicates. If I truly spoke the Dominant Discourse wouldn’t things be easier for me than they are? That’s a joke, maybe…

Still, the terms can be useful when we’re talking about art and culture, contradictions and all. We are all stuck with cultural material, approaches and apparatus that shape us and our thinking. Art participates in this, and it has helped create the Dominant Ideology. Some contemporary art unfolds unobjectionably inside its parameters. That’s not what We Are Proud to Present does, though.

Joseph Gibson and Rebecca James Ridenour in "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

Joseph Gibson and Rebecca James Ridenour in “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

More often, contemporary art examines life inside the Dominant Ideology with a critical eye, representing it and the tensions inside it, even selecting for that tension. And as the late culture critic Raymond Williams suggests, some art presents an alternative discourse or history or ideology, and occasionally art expresses direct opposition to that ideology.

We Are Proud to Present suggests the difficulties of creating an alternate history, of operating in an alternative culture. What do we make it from, after all? The existing cultural material? But then isn’t it an extension of that culture? The imaginary fertile Herero wives already exist in the culture, after all. So does the angry black man, the sympathetic but self-absorbed white actor, the “artistic director” who has to fall back on her own personal story for authority and direction. And that overlay fits neatly over the exterminating Germans and the Herero, too: The reality of the past disappears except as an expression of the reality of the present.

At the same time Drury’s play critiques, among other things, our lack of historical knowledge (yes, part of the Dominant History is its incompleteness and its ability to select what it needs to remain dominant) and the ease with which we inhabit certain roles, even ones we hate: The oppressor, for example.

This is how Drury talks about the last scene of the play, the one with the stinger. Don’t worry, it’s not a description/spoiler:

“I think that it’s a hard scene for everyone. It’s hard for everyone in different ways and it’s hard in racially specific ways. Which makes it hard to rehearse, I think. It’s also hard because it’s asking the white actors to be incredibly ugly, and ugly in a way that no one I have worked with has felt comfortable being.”

And right now, I’m wondering whether the catharsis at the end of We Are Proud to Present—a catharsis that left me gasping for breath—whether that catharsis constitutes an outright opposition to the Dominant Ideology, because if our culture contains this as a default, it shouldn’t be Dominant—it should be on the way out. Then again, maybe a play like We Are Proud to Present is just an example of the adjustment that our Dominant Ideology makes to stay in control. The culture is tricky that way.

*****

After you read this, perhaps you’ll dial up your cable news outlet of choice or find a link to a clip on social media somewhere, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about in a political rally. How quickly the old cultural material gets brushed off, reorganized and aimed at the Other. How close to the surface our violence really is, our violence and our fear.

Vin Shambry, Chantal DeGroat and Joshua Weinstein in "We Are Proud to Present"/Photo by Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, Chantal DeGroat and Joshua Weinstein in “We Are Proud to Present”/Photo by Owen Carey

And it’s not just Trump rallies, either. Here’s Drury again:

“I was in grad school at a really great school where really educated undergraduates would be asked to describe really difficult things. But whenever they touched on cultural studies, or race, or other things that make us uncomfortable, these students’ presentations would either become really ironic and removed and silly, or would latch on to a dry, super-earnest and politically correct script of how we’ve been taught to talk about it. That means that no one ever says anything new; and we have no personal connection to what we’re saying.”

The genius of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is that it gives its audience a “personal connection” to their conversations about race, and maybe it encourages them to find something new to think and say about it.