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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

February 2012

Models Monday: Repeat Step 1

In advance of considering Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman, I decided to re-post the following piece. As I considered the play’s critique of the “hollowness of some cherished American ideals,” I wondered how this critique would play out in the age of reality television. Though I’ve taken my copy of the play off my shelf, I haven’t started re-reading it but when I do, I’ll be doing so while thinking about the state of certain critiques in this “look at me, look at me, look at me now” era of reality shows. 

Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Tableau” from her book Domestic Work features a man and a woman pretty much in repose:

At breakfast, the scent of lemons,
just-picked, yellowing on the sill.
At the table, a man and woman.

Between them, a still life:
shallow bowl, damask plums
in one square of morning light.

The woman sips tea
from a chipped blue cup, turning it,
avoiding the rough white edge.

The man, his thumb pushing deep
toward the pit, peels taut skin
clean from plum flesh.

The woman watches his hands,
the pale fruit darkening
wherever he’s pushed too hard.

She is thinking seed, the hardness
she’ll roll on her tongue,
a beginning. One by one,

the man fills the bowl with globes
that glisten. Translucent, he thinks.
The woman, now, her cup tilting

empty, sees, for the first time,
the hairline crack
that has begun to split the bowl in half.

I’ve thought about this work a great deal since the very first time I read it. I love its elegant simplicity.

I imagine the man and woman as a married African American couple. I admire their ability to be still together, quiet, and comfortable enough with one another to take leave of their partnership to think their own thoughts and have their own ideas about everyday things. Their peace enables them to see mundane things anew. While the “hairline crack” in the bowl might suggest something ominous about their relationship, I choose not to interpret the ending in this way. I see that “hairline crack” much like the “chipped blue cup” that the woman sips tea from: a mark of character as well as a feature of the cup. Flaws do not make items disposable for this woman. The cup has not lost its value as a conveyor of her morning drink. Despite being chipped, the cup still works.

The representation of an African American married couple who can be still together and quiet counters the representation offered on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The tableau of African American married life on this show stands in direct opposition to Trethewey’s beautiful still life. The characters presented on this show do not seem committed to preserving anything despite functionality. They constantly shop for new things whose meaning seemingly derives from its brand name rather than its use. This show interprets the meaning of African American married couples spending time together, at least the significant part of it, as mostly scheming to make more money. I see very little beauty here. Why are we supposed to want lives like these women have? 

I was really moved to see the cast showing a common understanding towards Kandi’s heartbreak over her daughter’s poor relationship with her father. What troubled me though was that you don’t ever see any of the women most concerned for their children’s relationships with their fathers doing anything that would improve them. In one episode, Sheree takes her son tennis shoe shopping and she makes some disjointed claims about the relationship she wants him to have with his father. I don’t actually remember what she said but I remember thinking that she would swear up and down that she talked to her son about his father but how little talking actually occurred. I thought the same thing when I saw a clip from an episode featuring NeNe talking to her son. Their descriptions of themselves as party starters, however, does not support their ambition to offer meaningful talk; that requires quiet. Meaningful talk requires thinking through what to say and how. The Real Housewives makes no effort to depict people who spend any time strategizing how to talk. What they offer is a process involved in being mean spirited: Step 1: Make a lot of noise. Step 2: Read nothing. Step 3: Busy yourself with a series of mindless tasks. Step 4: Meet a friend for dinner. Step 5: Talk to your friend over dinner. Once you get to Step 4, you begin to see how following these steps put you on a road to destruction because they gave you nothing to discuss once you reached the fifth step. The only thing these steps prepare you for is being mean spirited; a disaster.

I think that the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta were sincere when they claimed to want their children to have better relationships with their fathers. I also think they were being sincere when they talked to their children about this. However, really being of service to one’s children would require making use of a different series of steps: Step 1: Be quiet; don’t make any noise. Step 2: Read something. Step 3: Focus on what you read; think about it. Step 4: Discuss what you read with someone who spends more time being quiet and reading than you do. Steps 1-4 prepare you to offer advice, but before saying anything, it is extremely important to repeat Step 1.

Step 1 is where Natasha Trethewey’s poem centers all of its action. Those two people aren’t gettin’ the party started; they aren’t spending any money. What they are doing–together–is giving life careful attention. They are catching their perceptions up with the world going on around them. They are making careful observations and adjusting themselves to meet them (i.e. the woman turning the cup so as not to sip from the “rough edge”). They are executing a model of living that I find most attractive. It’s a life that we can all have without spending a dime–so don’t expect to see this life on television; it wouldn’t be attractive to sponsors.

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Reading with the Times

I am going to join The New York Times in their reading of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman. It’s a play that has always moved me and I agree with the Times about the importance of considering Death of a Salesman and its critique of “the hollowness of some cherished American ideals.”

I invite you to come along with me as I read the play and consider the interviews and discussions featured in The New York Times. So dust off your copy, or borrow one from the library, so that we can be ready for their discussion beginning March 1.

Models Monday: More than a Textbook (Washington’s Birthday edition)

I recently watched Shukree Tilghman’s documentary film More than a Month about his plan to see black history month abolished (you can watch the entire film at this address until March 1: http://video.pbs.org/video/2197967045/). Through the course of the film he learns that it’s an ill-conceived project, at least in part, because he did not give enough consideration to the political significance of such a project and the constituencies he might be colluding with in light of such an agenda. An interesting turning point in the film occurs when Tilghman, who self-identifies as African American, spends time with a group in Virginia that has been advocating for a Confederate history month. This experience aids Tilghman’s understanding of the importance of having a platform upon which to offer counter-narratives of historical master scripts. Thus, he begins to understand the relationship between history and power. As a viewer, the moment becomes important because I began noticing that the unrecognized model for narrating history was the textbook.

Tilghman and many of the film’s featured speakers referred to “what was written in history books” as they negotiated the importance of preserving Black history month and it was clear they meant textbooks. These books were never given titles and no one ever cited authors. The irony here is that when Tilghman begins to explore Carter G. Woodson’s founding ideas in creating black history week, a major impetus for creating the occasion was the desire to build legitimacy through scholarly documentation around stories existing as folk memory about African American contributions to American history. What is clear to me in light of the focus of More than a Month and its accompanying shadow narrative of the textbook is that textbooks undermine a recognition of multiple sources, the importance of documentation, as well as  competing historical narratives.

The textbook represents one source for learning history but there are others. In honor of these additional sources, I am going to use today, the celebration of Washington’s Birthday, as an occasion and a case for making suggestions for how one might engage history beyond a textbook approach.

With an Eye towards History

My son watches the new The Electric Company series on PBS. One of the featured artists is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony award winning composer and lyricist. Miranda’s new work The Hamilton Mixtape reflects his deep investment in American history. In a New York Times interview about this project, Miranda tells how his interest in Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (1789-95), grew from a high school writing assignment. In later years, Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton and it fueled his interest in a rap concept album about the dynamics of Hamilton’s life that reflect story lines in hip hop culture. Miranda earns a standing ovation from President Obama for his thoughtful, rhythmic, and engaging lyrical depiction of Hamilton in a 2009 performance at the White House: 

Miranda’s performance and Chernow’s book are just two sources that could be used in contemplating representations of Alexander Hamilton in textbooks. Hamilton Grange National Memorial serves as an additional source for considering Hamilton’s life and legacy. School trips might be one way to integrate the experience of a home tour or of a memorial site but these venues are available even without a school organizing the trip. Sites maintained by the National Park Service are often free and when they are not routinely without cost, there are free entrance days posted for participating locations. Thus far, every house tour that I have been on that was a part of the National Park Service was free. Other house tours that I have experienced, like the tour of Joel Chandler Harris’s house (the Wren’s Nest) and the Mary Todd Lincoln House, were less than $10. Thus, the cost of these historical experiences rival the expense of a movie ticket. There are more ways to have fun and find enjoyment than going to see a Hollywood movie. Moving beyond the textbook as our only source for learning history can also expand the way we imagine worthwhile ways of using our resources.

More than a Textbook

Shukree Tilghman must have appreciated the issue that I am raising regarding textbooks because the website for the film also shows an advertisement for a free app designed to be used to highlight African American history on the landscape. The film certainly engages the many ways one might approach teaching and learning history as Tilghman visits museums, sites for historical re-enactments, and archives. The pre-eminance accorded the history textbook, however, remains under-examined. Indeed, there is a sequence in the film where someone acknowledges that the textbook has authority but it remains unquestioned in many ways. The goal of telling American history becomes the goal of re-writing a history textbook. I kept wondering why schoolchildren couldn’t read multiple sources. Of course, I was also reminded of the Texas textbook controversy involving the claim by Conservatives of a Liberal bias in the teaching of history in the state, so I don’t want to dismiss the importance of having a discussion about the role of the textbook. Tilghman’s film, however, doesn’t present the role of the textbook as its central issue but it clearly could be one of them. There is more than one way to teach and learn history. The textbook approach may be easy but it may not be the best model.

Models Monday: Fifty-nine and Twelve

A few years ago, I was trying to figure out what I thought it meant for black women to be considered icons. This was a consideration that had been lingering from some years prior when I saw Congresswoman Maxine Waters in some setting with black male politicians who all referred to her as an icon and acknowledged her iconic presence before they spoke. Most striking was that as attention was drawn to Waters’s iconic status, she was never given space to say a word. It was as if her status as an icon spoke for her. So being an icon, I thought, means your frozen, trapped, or captured in what others make of your identity. You don’t get to make a new sound; And she didn’t. Waters did not utter a word. Is this what happens to all black women who get turned into icons, I wondered. If it is, is this a worthwhile pursuit? Is it in any way tied to a pursuit of full humanity and dignity? What about when the designation has been imposed and not pursued? How has this designation impacted those black women? Are there other avenues for recovery? So I began thinking about those iconic black women. What was the narrative of their iconic representation and what was the historical subjectivity that might be buried underneath it.

It became a fascinating project for me to consider what I thought about this. One of the first women I thought about was Sojourner Truth because I had read historian Nell Irvin Painter’s wonderful biography of Truth that counters so much of what we take to be her life. For instance, Truth had not been enslaved in the South but in the North thus she did not speak with a southern accent. In fact, she spoke Dutch and the accent of this heritage that she acquired while enslaved then as a domestic servant in New York lingered throughout her life. Most revelatory was the fact that the famous “Ar’n’t I A Woman,” speech that gets attributed to her was the creation of feminist and abolitionist Frances Dana Gage. According to Painter, Gage revised an impromptu speech Truth had given to include the famous line and this led to the creation of an image of Truth we still live with. Not only do children perform this speech during Black History month in February, but famous actresses and noted authors have dramatized the speech as it appears attributed to Truth in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s book Voices of a People’s History. Here’s an example of Kerry Washington performing the voice of Truth:

There’s an entire series of these Zinn presentations. One of the more recent public performances of the dramatization of the famous speech attributed to Truth occurred in 2009 when a bust of her was installed in the Capitol building. Cicely Tyson dramatized Truth on this occasion:

Ultimately, Painter decides that

“We need an heroic ‘Sojourner Truth’ in our public life to function as the authentic black woman, as a symbol who compensates for the imperfections of individual black women…”

But what about those Black women who, I was surprised to learn, young folk don’t remember or recognize as icons, how do they function? The young black women who were in attendance for a semi-public presentation of some of these ideas provided me with an opportunity to connect past and present because one of the icons I chose to discuss did not register as important though there was some general familiarity with her. The woman was Billie Holiday.

“Do you even know the movie Lady Sings the Blues?” I asked. Crickets. Diana Ross? Billy Dee Williams? Crickets. Ah, I know, how about this song:

Billie Holiday first recorded “Good Morning Heartache” in 1946. Diana Ross revived the song when she played Holiday in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues in 1972. Scott’s contemporary stardom enabled me to generate greater interest in Holiday’s life. Of course these young women recognized photographs of Holiday but they had not thought much about her legacy, her music, or her impact on them. Because so many folk have covered Holiday’s catalogue, it enabled me to introduce them to other women or merely contemplate other black women I would have considered icons (i.e. Natalie Cole). Whitney Houston was the most consistently cited black woman we discussed alongside Holiday.

Unlike those who consider the final years of Holiday’s career her worst, scholar Robert G. O’Meally contends that these years amplify her artistic understanding. As drugs had ravaged her instrument, Holiday did not surrender it completely; instead, O’Meally contends, she learned how to command her voice in the state it was in to tremendous emotional effect. In other words, despite an inability to wield her voice as she had before drug abuse took its toll, Holiday recognized the difference and asserted the change meaningfully in terms of how she sang. So how would Whitney Houston respond to the impact of an altered voice?

On Saturday night when I learned that Whitney Houston had died, I quietly thought about Billie Holiday. They were both relatively young women when they passed. Holiday was 44 when she died in 1959. At least as O’Meally hears Holiday, one can think that she had defined herself anew by the time of her demise. I wonder if there will be a way of thinking of Whitney Houston along those same lines. I heard a news reporter say that it was clear that Houston was trying to sing in a lower register. Perhaps time will enable listeners to appreciate the difference.

Although we do not know yet what killed Houston, we do know that she had a history of drug abuse. Unfortunately for her, she had to suffer her addiction publicly. I spent much of my early years surrounded by drug addicts of all kinds and it was always a very sad tableau. I knew some who were strung out on heroine because everyone else around them was doing it and they weren’t strong enough to define their own experiences; I knew some who were alcoholics because of a past pain that they could never properly or adequately address; I knew some who snorted cocaine because people had deeply disappointed them. I considered myself fortunate because my mother never had any chemical dependencies and could always provide me with relief from the sadness that overwhelmed my father. As a child, I remember the tremendous relief I felt when I did not have to suffer his sadness alone and there were other adults around. Interestingly, I preferred his occasional bouts of anger to his sadness. So I wonder about the life of Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina. I wonder how she made sense of her mother’s sorrows in the face of such abundance. I imagine sorrow making sense in a context of deprivation. I can only imagine how confused she was growing up in the presence of her mother’s obvious talent and the luxuries that that talent afforded and having to make sense of the great sorrow that characterizes an addict’s life.

I think when my father died, he had made peace with many of his demons. So I thought he was able to end his life well. I wonder what will bring Bobbi Kristina peace. I feel such sympathy for that child. Her’s appears to be a life constituted by so much of the stuff this culture highly prizes. She was introduced to fame, fortune, and glamour. I’m sure she was surrounded by many of the markers of her mother’s achievements: platinum records and countless statuettes; iconic photographs taken by esteemed photographers; expensive clothes designed by designers who are themselves iconic; stays in some of the world’s most famous hotels; rides in some of the costliest cars. But since this culture celebrates such stuff, they can’t really tell you how empty it all is. I’m sure that little in her experience would have prepared her to question the  meaningfulness of designer clothes, expensive cars, and grammy awards–except her mother’s sorrow. Her mother’s sorrow should tell us all about the insignificance of what consumer society tells us is the stuff of life.

Models Monday: Borrowing, Renting, and the Library

I.

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland.

My friend Raina routinely goes to the library with her daughter. It’s their place for getting books, videos, and CDs. I thought about this recently when my mother decided to use her local library to borrow a movie because her local Blockbusters has gone out of business. My Mom was shocked that she hadn’t thought about going to the library sooner. My Mother is a fan of Hollywood and she subscribes to People magazine and watches Entertainment Tonight during the week. In thinking about her decision to use her local library, I was reminded of my ambition to record the questions that I ended the year thinking about as a part of my year-in-review. To that end, I wondered if these celebrities who have captured my mother’s interest ever go to the library? They certainly get all gussied up to go to a movie premier and some go to Gallery openings. I’ve heard celebrities discussing the importance of the Arts and generating support for them through concerts. But do celebrities go to the library?

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

Where are the paparazzi photographs of celebrities ducking out of the library wearing aviator shades? They are not dogged by stories of what books they borrowed or guesses about the titles they try to conceal while running to their waiting cars. The new Duchess across the pond does her own grocery shopping from time to time and Jennifer Garner takes her children to the park, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone famous coming from the library.

Perhaps borrowing suggests poverty. I actually know College students who don’t use the library. A friend asked one of these students why not and this young woman responded that she didn’t like “renting” books. “Renting?” my friend asked. “Yeah,” the student told her, “I’d rather buy.” That language goes a long way toward explaining why celebrities wouldn’t go to the library. Owning reflects a person’s power through credit history and long standing ties to money (think about people who look down on those who rent property on Martha’s Vineyard versus owning property there), and in some cases, freedom. From this perspective, renting, I suppose, means being marginal to wealth. Of course, celebrities find nothing wrong with wearing jewelry on loan from expensive jewelers when they’re on the red carpet going to the movies (I always wonder if they really get all dressed up to literally go into a movie theater and watch a movie–there’s got to be something else going on inside much more suited to their attire). So they’re not opposed to borrowing in general, they’re just not into “renting” books I suppose.

When I used to buy items from the American Library Association website, they used to sell posters and bookmarks featuring celebrities. Serena Williams, Shaquille O’Neal, Justin Timberlake, that young man from Harry Potter–you name the celebrity and they were on a bookmark or poster celebrating reading while holding up their favorite book. But I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a candid shot of a single one of them coming out of an actual library…but they are forever being photographed coming out of nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, stadiums, clothiers, bakeries, airports–but never libraries.

II.

I’ve continued thinking about Walter Dean Myers’s appointment as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Even more, I’ve thought about his campaign slogan, “Reading is Not Optional.” I understand what Myers wants to communicate with this slogan but I’m not taken by its clarity. In American culture, I am more frequently experiencing the negative possibilities of what he intends. For example, I was using a newly designed website for a site that I frequently visit. As I was trying to figure out how to navigate it, I grew frustrated that I had to watch videos about navigation and was never given an option to read about the navigation. Why couldn’t they provide photographs and words (or just words)? Why did I have to watch a video and suffer through information that didn’t pertain to me? If I were given the option to read, I wouldn’t have wasted two good minutes of my time. It also happens with news stories on the internet. You’ll read a headline that attracts your attention but when you click it, you find that you have to see a video as opposed to being taken to an article to read. This is not what Myers means by reading not being optional but it’s true that we are not always given the option to read content, we must suffer through video.

III.

Maybe the current status of our housing market will change the way Americans view “renting” and we will begin seeing photographs of celebrities borrowing books. As it stands, having money seems to mean spending money and borrowing marks a person’s lack. This isn’t the way I see it. Libraries are wonderful community resources and borrowing books represents an undervalued method of exchange between citizens. Sharing resources between citizens offers a model by which to live that counters the consumer transactions that have come to define us. Libraries reinforce membership and belonging to a community and this makes them worthwhile places to visit. 

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