A Black Poet, a White Politician, an SNL Parody - and How to Avoid the Danger of Being Too Sure
Lucille Clifton, Richard Nixon, Steve Martin. It’s not every day you’ll hear these three names mentioned in the same breath. But we live in a world of unusual juxtapositions. Look no further than postmodern art by Romare Beardon and Robert Rauschenberg. Or any city skyline with a Rennaissaince style church shadowed by a glass skyscraper.
Sometimes groupings like this are ironic. Others are accidental or focus on incongruity or commonality. But I’ve handpicked my threesome to make a point about the ‘perception trap’ — the perilous belief that your particular way of looking at things is the right one. There’s a lot of that going around these days. Almost no one seems immune. In American and UK politics, for example, it’s led to extreme polarization fueled by social media platforms that turn anyone with a smartphone into an instant bullhorn.
It’s only human to perceive the world around you and draw conclusions based on the information you’re processing. But it’s pure folly to pretend yourconcepts are the only correct interpretation.
So I’ve concocted a mental flu-shot comprised of life hacks gleaned from the lives of three iconic individuals from entirely different walks of life, chased by a little something extra to top it off — the pièce de résistance, if you will.
Lucille Clifton - American Poet - Winner of the American Book Award
The poetry of Lucille Clifton is both approachable and accessible. It is also a celebration of the black body in general and the black female body in particular. In disarmingly simple poems, she shattered harmful perceptions about people of color that had been in place ever since blacks first set foot in America.
In “homage to my hips” and “homage to my hair,” published in her 1980 collection Two-Headed Woman, she turned historically negative images about blackness upside down and inside out, uprooting and subverting “racist mythologies that thwart and defeat African Americans.” That’s how Purdue Professor Jane Campbell described Clifton’s work in Recovering the Black Female Body (2001).
Clifton managed this presumably radical act while at the same time inhabiting the multiple roles of wife, mother, college professor and award-winning author of 14 poetry collections. She also wrote 10 children’s books and a memoir. Since poetry is best appreciated when read aloud (and more than once), here is a 90-second clip of ‘homage to my hips,’ read by the author.
Hack Number 1 -- Reserve judgment and take people one at a time instead of boxing them into categories. No matter how well you think you know another race or ethnicity, chances are you probably don't.
Clifton, who would have turned 83 on June 27, 2019, was once asked to describe where ideas come from. It took her only 90 seconds to explain what others might never be able to, no matter how much time they had. In that minute-and-a-half, she said it all: Sometimes your ideas get in the way.
Richard Milhous Nixon - 37th U.S. President
For a while, it looked like Richard Nixon would go down in history as the ultimate comeback kid. A two-term vice-president under Dwight Eisenhower, he was defeated by John Kennedy in his 1960 bid for the presidency, then lost the California gubernatorial election two years later. But in 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and amid mounting opposition to the Vietnam War, he led a presidential campaign that finally catapulted him to the oval office.
In February of 1972, near the end of his first term, Nixon reached what is probably the zenith of his presidency with a historic trip to the People’s Republic China, the first ever by a sitting American president. One year later, he enjoyed a 66% approval rating, the highest of his time in office.
That November, he won re-election in a landslide, carrying 49 states. But by the time he left the White House two years later under the incriminating cloud of Watergate and the threat of impeachment, his approval had dropped to 24%.
Hack Number 2 -- Life is full of ups and downs. ‘Change is inevitable (except from vending machines).
Regardless of what you think of him today, Nixon’s seven-day trip to China was a milestone in Sino-American diplomacy. It was an important strategic and diplomatic achievement, which ended 25 years of non-communication with the Communists. That visit marked the beginning of a complicated political and financial relationship between the two countries, which continues to this day.
Whether the promise of Nixon’s historic journey will reach its full potential now that we’re 47 years down the road remains a matter of speculation. But whatever happens on the world stage, at least we have Art. History is merely the record of what happens in space-time. Art overrides that continuum, opening the door to transcendent experience.
In this case, it’s Nixon in China, by minimalist composer John Adams. If you know the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, you’ll recognize similar patterns of repetition and rhythm in Adams’ opera.
You might expect it to be boring, but it’s not. Even the slightest shifts in the music tend to create more not less interest on the part of the listener. They wake you up. You notice them. You pay attention. They exemplify and reveal the shifting nature of perception itself. The music reminds us not to take anything for granted. Because the whole thing could pivot at any moment. Here’s a 90-second sample from the Metropolitan Opera.
Steve Martin's King Tut
"He gave his life for tourism"
Between 1972 and 1981, the United States was one of several countries to host an exhibit of gold artifacts excavated from the Egyptian tomb of the so-called Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, who lived, reigned, and died in the 12th Century BCE.
The commercialism surrounding the exhibit, billed in the US as The Treasures of Tutankhamen (King Tut), became irresistible fodder for Steve Martin’s comedic genius. On May 22, 1978, he appeared on Saturday Night Livedressed as an ancient Egyptian and performed a musical satire called “King Tut.” One week after its original air date, the song was released as a single, which hit the Billboard Top 40 where it remained for 15 weeks, peaking at Number 17 and selling one million copies. Years later, lines like “he’s my favorite honky” and “he gave his life for tourism” brought guaranteed laughs. Martin even performed the number while on tour to thunderous applause.
But Not Everyone Is Laughing
Despite its runaway popularity in the 1970s, “King Tut” was decidedly less so by the 21st century, at least in some quarters. When the video was shown at Reed College in 2017, students complained that it was racist and demanded that it be removed from the curriculum. Today, Martin’s skit is regarded by some as an example of cultural appropriation. It doesn’t help that almost everyone in it appears to be white with darkened skin.
Since then, several media pundits have found fodder of their own in the contemporary reaction to Martin’s skit. They are certain, no doubt, that their perception is the correct one. But if you’ve discovered anything from these three examples of the perception trap, then you understand by now that they’re probably wrong.
Who knows? Even the current debate over cultural appropriation — from King Tut to Kardashian’s Kimono and everything in between — may be viewed with skepticism by future generations. Appropriation, after all, is one of the tenets of postmodernism. The juxtaposition of opposites is intended to bring about an entirely new way of seeing and yes, perceiving. Will the battle cry against cultural appropriation survive? You guess is as good as mine.
Hack Number 3 — Change is a function of time. Nothing lasts forever. When was the last time you saw an actual pharaoh? Enjoy the moment, but don't hold onto it.
Does this mean we have to walk on eggshells all the time? I don’t think so. A book I read onceabout marriage left me with some valuable advice I find very helpful in other contexts too.
It goes like this: No matter how well you think you know another person, even someone as intimate as a spouse, you can never really know them. To act as if you do deprives them of their humanity and their infinitude. Even if your wife has taken cream in her coffee every morning for the past 15 years, you cannot assume that she will take cream again today. Therefore, there is only one legitimate question you can ever ask of another: “Who are you today?”
Hack Number 4 — Become as little children. Ask everyone and everything, “Who are you today?” When they answer, be sure to listen.
This last hack is the active ingredient in today’s mental flu-shot. It’s what all the others are based on — and the ultimate way to inoculate yourself against the perilous pitfalls of the perception trap.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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