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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

March 2012

Stephanie Eisner, Trayvon Martin, the First Amendment, and Learning

Stephanie Eisner’s editorial cartoon for The Daily Texan.

In the wake of Stephanie Eisner’s exit from the University of Texas at Austin’s student newspaper The Daily Texan, some commenters have expressed concern in light of these reports over the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The basic concern involves Eisner’s punishment, as some reports suggest she was fired, for creating a cartoon featuring a woman reading to a child about the Trayvon Martin case. The very problematic cartoon misspells Martin’s name and refers to him as a “colored boy.” Commenters contend that while the view expressed may be offensive to some, the punishment denies Eisner her constitutional right to speak. What such a view fails to accept, it seems to me, is that Eisner does express her views. She offered her commentary and now she is being held responsible for her ideas. Freedom of speech does not entail freedom from responsibility.

Eisner’s critique of the “yellow journalism” involved in the news stories about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case is effectively undermined by the fact that she misspells Martin’s first name. Thus, how well-researched is her own commentary if she misspells a principle subject’s name? The attention that Eisner draws to the racial narratives involved in the case anachronistically refer to Trayvon Martin, an African American, as “colored,” and while I don’t dispute the juxtaposition of adult and child, the fact that she refers to Martin as a “colored boy” renders this contrast racist.

Though I think that Eisner should definitely be expected to respond to her critics, I hope that she doesn’t decide to completely remove herself from journalism; after all, she is a student. Quitting would fully reflect a major limitation in constructions of good students as being lords of all the right answers. It’s a model that I think starts early in popular ideas about responsible ways of engaging young children about school. When parents ask children, “What did you learn in school today,” their question ostensibly marks an investment in the intellectual life of the child. However, I think this question comes too late in the day. A different model, one that Eisner would benefit from, would ask the child early morning questions like these: What are you thinking about this morning? What have you been thinking about lately? What do you want to learn about in school today? What kinds of questions are you going to ask so that you might come close to knowing that? These questions suggest that children should be actively engaged in education. Moreover, such questions support the pursuit of knowledge over the mere attainment of it. From this perspective, a more suitable end of the day question then involves asking the child whether or not they learned what they expected to and suggesting ways that going to the library, a museum, a farm, or a fire station might help the child further address their questions.

As it stands, students trained to think that being a good student means to tell everyone what they know are without recourse when their answers are inarticulately expressed, a-historic, ill-conceived, or just plain wrong. It’s not clear to me that Stephanie Eisner ever asked questions about representations of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case in popular culture. Eisner’s apology quoted in the Austin American-Statesman reflects on the commentary she had intended but not on the questions she asked. Students need to learn to ask clear and precise questions. Clear and precise questions reveal what you want to know and understand. Schooling should help discipline one’s ability to ask questions. Eisner’s claim that she is “not a racist” offers little consolation if she hasn’t spent time questioning why she referred to Martin as a “colored boy.” She would help herself better live out this claim if she questioned her own illustration of hate speech. It is hard to believe that someone who is “personally appalled by the killing of Trayvon Martin” would misspell his name and suggest that this dead child has been the recipient of too much sympathy and his killer too much blame. Her commentary reflects the brutal mean-spiritedness of limited questioning in racialized terms. Thus, I think it would help her to stay in school and continue pursuing journalism.

Being a student, someone truly committed to learning, is a humbling experience. Students who are taught to question are trained in humility because they are always admitting what they don’t know. A life-long learner, then, is someone who commits themselves to the practice of humility. My grandfather helped me in developing this view of learning. I don’t remember what I was poppin’ off about but whatever it was, I must have been arrogant and perhaps even agitated in expressing my views and engaging in discussion. I remember my grandfather saying to me, “you must not know your ABCs.” “What?” I said. “Of course I know my ABCs.” “Let me hear you say them,” my grandfather said. But as I set out to reciting the alphabet, my grandfather interrupted me, “See, you don’t know your ABCs,” he said:

“You got to Always Be Cool. Those are the ABCs that you clearly have not mastered.”

I remember thinking that he was right. My behavior and my arrogant recitation did not suggest that I knew even the fundamentals involved in exchanging ideas. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. So when I am really passionate about my position, I always return to the cool. This return forces me to think carefully before I speak; to be clear about what I am responding to; thinking through the implications of my ideas; to be measured in my responses. Discussing George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin requires humility and cool. Stephanie Eisner’s cartoon ignores the seriousness of Zimmerman’s actions, the loss of Martin’s life, the suffering of Martin’s friends and family. Continuing to work for the paper, in any capacity, with a serious awareness of what it means to be a student might help her in crafting future responses that more eloquently reflect views that more closely approximate who she claims to be as well as what she wants to say.

See Also: 

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

Models Monday: The Certainty of Love

My grandmother, grandfather, and Uncle Charles. This family snapshot is iconic in my family.

When my Uncle Eric died, I returned to our emails as a source for preparing the eulogy that I would deliver. One of the most striking things about this correspondence, even as I look at it now, is how much of an authentic portrait of my family it seems to offer. He tells stories in a pitch that I recognize and he draws conclusions that I think are credible in that light. One of those story lines that always wends its way into my family’s reflections focuses on the favored child. It was always striking to me because of how futile it seemed but how committed were its tellers to weaving their yarn around which of the seven children was the winner. My mother even carries this concern into her reflections on her siblings’ progeny. She still talks in terms of “favorite” grandchild or niece. My Uncle Eric had fiercely drawn conclusions that were ones that I could see emerging in the clear-eyed focus that my grandparents’ parenting would have been responsible for creating. Eric thought that my grandparents had a favorite child, my Uncle Charles because he was the oldest–the focus of the family’s favorite family snapshot–but my Uncle thought it was reasonable and acceptable for parents to have their picks where favorites were concerned. Where he seemed to differ from the other siblings who engaged in this favored child story is that he did not think being less favored estranged him from his parents’ love; in fact, he was certain of that.

The certainty of some of us black children feeling loved by our parents stands out to me as I have been reading August Wilson, and thinking about other stories alongside his work where black children directly question whether they are loved or even liked by their parents. What informed their children’s heartbreaking questions? Though I have been thinking about this for some time now, the urgency of gaining clarity emerges in light of Newt Gingrich’s characterization of President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin. In the wake of George Zimmerman shooting and killing the 17 year-old, unarmed Martin, President Obama stated: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He continues:

“I think [Trayvon’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

In response, Gingrich claimed that Obama’s remarks were “in a sense disgraceful.” Elaborating, he adds:

“It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.

Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him. That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban or if he had been white or if he had been Asian American of if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.”

My engagement with the heartbreaking question that black children raise concerning their parents’  love helps inform an understanding of David Plouffe’s contention that Gingrich’s politically informed critique was “reprehensible.”

Raising black children where racism flourishes involves navigating through an inhospitable world and fashioning one where joy can grow. African American literature reflects the struggles of black parents with limited job opportunities and thus with limited financial resources who must overcome belittling, demeaning assessments of their personhood to provide for their children. Ann Petry’s Lutie Johnson, Toni Morrison’s Eva Peace, and August Wilson’s Troy Maxson all have children who question their parents’ appraisal of their value. Bub’s worries about his mother’s need for money over her ability to have joy in her life and by extension him, seems reasonable in the face of his ultimate abandonment. Eva, though, stays with her children and answers her daughter’s question about her love directly. “Mama, did  you ever love us?” Hannah asks her mother in Morrison’s Sula: 

“You setting’ here with you healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.” (68)

Hannah clarifies her question:

“I didn’t mean that, Mamma. I know you fed us and all. I was talkin’ ’bout something else. Like. Playin’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?” (68)

Eva offers a response that lays out a lesson in history and racial hermeneutics:

“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ’cause you got it good now you think it was always this good? 1895 was a killer, girl. Things was bad. Niggers was dying like flies. Stepping tall, ain’t you? Uncle Paul gone bring me two bushels. Yeh. And they’s a melon downstairs, ain’t they? And I bake every Saturday, and Shad brings fish on Friday, and they’s a pork barrel full of meal, and we float eggs in a crock of vinegar…” (68-69)

“Mamma, what you talkin’ ’bout?” Hannah asks her. Eva continues her lesson:

“I’m talkin’ ’bout 18 and 95 when I set in that house five days with you and Pearl and Plum and three beets, you snake-eyed ungrateful hussy. What would I look like leaping’ ’round that little old room playin’ with youngins with three beets to my name.” (69)

What always shocks me when I read this is that Hannah still doesn’t get what her mother is telling her so she offers a rather flippant remark, “I know ’bout them beets, Mamma. You told us that a million times.” So Hannah asks her:

“Yeah? Well? Don’t that count? Ain’t that love? You want me to tinkle you under the jaw and forget ’bout them sores in your mouth? Pearl was shittin’ worms and I was supposed to play rang-around-the-rosie?” (69)

And Eva still doesn’t get it: “But Mamma, they had to be some time when you wasn’t thinkin’ ’bout…” And so Hannah offers more:

“No time. They wasn’t no time. No none. Soon as I got one day done here come a night. With you all coughin’ and me watchin’ so TB wouldn’t take you off and if you was sleepin’ quiet I thought, O Lord, they dead and put my hand over your mouth to feel if the breath was comin’ what you talkin’ ’bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you can’t you get that through your thick head or what is that between your ears, heifer?” (69)

Their conversation continues with each holding their distinct positions. I understand Eva’s sacrifice as love. I think because I was a child, an only child, who always worried about what it would mean for me if my mother died, I understood Eva’s tremendous gift of staying alive for her children.

Hannah lives in a world of ignorant bliss. Cory Maxson’s  question regarding his father’s love breaks your heart because he lacks Hannah’s apparent foolishness.

Troy and Cory’s exchange reveals that one aspect of what black children find incomprehensible about their parents’ love is its relationship to debt. “I owe a responsibility to you,” Troy tells Cory. Black parents who have experience or an historical awareness of the uses of black bodies as currency to pay off debt, whose bodies have labored for debt, take seriously their indebtedness to their children. In the case of parenting, debt is the unearned right of the child to extract their parents’ labor; it might just be their sole privilege. Black parents’ frustration with their children comes from their ignorance over this birthright. But how could they know when keeping them healthy and happy involved their ignorance of what inheriting blackness means in America?

An important aspect of parenting black children involves shielding them from the scorn of inheriting blackness. But for how long? For many black parents, the answer was, “as long as possible.” One of the many heartbreaking scenes in Spike Lee’s exceptional film 4 Little Girls (1997) features Chris McNair recounting a time when his daughter Denise asked him why she couldn’t buy and eat a sandwich at Kress’s department store in Birmingham, Alabama. What makes the scene memorable is the active search that Mr. McNair continues to make for a good answer to how you answer your hungry child’s question about why she can’t eat food that was clearly available for consumption. American racial absurdity became a black parent’s burden to explain to their children.

To keep a child available for joy, black parents shielded their racial burdens from their children as much as possible. But is ignorance safe? Black children could not and cannot afford to be ignorant of how blackness is understood in American culture. A very good friend was the first to draw my attention to one of the most poignant references to its mechanics. In “Of Our Spiritual Striving” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois writes of the “all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil.” So many of the very poignant (news) stories offered in tribute to Trayvon Martin’s memory convey their journey to understanding what it means to be black in America. Newt Gingrich, and now Michele Bachmann, want to deny this history, this journey, and this reality.

Barack Obama’s remarks were appropriately evocative in that they allowed for his body and expressed identity to speak to listeners and to allow them to craft their own narratives of his relationship to Trayvon. Though in crafting those narratives, one could not deny that if Obama had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin. Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and now Michele Bachmann want such an evocation to be false or at least silenced. Their critique is due in part to the fact that here is an instance where an appeal to blackness might serve blackness, which is never what it is supposed to do. I don’t think that Obama stopped being a politician when he offered his eloquent testimony, but I do value it as honest political expression over what the Right is attempting to do: they want to evoke the tension over the O.J. Simpson trial by suggesting that Obama is “playing the race card.” What Trayvon Martin’s slaying and George Zimmerman’s freedom should underscore about the limitation of this metaphor, as a good friend said to me years ago, is that “black people do not control the deck.” We play the cards that we are dealt. Too, if Trayvon had a card to play, the black one wouldn’t be the best one to play. As Obama’s move reveals, even an eloquent assertion of blackness will be viciously contested.

From the photographs that I have seen of Trayvon Martin and the profiles that his family and friends have offered, there is no doubt in my mind that he was a child, much like my Uncle Eric, who knew the certainty of love. Despite the struggle over how much racial ignorance, hatred, and hostility black parents negotiate in raising their children, it is very possible for black children to know beyond a doubt that they are loved. Trayvon Martin was loved so much he felt wealthy enough to give love to others. He volunteered, he babysat, he baked cookies. He brought sweet things into the lives of those he loved; and he still is. As many of us claim “I am Trayvon Martin,” we are revealing more of our stories about how we show love to our children. And in doing so, we are bringing awareness to the struggles we confront in having our children embrace the certainty of being loved in a hostile climate. These are stories that I recognize as having the same pitch of authenticity that I read in my Uncle’s stories of feeling loved. Thus, through the honesty of our revelations, we are showing the ways that black parenting should be considered a model of parenting under siege instead of as a model of deficiency.

“The Decision” to Protest: Lebron James,Trayvon Martin, and the Eloquence of Peaceful Protest

As an ex-Clevelander (moved away for school) but lifelong fan of my hometown Cleveland teams, I never could have imagined the day when I would openly support and endorse LeBron James again. His ESPN special to announce where he would play basketball, which he titled “The Decision,” was a crushing blow to me, and mostly because it came as a total surprise. My uncle had actually been one of James’s summer league coaches when he played for the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars. My uncle had always touted LeBron’s loyalty. I once asked him why he thought LeBron would keep playing on their team given how much other teams must have been after him. My uncle’s response was, “loyalty, Bean. Loyalty.”  I could hear my uncle’s voice, calling me by my family nickname and uttering the word that I knew would keep LeBron James a Cleveland Cavalier: Loyalty. Too, this was a young man who was friends with Jay-Z, who grew up steeped in hip-hop culture and its commitment to claiming one’s hood, so I knew James would rep his set for life. And then “The Decision” was announced. How could someone who had grown up with the legacy of “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” and “The Shot” (aka “The Move”) announce that he was leaving the city like this? This place we all thought of as his hometown club (the closest he would come to Akron since that city didn’t have a professional team)? Fine, you want to play somewhere else but to call the announcement “The Decision”? I was devastated personally as well as for my hometown, a place I still feel deeply committed to. His decision felt cruel and mocking and I thought I would never look at him the same way. I wouldn’t cheer for him or wish him well on the basketball court; in fact, I would make a point of being his anti-fan. But then he did this:

This is LeBron James’s individual statement.

And this.

Truce.

I’m no longer the Cleveland fan looking past James wearing a Yankee cap, seemingly taunting our baseball club, today I’m neutral as a fan of LeBron and the Miami Heat but definitely a fan of how he fashioned himself to support Trayvon Martin. From what I’ve read, the decision to have the team pose in hoodies was LeBron’s idea, and it was a very eloquent one.

Denis Wilson contends that in the 1930s, Champion apparel company manufactured the first hooded sweatshirt for the practical use of warehouse laborers in New York. Interestingly, Wilson links the popular rise of the hoodie in the 1970s to the film Rocky and the simultaneous emergence of hip-hop. According to Wilson, hip-hop should be credited with turning a textile of practical use into sinister apparel. Though the hoodie had consistently identified the outcast, hip-hop, he asserts, would make the hooded figure menacing. While that point is certainly debatable, in a context where hoodies are certainly associated with youth culture, hip-hop, and deviance the decisions made by individual National Basketball Association (NBA) players and entire teams to wear hoodies makes an eloquent statement.

Carmelo Anthony tweet.

Much like President Obama’s claim that if he had “a son, he would look like Trayvon,” when Carmelo Anthony tweets a picture of himself wearing a grey hoodie with the words “I am Trayvon Martin!!!!”, the brevity of their remarks become the conduit for richer and deeper ideas. Thus, Obama’s statement, Melo’s tweet, LeBron’s shoe, and the other statements regarding Trayvon Martin should be read like poetry with its form being marked and defined by an intensity of meaning in tight and relatively brief utterance. The identification with Trayvon Martin’s experience of being stalked while going about their daily lives isn’t abstract. The President’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance documents his coming to consciousness as the only black member of his immediate family. He learned how threatening his blackness was perceived through the barely concealed fears of his grandmother of the black men who haunted her memory after asking her for money:

“Yeah, I know–but it’s probably a little scary for her, seeing some big man block her way. It’s really no big deal.”

He turned around and I saw now that he was shaking. “It is a big deal. It’s a big deal to me. She’s been bothered by men before. You know why she’s so scared this time? I’ll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was black.” He whispered the word. “That’s the real reason why she’s bothered. And I just don’t think that’s right.”

The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure. In my steadiest voice, I told him that such an attitude bothered me, too, but assured him that Toot’s fears would pass and that we should give her a ride in the meantime.

[…] Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears. (88-89)

What an inheritance. If President Obama had had a son, he would have inherited this burden. It was just this burden that Dwayne Wade thought about when he learned of George Zimmerman’s assault of Trayvon Martin and recalled his son’s request for hoodies for Christmas. I was moved by how evocative black men’s statements about Trayvon Martin have been.

Their statements are also powerful given that people like Geraldo Rivera blame Trayvon Martin for what happened to him because of what he chose to wear; folk like Frank Taaffe think that Martin could have helped himself had he been more “up front and truthful”; commenters on blogs reveal that they think that angry “mobs” have already condemned George Zimmerman to the “electric chair.” Instead of wholesale support for the arrest of Zimmerman, some folk have other axes to grind. When I read comments on news stories related to the case, that is where I find commentary from seemingly disgruntled people about the protests for justice in the Trayvon Martin case. Some of the disgruntlement expressed focuses its ire on the fact that race has become a focus of this case. I’m not exactly sure where some people want to set the bar for when an event counts as racist but I want to state for the record, for all concerned, that this meets the standard. George Zimmerman’s targeting of this child as “suspicious,” pursuing this child beyond the 911 dispatcher’s call for him not to, identifying him as an “asshole,” and shooting him is racist. The fact that he wasn’t arrested for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin also counts as racist. So yes, in addition to making gestures of solidarity and support for Trayvon Martin’s family, the protestors are also protesting racism; especially in the criminal justice system. Protestors want it to be safe for all black boys, wearing a hoodie or not, to be able to walk down the street from the store and to make it home alive. They want it to be a crime when people kill them. They want those people to get arrested.

I want to also point out that all of the protests against this egregious injustice have all been peaceful and, as in the case of the NBA players, eloquent. Their rhapsodizing on this tragedy stands in stark contrast to the actions of the woman who threw flour on Kim Kardashian who was appearing at the London Hotel in West Hollywood to promote her new perfume. That woman’s actions were mean spirited and inarticulate. We still have no idea what she was trying to accomplish; what she was trying to say.

See Also: 

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

Frank Taaffe on George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

17 year-old Travon Martin was gunned down on my birthday, February 26.

I read the article about the brief interview that Frank Taaffe, friend of George Zimmerman and fellow neighborhood watch captain, gave to Anderson Cooper and local press about the shooting of Trayvon Martin before I watched the videos on the page. The article was troubling and the videos just made it worse. Taaffe’s perspective offers a poor defense of his friend and colleague as he confirms how insidiously race undermines reason in our engagements with one another. Taaffe balances the blame between Zimmerman and 17 year-old Martin for his being shot in the chest because he failed to openly and honestly answer Zimmerman’s questions about his presence in the neighborhood. What Taaffe doesn’t acknowledge is that Zimmerman had never considered Martin credible or regarded his presence in the neighborhood as legitimate. Before he even approached Martin, Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher that Martin was a member of a tribe of “assholes” who “always get away.” The only way for Martin to be “up front and truthful” with Zimmerman would have been for him to confirm that he was an asshole who always gets away with his crimes, but that wouldn’t have been his truth. Trayvon Martin was condemned before he had even spoken a word to Zimmerman.

I don’t doubt that George Zimmerman was “congenial” to his friends and “an admirable person” among those who shared his views, but his actions towards Trayvon Martin suggest nothing of this person. Frank Taaffe’s claim that the media has demonized and condemned Zimmerman sounds more like right wing critiques of “the liberal media” than a fair analysis of the coverage of Zimmerman. For example, the Huffington Post story about Taaffe’s support seems quite favorable. If a reader came upon this story without knowing much of the case or even watched the video alongside the article, they could easily come away supporting Taaffe’s point of view. No one challenges Taaffe’s assertion that Martin bore the responsibility for his death by asking Taaffe whether or not his claim essentially blamed the victim; no one asked Taaffe how fair minded he was being about his “congenial” and “admirable” friend who made a call to a 911 dispatcher calling Martin an “asshole”; no one asked Taaffe about the relationship between his view of Zimmerman’s “passion” for the neighborhood and his apparent lack of discipline regarding a stranger who the 911 dispatcher told him to leave alone; no one asked Taaffe about the relationship between hospitality and suspicion. The Huffington Post article even describes Martin as black and Zimmerman as Hispanic (just like that: lower case “b” and capital “H”), which I suppose suggests that his shooting of Martin wasn’t racially motivated.

Even with a serious face, Trayvon Martin looks like a little kid in a football uniform.

One thing that I haven’t read yet about this shooting is a direct engagement with how Trayvon Martin looked beyond the fact that he was black and wearing a hoodie. This offers more of a description of a type, a caricature of black boys in American culture, than an engagement with any one person. The photographs of Martin that have circulated in the media make his shooting appear all the more surreal. Trayvon Martin was a good looking kid. He was just adorable. As important as being physically attractive is in American culture, I’m surprised that I haven’t read anything about how attractive Trayvon Martin was. In addition to Jon Hamm’s critique of our American attachment to stupidity as evidenced by the embrace of the Kardashians, what he doesn’t say is that people also think that they are pretty; especially Kim. In America, being pretty counts as more important than any virtue; being pretty might just be a virtue. To that end, Trayvon Martin was attractive so that should mean something. I wonder how much Martin’s attractiveness played a role in the mainstream media picking-up a story that had been circulating in the African American media long before. When I see the one photograph of him in his football uniform, I can’t help but think that he was a kid on the team but that he didn’t have any stats. Martin looks too little to have played football. There’s no dirt on that uniform and not a scratch on his face.

It is hard for me to believe that anyone could look at photographs of Trayvon Martin and see him as a menace. He looks about as thuggish as the men playing thugs in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video. Even the “hoodie” pictures of Martin appear harmless. No one asked Taaffe to account for how Zimmerman saw Martin’s face. Did he really look at that kid’s face and see a man? How?

Some articles that I have read about Zimmerman’s self-defense claim point out that Martin was at least 100 pounds lighter than him. The only way it seems that Zimmerman could have felt threatened by Martin would have been for him to believe that that child possessed super-human strength. Such an association between black males and inordinate strength has a long, troubled, sordid history.

It doesn’t seem to me that the media has unfairly portrayed Zimmerman. Taaffe takes for granted that Zimmerman is not only alive but FREE. Taaffe apparently wants him to be free and beyond reproach (though he does believe that Zimmerman should not have been armed). No one asked Taaffe to justify his viewpoint and he doesn’t even realize how he then benefits from the same bias he set out to critique.

See Also: 

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

Model’s Monday: iFocus

I like technology. A lot. My gadget closet includes an iPhone 4, an iPad, an iMac, and a Kindle Fire. It also contains a host of cameras. I like both the simplicity and the interactivity of modern technology. I like being able to pick up any device and know instinctively how to use it, and that wasn’t always the case. Figuring out how to program a VCR or set the clock on the microwave used to require spending time with the instruction manual. Nowadays, devices don’t come with instruction manuals as much as they come with instruction cards with illustrations of the device and the official name for the buttons.

My son likes technology as well. He can work every gadget that I have and needs very little assistance. Even though he’s not reading yet, he has even learned to identify the “play” button for the games that he likes at Nicktoons. At night when we read to him, though, we haven’t used any of these devices since I tried reading him a story on the iPad and found it too distracting for bedtime. While the interactivity encouraged through fabulous iPad books like The Three Little Pigs (Nosy Crow), Jack & The Beanstalk (Ayars Animation), The Tale of Peter Rabbit (PopOut! Loud Crow Interactive), and Cozmo’s Day Off (Ayars Animation) is wonderful, I have found that at bedtime, these books encourage busyness in a way that I find unhelpful.

During the day, I think that my son’s ability to help the big bad wolf huff and puff is a great way to involve him in the story. Finding golden eggs throughout the scenes in Jack and the Beanstalk and pulling tabs that show poor, frightened Peter trying to escape from Mr. McGregor also invest him in the story in ways that are fun for him. Usually, when he’s doing his reading in this way, I don’t really ask him very many questions about the story. If anything, I say things like, “why don’t you let her finish the story before you start pushing buttons.” I ask him the same sort of questions when he’s reading along to the story on his v-tech reader. The interaction matters more to him than the story.

This is the kind of concentration that parents love!

Nothing beats the picture book for holding his interest and enabling him to concentrate on the story. When he was perhaps two, he could be held accountable for the plot in his picture books. He knew what a ball looked like then but when he wanted me to read Tad Hills’s Duck & Goose, he would hand me the book and say, “Egg Mommy? Egg?.” The story is about a Duck and a Goose mistaking a spotted ball for an egg and so when my son wanted me to read that story, he would hand me the book while  referencing the plot as opposed to what he obviously knew as a ball from the picture. I could also ask my son to tell me the story of the book through the pictures, which he can more or less do. I also know that my son listens when we read traditional books because he can mostly supply the  rhyming words in The Cat in the Hat as well as his most recent Dr. Seuss favorite I Wish that I Had Duck Feet. This hasn’t happened yet with the high tech stories (not including the three little pigs because this is a story we told him even before we purchased it as an electronic story). I like them, but they don’t seem to encourage reflection. They encourage being very present in the moment but they don’t seem to suggest anything beyond the immediate moment as if everything in a story is transparent.

He actually looks to be journaling! This is an old picture but Miles still likes pens as much as he likes keyboards.

My experience of e-reading on my tablet offers a similar experience. Even as someone who enjoys reading, one of the first things I do with any text is figure out how many pages are in it and then I see how many are in a chapter or section. E-readers don’t acknowledge such an aspect of reading. It’s like they think that readers don’t care about the page numbers. They imagine that all readers hold a book in the present and read straight into the future of the text, but reading is far more integrated into my experience of life than this. I sometimes think about tasks through units of five or ten pages in a book. So I might consider reading ten pages of a text if I have fifty pages total before I decide to get a snack. Then I’ll read ten more before taking the dish and washing it. Then I’ll read ten more before putting a load of clothes into the wash, and so on. You can’t do that when you have no idea where you are located in the text; so the experience can be quite disorienting.  I also thought that the Kindle Fire was supposed to have traditional page numbers and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I was initially disoriented when I purchased my first Kindle and started in Chapter One, or somewhere like that, and that was considered the books “beginning.” I would never start with the first chapter as the beginning. With a traditional book, I at least thumb through all of the pages but I think the Dedication is important and I would certainly read the Prologue, the Acknowledgements, as well as any Epigraphs the author may have included. Now I know to go back from their beginning when I start reading.

In thinking about my son’s relationship to these technologies alongside my own experiences with e-reading, I am beginning to wonder what it means when reading gets transformed into an experience that might be called gaming, which is pretty much how I think of my son’s tablet reading; and mostly because he does. He has a Kung Fu Panda “book” for his v-tech reader, which includes games but my son thinks all of it is a game. So he will scroll through the dictionary words and watch the demonstrations and say that he is playing a game. So far it seems to me that such a manner of reading involves cluttering up reading with noise. When I’m trying to read a book while my son’s “reading” on one of our devices, there’s always noise of some kind that I have to fight through to hear myself think. It also seems to suggest that books can and should be considered toys. What happens to books when they become play things?  As toys, do books become the childish things we put away when we become adults?

Traditional books encourage disciplined attention. Focus. I often hear people praising contemporary youth for their ability to use technology but what I would like to hear more of is a discussion of how we prepare them to focus and concentrate with disciplined attention in the face of it. I don’t read to my son using an iPad at night because it encourages him to be busy when I want him to be still. Traditional books promote intellectual activity without the physical frenzy of huffing and puffing, swiping, and pushing that my son busies himself with in using the iPad. Yeah, at bedtime, we put away childish things so that we might rest.

Reading with the Times: The Good Wife (3/15)

Death of a Salesman playbill from The New York Times.

I have previously written about how in being at my father’s funeral I felt like a patron in Harry Hope’s bar with so many people talking about dreams and dreaming. In my re-reading of Death of a Salesman I thought about Linda Loman through the lens of the women in my father’s life–many of whom were in attendance at his funeral.

Linda was responsible for managing the family’s domestic life. This required that Linda consider what her family would eat and when; that she maintain the home so that it was clean and that appliances were well-maintained and functioning; that she make arrangements for medical appointments; that she help the children with their school work. It was clear from Linda’s reports about the family’s finances that though Willy earned the family’s money, Linda’s responsibility included her management of the family’s finances. This was what my grandparent’s marriage looked like. My grandmother was the person who managed their checkbook.

My father would claim to have used my grandfather as a model for how he set out to define himself as a man. As much as he would have liked to be like my grandfather, when it came to how he treated women,  my father was not a good student. My father didn’t trust women. So while he might have turned to whatever woman was in his life to dole out some of his money, he never would have shared rank with any woman in the home. My father saw married men in his life, particularly my grandfather, turn to women to write checks but he did not pay careful attention to all that this meant. In my grandparent’s home, my grandmother’s job in managing the home and thus the money and the children did not diminish her. It made her an equal partner in running the family. In my father’s life, women who occupied the wife’s role were like servants. They catered to the man who stood in as the husband. When my father hustled, I thought that his girlfriend or wife (my father was married and then divorced one time) felt the need to be submissive to him because of the uncertainty of how successful his night had been. Since she didn’t know what kind of mood she would find him in, she had to be careful. Appearing to take charge after a bad night might be a sign of disrespect. My father was volatile at times so being careful was always a good strategy. My grandfather was never volatile. My grandmother was never uneasy around him.

I am not convinced that the women in my father’s life shared my critique of his patriarchal and abusive tendencies. When my former step-mother and I talked about him some days after the funeral, I was shocked when she imagined how good things might have turned out had she stayed. As I reminded her, my father didn’t even think that! As he told her, he understood that she had to leave him. He knew that he wasn’t good for her or to her and couldn’t have been at the time. She suggested to me that by leaving him, her actions suggested that she didn’t believe in the person he would become. This sentiment conveys a view shared by many of the women in my father’s life. Somehow it was important that they show how much they believed in his dreams and supported his dreams just as much as he did. I am beginning to wonder if such commitment isn’t a sign of an unhealthy relationship. If not that, it might at least be a trait of very insecure people.

Every woman who spoke at my father’s funeral was not a romantic partner, though many could have been,  they all talked about his dreams as though they were plans. As distraught as I was, I noticed this theme and wondered about it: Why were so many people putting so much emphasis on his potential? How had my father managed to get people to see him as he could have been rather than as who he was? How does one’s could have beens become their achievements? What are the consequences of this kind of commitment? What view of achievements operates to obscure a more nuanced view that might conceive of a successful life through terms other than career goals and public tokens?

Unlike Willy, my father had accepted responsibility for his limitations and had made peace with them and tried to make peace with those who he had hurt as a result of them. This is why I thought that when my father died, he did so as a success story. My father would die a dreamer, and I think he was fine with that. Many of the women in his life, though, were not at peace with the loss of this dreamer and his dreams. His dreams stood in for what was most important in their lives. When my father was in a relationship with a woman, he was all there was. He was always suspicious of their friends and their family. Those women never had outside interests in the church, school, or community. In Death of a Salesman, Linda doesn’t seem to have friends or interests outside of home. Willy and his dreams are her central occupation. That was certainly how it was for the women in my father’s life. His dreams represented all that might have been and they were fully in support of what could have been. As far as his dreams went, they were firm believers and that’s how I read Linda Loman. She believed in Willy. It seems to me that even when believers encounter the limitations of the dreamer, they don’t analyze them. They treat them as humanizing aspects of their hero’s biography. It made sense to me that Linda was stunned that Willy had killed himself because she had assumed that like all heroes, he would prevail.

Happy Pi Day!

Here is a photograph of my contribution to National Pi day. I haven't tasted it yet, but it looks pretty yummy--especially live. My photograph doesn't look nearly as scrumptious as the one accompanying Paula Deen's recipe, which I followed. I also didn't find fresh blueberries or raspberries...at least I have model to strive for.

I know it’s late, but I wanted to acknowledge National Pi Day. Pi is one of the few lessons that I remember from high school geometry. I’m not sure why I still find Pi so compelling. David Blatner, author of The Joy of Pi, offers an idea that works for now:

“In this age of high-tech precision instruments, where we assure ourselves that perfection is attainable, pi is an ever-present, sometimes grating reminder that there are puzzles that can be solved and there are mysteries that, perhaps, cannot.”

I can go for that–the mystery; but also the humility that it suggests. I will definitely give my three cheers to having a little humble pi.

Models Monday: Time Well Spent

I watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Whitney Houston’s family last night with interest. I thought that Oprah would treat them with a great deal of care and would put their pain above the professional obligation to ask the hard questions. I thought that she would find a way to ask tough questions, but that she would do so respectfully. She didn’t disappoint. Oprah asked the family all of the questions I wanted addressed and she asked them of the appropriate people. For example, she didn’t ask Bobbi Kristina to address rumors of her mother’s erratic behavior. She didn’t ask that child to account for the reports of an altercation between her mother and another club patron. She asked her how she was doing. She asked about her fondest memories of her mother. She asked if she found comfort. Oprah established before she even talked to Bobbi Kristina that she was in a safe and loving environment. We learned that Whitney had even sent her daughter to live with her Uncle Gary and Aunt Pat for two years when she and Bobby Brown were experiencing difficulties in their marriage. I thought that Oprah conducted a good interview.

When the interview ended, I found myself questioning the inherent value accorded stardom. No one said anything particularly good about it. At one point, Oprah suggested that stardom can be a lonely experience. Stardom can also lead to the pollution of a person’s reputation as the Houston family sought to recover Whitney from this taint. It also disrupts privacy and makes personal challenges public affairs. To that end, I hope that Bobbi Kristina re-thinks her plans to keep her mother’s legacy alive by setting her sights on a career singing, acting, and dancing. It would be incredibly hard to cite her mother through her own songs without having to compete with her mother. Oprah suggested this as well but Bobbi Kristina seemed unfazed. In that moment when she responded to Oprah’s question about keeping Whitney Houston’s legacy alive, you could really see Bobbi Kristina’s youth. Young people think that they have to have definitive answers, but sometimes the best answer would be to simply say, “well, I’ll need to think about it for a while.” Spending time thinking is a worthwhile endeavor. Maybe we need to tell young people that more often. When I was a child, young people were always being told to go and think about something. Do people still give that instruction to young people? It doesn’t seem like it.

I don’t know too many young people who spend very much time trying to figure out their own answers. They seem to have accepted the idea that there is AN answer and they are happy to know what that is. Young people don’t seem to be the one’s saying “war is not the answer,” as Marvin Gaye claimed, thus challenging what was taken to be the solution. They don’t seem to be the ones saying “no, no baby, this ain’t livin,'” and having their own ideas about what livin’ is. I can’t deny that young people in the Middle East are the one’s asserting new answers for themselves, but this doesn’t seem to be the case for American youth. Do you think so?

I think that we need to place a greater emphasis on having young people spend time thinking and pointing out to them the eloquence of their efforts. I remember my grandfather asking me, “so what’s on your mind?” which led me to believe that it was natural and expected for there to be something under consideration. It was common then, and still is, for me to have conversations with people where we talk about things we’re thinking about and trying to figure out. I can’t help but think that this comes from being in an environment where you were trained to expect to be asked about your thoughts or to at least  expect that conversations revolved arounds the puzzles you were working out in your mind. If you were to take reality television, talk shows, and magazine articles about life in American culture as a starting point, it would appear that conversations revolve around what people are wearing, where they are shopping, who they are dating (or sleeping with), perhaps where they are dining but almost never what they are trying to figure out about themselves or about the world. And honestly, when I read these articles and watch these programs, I feel incredibly grateful that I don’t know any of these people. Not only do they seem uninteresting, they seem unhelpful. The qualities of what it takes to be a good thinker also make you a good friend. Thinkers know how to be patient, how to listen, how to work through frustration. Thinkers know how to find perspective and so give it to others. Of course I could find value in a friend who shopped and slept around but if they couldn’t think, that friendship would have serious limitations.

I don’t have a single friend with a grammy or who has been interviewed by Diane Sawyer, but they know how to think and everyday this is becoming an endangered resource and so my friends become more precious. Since Bobbi Kristina’s mother was such an ethereal singer, I would love to see her daughter spend time thinking about preserving her mother’s songs as her inheritance. It would certainly be time well spent.

Reading with the Times: The Tragic Hero Question (3/8)

Death of a Salesman marquee as featured in The New York Times.

I agree with Charles Isherwood’s reading of Willy Loman as a tragic hero. He contends that Willy alone does not reflect Arthur Miller’s contention that a tragic hero devotes himself to evaluating himself justly. Willy by himself cannot embrace another model of what it means to live well. He cannot recover himself and elevate the value of what he enjoys beyond what the culture values. Isherwood thinks that if the Loman family unit were perceived as a whole, then they would satisfy Miller’s definition as Biff expresses a commitment to living honestly.

Biff’s commitment to living honestly and finding value in working with his hands offers hope for claiming a life beyond the clearly alienated corporate figure that Willy represents. Willy seemed to also take pleasure from working with his hands but he rejects this possibility for his life–perhaps because it wouldn’t bring him notice; instead, he tries to embrace a corporate life that he imagines would bring him material wealth. Biff and Willy together bring the “balance between what is possible and what is impossible” that Miller thinks characterizes tragedy. Biff shows that it is possible for the Lomans to re-evaluate their dreams and have a good life on their own terms. I imagine that it might be possible for Biff to understand that Bernard’s wealth and status do not elevate  the meaningfulness of his life over those with less money and less cultural capital. Willy never seems capable of such understanding.

Personally, I have a very hard time understanding people like Willy and I also think that trying to do so, at least for me, becomes a matter of morality. I need to understand how people can remain deluded by dreams and committed to something that keeps being confirmed to them as false and untrue. My father could be this way–like Willy. He talked about almost everything in terms of greatness. The future was marked by it. He found the language of grandeur incredibly seductive. I did to until I had made some achievements and discovered that the experiences, the prizes and awards, the records and the accolades did not change the quality of my life. I didn’t experience anything transcendent in success and I had expected to. Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” was a perfect anthem for me. I felt that I was “racing with destiny” and thought that if “given just one moment in time, I would feel eternity.” I imagined these things to be at stake: destiny, eternity. Nothing transcendent happened though when I “seized that one moment of time.” Absolutely nothing…and I could not convince myself otherwise. Though my dabbles with notions of greatness involved high school athletic feats, I believed these were metaphors for other accomplishments. O.K., you win a college national championship: so what? A professional championship: so what? What really changes? How does life become more meaningful because of these “accomplishments”?

Recognizing that other people feel and think otherwise becomes a matter of morality because my own strong views make it easy for me to be dismissive. But I think it would be arrogant to do so. It would mean belittling the many voices that make a claim on the meaningfulness of greatness that they find satisfying. Unlike Biff, I never would have tried to make my father accept the limits of his dreams. As far as I could tell, there always seemed to be something very fragile in the dreamer; so I would just listen. My uncle and I had this conversation about my father because I thought that my uncle would actually talk to my father in practical terms about his dreams. I understood that a part of my father’s frustration with his brother was just that: he took his dreams seriously. But my father’s dreams did not usually stand up to real world scrutiny. My uncle would say things to my father like, “How are you going to get insurance for all of these cars you plan on renting out? How much is that going to cost? Have you thought about who your customers are going to be? How are you going to market your business?” My father would grow furious and start cursing. My uncle and I talked about this because we were both very, very aware of how many plaques and posters that my father had in his life that were dedicated to dreams and dreaming. (In fact, the day before my father died, he quoted me a few lines from John Lennon’s “Imagine.”) I told my uncle that I understood where he was coming from in practical terms about my father’s dreams but that the difference between us is that I never asked my father questions or challenged the plausibility of his dreams, I just said, “mm hmm” when he talked to me about them. I thought it was mostly harmless because he didn’t really have much follow through. I never told him his plans would work, but I never suggested that they wouldn’t work. I didn’t take his dreams seriously, which is not to say that I didn’t take him seriously. I listened to him, but I felt that I was listening to a dream and not a plan. I don’t think I dismissed my father. I listened to him. I even heard him. But I didn’t think he was doing anything beyond talking out his private thoughts. I never thought he was making a plan so I didn’t treat it as such. As I write this though, I am beginning to understand that some people understand themselves and their identity through their dreams; they are their dreams. So for them, in dismissing my father’s dreams, I was dismissing him. So I guess this is where the tension resides: How do we properly honor the role of dreams in one another’s lives?

My father was furious with me for not becoming the athlete he’d imagined I’d be, but I didn’t care what he thought because I knew the truth. I knew that athletic greatness was beyond me and I was fine with that. Unlike Biff, I didn’t feel that I needed to make my father see me for who I was; it was more important that I be who I was. As I read the play this time, I was struck by how invested Biff was in forcing his father’s recognition and I wondered why he needed it. In my case, it would have been nice for my father to have easily accepted my decision to live my life on my own terms, but it wasn’t necessary. Why was it for Biff?

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