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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