Swirling around you
Never bound to you
but binding you
and you’re still
not getting it
art is not art
thinking you know
being in high heels
that dig holes
in the back
of your feet
art exists for the sake of
that it would not
but live much longer
because it’s expressed
Be an empty chair
unless you’re ready
After being warned by my mother that I should not wear my afro out in Vermont because I might get shot by people who think I’m a bear as they’ve most certainly never seen an afro, let alone a Black person before, I get in my car anyway at 5 a.m. and brave the naked roads to get to a book fair in South Burlington, Vermont.
“I have to sell my book. I have to sell my book.” This is the mantra and motivation that propels me through the darkness for five hours as I hurtle through upstate New York toward my destiny.
Sirens happen next of course. Black while driving? No. Driving while black. This combination has never been good for me. The sun and my eyes are a much better combination — which is what I should realize before I get pulled over at 80 miles an hour in a 65 speed zone. I guess. I mean, I don’t think I’m driving that fast. But, who can gauge speed in the dark with nothing along the way except absolute blackness and no cars to compare to?
He’s fine—the state trooper—something I can never not appreciate. A man in a uniform has always been a drool starter for me but then again, I didn’t grow up in the 50s and 60s. I try to flirt with smiles and dumbness as I have successfully done in the past… but he’s not having it. Fifteen minutes later and possibly hundreds of dollars less, I speed off again.
Vermont has a lot of cow signs, a lot of cows, a lot of grain silos, and a lot of piles of hundreds of tires — the explanation for which a ten year old provides later. Oh, and I forget, a whole bunch of White people. Like, a lot of White people. And, of course, my mother being of the Baby Boom generation, a lot of White people means a lot of running in the other direction. But, look, the same thing happened when I went to Cote d’Ivoire. I was warned that I would get my arms and legs chopped off as soon as I got off the plane because Liberia was next door. Fear is always there to thwart you. Courage is much harder to find.
Ian is the ten year old — home schooled, fiercely adoring his Mom in plain view, and more kind and knowledgeable in speech than most adults. Ian not only keeps me great company but introduces me to his entire, book-vending family throughout the day, including his grandmother who he races over in her wheelchair; brings me plenty of chocolate; skillfully discusses what the perfect waffle should look like; explains why Vermont makes the best maple syrup; proves that piles of tires along Vermont farm roads have piles of horse manure underneath them to facilitate turning it into fertilizer; lends the tips that JP Mountain and the Pine Barrons are the places to be, and brings over two crisp ten dollar bills to buy Padre! for his mother before any more of them disappear.
If I’ve learned anything in life, I’ve learned that kids are a reflection of their parents and the society they grow up in. So, I can safely say that Ian represents his parents and Vermont very well and next I meet two best friends who quickly remind me that almost 70% of the entire population of Vermont vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012, that their state is mostly full of people who are hippies to the core, and that here is the number one state in the entire country for Peace Corps Volunteer recruitment.
All of this is naturally proven within the span of two hours as not one but two older, White men quickly come to my table one after the other announcing they served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana and Nigeria respectively. The next White man to the table lived in India for two years on a huge construction project. The next White woman worked for the Foreign Service in West Africa. The next White woman almost sings that a DNA test revealed she is a whole 1% Moroccan. And, the next White woman is married to guess who — an Ivoirien. Let’s not forget the lovely septuagenarian book vendor who comes once to let me know I’m the prettiest thing in the entire fair and then again to check up on me with a courtly glass of water — breaking into a ready, fake, and laughter-binding karate move after I playfully suggest that he moves with the grace of someone who knows martial arts.
In the end, the most important thing is not that I hide my afro, drive 65 in a 65, or even that I sell all of my Padre! copies but that I not miss out on seeing my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and resident Vermontian whom I had not seen in over ten years; get to enjoy the Skinny Pancake which had everything but pancakes and lots of French speakers as Canada is just next door; and walk on the endlessly beautiful and frozen, 6th largest American lake, Lake Champlain — full of so many Vermontians flocking to the horizon without fear. Thank you.
There is something about The Color of the Soul directed by Alberto Martos that is a little bit extra. I could mean the actual content or I could mean the way the content is so superiorly presented—from the cinematography to the digital graphics—or I could just mean what it overwhelmingly reflects about us.
The complex nature of the socio-economic-religious system in India proves to be an extreme example of how each person on earth contributes unique elements that show our imaginations to be much greater than life itself. When that storm is raging inside of you, if you just stop for a second and listen to what’s around you, quite usually nothing is happening at all. The wind might be blowing. The birds might be chirping. That’s pretty much it.
But, at 330,000,000 Hindu Gods, something extra is definitely going on when Indians almost have more Gods than the entire population of India itself. We sure do complicate things. I look at the image of the man above drinking tea in this film and at first I’m confused because he doesn’t fit into the reality that I know, but it’s really not so complicated. He is white and black. He is light and dark. Exactly what I see. Or, he is European and Asian, if you need another visual, and “race mixing” has nothing to do with it. Color is only a little more than a random attribute among us. It says little about how we are connected. Other things say much more.
As the film progresses, it gives you more and more extra. I learn about the dichotomy of Ghandi’s approach to the British on the one hand vs. Ambedkar’s approach on the other. It reminds me of the dichotomy between King and Malcolm X. Peaceful protest versus any means necessary. And ironically, even as an Untouchable—a member of the Dom caste in India—Ambedkar beat the odds to become known as the Father of the Indian Constitution. If he had looked at his prescribed place as the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system and stopped himself there, none of his reforms for the education of all Indians, regardless of caste, would have seen the light of day. He clearly saw that his life did not have to be as complicated as his imagination could limit him. I say it this way because sometimes seeing things in a simple way frees us to do more than our imaginations could ever do for us—our imaginations sometimes creating dangers, limitations, and divisions where there are none.
At times, we would all like to believe that we are so disconnected, unique, and un-influenced by one another. That we are so special. But, language is one strong indicator to the contrary. Take aryan, aubergine, avatar, cheetah, ganja, jungle, juggernaut, jackal, karma, lilac, loot, opal, orange, rice, singapore, sugar, sulfur, and zen, for example—all of these words come almost directly from Sanskrit—a language much older than Latin. English has for a very long time adopted words from languages all over the world, which is in part the reason why it is one of the most inconsistent languages. The way English speakers say words, for example, and the way the letters sound in the alphabet, are two different things. If you’ve ever studied other languages, you know English is not the norm. The British show great diversity in this way—a very great display of connection—even if some try to hide it with words like Anglo-Saxon… In this same way, Indians show a lot of their diversity and connection by the number of religions they have merged into one—Hinduism.
There are the connects and the disconnects, but in a backwards way, the disconnects can also come out to be yet other examples of our connects. I say soda. You say pop. I say sneakers. You say tennis shoes. I say backpack. You say knapsack. I say boot. You say trunk. I say elevator. You say lift. We are seeing the same thing. We just approach it differently.
How, for example, the Jainism symbol for goodness, the swatstika, which was and still is a religious symbol all across Asia, suddenly became the symbol of hate after the Nazi party adopted it, I’ll never know. A Jainist gives it the meaning of love. But, a Jewish person will now inevitably give it the meaning of hate. This flip in meaning of a symbol is the same as the flip in usage of all the word pairs I just gave. There are no two countries in the world that use English the same way. There are no two countries in the world that adopt religions the same way. But, the disconnects certainly have connects when we take the time to stop running wild with our imaginations and look at all the evidence staring right back up at us.
I think about all of the contradictions so perfectly stated and perfectly unstated in The Color of the Soul and I realize that it’s not so odd; the innumerable ways we can approach the same thing. That a people of so many origins could have so many structures in place, makes sense. Indians go from the darkest to the lightest, from straight hair to curly African hair. Even Muslim Pakistan used to be a part of India’s already large mix until the British separated them on India’s “independence” from England… Yeh, you can go now but I’ll just keep your arm. Thanks!
When you really think about it, the disconnecting connects are actually exciting. Many Americans call themselves Christians but Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Bakers, Fishers, Drivers, and Priests—these are all examples of occupations that English speakers have given to themselves as surnames—possibly remnants of our own caste system… as in, when English speakers might have been influenced by Vedism the same way ancient Indians were influenced to start giving caste names by occupation as shown in The Color of the Soul?… Well, English probably didn’t even exist then, but you understand what I’m saying.
And just when I was ready to wind down, the Brahmin in the film brought me to yet another contradiction. The Brahmin are the highest class in Indian society—the priests, the artists, and the teachers… Brahmin and Burakumin… sound pretty similar, don’t they? Take out the Japanese proclivity to add vowels after every single consonant, even when the Japanese are practicing another language, and it’s quite possible that when the Japanese talk about Burakumin, they might be, now unknowingly, referring to Brahmin. People travel, you know? I’m sure bits of Buddhism-influenced Hinduism spread to Japan from India along with the Buddhism now so entrenched in Japanese society today… but then things got flipped for one reason or another. If my theory is correct, how ironic it is that the highest of society in India are simultaneously the lowest in Japanese society and now perform the same undesired tasks as the Dom caste in India. But, why not? If a boot is a trunk and the swatstika can represent hate, then anything is possible.