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E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems

Month

August 2011

Models Monday: “Exploring Mysteries to Come”

My mother sent me a package and decided to include her copy of AARP: The Magazine because Michelle Obama was on the cover. I’m so happy to have this magazine because of the terrific articles. “Partners in Time” was among my favorite. In it, Michael Downs reflects on his life as the younger half of a married couple. Towards the conclusion of the article he reveals his outlook on the future: “I still look forward to growing old, to exploring mysteries to come.” Ah, finally, an expression in this culture of wanting to be something other than sexy. Sexiness has seemingly become the overriding ambition of maturity. Sexiness serves as the frame for being self-confident, assertive, bold, and daring.

Being self-confident does not require nudity, however. Having confidence in your ability to provide for your family can be done fully clothed. So can taking the time to listen to others with deep caring and concern. As I grow old I want to be better able to sit still and better understand my feelings of restlessness. As it stands, restlessness can paralyze me at times. In those moments, I don’t always know how to direct my energies…but it’s never towards some notion of sexiness. What is this ambition about in American culture? There are “other models by which to live.”

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Models Monday: “This House I’m in Right Now”

After the fourth time my house was broken into, I put my house on the market. Looking at properties I could barely afford made me think about friends and family who never moved. I can think of at least three families who have had the same address and telephone number for at least my entire lifetime. Though they all could have afforded bigger houses at some point in their lives, they chose to stay in those smaller ones. This choice meant that they could save money and could easily afford to travel or enjoy themselves in other meaningful ways.

I thought about this recently after watching the making of the documentary film I am A Man. 

I had read a newspaper account of Mr. Nickelberry’s participation in the sanitation workers strike  and took pause over the fact that he still works for the city. The behind the scenes footage of the film offers a glimpse into his home and it is the same one that he lived in and was working to afford at the time of the strike in ’68. Michael Honey’s book Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle records Taylor Rogers’ reflections on the strike and he reveals that he also lives in the same home he was buying when the strike began. As he tells Honey, “I was just beginning to buy a home, this house I’m in right now […]” The fact of Mr. Nickelberry and Mr. Rogers residing in the same homes since at least 1968 may not have been striking to me when I was younger and still living among my grandparents’ generation because these folk never seemed to move. My mother observes that “old people don’t move, they die” and in many cases, she’s correct. Even with the neighborhood changing and often declining around them, I know old folk who wouldn’t have dreamed of selling their homes. In fact, my former neighbors, Betty and Thomas, recently passed away but when I returned for visits, they lived out their lives in 2009 as they had in 1989. They continued to garden in their backyard; they shopped at Sav-Mor on Harvard; they turned on the sprinkler in their front yard for their granddaughters to run thru. I worried about them though because their neighbors no longer mirrored these habits. They were younger; meaner. Many of them openly peddled drugs in the street.

I wonder if my generation of elderly folk will think about home in the same way as Thomas and Betty’s generation. It seems like my generation is encouraged to feel restless and unsettled–with satisfaction only coming with the next move. I’ve read simple living blogs that recommend throwing out catalogues that come in the mail not only so that you won’t be tempted to buy but so that you won’t be tempted to long for the lives of the folk in them. I have taken this advice but I do sometimes flip through these catalogues but I do so with a more critical eye than I once did. I used to simply think about what might look nice in my house. Now I think about how little room I have in my house for those things. Instead of feeling bad because I don’t have the space, I wonder about an ethics of marketing that requires people to disparage the spaces people have created for themselves.

As a child growing up without these catalogues as a part of my reading, I never judged the spaces and homes I now realize are small. I enjoyed bountiful meals of fresh food grown in the backyard or shared between neighbors. I looked forward to snowy, cold Christmas mornings before brunch with my family. I savored the photographs in albums and taped to walls in the basement. In fact, I never even realized how frightening my inner-city neighborhood was supposed to be because my neighbors never locked their doors; never preyed on one another; shared resources.

Given the market, I couldn’t sell my house. But to be honest I didn’t try very hard. I had convinced myself that I would find safety in a higher price point but this fragile illusion was completely shattered when I heard a new homeowner discussing a break-in with an agent at the property. Realizing that I couldn’t price myself out of danger, I began thinking about people in my life who lived lives they could easily afford, which in itself offers a measure of security.

The Help

I spent last summer reading Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Now that I’m current with that series, I have moved on to the Isabel Dalhousie series. I met another fan of the Mma Ramotswe novels who told me that I would enjoy the Dalhousie books more and more as I moved through the series, and she couldn’t have been more correct. Like Mma Ramotswe, Isabel thinks about people and doesn’t take their lives for granted. When I was a kid, my mother used to make fun of a close friend of ours who imagined strangers lives out-loud. You would be driving down the street with her in the car and she would notice someone walking and comment on their shirt. “His shirt was pressed by hand,” she might say. “You can tell that his wife cares about how he looks because she took the time to put starch on that shirt.” My mother would chastise her for making presumptions about “that man’s life,” while we were driving 35 mph through the city. “You don’t even know that man,” she would say. Isabel is like our friend in that way.

In the book that I’m reading now, The Right Attitude to Rain, Isabel makes a very poignant observation about the little discussed lives of those in the background of white Southerners of means. Recalling her mother’s stories about her proud southern heritage, Isabel considers the failings:

But there was another side to the heritage of well-to-do Mobile, of course: the dark side of the South–and this was not talked about, or used not to be. It was there, though, and could be seen in the musty family photograph albums, where the servants stood inthe background, under a tree, beside the cars, carrying things.That’s what can lie behind money, thought Isabel; not always,but often: expropriated lives; the lives of people in the background,nameless, forgotten, who never really owned very much.

Isabel recognizes the full humanity of those whose lives have been expropriated by wealthy whites. Kathryn Stockett attempts such recognition in her bestselling and exceedingly popular novel The Help.

It was my interest in depictions of the interior lives of black women as they appeared in popular fiction that led me to McCall Smith and Stockett. Where McCall Smith succeeds, Stockett fails. Though the body of a black women initially compelled McCall Smith to create his character, he gives her life, her past, her friendships, her thoughts a density that matches her form. Stockett’s black women are caricatures. The dialect they speak lacks poetry and her choice to put it into the mouths of all the women to the same degree flattens them. Take Aibileen for example. Aibileen reads W.E.B. DuBois and Fredrick Douglass, two extraordinary thinkers and writers. If she is a reader, especially of these authors, how or why does she speak the same way that Minni does? Shouldn’t reading strong writers with a firm command of English influence her speech?

My grandmother worked as a domestic. I’ve included this photograph of her when she was a girl of about three on this blog before.

 

This photograph would have been taken in the mid-1920s in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1920, Black women comprised 18 % of the population and 93% of that number worked as laundresses. In spite of the high probability that if my grandmother worked outside of the home, she would work as a domestic in some form, my great-grandfather thought it was very important that she study hard and value formal education. My grandmother, as I noted in another post, graduated from high school when she was sixteen.

My grandmother did not speak like any of the black women in Stockett’s novel. Certainly some black women I knew have but the variety and the poetry of their speech is mostly missing from her novel.

How might the women in The Help have looked outside the frame of their labor? The characters attend church, live out their lives in their own homes, and ride the bus but did they take pictures of their family and friends? With them? On what occasions? What other hobbies did they have? Did they travel to visit relatives? Where did they go? What did they do while there? Edwidge Danticat offers a representation of the kind of looking that I am describing in her short story “New York Day Women.” In the story, Suzette, while out on her lunch break, spies her mother who is on her way to work as a nanny for a white family. Suzette sees her mother doing things she doesn’t recognize her as enjoying. She catches her mother briefly being at the center of her own life before observing her and other brown women at the center of the lives of white children.

“New York Day Women” in some ways reminds me of the many paintings of laundresses by both European and American artists. So I’m thinking about works by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Edgar Degas, and Honore Daumier. This work by Robert Henri underscores the striking recognition that Suzette has of her mother in some ways:

This woman seems caught unaware of being noticed. Suzette recognizes her mother anew and acknowledges her limited view into all aspects of her mother’s life. Henri’s painting casts arduous work in soft light. The load this woman carries, though unfurling, remains under her control. Henri intends for the viewer to see her. I suspect that he imagined a viewer who never really looked at the help; they imagined they already knew them; he offers them unexpected beauty.

Beverly McIver’s paintings of herself in blackface, performing her late mother’s former work as a maid disrupts the limits of perception by staging the mammy/maid paintings around an obvious resistance to nostalgia and sentimentalism.

The artist knows we’re looking. Beauty here, seems unlikely. In order to have beauty as a part of this life, it has to be made or fashioned…and doesn’t that seem like it would take an extraordinary effort to make it so?

I do think that Stockett wants to honor the good lives that black maids made for their white charges. What she doesn’t seem to have a sense of is how good they made it for themselves and for their own families.

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