New York, NY, USA

Until last week, I had only been to New York twice, and both trips had left me somewhat cold. It wasn’t about what I did—or didn’t do. It was more that the New York in my mind was so far from reality.

I envisioned a mixture of scenes from When Harry Met Sally, The Warriors, Do the Right Thing, and Billy Joel songs. Despite its many charms, the city I pictured was a cruel, dangerous place, full of stylish assholes sneering at my shoes and laughing when I got on the wrong subway train. And roaming gangs of thugs dressed in baseball uniforms. It’s a wonder I wanted to go at all.

So, a couple months ago, when my wonderful friend, Jessie, invited me to New York for a girls’ trip over Valentine’s weekend, I jumped at the chance, but I was also nervous that I would, once again, be disappointed.

The moment I stepped off the plane at LaGuardia, I knew this time was different. New York hadn’t changed, but I had. The old me, the one wrapped up in expectations and daydreams, couldn’t enjoy the city because she couldn’t even see it. She wasn’t open enough to stop projecting and simply look around. To listen. To smell. To take it in and just allow it to be.

When I stopped thinking and just started to notice, everything buzzed with more magic than my limited mind could ever possibly conceive of.

And now, I can honestly say, I love New York.

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Jessie and I at the Carlyle Hotel

Jessie and I at the Carlyle Hotel

view from hotel

The view from the fabulous French Quarters hotel

obligatory Central Park shot

obligatory Central Park shot

Brooklyn museum

All the ladies at the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Flea Market was A-MAZ-ING…

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 "I never knew of but one artist, and this is Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is." — Walt Whitman

One of my favorite pieces (other than the El Anatsui exhibit) at the Brooklyn Museum was this piece (below) by Dotty Attie, titled “Barred from the Studio.” It is a commentary on the painter Thomas Eakins, who was heavily criticized in his day for his progressive attitudes toward gender equality, his sexual liberality, and his graphic depictions of surgical procedures. It references two of Eakins’ paintings, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull and The Gross Clinic.

Walt Whitman said of him, “I never knew of but one artist, and this is Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”


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(Unfortunately, I lost the majority of my photos as I was trying to load them onto my computer when I got home. C’est la vie. Old Cara would have been PISSED.)

Death and the olden days

The thing about the olden days is that people were always dying. They died while they were working—in coal mines and cornfields, factories and trainyards, kitchens and plantation houses. They died while they were traveling on trains and boats and stagecoaches, and while they were fighting in wars. They died of Indian attacks and white man massacres. They died while they were giving birth and while they were being born. They died of the flu. They died of cholera, and tuberculosis, and syphilis, and exposure to the elements. People still die today, of course. But not, it seems, with such constancy as in the olden days.

Something about the Colorado landscape makes me reflect on the people who lived and died here in the past couple hundred years. For a while, I lived in Fort Collins and worked in Boulder, so I commuted an hour each way every day. The scenery consisted mostly of pastureland, dilapidated farmhouses, and miles and miles of prairie, with the Rocky Mountains in the far-off distance like a fake panoramic background, or a dream. I wonder what the first settlers thought of those mountains, which look so close, but are, on foot or even by horse, so far away.

One of the most interesting parts of my drive was the town of Loveland, about 15 miles south of Fort Collins. You are just driving along, and then suddenly you are bordered on either side by gravestones. It is possible that this used to be the perimeter of the city, and that the highway infringed upon these resting places. Or maybe this was a cemetery road that just took on more and more traffic over time. Now the people buried here are a part of life along Hwy 287, smack in the middle of town. (Click on the thumbnails for a slideshow.)

If driving through the graveyard every day isn’t unsettling enough, at the edge, just before the road splits into two one-way streets, is a 25-foot statue of a mohawked Indian warrior, triumphantly thrusting a spear into the air.

I had driven past this statue many times before I parked my car a couple blocks away and dodged the traffic to get a better look at it. Only then did it become clear that, wrapped around the warrior’s feet, is a dead man.

The statue is called “Winning the Iron Shirt.” According to sculptor Fritz White, it depicts a Pawnee warrior named “Carries His Shield in Front” having bested a Southern Cheyenne named “Alights on the Cloud.”

The iron shirt refers to a suit of Spanish armor that had been acquired by the Cheyenne around 1800. It had been passed among warriors of the Cheyenne and their allies, the Arapaho, for more than 50 years when Carries His Shield in Front killed Alights on the Cloud in battle and took the iron shirt as his reward.

There are just so many stories. So many people who have come and gone. So many things we can never and will never know about them.

Yesterday, I found myself in Longmont, so I went to the indoor flea market. I started taking pictures of a bunch of funny and cool old stuff, but then I began to focus on the photographs. As if to say, for just a moment—from decades or even a century away—I see you. You are real.

Harry Belafonte lays down some truth

Last night I had a whole house to myself, so I planned to make a Thai stir-fry and watch some corny movie. I turned on the TV and happened upon the NAACP Image Awards. I am a sucker for any and all awards shows, so I kept watching.

It was mostly what you would expect—a few A-list celebrities, like Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Quentin Tarantino, LL Cool J—mixed in with a bunch of people you kinda, sorta recognize. (Is that Buuud from The Cosby Show? … It wasn’t). And the adorable little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild with the name that no one can pronounce. And this white dude who stars with Washington on the show Scandal:


That’s right. It’s the guy who killed Patrick Swayze.

It was disappointing when people weren’t there to get their awards. Denzel wasn’t there. Omar Epps wasn’t there. Viola Davis wasn’t there. They gave Kerry Washington something called the “President’s Award” for her humanitarian work. I think she is a great actress (I mean, did you see Last King of Scotland?) but the shlocky PR video that they showed before she accepted her award was nauseatingly contrived. And I get that she is beautiful and has broken through to mainstream success, but ugh. She just ended up sounding conceited and self absorbed.

I have to admit that when 85-year-old Sidney Poitier took the stage and started slowly reading from the teleprompter, I was expecting a few sweet sentiments or maybe even a prepared speech written by some twenty-something awards-show writer.

Harry+Belafonte+Sidney+Poitier+Film+Society+6zLdECUDEsqlBut then something changed. He began to light up as he talked about Harry Belafonte, also 85, also one of the trailblazers of African American entertainment, also a pillar of the American civil rights movement.

It is easy to forget, in these post-politically-correct times, when we have a black president, when a we have movies like Django Unchained with a slave for a hero, just how much work it has taken to get to this point. Just how much struggle and pain it has taken. I mean it is easy for me to forget. For other people, it is absolutely impossible.

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte remember the world before. They remember segregated America, and Medgar Evers and Emmitt Till, and Mississippi Burning, before it was a movie. When it was real. When these were real people being murdered for trying to challenge our country’s hypocrisy.

They remember the people they knew as children who told real stories of slavery. Not Tarantinoan revenge fantasies, but real-life recollections of violence and oppression that most of us will never even come close to understanding. The kind of suffering that crushes a human being’s soul.

I was impressed recently when I heard Tarantino defend the brutality depicted in Django Unchained by saying: Yes, it is violent. But what really happened during slavery was much, much worse.

Considering that slavery in America ended less than 200 years ago, we have come miraculously far toward becoming a nation that truly provides liberty and justice for all. But you need only to look at the poverty and crime statistics to see how much further there is to go. Which is why what Mr. Belafonte said last night was so powerful:

The group most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African Americans. Although making comparisons can be dangerous, there are times when they must be noted. America has the largest prison population in the world and, of the over 2 million men, women, and children who make up the incarcerated, the overwhelming majority is black.

They are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice, and in the gun game, the most hunted. The river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our black children.

Yet as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership while no one speaks to the consequences of our racial carnage. Where is the raised voice of black America? Why are we mute? Where are our leaders? Our legislators? Where is the church?

Not all, but many who have been recipients of this distinguished award were men and women who spoke up to remedy the ills of the nation. They were committed to radical thought. They were my mentors, my inspiration, my moral compass. Through them I understood America’s greatness. Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Bobby Kennedy, Connie Rice, and perhaps most of all, Paul Robeson. He was the sparrow. He was an artist who made us understand the depth of that calling when he said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are the civilization’s radical voice.”

Never in the history of black America has there ever been such a harvest of truly gifted and powerful artists… our nation hungers for their radical song. Let us not sit back silently. Let us not be charged with patriotic treason.

—Harry Belafonte

Some bloggers today have called his speech an “admonishment” of black America for not doing more to end violence. I did not hear it that way. I heard it as a call to action. I heard it as big love. I heard it as power. The same kind of power you hear in the words of Frederick Douglass, or Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr, or Malcolm X.

As Mr. Belafonte spoke, the crowd was visibly moved. Everyone who took the stage after him made reference to his speech, including Jamie Foxx, who said that while he had planned to talk about “me, me, me, I, I, I,” instead gave a beautiful, heartfelt thank you to those who paved the road for him and others. Not just in Hollywood, but every African American who suffered the inconceivable cruelty of slavery.

He acknowledged Quentin Tarantino for telling the story of Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington for the role she played in it. The role of every black woman who ever took a lashing, and worse. Before the network cut him off to show some commercial, Foxx sang an impromptu a cappella rendition of the song “No Weapon” as if singing to every sister, mother, auntie, and grandmother:

I know that a lot of people will not hear Mr. Belafonte’s words the way that I did, but it gives me hope that he said them. I do not think he was speaking only to black America. I think he was speaking to all of America, and to all artists, to be brave, honest, and radical in our compassion. We owe it to each other and to every American who came before us.