Monday, July 29, 2013

When Faith speaks...

I was thrilled to hear Susan Stamberg's interview on NPR yesterday morning with artist Faith Ringgold. I have long admired Ringgold's art. One of my kid's favorite childhood books was Tar Beach , based on her famous story quilt of the same name. I have successfully used that book, with its
Faith Ringgold, portrait by Grace Matthews
magical story and gorgeous illustrations, as a jumping-off point for many elementary school drama workshops over the years. Every child wants to fly over the city like Cassie Louise--doing it in the classroom, though, takes some imagination!

Ringgold tells Stamberg that she started out as a landscape painter in the '60's, but was persuaded by a gallery owner to use her art to reflect the social upheaval and violence of that time. (Her work from the late 1960's is on exhibit now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.) But her canvasses showed "Too damn much," she says. When she finally started putting her art on quilts, and adding narrative structure, she hit on something special that audiences responded to, and it was not just their comfort level with the medium. "I think it had a lot to do that it was a familiar medium and people liked stories. They like them. Yes. I think I had struck on a combination of imagery and politics that worked and people said OK."

It is true that we understand the world through story--I even blogged about it, see The Power of Story. And story can also be a balm. In Rx Storytelling I discuss the importance of connectional narrative.

But Ringgold relates story to scope and organization. Her paintings were more abstract, open to interpretation, showing us what the artist saw and felt, but not letting the viewer discover the truth for her/himself. "And I think that it had something to do with the fact that paintings people really don't understand. They don't understand how big - they don't really get paintings-" Ringgold reached some big conclusions in her paintings, and her audience didn't always get there with her, because they were coming in at the end of the story. In her quilts, she can make statements that are every bit as bold and provocative, but the viewer/audience has joined on the journey, and so understands.

I think this is a useful image for us to keep in mind whenever we speak. Because we always have a greater chance of reaching understanding when we make sure our conversation partners have heard the whole narrative arc. We do forget, though. But thinking of Ringgold and her "quilt epiphany" might help each of us remember that no one can read our mind: we must express ourselves, however imperfectly, with the tools we have at hand.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What I learned on Mr. Jefferson's mountain

Last week I took a trip back in time and visited Thomas Jefferson's magnificent mountaintop home, Monticello. During a lovely tour of the house I become viscerally aware of Jefferson's great appetite for learning as I passed through his collection of books, art and artifacts. Here lived a man who adapted the best of everything he ever saw to his "retirement" home in Virginia. The downstairs "dependencies" --which would be out-buildings at other plantations--demonstrate, perhaps even more clearly, his genius at synthesizing what he learned in his travels. The multi-burner cooktop that his cooks used to make a variety of French sauces was amazing!

But one other thing that jumped out at me: in all the signage around Monticello, in the stories told by all three of our tour guides (in the house, on the grounds and gardens, around the plantation community) "slaves" were referred to as ''enslaved persons." A quick look at the Monticello website, as well as that of the website accompanying the Smithsonian exhibit "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty" shows few remaining references to "slaves." That demeaning term has mostly been replaced with the more accurate "enslaved men, women and children," or "the enslaved butler," etc.

And just like that there is a perceptual shift. The words change and something in our minds changes. We become more aware of the fact that these were people--fundamentally like all of us touring the grounds on a 93 degree day in July, 2013. But when they were forced into slavery, they became enslaved people. An adjective, not a noun.

Thomas Jefferson would have appreciated this, I think. He knew the power of words. Indeed, he requested that his gravestone refer not to what offices he held, what territories he purchased, even to what state capitols he designed. He wanted to be remembered as a writer and a lifelong learner:
Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia

Words--what they teach us, where they lead us--can shift our perspective and change the world. We would do well to respect their power.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What's in a name?

I am sure by now you have heard of KTVU anchorwoman who read false names of the Asiana Flight 214 crew that crashed in San Francisco. In case you haven't, here is a complete retelling of the story thus far, complete with video. I was forewarned when I first saw the video on Friday night, as my Twitter feed indicated the names were "phonetically offensive." Who wouldn't be curious to see what that meant? The names are definitely offensive. As we now know, they were confirmed by an NTSB intern. It is unclear where they originated.

After I saw the video and picked my jaw up off the floor, I made a mental note to remind all my clients how important it is to practice all the words you will be saying in a speech event, but especially foreign names. Usually this is because they might be hard to pronounce, but it is also a good idea (as it would have been here) to make sure you are not saying something you shouldn't.  I have read that the anchorwoman in this case did not have time to read the names over beforehand because it was breaking news, and the names just appeared on her teleprompter. But whoever got the names and put them on the prompter should have had a clue that the station was being pranked. And now KTVU may be facing legal action. If only someone somewhere had read them out loud (which you would think is de rigueur for a medium that transmits content by reading it out loud) all this could have been avoided. I am imagining the "Really?!... with Seth and Amy" sketch now.

This incident reminded me of a story told to me by a client long ago. She was slated to give welcoming remarks at a charity event celebrating many generous donors, of whom a disproportionate number were aging male business leaders accompanied by glittering younger women. Though she meant to compliment them on their philanthropy, I believe she said it was good to "see so many philanderers here tonight." Oops!

The lesson is that if you know you are going to be saying a word you do not normally say, that may be a bit of a stretch -- like "philanthropy"-- you need to say it overandoverandover so that it slides off the tongue anytime you begin a word with "philan...." Anything less than thorough preparation can leave you saying something you most definitely do not want to say.  Just knowing the word in your head is not enough. You have to get it in your muscle memory, so that when you are in the spotlight, you don't slip into something that might come more naturally (but less appropriately).

And if you are ever on air reading up-to-the-minute-breaking news, make sure whoever puts the words up on your teleprompter has actually said them, for cryin' out loud!