Search

E.M. Monroe

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

Month

October 2011

Models Monday: Countering Extravagance

Say what you want about Juan Williams, the essay that he writes as a foreword to John Francis Ficara’s book Black Farmers in America elegantly captures the saga of those black men and women historically pushed to the edge of the pastoral ideal. Between January and May of 1865, farming the land would provide freed black people an opportunity to live independently through their own ability to make the land yield crops that could supply nourishment or coin. With the assassination of Lincoln, Sherman’s January promise of “40 acres” of former Confederate land to freed people was returned after May to white southerners in an effort to placate their defeat. Many black farmers were exploited as sharecroppers who leased land from white land owners who were then responsible for paying farmers through a share of the profits from the crops. Even for those black farmers who were able to work their own land and yield a profit, success was a dangerous affair. Hostile white famers were poised to take away land from black farmers and force them to work as sharecroppers. Black farmers could also be killed.

I find it astonishing that in 1920 “more than half of all black people in America lived on farms, mostly in the South” (Williams xii). There are very few reminders in popular American culture of black people’s relationship to land. For example, if you saw Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Academy Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth about global warming, you could get the impression that black people’s only relationship to the environment is as victims. It was as if Marvin Gaye never sang “Mercy, Mercy Me,” that brilliant meditation on the environment. The song does not appear in the film.

John Ficara’s photographs document the omission of black folk from our nation’s pastoral ideal, their environmental presence, and the many injustices they have endured. I have recommended the book before on this blog but I did not provide you with a link to a wonderful video that features photographs from the book. You can find that video by following this link: http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0603/ficara-video.html.

Of course, I am thinking about farmers because U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman approved a $1.25 billion dollar settlement on October 28 with black farmers who have been discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture. After I read about the settlement, I returned to my book and once again savored Ficara’s photographs. There are two amazing photographs of Jerry Singleton with his horse “Tat.”

Jerry Singleton and Tat. Photograph by John Ficara in Black Farmers in America

According to the notes, Mr. Singleton is 81 years old and continues to plow with his horse Tat. Singleton, of Lee County, Alabama uses an old tractor for more substantial

Jerry Singleton with Tat puttin' in work. Photograph by John Ficara in Black Farmers in America

work. These photographs crystalize the beauty of making do with what you have. I don’t mean to minimize the fact that having access to government loans would have made it possible for Singleton to acquire newer equipment; he most certainly would have upgraded. What I find inspiring is that lacking access to these loans did not stop him from farming as it was certainly supposed to do. Thus, “making do” represents an aspect of resistance that I had not considered. By seeing the value in using what you have, you may not waste as much time dwelling in mourning for what you lack–and you most certainly won’t spend a dime.

Another one of the black farmers featured in Ficara’s book makes a remark that Ficara’s photographs certainly confirm about these folk. Roy Rolle tells Ficara, “I am not an extravagant person, I drive twenty-year old equipment, have an old car, and do not need new things.” Though I have read these words, American popular culture makes it hard to believe that a person like Rolle exists. But of course we do exist. Those of us who do not downright long for shiny things; who value what we have; who, indeed, have another model by which to live. We exist.

Reading with my Father: Slim’s Table (Part II Cont.)

Slim and his sitting buddies want to live in accordance with notions of appropriate or correct behavior. The idea of ‘respectability’–defined as a mode of life conforming to and embodying notions of moral worth–has great significance for them. They are people with definite opinions about the kinds of conduct appropriate to their level of moral worth and of the minimal standards they are willing to tolerate in their own behavior or that directed toward them. (Duneier 65)

Perhaps another reason why I did not immediately realize that I lived in the dreaded inner-city my teachers described is because many of the people I lived among thought highly of themselves and the lives they were living. The sense that they had a high moral worth may in part account for this outlook. An articulation of high moral worth as a daily experience can be characterized through what Duneier describes as a “number of human characteristics [someone] disdains: wastefulness, pretension, aggressiveness, uncommunicativeness, impatience, flashiness, laziness, disrespect for elders, and perhaps most important a lack of personal responsibility (…)” Reading Duneier’s characterization of the exercising of moral worth brings back so many of the admonitions I heard as a child about taking only what you need; sharing your extras; not thinking you better than somebody; being calm; opening your mouth to speak to somebody when they talking to you; holding your horses; knowing your ABC’s–you got to Always Be Cool. My grandfather knew a lot of men, but when they subscribed to these tenants of moral worth, my grandfather would say, “good man.” It was clear to me from how he said it that being considered a “good man” was a meaningful.

Models Monday: On Schedules

1

A friend shared with me that she watched more television while she was nursing her daughter than she ever had before. “There was nothing else I could do,” she told me. When I imagined what she said, I saw it as a more leisurely activity than it actually was when I experienced it myself. It takes energy to make and to convey milk to a child. The work that I did not see when my friend told me of her television viewing was the work of producing and delivering milk while you are bone tired in the wake of having given birth and then trying to acquaint this new life to the world. The fatigue from these activities constitutes the hidden work that does not make it into the appointment book. Locating and unveiling such hidden work can prove useful.

I know people, good friends, who have a talent for this sort of thing. At the end of my telephone conversations with my friends, I often ask of their plans for the remainder of the day, afternoon, or evening. Not only do I like imagining how they will spend their time, I like getting ideas from unhurried people about how I might live more creatively. Sometimes a friend might say that she will be spending some time “thinking about” a particular question or person; other times a friend might say that she will be spending some time “trying to figure” something out. While these are not activities that would typically garner a spot on a “to do list,” they most certainly are activities. Though “worrying” might not be an activity that my friends discuss, I would certainly include it among those overlooked activities that take up time.

2

Paying attention is another overlooked activity. Recently, I have been reading Toni and Slade Morrison’s children’s books to my son. In Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake? Nate confides to his grandfather, Poppy, that he doesn’t want to return to school. He explains to Poppy that he can’t pay attention because of all of the alluring distractions that he finds around him that seem much more fun than focusing. Poppy explains to Nate that paying attention is just “another way of taking yourself seriously.” He then tells the story about a snake who nearly killed him. When Poppy tells Nate that he used snake serum as a precaution against the snake who presented himself as his friend, Nate thinks the serum saved Poppy’s life, but Poppy corrects him: “Not entirely. Paying attention is what saved me.”

I like Poppy’s story for the representation it offers of being a student. A crucial element involved in the work of being a student is learning to pay attention. Nate needs to return to school so that he can learn to pay attention, to concentrate, to focus. Acquiring this skill can save your life. Thinking about this story now changes the significance of teachers telling me to pay attention to what I was doing so that I didn’t make careless mistakes. This remark refers less to the math that I thought I would never use and pertains more to a life that I want to preserve.

3

Locating and unveiling the hidden work that doesn’t make our appointment books and “to-do-lists” can reveal how seriously we take ourselves. I saw the outline that J.K. Rowling made out in her own hand

for her book Order of the Phoenix. I thought it was beautiful (you can actually read the outline better by following the link). I wonder if you could outline a day exclusively devoted to overlooked activities, thought work, that typically doesn’t make the schedule? Would it need to be a reverse outline? Can you plan for a day spent paying attention?

When I think about what this outline might look like, I’m reminded of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s song “If I Only Had a Brain.” I love Harry Connick, Jr.’s version,

I admire the longing in it. You can overlook the gravity of this longing in the Scarecrow’s version of the song in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Connick’s version puts me in mind of a 1966 interview wherein John Coltrane describes his ambitions as a musician:

I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician.

Coltrane’s beliefs about the goals of musicians can be a model for all of us who are interested in defining the significance of the hidden work of our inner lives.

Reading with my Father: Slim’s Table (Part II)

I had to learn that where I lived was shameful. I had always been proud of my family’s home on Ferris Avenue with a basement full of beautiful family photographs and a kitchen that always turned out sumptuous meals. My grandmother could cook. I don’t know that anything she made was a favorite of mine; only that it all was good. I enjoyed my neighbors who, like us, gardened and shared food from their harvest. We never locked our doors and neither did they. So when my teachers talked about the inner-city being a fearsome place, it never occurred to me that I lived there.

The images they conjured of people preying on one another did not resonate with how I lived or who I lived among. We actually had Mass in our backyard. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary out back especially for that purpose. Unlike stories of black people who felt diminished when they confronted the representation of their lives that cast them as underprivileged, pitiful, and deprived I felt emboldened to reject that view at every turn. It never occurred to me that those people were right. I knew better.

I guess I didn’t claim the decaying world around my block. It is true that Inner-city Cleveland was already filled with relics by the time I came of age there.

Anthony Sua, Time Magazine, Prize-winning photo series about Cleveland

My family had already started to tell stories that restored hollowed out, paint chipped buildings to a glory hard to fathom. It was very hard for me to imagine all that they described because their picture was vastly different from anything I had seen. I had a hard time seeing through the cloudy glass windows that I walked past to a past where clothing stores once  existed that were worth frequenting; or having racial diversity in the neighborhood that I knew as having only one German white woman who lived next door before she died; and the name of the man who owned the hardware store on the corner who I never saw.

It is interesting now to experience myself watching ruins emerge. I am aware of myself becoming like the people I knew who told stories about the past. It is the experience of becoming responsible for history and its transmission.

I was in the grocery store not long ago and my realization of the moment that I was living through merged with an image. Time magazine published a photograph by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre on the cover that mirrored the stunning economic, cultural, and social transformations occurring in the United States. Unlike the relics that I had passed as I grew up in Cleveland, I saw these Detroit factory buildings as having recently fallen into disrepair. I saw these buildings as a current representation of the places where people worked as recently as five years ago. What I know from the relics of my childhood is that–contrary to the hopeful language on the cover, “How a great city fell and how it can rise again” (but perhaps such optimism is an illusion to the city’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”)–I know that rising is not inevitable. This decay, may in fact be permanent. What will this mean for folk?

I have currently been investigating the meaningfulness of such transformations through a sustained engagement with the Marchand and Meffre photographs of ruins. If you are not familiar with their work, I highly recommend it. The photograph of the Michigan Central Station is awesome for the grandeur of its decay. This building, a former train station that opened in 1913 but has been out of use since 1988, is massive. The broken glass staining the windows has beautifully broken into pieces that look like silhouettes of people occupying the space. These windows offer scenes of life where people talk and argue. Such animation marking decay underscores the incongruity of this ruin: How is it possible for us to be so  unimaginatively wasteful?

I appreciated Duneier’s short chapter “Valois as a ‘Black Metropolis'” because I clearly sit where they sat. Recalling better times that others might find hard to fathom. What critics don’t see is that you never saw yourself living in this part of the inner-city. That belonged to Cleveland or Chicago, not to us. I like that Duneier uses language like “integrity,” “decency,” “dignity,” and “morality” to describe the way the men at Slim’s table regarded their lives and the lives of those they cherished. They weren’t estranged from these ideas. If anything, these men continued to meet at Valois in order to claim the integrity of their past and future lives.

Poor in Spirit

Do you know who Tamara Eccelstone is?

Tamara Ecclestone photographed by Tyler Shields

I had never heard of her until I saw the headline for this photograph that described Eccelstone as “rolling in her own dough.” Apparently, Tyler Shields, a celebrity photographer, asked her to secure one million pounds of cash to be used in a photo shoot that features her not only rolling around in money but also ironing it. These photographs center on conspicuous consumption. I was shocked that Shields and Ecclestone would think this an appropriate moment in history to celebrate the wealth that she did not earn. (Ecclestone’s father, Bernie Eccelstone, is the CEO of Formula One and her material wealth derives from her father.) According to the Daily Mail, the photo shoot coincides with the debut of a reality show about the heiress. I don’t think the show is going to air in the United States but it’s not like we’ll be missing out given that we already have a slew of reality shows celebrating material excess on this side of the pond.

In a culture where it has become typical of everyone from talk show hosts to common citizens to refrain from making harsh accusations against the decision making of others, I am going break this trend: These photographs are disgraceful. These two ought to be ashamed of themselves. People are losing their homes, out of work, hungry, sick, and overwhelmed with debt and these two think it’s a good idea to publicize this woman’s wastefulness as glamour? They clearly have no idea how ugly these photographs are or they wouldn’t have shown them. Where are all the people who criticize hip hop artists for their bling? These photographs deserve the same kind of ire.

For all my talk of the importance of cultivating a rich interior life, I am not naive about the importance of having resources. I fully support Articles 22-27 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (…as these are the ones that most support this particular discussion. In general, I value this document in its entirety). “Freedom from want,” as FDR would have it, is important for being able to cultivate one’s interior life. In the United States, in order to be free from want, you need money.

You don’t need very much money, though, to have a good life. Though Eccelstone has more than enough money, I do not admire the way she has chosen to portray her life. She admires waste far more than I think is necessary. Given how much she and Shields ignore about the circumstances of those around them, she is socially neglectful and seemingly disdainful of others. Indeed, “there are other models by which to live” and money alone does not guarantee you access to them.

Worthwhile Viewing

I wonder how teachers and ministers are responding to this moment. What are your children saying about how their history and social studies teachers are helping them to process these contemporary movements for social change? What are your friends saying about what their spiritual teachers and advisors are saying about it? 

Models Monday: The End of Charismatic Leadership

I have been reading articles about contemporary protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Next Up Young Workers Summit and have relished thinking about the stories people have shared. In much of what I have read, people have reflected on their experiences and decided what the Memphis sanitation workers decided in 1968: that they were tired. The language of decency and fatigue resonated in the stories those men told of their experiences working full-time for part-time wages. They were tired of being treated like boys; of having their safety and security threatened; of not being able to spend time with their families; of not being able to get sick because they lacked benefits or compensation for time off. Many of the stories that I have read of young and old folk reflecting on their work lives in contemporary America are much the same.

I am encouraged by what I see because these protestors are suggestion that they want to embrace new models for living. They no longer want to celebrate the wealth and luxury of the few. They want the opportunity to live fully in their own lives–however they define what living fully means. Andrew Young, former aide to Martin Luther King, Jr. and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations does not seem as impressed. He claimed that what distinguished these protests was their emotional reaction to a set of circumstances that prior protests transformed into formal statements. Reportedly, he wants to see greater leadership emerge that can offer a clear and coherent message as well as goals for their intended movement.  I don’t feel the same way. I don’t think the world needs any more charismatic leaders; we’ve had enough of those. I like that when talk emerged of the Nobel committee awarding a prize to the efforts of those activists involved in the Arab Spring, commentators were troubled by who they would single out. This is as it should be. 

As it stands, when journalists report on Occupy Wall Street, they have to interview citizens, everyday folk who are then given time to tell their stories. The model that Young proposes leads networks to interview charismatic leaders of past movements, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Andrew Young, in other words, men who assume the role of reporting their view of our stories. Though I like the fact that Al Sharpton has been very supportive of the protestors, I am ambivalent about him broadcasting his show from lower Manhattan. I am concerned that his charismatic presence will distract from the stories of those less prominent voices wanting to share their own views. As it stands, negotiating with Occupy Wall Street participants means that old guard structures might have to adjust to new conditions.

What do you think? Are you hopeful about Occupy Wall Street and the other protests challenging our current norms? Do you see these protests as offering us a new model of organizations and leadership? 

Reading with My Father: Slim’s Table (Part I cont.)

My father would have recognized the poor and working class men Duneier describes as having values that run counter to popular depictions of them in sociological data characterizing their type. Grouped among the numbers of incarcerated, high school drop-outs, divorced, unhealthy, volatile, angry masses are black poor and working class men who value their responsibility to paying their debts; who are honest with themselves and others about how they interpret their own vulnerability; who are reserved; who are forgiving. The difficulty for my father was finding his way into this community as an elder rather than as one in constant need of counsel.

Duneier understands the tremendous achievement of  having principles in a depressed environment where wages are low and costs are high and where work takes up more time than leisure; perhaps this accounts for why others imagine inner-city life being without virtue. My father recognized this achievement but he could never get beyond imagining money as the key to his being considered a respectable man. I conducted an interview with my father in the summer of 2006. (I haven’t figured out how to digitize my tape or else I would offer the audio.) At one point, my father discusses his father and my maternal grandfather in terms of being cool and what they chose to wear. I’ll share the transcript of that portion of our talk because it reveals some things about how my father contemplated respectability, money and dress.

Dad: But my point is, this saga, if you will, about cool and how a behavior is handed down and the way that you want to be seen–there’s a thing about clothing-my father was known as one of the best dressed dudes–he was an innovator when it comes to clothes; good dressing guy.

Me: Well he had to be, he was invested in the image.

Dad: Thank you. Check my wardrobe. I picked it up from my dad. Wanting his acceptance, wanting to take that part of his legacy and not just wear it but [extend] how I wore it. Now, as I’ve gotten older as many clothes as I have, and I have too many for the same person, I don’t even wear them; they mean nothing. It doesn’t define who I am. I don’t want you to see me as cool by them, by my designer clothes. See what kind of man I am today because I’ve learned lessons well about what’s cool.

Me: Yeah. Well it seems to be a shift that happens with black men who are critical of the  cool because my grandfather, from what I hear, used to be that kind of man; would dress up and look nice but I didn’t know my grandfather that way. My grandparents would wear the same clothes day after day and I was appalled. But what’s interesting is that now I’ve become just like that. So now my husband will say, “you know you had that on yesterday.” And I’ll say “but I didn’t move around much” which is what they used to say.  “You know I didn’t do anything, I just sat on the porch” or something like that. But there’s this shift.

Dad: Let me give you this shift with Charlie Hite that I saw years ago and I saw this as a young man. He would go to church in his overalls and his lumberjack shirt-

Me: [Laughter]

Dad: And his apple cap-

Me: Mm hmm.

Dad: And other people-the cool people would go dressed to the nines-I’m talkin’ ‘bout they sharp, they Cinderella sharp, she’d a come to the ball and she wouldn’t a knew which one the prince was–

Me: [Laughter]

Dad: But after they visited the house of the Lord, the people in the suits was coming to the man in the overalls and the lumberjack shirt and they were asking him for money to pay the bills to their homes to take care of their children and he always gave it to them and he always had it and that’s why he was always known as cool. They were cool fakes, he was a cool man. Never saying you owe me. Never saying anything other than “you know you take care of them kids man, you going through so and so,” telling him when to pick up some money–and he was always there. And there’s a certain kind of respect that I had for his cool that I always said I wish he was my father. I wish he was my daddy. I wish Charlie Hite was my daddy.

My father was funny. He was also a good storyteller; so was Charlie Hite, my grandfather. My father’s admissions about his own father as well as his feelings for my grandfather reflect the vulnerability that Duneier attributes to the poor and working class men at Slim’s table.

Clothes meant a lot to my father. He owned a lot of clothes but his life most days did not call for his many suits. Most times when you saw my father, he wore jeans and a shirt with cut-off sleeves. My father certainly had more money than most of the men he spent time with and I think that he was comfortable with how he dressed most days because he was confident in knowing that the men around him knew of this relative wealth. I say this because my father always talked about money. He also flashed money. He didn’t carry a wallet, preferring rubber-band banks that revealed big number bills on the outside. He gave money to the homeless men he worked with; he gave me money anytime he saw me; he sent me money; he told me about money he gave away or loaned to friends. My dad thought that money could fix anything.

I’m not surprised that my father would think about my grandfather in terms of the money he gave away. And while I don’t doubt that my grandfather was generous, his generosity was typically not marked by how much money he gave away. My grandfather gave his careful attention to problems confronting the many people who came to talk to him; he gave his sympathy and compassion; he gave his sobering perspective; he gave people reassurance about the worthiness of embracing alternative ways of thinking about what made for a successful life. I think that my father knew all of this but ultimately, money defined how the meaningfulness of this example could best be explained.

My father was thoughtful and interesting but I think that his view about money deprived him of celebrating the wealth of his complex inner-life. If that wealth couldn’t be turned into money, it didn’t matter as much. I get the impression that many of the men who sit at Slim’s table have an alternative view of wealth that sustains them. What do you think?

Models Monday: Residing in an Ownership Society

Once again I’m turning to Chris Gardner to reflect on an alternative model for living. In this “Mentoring Minutes” video Gardner shares another memory of his mother but this time it is her analysis of the fate of a lone Hollywood cowboy faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges:

When all seems hopeless and lost, remember this: “the cavalry ain’t coming.” Gardner’s mother was a thoughtful, witty woman. Her analysis reminds me of a few things. It reminds of Barak Obama’s national convention speech in Denver when he described the Republican trickle down philosophy:

In Washington they call this the “Ownership Society,” but what it really means is that you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you’re on your own. No health care? The market will fix it? You’re on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You are on your own.

The situation is one that American citizens understood in light of the current state of the economy but the experience of being “on your own” is an experience that black folk have known for much longer. So Gardner’s mother’s claim that “the calvary ain’t coming” also reminded me of Cornel West’s remarks about black folk having a history of making community in the absence of being recognized as full citizens. As an example, West’s remarks remind me of the hospitality black folk created for one another in the face of Jim Crow segregation. Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, makes this point when discussing black society in Washington D.C. when segregation revealed that the distance between black celebrities and common black citizens was effaced as those luminaries boarded with black families as they were denied access to other facilities.

In the face of the indignities of Jim Crow, black folk devised ways of making it better for themselves and others through self-help and mutual aid. The calvary wasn’t coming and black people responded with creativity and generosity. I have a cookbook entitled Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine that describes the ingenuity of black folk as they traveled South.

Norma Jean and Carole Darden are sisters who enjoy good food. Their cookbook records family recipes and stories of their origin. In the section “On the Road,” they tell of the shoeboxes their mother prepared for them to eat from after their last stop at the non-segregated Howard Johnson’s on the New Jersey turnpike. The shoebox meals and the kindness of black strangers supported the family for the remainder of the trip:

Any discomfort we experienced during these yearly travels was balanced by a sense of adventure, for after we finished our shoebox lunches we would have to keep our eyes peeled for black-owned establishments, which usually took us off the main route. If we needed a place to sleep before reaching our destination, we would have to ask random fellow blacks where accommodations could be found. Often total strangers would come to our rescue, offering lodging and feeding us as well. We made many new friends this way, as hospitality and solidarity were by-products of the rigid segregation of the times.

The sisters offer some of the favorite recipes of those strangers who became their friends as they traveled South. Reading their story alongside Chris Gardner’s provided me with a new definition of friendship: A friend is someone who also recognizes “the cavalry ain’t coming” for you just like they didn’t come for them and so they help you in any way they can.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: