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    Beyoncé’s Impact, Re-visioning History, and Why We Need Ethnic Studies

    Teacher Lyndsey Schlax of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts recently taught the nation’s first on-site high school LGBT course, according to district officials. She will resume teaching that groundbreaking class next fall. This semester, she is teaching a new Ethnic Studies course. It is a popular elective among the school’s Social Science offerings. In this column, students from her class will be anonymously sharing with the San Francisco Bay Times their thoughts about related matters, and what they are learning.

    Diversity in the Filmmaking Industry

    Student, 12th Grade

    Growing up in an artist household in San Francisco as a son to second-generation immigrant parents from the Philippines has given me a very unique view on the world. It has cultivated a deep appreciation for diverse cultures and ways of life. For me, diversity is not just an idea; it is an everyday ordeal. I am constantly reminded of that by the predominately white-centric culture, and how my brown skin color can be dangerous to wear. Even now in current contemporary culture, as forward thinking as it is, there is a gross lack of representation in the entertainment industry.

    Despite recent films highlighting the Black and Hispanic experience, many films seem to ignore entire cultural communities such as Filipinos, Samoans, Indonesians, Nepali and many more. It is essential to include underrepresented communities in the entertainment industry in order to re-sow the fabric of culture. I intend to write roles for people of color to speak about the realities of life as a colored person, roles that people of youth can look up to, and roles where the brown person will not die within the first few minutes.

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    To make any significant change in culture we must start with the next generations of filmmakers, but too often I see only young Caucasian filmmakers who have more resources and opportunities than, say, an inner city youth. I hope to use what I learn in film school to provide filmmaking programs for inner-city youth, so that the next generations of filmmakers can help to change the world.

    Chicago and the Great
    Migration

    Student, 11th Grade

    The circumstances of the Great Migration of African American people from the southern U.S. to the Chicago area in the years 1915–1950 bring up many questions. The influence of these people on Chicago, and on the culture of the United States, is also much more expansive than many American people think today.

    Following the Reconstruction Era, many laws passed in southern states that segregated and discriminated against African American people, creating a dramatic class system unseen anywhere else in the U.S. Black people were forced to step off the sidewalk to make way for white people, and often were not allowed to vote or contradict white people. This, combined with the lynching some young white men inflicted on African Americans, motivated many families to leave the South for more promising horizons. Six million African American people moved from these states to northern and western states to escape segregation. This movement is known as the Great Migration.

    The flight was also spurred by economic opportunities. The Great Depression in the aftermath of World War I left many people out of work in the South, especially African Americans who were treated as second-class citizens. Industries in the North were still hiring, as they needed to fill the space left by the drop in foreign immigration. Many African American people were, in fact, recruited to the North to do these jobs, as often African American people would perform jobs and services that white people could not, or would not, do.

    Chicago acted as a melting pot for cultures and immigrants in the late 1800s. More than half of the city’s population was composed of first or second-generation European immigrants. After the first World War, the immigrant population was joined by the African American community, numbering over one million by 1970, as opposed to a mere 5,000 before WWI.

    Many African American people who moved to Chicago settled in a narrow neighborhood on the south side of the city. Although this neighborhood was labeled as the “Black Ghetto,” James J, Gentry, an African American editor for the Chicago Bee, coined the less offensive term “Bronzeville.” This place became known as a hub for many 20th Century African American artists and activists.

    Living conditions in Bronzeville were not optimal, as Chicago refused to build more housing for its residents. People lived crammed together in tenement houses, sometimes without heat or running water. Although segregation was not a part of state legislature, it resided heavily through social customs and economic codes, such as agreements prohibiting certain people, particularly African Americans, from leasing or buying certain parts of buildings. This continued until the state and national courts became involved and eventually put an end to legalized segregation.

    Beyoncé’s “Formation”

    Student, 12th Grade

    Beyoncé is one of those very few human beings in this world who is universally respected and loved. No one can deny her beauty, talent, and dedication to her art; she is the ultimate entertainer of our generation. Whenever I hear about Beyoncé coming out with a new song or performing I automatically think, “She is going to be amazing!” It never crossed my mind that she would do anything not for entertainment. Sure, she has often used her voice, literally, to promote love, acceptance, and feminism, but she has never taken an aggressive approach to a cause. So, when I saw the music video and Super Bowl halftime performance of “Formation,” I was shocked.

    It seemed like the whole world was astounded with the firm, aggressive stance she was showcasing. In that moment, Beyoncé was more than a performer—she was an activist. I saw this SNL sketch that made fun of the chaos resulting from “Formation.” It was called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” and that is basically what the reaction was. People were shocked that not only did she acknowledge Black Lives Matter, but she also reminded people that she is, in fact, part of the black community. It is because of her status as a loved celebrity that people forget she is a black woman. She may not suffer the same troubles as other, less privileged, women of color, but she still identifies with them.

    We like to imagine people like Beyoncé as third parties, not affected by the tragic events in our society, and much prefer for them to stay in the dark where we can watch them entertain us and hide. We only ever want them to go out into the light when we, the majority, are in trouble. But Beyoncé came out because the black community, her community, needed her to be a voice. She used her star power to elevate the conversation of Black Lives Matter in audiences who may choose to ignore it and force them to acknowledge it. Thinking about it now, I would have been disappointed if she didn’t create a song that addressed the issues of today. Beyoncé has one of the most powerful voices in the world, and she knew that when she decided to create that music video and perform it on the most watched televised program in the country.

    Inspired by Margaret Cho to Tell Untold Stories

    Student, 12th Grade

    Swimming in my own pool of awkwardness, I started wondering why no one in film or television looked like me. Middle school left me curious, and I questioned why minorities were portrayed so incorrectly in the media. The stories of these complex, rich characters are buried in the mounds of stereotypes. As my curiosity grew, so did my anger, which rolled in with an interest in telling my own story—an interest in theatre.

    As I became a bit obsessive, I began to do my research online, looking for any films, television shows, plays and biographies of people of color working in this world of entertainment and storytelling. I found some books written by colored actors that moved me into the world of theatre. One specific book that really opened my eyes was I’m the One that I Want by comedian Margaret Cho. As a bisexual, Asian woman, Margaret Cho is trapped under multiple labels with which I can easily identify. Her life, revolving around the social intersectionality and her struggle to gain success in this business, answered every fear I had growing up. I was afraid to fail, but I soon realized that no one gets anywhere without failure. Margaret Cho also attended a school that was in my city, the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA), when it became the first and only public arts high school in San Francisco.

    The name SOTA rung up again during my high school admissions process, when a friend of mine expressed that she was auditioning for the Piano Program. Around the same time, I found myself wanting to step outside of my comfort zone. Always being a shy, timid girl, I wanted to do something bold. I started grasping at any opportunity I had to practice public speaking, by reading out loud in class, acting out speeches, introducing people, and giving presentations. I specifically remember how ecstatic I was to learn that SOTA had a Theatre Program. However, something hit me. How would my parents feel about me going to a public arts high school? My family never believed in the financial sustainability of the arts. I was torn, but asked my mother how she felt about the school. Surprisingly, my mother expressed her support. She wanted me to be happy, and I will never forget that. I went back to the application page online to look at the audition requirements, however, half of the theatre jargon on the page felt like gibberish. I had to look up what a “monologue” and a “cold reading” were. I immediately felt terrified. Never had I ever formally done any acting before. However, this shy, timid girl, felt powerful, loud and strong inside.

    Coincidentally, my eighth grade history teacher had assigned every student to memorize and perform Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I A Woman? in front of the whole class. This was my first “real” monologue. My desires pushed me to embody and give the speech a dash of character. This was the first time I had to memorize a substantial bulk of text. Uneasy, I felt pressured. How was I ever going to memorize my audition monologue to SOTA? In the course of several months, I practiced my monologue everywhere I went. At the bus stop, in the shower, before bed, in front of the mirror, recorded on a camera, everywhere. People thought I was going crazy, but I wanted to get into the school so badly.

    The audition process left me perplexed. Never have I ever felt so vulnerable and stripped down to the core. This was the first time I really understood what it was like to perform without the control of a million mixed feelings. Oddly, it felt so good. A few months later, I received the admission letter from SOTA. The first line read, “Congratulations!” Speechless, I have no words to describe the feeling.

    Now, four years later, here I am again, applying to schools and realizing how often I find myself connecting every aspect of my life to my art. Whether I am preparing to argue my stance in a Mock Trial competition or am just being aware of the way I carry myself on the street, everything I have learned in the theatre can be applied in my life, no matter what I do. I have rekindled an old spark, a dream I once had. I dream that one day I can create the untold stories for the minorities with which I identify. I dream that one day, others will not feel barred by their social barriers. Studying in an environment of creative young artists like me has greatly prepared me to continue paving, sculpting, and defining my path through this crazy world.