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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

January 2012

Models Monday: Women and Leadership

I heard a woman at a conference that I recently attended offer a view on leadership that I disagree with. The woman, who was the moderator for a panel on women and leadership, responded to a question that put forth a concern about the dynamism of the category woman and the simplification of its meaning in discussing the topic of leadership. Her central concern was this: Why can’t women, dynamically defined, have multiple notions of leadership? The moderator said in response that she held a very strong bias concerning how that question should be answered but would let others speak. Audience members asked the moderator to share her views and in doing so, she revealed a point of view that I reject. “Women,” she said, “don’t get to make up a new definition of what leadership means.” Even as I write this, I can’t quite believe what it says. Did I actually remember her words correctly? Why can’t women define leadership anew? 

Ella Baker. Image taken from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

I can’t remember the moderator’s argument against multiple notions of leadership but I’ll try to construct what I think would be her best defense. If you make terms mean what you want and there’s no system of meaning, how would communication occur? How would people understand you? To that point, who could you lead if you couldn’t communicate with people?

Even with clear terms, however, I find communication over the meaning of leadership difficult. For instance, I don’t always respond to the call to stand in awe of those in leadership positions. I don’t agree with the presumptions regarding the value, intellect, and overall worth of those who occupy such positions over those without recognized authority.

Ultimately, there was a strange, unexamined tension between those women on the panel who were calling for recognition of the challenges women face when pursuing leadership positions and those wanting to claim a single definition of the term. The former group was actually pointing to other constructions of leadership women held but instead of examining these constructions, they sought to remove barriers that prevented women from eventually using power in masculinist defined ways. At one point in the larger discussion of the issue, audience members were asked to come to the mic and provide their name and where they were from. I found this quite interesting because if someone neglected those details, someone would yell at them to provide them. I bet if someone said, “well, I don’t want to,” the audience would have been at a loss for how to respond because they had been engaged in bully behavior. Bullies expect compliance. Grace was neglected. Anyway, one woman identified herself and said that when she initially received her registration packet, she did not want to wear her name badge with the speaker flag because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. After listening to the panel, she confessed to being a shrinking violet and decided that “a man wouldn’t have a problem with people seeing him as an authority,” so she decided to wear her speaker badge. The audience roared with laughter and applause. “Since when did enacting masculinist practices become the goal of feminism?” I mused. Recognizing the ways that the practices and the performances associated with male behavior are overvalued constitutes  the substance of my critique, not the end game of my feminist engagement. In other words, I don’t want to act like a man and I don’t want men to either. I’m interested in adults being able to behave like adults and having that behavior accorded equal value.

To the moderator’s point, women cannot define leadership however they want if they expect to be recognized for commanding patriarchal authority. If women have an alternative idea for operationalizing the authority they want to wield, then of course you can define leadership anew.

I included a photograph of Ella Baker in this post because as I listened to those women discuss leadership, I thought about Baker and Septima Clark. Baker and Clark were both Civil Rights activists with a deep sense of commitment to the power and the capacity of everyday people to bring about change in their own lives. Evidence of Baker’s philosophy in practice occurred dramatically through the freedom rides; for Clark it was the Citizenship Schools.  The notion of a participatory democracy was meaningful for Baker and Clark. Ella Baker’s pronouncement that “strong people don’t need strong leaders” offers eloquent testimony to the possibility of having another model of leadership despite what the moderator of the panel on women in leadership thought.

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Models Monday: The Seduction of Reading

When my friend Carmen first told me about Walter Dean Myers’s book The Blues of Flats Brown, I knew that I had to get it for my son. The story is about these two dogs, Flats and Caleb, who are the unfortunate wards of a junkyard proprietor named A.J. Grubbs. Flats and Caleb flee the junkyard after a terrible fight between Caleb and a dog Grubbs has recruited for the task. After he vows to have Flats fight the next day, the two dogs make haste before the fight can take place.

Flats and Caleb survive, with Grubbs hot on their trail, by singing and playing the blues. Eventually, Grubbs grants Flats his freedom when he hears Flats sing a song that reflects his understanding of Grubbs’s character. At that point, Myers writes one of my favorite lines in the story. Everyone thinks that Flats will stay in New York and make lots of money but Myers writes that what “they didn’t know was that Flats was a blues playing kind of dog, not a filthy rich kind of dog.” Flats has “another model by which to live.”

The Blues of Flats Brown by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Nina Laden

The idea that he’s not eager to dedicate himself to making money reminds me of an essay on representations of the poor where feminist critic bell hooks decides that representations of poor people in American popular culture show them spending all their time longing for money and the material things it can buy (reality t.v. now does the same thing). She contests this vision with memories of her poor and working class family members who valued creativity and integrity over money.

In The Blues of Flats Brown, Flats and Caleb’s friendship and their ability to sing the music they love means more than living in a big city and making lots of money. Myers notes that some people don’t believe it when they hear the story of two dogs playing the blues down on the waterfront in Savannah, Georgia and I’m sure in part, they don’t believe it because they cannot believe that Flats would choose to give up the chance to be rich. For Flats, wealth was an indulgence of a different order. It involved the time to be creative and to enjoy camaraderie through creation. The way I see it, then, Flats didn’t give up being rich. He exchanged one idea of it for another. Thus, Flats was rich.

Recently, Walter Dean Myers was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. I read a wonderful interview conducted with Myers in light of this award and he offered thoughtful words on the role reading plays in contributing to the kind of wealth that Flats enjoys. “It’s the people who read well,” Myers tells the interviewer, “who are going to live a good life.” I especially like the way he qualifies reading. It’s not just reading itself that will lead to a good life, but Myers stresses the importance of reading well. Reading well demands time, attention, discipline, and focus. It requires deliberateness. These are all qualities that the skill itself does not demand but this additional effort makes the experience worthwhile because, as Myers also notes, this sort of reading “will give you clues to how to live your life.”

Myers chose the banner “reading is not optional” to serve his campaign to encourage youth literacy. I have not won a single award for children’s literature so the Library of Congress (loc) won’t be calling me to ask about my banner choice but in the spirit of reading and imagining, if the loc were to call, I would tell them that my banner to encourage reading should say “reading is seductive.” I first thought about the seductiveness of reading after thinking through a passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. Consolata asks Mavis to help her in shelling pecans. As Mavis sets to work, Morrison writes:

Later, watching her suddenly beautiful hands moving at the task, Mavis was reminded of her sixth-grade teacher opening a book: lifting  the corner of the binding, stroking the edge to touch the bookmark, caressing the page, letting the tips of her fingers trail down the lines of print. The melty-thigh feeling she got watching her. Now, working pecans, she tried to economize her gestures without sacrificing their grace. (42)

If I were asked, I would play up how enticing reading can be. Of course the challenge would be trying to ensure that my message wouldn’t become vulgar, which seems to be the penchant in American culture. But for those of us who find reading seductive, the challenge of convincing others to be similarly enticed remains constant; so perhaps it would be a worthy campaign banner if the loc ever comes calling.

 

 

Models Monday: Taking King as a Model

One of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. stories was one I heard several King aides

Model of the King birth home as its construction was being completed in the Cosby parking lot at Spelman College. (Taken with my iPhone.)

telling through a montage in a documentary about his life. Maybe this was the place where I first heard about how difficult it was to fly with King because of the bomb threats that were phoned in and the precautions taken requiring numerous evacuations for flight crews and passengers. On one of these flights, the men recalled experiencing turbulence that deeply frightened them. They each described the various, colorful fits they went through while also observing how calm King remained; perhaps they recalled him reading a bible through it all. Afterwards, Jesse Jackson, or either Andrew Young, asked King how he could remain so calm. To which he responded, “Well, maybe it’s because I made my peace with turbulence a long time ago.” 

As King was a seeker of peace, certainly he had not decided that peace was impossible. Instead, I understand his remark to mean that he had accepted that his pursuit of peace would be filled with disturbances. Rather than confront this reality with surprise or annoyance, King had decided to live in full awareness of these conditions and of this reality. To that end, bumps and ruptures become a part of peace and a peaceful life and not alien to it or some kind of obnoxious intrusion. It is possible, then, to perceive the possibility of what it means to live in peace. You can live it, as King did on his bumpy flight, when you accept turbulence as a part of it. Fighting this truth would be the absence of peace.

Reading with my Father: Slim’s Table (Conclusion)

My father seemed deeply marked by the depravations he experienced as a child. He remained wounded, it seems to me, his entire life by his father’s absence. He talked about him and thought about him with a deep sense of regret. By paying close attention to my father, I glimpsed a fragility of manhood that resulted from its sheltering a little boy seeking his father’s attention, investment, and concern.

My father would have described himself as a ghetto resident. His residency, as he understood it, was directly related to his mother raising him and his brother without his father on a single income. In addition to lacking his father’s presence, inadequate housing, an inability to dress stylishly, his few and flimsy material possessions marked his experience as an impoverished child. My father never told me that he had a good Christmas as a child. He resented that.

Despite all that he perceived himself lacking–and in fact did lack–my father would have acknowledged the good men, indeed, the good models of masculinity in his community. In his final chapter, Mitchell Duneier writes that “sociologists and psychologists need to explore with greater care the hypothesis that the adaptations of some black men have produced at least some variants of a ghetto-specific masculinity with positive characteristics that might serve as a model to men in the wider society” (164). My father knew admirable men who lived in close proximity to his life and experience. Certainly my grandfather, my mother’s father, was one of these men…and there were others.

Models Monday: Keeping Up

I’m not totally averse to an expanded understanding of what it means to keep up with the Jones’s. Though this used to be a caution against competing with our peers over material possessions, it might have some under-acknowledged benefits. I have been easily swayed by arguments like the one I first read by Juliet B. Schor in her work The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. Schor contends that when we were at pains to try to match our neighbors in material gains, we were at least better off financially than when we started trying to keep up with the Hiltons and the Diddys. Our neighbors typically share our financial portfolio, unlike the people we try to emulate who are on television because of their multi-million dollar lifestyles, and so it becomes less costly for us when we try to keep up with the folk next door.

I also think keeping up with the Jones’s might have gotten a bad rap because of our attenuated focus on its association with material possessions. But trying to keep up with people who plan healthy meals for their family, who are organized, or who have beautiful gardens is not a bad idea. The documentary film A Man Named Pearl offers a wonderful example of this. The film focuses on the beautiful topiary gardens of Pearl Fryar. Fryar’s own yard offers a visual feast for visitors from his home state of South Carolina as well as for interested observers around the globe. Interestingly, he has inspired his neighbors to create their own topiary gardens. Their work is also on display in the film and they offer testimony concerning Fryar’s influence on them and their efforts to keep up with him. Fryar enjoys helping his neighbors to develop their topiary and they in turn welcome his support. In this instance, keeping up is cooperative rather than competitive.

If you’ve got a neighbor who conducts themselves with integrity, try to keep up. If you’ve got a neighbor who is thoughtful and creative, try to keep up. If you’ve got a neighbor who is generous, try to keep up. Keeping up with the laudable virtues and talents of our neighbors is much more worthwhile than keeping up with the Kardashians.

Reading with my Father: Slim’s Table (Part IV cont.)

I remember watching one of those bloopers and practical jokes programs with my father, must’ve been during the late 1980s, when he made an observation that was characteristic of him. We must have been watching a segment featuring a common citizen made the butt of a practical joke when my father said, “You know, it’s all fun and games when they get us laughing about these crazy jobs they want these people to do, but once the joke’s over, these people ain’t got no job.” “That’s true,” I said. “Yeah man, that part ain’t funny–at all.” I never forgot that aspect of reality as it became masked by the joke. Did the television producers who created the joke find work for the person who got us to laugh? My father’s remark made me think about how much time someone might’ve put into looking for a job and the relief they must have found once they secured one. How did they react when the joke was over? Did they simply head back to the drawing board cheerfully optimistic about their chances for landing an actual job the next time around? 

My father’s engagement with the television program was a mode of viewing that I routinely experienced as the common practice of those around me. People talked back to what they saw. I guess that’s why I was surprised later to learn that people passively observed television programs. Too, I understood my father’s way of viewing television as an act of reading. Reading at its best was performed very much like how my father viewed television (and how he read the newspaper, books, magazines, and people): poetically, actively; thoughtfully, fully. Consistently done, artful, active reading enhances noble aspects and expressions of humanity: laughter, empathy, remembrance.

Reading was an important theme in my reading of Mitchell Duneier’s chapter entitled “The Stereotype of Blacks in Sociology and Journalism.” As a reader of this work, I finished this chapter greatly impressed by Duneier’s skill as a reader. He astutely reads the classics of his field; discerning the consequences of sociological jokes masked as truths. I think that my father would have appreciated his skills as a reader.

Cinderella Sharp

I was listening to Michel Martin’s radio show Tell Me More yesterday (January 3) and I caught the tail end of a panel discussion about young people and designer clothing. The event that provided the anchor for this conversation was the killing of a young Washington D.C. man over the Christmas holiday for his North Face coat. Prior to that fatal event, he had been accosted over another designer item. Thus, this young man’s experiences underscored the violent character and lethal consequences of materialism in American culture. It also became the grounds for discussing parenting and identity. At one point, Martin described the role of designer brands in the lives of professionals. Lucky for me that I have chosen a profession where designer clothes don’t matter…or better yet, if they do matter, I haven’t noticed…or maybe I have just chosen another model.

I don’t think that I know the threshold for being well-dressed and being out of fashion but I know for a fact that even on the days when the culture at large would agree that I was sharp, I have been insulted. Typically, I dress counter to the “Cinderella Sharp”

Grandpa and Me at Betty and Thomas's house.

style that my father said described people who went to church in their best clothes only to come home to ask my lumberjack shirt wearing grandfather for some cash. While I appreciate the feel of a well-made shirt and the fit of a perfectly tailored pair of pants, style never manifested for me the life that I imagined it would. Somehow, I imagined that style would contribute to an elegantly lived life but what I’ve discovered is that if you leave your house, you can be subjected to all manner of insult despite your attire.

Take this Christmas season as an example. My husband and I took our son to his three-year-old well visit and we were both smartly dressed. Instead of the football fan gear we’re both given to wearing, we were doing our best Michelle and Barak Obama impressions, sporting professional style clothing that mature, adult audiences would appreciate. Such attire means that we wore nothing flashy or glaringly branded though I did carry a designer bag, wore pearl earrings, and we both wore smart leather shoes. The doctor had not been in that room for five minutes before she insulted both of us. And while this is the first time that I’ve experienced a lack of courtesy from my son’s soon to be former Pediatrician, it certainly isn’t the first time my pearls failed to protect me from rude doctors or their staff. Once while I was wearing them, the scheduler at my former Pulmonologist’s office shushed me when I tried to tell her the days when I could best accommodate a procedure. My purse hasn’t helped much either. It didn’t come through for me at the grocery store when I was kept waiting while some things were sorted out with a woman purchasing groceries using an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that allows for the dispersal of funds provided by state governments to needy recipients. After the woman completed her purchase, the cashier turned to me and apologized for the long wait. To which I replied, “no problem; it’s fine.” Instead of scanning my items without further comment, the cashier then says, “well good because it might be you someday.” I was thrown: So as a return for my courtesy, I receive a lecture on manners and turns of fortune from the cashier at my local grocery store? Huh? Maybe she didn’t hear me say “NO PROBLEM.” Or, more to the point of this post, maybe she didn’t see the Coach wallet that I retrieved from my Coach purse. Perhaps she failed to notice the electronic key for the Lexus that I placed on the counter next to the card scanner. (Disclosure: The Lexus is actually my husband’s car. I have only ever bought Fords and plan to only ever buy Fords though I’ll drive whatever is available.)

So my friends, fashion has never come to my rescue. Here’s my take on that stuff (with a little help from Morrison’s Beloved, specifically Baby Suggs’s speech in the Clearing): “You better love it. You.” Don’t expect fashion to make people respect you. Don’t expect it to save you from insult. If you do, you’ll only be disappointed.

Models Monday: Reflections On Marriage

With my first Models Monday post of the new year, I thought I would address some of the issues that I raised in previous posts. As the year was coming to a close, in one post I bemoaned the lists chronicled in magazines and on television of the year in review. Here I suggested that I would offer questions as a way of reviewing the year. Instead of a list of questions, I decided to embed these questions into my established series. To that end, my first question involves marriage and getting there involves an engagement with two books. The first of which appeared on a number of the year’s lists.

Manning Marable’s final work Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention frequently appeared on lists of the year’s best non-fiction books. It certainly deserves such recognition for the compelling narrative that it creates with the facts of Malcolm’s life.

Much was made of Marable’s engagement with a story that Malcolm tells in his famous autobiography of a hustle that he ran involving a man who was sexually stimulated when another nude man covered him with talcum powder. According to Marable, though Malcolm’s autobiography removes him directly from that scene, this was probably not the case. Malcolm was most likely the nude man offering the stimulation of talcum powder to Paul Lennon. Marable’s research shows that Malcolm continued to keep in touch with Lennon while Malcolm was incarcerated because he thought Lennon was sufficiently wealthy enough and powerful enough to gain him an early release from prison. In addition to the impact this hustle has had on representations of Malcolm’s sexuality, Marable’s well-substantiated claims that Malcolm was a terrible husband, further undermined his standing as a model of nobel reform. Malcolm seldom spent time with his wife and children. Typically, he would be present when a child was born and then he left town shortly after the birth.

One of the striking assertions that Marable makes involving Malcolm’s marriage, at least for me, was a passing remark that he made about Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife. “Years after Malcolm’s assassination,” Marable writes, “Betty would describe her marriage as ‘hectic, beautiful, and unforgettable–the greatest thing in my life.” Then, Marable makes what I take to be a really interesting remark. “In reality,” he asserts, “the twenty-three-year-old was poorly prepared for married life.” Explaining his assertion, Marable notes:

She had never learned to cook. Even after she joined the Nation, she knew how to make little more than bean dishes and a few beef and chicken recipes. Malcolm never cooked, so it was up to her to plan nutritious and varied meals on a limited budget. Any romantic fantasies she may have had about her future life were largely extinguished by the end of their first year together. Malcolm rarely, if ever, displayed affection toward her. They almost never spent the night out in each other’s company–throughout their seven years of marriage, he took her to a movie only once, in 1963. (147)

For me, it was interesting to think about what it meant to be “prepared for married life.” For earlier generations of women, it seemed like Marable had painted a very clear picture of what that meant. A married woman should know how to cook. She should know how to cook nutritious meals; offering variety with limited means.

The suggestion of Betty’s missed romance reminded me of another book. In a previous post I noted that I had been reading Ann Weisgarber’s debut novel The Personal History of Rachel DuPress. Weisgarber sensitively imagines the life of an African American women homesteader who she had observed in a photograph. In wondering about her life, she invents Rachel, an African American woman born in Louisiana who migrates to Chicago with her family. Rachel works as the cook for an African American woman who runs a boarding house that caters to black men working at a nearby slaughterhouse. The men fancy Rachel’s cooking and offer to take her out on dates but she sweetly shuns their advances. Rachel shows an interest in Mrs. Du Pree’s son Isaac who has come to Chicago after serving thirteen years in the Army. Isaac has come to spread the word about the Homestead Act of 1862 that enabled men and unmarried women to claim one hundred and sixty acres of public land. For Isaac, this far Western land stood as a beacon of opportunity for him to live independently and to assert himself as a man in a way that race prohibited him from doing in other parts of the country. Rachel offers Isaac a claim for land in her name if he agrees to marry her.

Having been a farmer’s daughter as well as a cook, Rachel serves her husband well as a helpmate in the Badlands. As a romantic partner, Isaac proved to be the fictional double of the historical Malcolm that Marable offers us in the biography. Isaac’s life was about usefulness and he seemed to dabble with romance if it offered him some practical use; otherwise, he wasn’t interested in sentiment.

In reading both of these works I wondered what it would mean to say of a young woman today that she was (un)prepared to be a wife. Do we still think that for a woman to be prepared for marriage that she know how to cook nutritious meals with variety? Do we still judge men by their response to romance?

Any thoughts? 

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