Review: The Modoc War

The bare bones story of the Modoc War, also known as the Lava Beds War, is one of institutionalized genocide and land theft in the name of Manifest Destiny. The fleshed-out version reveals the complexities of human nature while demonstrating what little has changed regarding relations between Indigenous peoples and the U.S. Government.  Robert McNally’s version, aptly titled The Modoc War, falls into the latter category.

themodocwarMcNally, author and co-author of nine nonfiction books, is known for his vivid, information-laden writing style. His telling of the armed conflict between the Modoc people and the United States Army near the California-Oregon border from 1872 to 1873 is true to form, a historical thriller that reveals the intricacies of the conflict:

“A mixed-race lieutenant who kept secret the African American portion of his heritage in order to command white troopers, [Lieutenant Frazier] Boutelle knew more than a little about playing a role. He unholstered his revolver and locked eyes with the Indian whose heavily scarred right cheek pulled an otherwise strong and handsome face into a perpetual sneer. His Modoc name was Chick-chack-am Lul-al-kuel-atko, something local settlers wouldn’t even try to wrap their mouths around, so they dubbed him Scarface Charley.”

Several chapters of The Modoc War focus on the national press coverage of the time. Modocs were demonized as savage and treacherous for fighting back against those who tried to dispossess and destroy them. A New York Times editorial on the Modocs referred to the “innate ferocity and treachery of the Indian character.” Ironically, the white settlers and governmental figures perpetrated the very savagery and treachery they projected onto Natives. After having fled the shackles of British rule, Americans sought independence for all men, though, when it came to Indigenous peoples, “the United States government approached Indians with a Bible in one hand and a Sharps carbine in the other.”

The Modoc once lived in villages on and near Tule, Lower Klamath, and Clear Lakes until the intrusion of fur traders and white settlers, who demanded that the Modoc be relocated on the Klamath Reservation with the Klamath and Yahooskin Paiute nations. The Modoc and the Klamath separated in the late eighteenth century and remained distantly familial, McNally writes, though other accounts say the Modoc and the Klamath were enemies and competitors. The Modoc described in the book were composed of three groups loosely following the waning leadership of Kientpoos (nicknamed Captain Jack by the settlers). Initially convinced to move to the Klamath Reservation, Kientpoos and other Modoc left the poor conditions of the reservation for their home on the Lost River. What followed was a series of attempts by the U.S. Army and militiamen to either move the Modoc people back to the reservation or exterminate them. The war resulted in the unfair trial of Modoc fighters who were charged as war criminals and hanged. The survivors were forced onto the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma where they again found little of the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine promised by the government.

In under 360 pages, McNally’s The Modoc War uses the power of hindsight to characterize historical subjects in thematic fashion, revealing deeper motivations behind the heart-rending war in the Lava Beds.

Afrofuturism and the Black Panther?

Before the release of Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther, I discovered social media buzz about Afrofuturism. The term immediately brought to mind images of pyramids and spaceships with AFROFUTURISM written in pink neon graffiti across the starry night sky. I was close.

Through cursory research, I found Afrofuturism to be a movement centered on the intersection of art, science, and technology. The term was coined by the author and cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” which examines science or speculative fiction within the African diaspora. Jamie Broadnax, editor-in-chief and creator of the online community Black Girl Nerds, takes the definition a bit further, adding that Afrofuturism is different from standard science fiction because it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. “A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.”

Janelle Monae With that, I realized I had totally seen Afrofuturistic elements in the music and art of Outkast and Janelle Monáe, and in the science fiction of Octavia Butler. I took these as one-offs, however; it didn’t register as a conscious movement.

Now I see the Black Panther in a different light, as a great step forward in not only Afrofuturism, but in superhero storytelling. The film has already exceeded box office expectations and continues to pull in crowds with its  critical praise and positive word of mouth, even with the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War coming in less than three months.

I went with to a matinee with my wife and siblings-in-law at the Grand Lake Theater the day after Black Panther opened.  Because Coogler is from Oakland, directed Fruitvale Station, and includes Oakland-based locations and characters in the film, Grand Lake was the obvious choice.  Apparently, everyone else thought so too! Lines stretched down Grand and Walker avenues, taking anywhere from 45 minutes upward before moving. An extra draw to the theater that day may have been due to Coogler’s surprise appearance the night before. According to social media reports, he dropped several Easter eggs about Bay Area representation in the film.

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Photo taken by my wife of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland before the matinee.

We didn’t see any cosplayers or anyone with Afrofuturistic style at our showing, but a good number of people wore African and African-Inspired clothing, especially for the evening showing—ladies donned jewelry, colorful head wraps, and regal gowns, while men wore tunics with fancifully embroidered collars.

Inside, the diverse crowd buzzed as people searched for seats and stood in concession lines. Once the house lights dimmed and the red velvet curtain rose, the crowd hushed as previews began. The only previews that stood out were both science fiction entries—A Wrinkle in Time, which appears to have Afrofuturistic elements, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which…I actually don’t know what to make about Solo just yet. The film seems way undermarketed, which is not a good sign for a movie, especially for a brand as huge as Star Wars; plus, the trailer left me with more questions than excitement.  (Editor’s note: my view of this film has changed after seeing the finished version!)

a-wrinkle-in-time-poster-slice-600x200At any rate, the Afrofuturistic elements and strong female leads in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther made me think of how diversity and gender equality are having moments even in this socially and politically divisive time. Further, with the successes of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), and the evermore-diverse Star Wars films of late, moviemakers should realize the time has died for appeasing only one type of audience for box office success. Video game developers have known this for a while with the advent of create-a-character games, which allow players to gallivant as versions of themselves around virtual worlds.

The success of Black Panther creates a new template for Marvel’s movies, much like the first Iron Man did back in ‘08, Gamespot’s Tamoor Hussain notes. One reason is because T’Challa is already a hero who fights for and with his people, as opposed to a goodhearted, yet selfish person who gains superhero status after forced maturation, such as with characters like Tony Stark, Thor, and Dr. Strange. Hussain also adds that the Black Panther is doing so well at the box office because the film has its own identity, akin to how Thor: Ragnarok felt so different from the usual Marvel superhero movie.

And the above-mentioned difference is partially why I haven’t written a formal review for the film—there is so much to unpack. I mean that in a good way. The movie offers so many avenues for discussion that I want to see it again to both enjoy and analyze.

0218_WI_APAFRO_02_sq.0One of my criticisms with the film going in was regarding CGI usage. The trailers didn’t impress me in that regard. In general, I’m against CGI because it rarely adds whatever artistic weight filmmakers intend. Said plainly, most CGI looks fake. Thankfully, many of Black Panther’s sets and characters are grounded in the physical world, leaving room for only a few flat digital effects. What remains is pretty good. The African utopia brought to life, with its elevated Vibranium-powered bullet trains, humming around high-rise buildings and through bustling markets is a sight.

Much like Afropunk, Afrofuturism seems like it’s always been a thing, but the requirement mentioned above, the unapologetic celebration of the uniqueness and technological innovation of Black culture, is hard to come by in mainstream pop culture. Even those who don’t identify as Black or of African descent can see, at least for this moment, the great amount of celebration and pride the movie has inspired.

Wakanda forever, yes, but Afrofuturism, too. I think it’s cool.

The Great Xanadu of Race Politics

mixed-raceI’ve been in the practice of storytelling through art since elementary school. I didn’t begin to tell my own story, however, until graduate school, where I wrote about the adventures of a dark-skinned mixed boy and a Russian-American girl in rural Kansas. After two years of study, I managed to complete my thesis, but was well short of a finished first draft.

After spending several more years writing a mixture of what could be described as The Little Prince meets Pedro Paramo, I realized the main character’s search for identity and purpose in a world that regarded him as anomalous because of his skin color and unorthodox beliefs were, in essence, my own.

Knowing my heritage, I managed to confounded the color line and mass-mediated stereotypes as a child. “You don’t sound Black” and “You are not the usual Black” are comments I’ve heard most often, the runners up being: “I can tell you’re mixed because your hair is different” or “What country are you really from?”

I’ve developed a series of responses over the years—some of which mention I’m of African, Cherokee, and Scottish ancestry—but, no matter how I respond, I always wonder why people from seemingly all backgrounds police Black identity so zealously, especially in regard to dark-skinned people of African descent.

An ex-girlfriend was of a similar mix type, but her appearance was notably different than mine. She had pale skin, blue eyes, and straightened brown hair with natural blonde highlights. I identified as mixed because of my upbringing and knowledge of my ancestry; she identified as Black because of her upbringing, adherence to the one-drop rule, and what I assume to be disinterest in her Native and Anglo ancestries. While our inevitable split was not due solely to identity politics, the policing of Blackness played a large part in our relationship’s demise.

Until recently, I was in the occasional habit of defending my ancestries with genealogical records, DNA test results, and family photographs, but I stopped all together because the act of proving serves to trivialize my experience and existence. I also stopped because identity police are annoying. Now I tell them “I am who my ancestors are” and let their minds silently explode.

The novel I mentioned earlier has actually become a memoir in verse even though the characters and happenings are fictional. If the concept of a poetic fictional memoir seems contradictory, blame artistic license, cultural inheritance, and the subversive nature of poetry. I was brought up to know storytelling is more about getting to the underlying truth than simply relating details. Given that, I’ve come to realize the concept of being both dark skinned and mixed is difficult to convey accurately without writing about in academic detail the usual suspects of colonialism, colorism, racism, and general human cruelty. Writing my truth in essence seems more natural and meaningful beyond mere details of record, and has become an effective way to transcend identity politics.

F3b1 haplogroup

My Mother’s Haplogroup – Region: Southeastern Asia

The Art of Living Black

1001BlackMen511Web-463x600A few weeks ago I attended The Art of Living Black (TAOLB), a group art exhibition that includes sculptors, painters, jewelry makers, mixed media artists, photographers, and doll makers of African descent. The annual event is held from the beginning of January through the end of March at various venues throughout the Bay Area, including my Alma mater, Mills College.

1001BlackMen504Web-429x600The only artist of the group I know personally is Ajuan Mance, my former professor at Mills and the author of Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self-Representation, 1877-2000. Ajuan is one of those crazy-smart scholars who happens to be personable and artistic. She carries herself with a smooth confidence that rivals President Obama’s. Her series of drawings, 1001 Black Men,  is inspired by the men she sees in Oakland, and by memories of her family, friends, and neighbors back east.  On her website, 8-rock.com,  Ajuan writes of her series:

“I push past entrenched stereotypes to create images of Black men that reflect the wonderful complexity of African American lives—our history so deeply embedded in our present, our celebrations so often tempered by grief and, yes, the pleasure and danger we find in so many of the people, places, and activities that give us joy.”

At the time of this posting, the latest in the series is number 512. The first piece of art I saw from Ajuan was during her office hours my first year at Mills. I remember being nervous that day for several reasons, one of which was the uncertainty of what to write for my thesis, as my novel was in its infancy at the time, and the other was not wanting to sound like a dumb-ass while talking to Ajuan about African-American history, my mixed-race heritage, the social construction of race, and the exclusivity of whiteness. As we talked, I noticed a painting, leaning next to her against a desk or chair, similar in style to those in her current series, of a Black man, only more abstract. As I became comfortable in our conversation, I let my eyes wonder and art seemed to jump out from all angles of the office. I expected books, of which I saw plenty, but not paintings and sketches. I had been inspired by Ajuan from day one of class by the way she carried herself and by what she said and how, but the combination of scholar-artist added another layer of respect and her works continue to inspire in me creative energy.

Thea Bowman by Thearthur Wright As I walked through the exhibition to see Ajuan, I stopped to look at Thearthur Wright‘s striking paintings in black, brown, gold, and white. This alone would be worth mentioning due to his talent and the initial impact the paintings had on me, but the hot kicker is they were painted with bleach! He withheld this fact for a good while into our conversation and my mind was blown when he finally mentioned it. I asked him about technique, especially with bleach, and he said he works in dots, many dots, and the age of the bleach determines the color on the canvas. By that point, my mind had already begun humming as it does when good art and a new way of creating comes about. He also mentioned he started out as writer and had several publications, but painting came later in life and eventually became his focus, especially after retiring from a career as an electrician.

I write this in preparation, as inspiration to write into the novel this weekend. My novel is now in two parts. The first draft of part one is complete. My goal is to have the first draft of part two finished by May. Hard task because of work and other commitments, but being a novelist is one of those dreams I can’t let go.