Filed under: Correspondence
December 1, 2007
New York City
It started snowing here in New York this morning. I’m watching the little flakes scurry by my window and lay a uniform white blanket over the rooftops. The shale gray river seems to have stop flowing and is just sitting there rippling as if it’s caught a chill. Everything is quiet and still. And of all places, I’m thinking about Angola. I can’t imagine being anywhere further from there right now.
Last week I read Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s book, Creole, which starts with a boat landing in Luanda. “Hurled onto the beach, wet and humiliated, I was immediately assaulted by the alarming sensation of having left the real world behind me. I breathed in the hot, humid Angolan air, aware of the the sweet scents of fruit and sugar-cane, and gradually began to recognize another smell, something subtler, more melancholy, not unlike the smell of death and decay.”
Out my window ambulances and fire engines are careening below on the street. Just as I’m writing, the sound swells, passes and dissipates and it is all quiet again, snowing. A helicopter passes… gone.
I’ve been trying to finagle a way to get to Angola. It’s as if I’ve been caught by a bug that won’t let me go. A soft obsession that began innocuously enough with an offer by the Transforma arts center in Torres Vedras to come to Portugal and develop, as I understood it, a new piece dealing with immigration in some way. And my mind immediately drifted towards Africa. I thought about riding the subways in Lisbon when I was working there last time and seeing so many Africans and Portuguese of African descent. Somehow it was very different than other places in Europe that I know, and definitely different than the States or even than Brazil. The African community felt different. I don’t exactly know how to articulate this feeling about just how it seemed different to me – it just did. Somehow more “African”, more directly connected to this other place. A place I’ve never been – sub-Saharan Africa – but always wanted to go. I suddenly feel stupid: That’s like saying I always wanted to go to Asia or America or the Moon. A vast expanse of land, cultures and imagination. I know in my mind that it is a make-believe place that doesn’t exist linguistically or politically or ethnically or anything. And just by calling it “a place” as if there is some overriding unity that makes it one thing tips my hand and reveals my ignorance. But maybe this is what I’m drawn to more than anything: that which I don’t know. Casting light on my own ignorance. Shining knowledge into the recesses of my brain. Learning more about who I am.
Somehow, I feel like so much of my story growing up in Detroit comes down to what happened “there” in Africa. I was the only white kid in my neighborhood and all my friends and their families were the sons and daughters and grand children and great grand children of former African Slaves. They all came up to the North between 1910 and 1930. The boll weevil infestation of Cotton in the South killed the post slavery work, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rampage, World War I and the immigration Act of 1924 basically stopped European Immigration into the States, the industrial boom and war industries needed labor, and then the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 hit in which Louisiana blew up the levees to divert the flood waters of the Mississippi river from the rich neighborhoods of New Orleans to the poor neighborhoods – predominantly black. And all these things were happening at the same time that my great grandfather was freed from a Siberian Work camp and moved to Detroit from Kolosvar, Transylvania to work in one of Henry Ford’s factories. In 1922. Just before the immigration act.
By the time I was born, Detroit was 80 – 85 percent black. Half of my neighborhood belonged to the Nation of Islam (founded in 1930 by W.D. Fard and popularized in later years by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X). They mostly called me a “white devil” which tended to put a damper on our friendships although it didn’t seem to keep us from playing basketball together. My best friends were Baptists mostly or African Methodist Episcopalians. I’d go to church with them sometimes just for the music and to jump up and down.
When I was growing up people in school would say things like, “black is beautiful” and “back to africa.” When you asked them where in Africa, most people couldn’t say. It probably wasn’t that different than when some Jews end the Passover Seder with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It was more of an expression of deep longing for an imagined belonging outside of time and place than for actually going to a real city called Jerusalem. Or perhaps it’s a reconfiguration of the past as a projection into an imagined future. Anything to leap the untenable and unsustainable psychic pressures of the belligerent present.
Where I come from, who actually knew anything about the real “Africa”? Hell, those who didn’t fast for Ramadan or celebrate Christmas lit candles for a week as part of the “pan-african” celebration of Kwanzaa. And that holiday was created in 1966 in California by a guy named Ron Karenga. Where I’m from, Africa is a made-up place to escape from the unbearable realities of a racist society.
However, when the few African Americans did go back to the real Africa, they didn’t go to Angola. They went to Freetown, Sierra Leone and eventually created Liberia. The British slave trade moved mostly from West Africa to the British Colonies in North America by way of the West Indies. And from there the Slaves made their way to the plantation belt in the American South. So if there was any place to go back to, West Africa seemed like it would be a good bet. Although when I look at maps of the trade routes, I see arrows moving from Cabinda, Luanda and Benguela not only to Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janiero in Brasil, but also up to the Caribbean. Some of them must have ended up in the plantations as well. Probably even made it somewhere along the Mississippi River or eventually to New Orleans to the St Bernard Parish. At least their descendants did. And if they did, they would have gotten caught in the flood, been beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, had their jobs ravaged by the boll weevil and at some point would decide to find a job up in Detroit, just like my grandad. Why not? It’s possible.
If my family could have wandered for over 2000 years from Mesopotamia to Judea to Egypt to Babylon to the Iberian Peninsula to the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Detroit, what’s to say my friend Vanny’s ancestors didn’t come from what’s now Huambo in Angola? From there to Benguela was one of the primary Slave routes of Southern Africa for hundreds of years. The Ovimbundu kingdom struck a deal with the Portuguese to catch people from rival groups and sell them as Slaves. Those people made the trip to Benguela on the Atlantic Ocean where they were shackled together in the hold of a slave ship for the perilous voyage to the “new world.” There’s no way to trace it, of course. It’s all imaginary. But it still happened.
By chance I met Judith Matloff here in New York, an American journalist who worked as a war correspondent in Angola for a number of years covering the Civil War. She got caught in the breakdown of the first cease fire in 1989. She was supposed to be there covering the first elections since the fighting started in 1975 – after already having 14 years of war that the Portuguese call the “Colonial Wars” and the Angolans call the “War of Liberation”. It’s crazy when you think that when the fighting stopped in 2002, the country had been at war for nearly 41 consecutive years with only a brief hiatus. In a country where the median age is 17.9 and life expectancy is 37.6 you have nearly no one left who could remember a time when there wasn’t a war. And that’s not to mention the 500 years of the triangle slave trade….
My soft obsession with the country has been growing over the past months. I read Judith’s book about her time and experiences and then picked up Ryszard Kapucinski’s “Another Day of Life” about the tense transition to independence on November 11 1975. (My fourth birthday – the year I moved to Detroit with my parents from California.) Ricardo from Transforma gave me a copy of the Hip Hip soundtrack “É Dreda Ser Angolano” which I can’t stop listening to. It’s awesome. I put my headphones on every time I hop on the subway. Judith gave me the singer Waldemar Bastos’ contact in Portugal and also here in New York (he usually stays with David Byrne when he’s here). I read another book “empire in africa” by David Birmingham, an Englishman who has spent his professional life focussed on the politics of Lusophone africa. I’ve been trying to get ahold of Agualusa’s latest novel and have tons of contacts with Immigrants, Retornados, Portuguese of Angolan descent – black and white – for when I finally get back to Portugal. Both Ricardo and Rogerio Nuno Costa want to put me in touch with the popular Portuguese band Terrekota. And I’ve been voraciously reading newspaper articles from around the world about what’s going on in Angola right now. About the Chinese who are rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and securing rights to crude oil.
Somehow all of this has got me scheming about how to actually get to Angola. I wrote a proposal to shoot a documentary film along the Benguela Railway (http://cabula6.com/ANGOLA/BENGUELA%20RAILWAY%20PITCHsmall.pdf) and have been pitching it to different organizations. The most promising possibility at the moment is a magazine here in the States called “Good Magazine”. In addition to publishing a printed journal, they pay for filmmakers to travel around the world and do reports on different subjects. They liked my pitch and we have a meeting set up for the beginning of January to see if they’ll fund it. Basically I just want to get to Angola. To transform whatever my imagination can conjure up here overlooking the East River in New York to something concrete and rooted in lived experience. As I’m reading and talking to people and listening to music the project that I want to do for Transforma is starting to take form in my mind.
I want to write a feature film script. It will follow several stories of people whose lives are wrapped up with Angola. From Angolans who grew up in Portugal and have to return for some reason, to ex-commandos who fought for the Portuguese in the colonial wars, to an American and Brazilian journalist covering a story along the Benguela Railway to a Chinese construction worker or farmer who has moved to Angola to work. I see this project, writing a script, as demanding me to research in a deep way. For Transforma, I would like to document this research. My travels. Conversations with people. The music and dances. Things I am reading. And find a form that is appropriate for Transforma while allowing me to write the script.
This is where I am right now. I’ll check back in again in a little while as things progress and my thoughts and questions deepen. As I have more concrete experiences.
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