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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

May 2012

Natural Hair: A NYT Op-Doc

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s short documentary film, Transitions, for The New York Times captures an interesting mood surrounding black women’s natural hairstyling practices in the contemporary U.S. The film is about six minutes long and you can view it by following this hyperlink and viewing the film on the Times’s site.

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Bizarro World and Immigration Reform

Kansas Secretary of State. His website describes him as a “Defender of Cities and States that Fight Illegal Immigration.” Newsweek calls him the “America’s Deporter in Chief.”

I read this today in The New York Times and it gave me pause:

“Without question, Alabama’s H.B. 56 is the most comprehensive anti-illegal immigration state law ever drafted,” said Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and intellectual author of both the Arizona and Alabama laws, who has consulted with 10 other states on immigration legislation. “It includes just about everything a state can do to discourage illegal immigration.”

Kobach, an informal adviser to presumed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is a proponent of “self-deportation,” creating conditions so unwelcome that undocumented immigrants leave voluntarily.

The idea that people are working towards the goal of being uninviting and inhospitable is an ugly goal. Americans ostensibly love the practice of creating home. Martha Stewart’s financial success comes from her ability to tap into this desire of creating a beautiful environment and extending that place to friends and family. Creating unwelcome conditions for guests is like experiencing the Martha Stewart ideal in Bizarro World. The Bizarro Code states: “Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!” It looks like we’re well on our way towards having our immigration laws exemplify this code.

I don’t understand why our national conversations around bullying aren’t connected to our conversations about immigration–or to our conversations about the environment. From the Times discussion of Kris Kobach’s role as the author of both the Arizona and Alabama “comprehensive anti-illegal immigration state law” he seems to be a professional bully. His notion of “self-deportation” attempts to divert attention away from those who actually create “conditions so unwelcome that undocumented immigrants leave voluntarily” and make it appear to be about the immigrant’s choice. Well, how much choice does incivility leave? Policies promoting inhospitality force departure.

While the Bizarro reference might be dismissed because of its relationship to the comic book world, Kobach casts himself as a superhero through the articles on his website. He’s the “Defender of cities and states that fight illegal immigration.” Newsweek calls him the “Defender in Chief.” Kobach is certainly no vigilante. He definitely wants to work within the law, but I don’t feel safe because of the work he’s doing. Instead, I think the work he’s doing poisons the environment. When I think about the environment, I think about the reservoirs that we’re able to draw sustenance from in physical, psychic, and spiritual terms. Promoting hostility towards guests and strangers pollutes the environment because it creates fertile conditions for planting and then reaping harvests of contempt. Making a world unwelcome for immigrants is the same as making it unwelcome for children who are targets of bullies. Making our world more inhospitable is an ecological crime.

Leaning In to History

This Pete Souza photograph of President Obama and 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia has been making its rounds in the news lately. Philadelphia’s father, Carlton, a former Marine, was visiting the Oval Office with his family after being granted a courtesy common to departing staff members. Interceding for his family, Mr. Philadelphia told the President that his sons each had a question for him. Jacob goes first and softly asks the president if his hair is like his. The president leans in and says to Jacob, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” It’s an affecting story.

I wonder what Jacob thought about his own hair. I wonder why he questioned the feel of the president’s hair. I know my own three-year-old son doesn’t enjoy getting his hair cut–at all–but he hasn’t yet formed an identity involving his hair. So I wonder what happens in the space of those two years for little black boys to begin contemplating their hair texture. President Obama followed-up with Jacob and Jacob confirmed that “Yes, it does feel the same.” I wonder what that did for him.

When I saw the Souza photograph most recently, I was reminded of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by William C. Beall entitled “Faith and Confidence.” Beall was on assignment for the

Beall’s photograph from September 10, 1957 won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1958.

Washington Daily News (September 10, 1957) when he captured police officer Maurice Cullinane cautioning a two-year-old boy, Allen Weaver, who had stepped into the street where the Chinese Merchants Association parade was occurring. Much of what I read about the photograph suggests that its power comes from its suggestion of “childhood innocence.”

1957 is a lyric year in American history that saw black artists boldly respond to violence meeting black children in the South, particularly in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957, Louis Armstrong cancelled his tour of the Soviet Union to protest Governor Faubus’s racist intransigence over school desegregation and the general humiliations and routine indignities of white supremacist hatred in the Jim Crow South. And though it was recorded two years after the Little Rock Nine’s desegregation efforts, jazz bassist Charles Mingus also penned “Fables of Faubus” as an explicit protest song against Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus who called upon the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School. It’s original release did not include the scathing lyrics that would accompany the song as it was recorded in 1960. Indeed, the governmental response to black children in 1957 was far more martial than innocent.

The Beall photograph has charm. Weaver looks enchanted by this big, authoritative man who makes himself small for the child. It is certainly a persistent wish of the nation that it looked this charming in the 1950s. But the claim to happy days ignores this image from September 1957:

Elizabeth Eckford surrounded by a hostile crowd that includes the jeering Hazel Bryan on September 4, 1957.

Will Counts, the photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, captures Elizabeath Eckford within a broad expanse of charm’s opposite. Black children from 1955 thru at least 1968 with the killing of Pine Bluff, Arkansas native Bobby Hutton, were not the recipients of congenial acts of public authority.

In part, the potency of the Obama/Philadelphia photograph lies in the suggestion that legal authority may lean in close so as to address an imbalance of power that has routinely harmed black children. While holding the highest office in the land, President Obama leans in to a child; it’s a portrait of servant leadership that holds promise for young black boys.

I think it’s interesting that young Jacob asked the president “if your hair felt like mine” and not simply what his hair felt like. Jacob appears to wonder about himself in relationship to the President’s body. In feeling the president’s hair, his touch confirmed his nearness to power rather than his distance from it. The president himself didn’t seem to think that he was a specimen or an object of racial curiosity. I am reminded of a very different scene between legendary tennis champion Arthur Ashe and the spectacle of him attempting to have his hair cut while on the professional tennis circuit. In his memoir, Off the Court, Ashe writes this about his experience in Australia:

Aboriginals all have straight hair and the closest thing to me was a Fijian, whom the Aussies would call a ‘wooly.’ Several times I had to try to explain to an Australian barber how to cut my kinky hair. And each time the shaving became ‘theater.’ People would literally stop and watch; chances are they would never again see a kinky-haired black man get his hair cut. I know that for a long time several players–especially the Russians–wanted to touch my hair but they never asked. Alex Metreveli, the Russian player, had a coach named Serge. One day, at Albert Hall in London, I came out of the shower, semi-dried my hair, put on my clothes, and then proceeded to ‘pick’ my hair. Serge watched with amazement as my ‘pick’ disappeared into my head and with a flick of my wrist I pulled, teased, and shaped my ‘fro.’

‘Vat is dat–dust?’ he asked.

‘No, is not dust. Come here Serge; you can touch it.’

He walked over and felt the top of my head while the locker room roared.

‘Is soft, not hard. I think long time is hard. Feels nice.’

‘What does it feel like, Serge?’

He broke out into a big grin and walked out, amid howls of laughter. (136-137)

One wonders whether the estrangement of hair texture animating the “theatre” described here motivated young Jacob’s inquiry of Obama; and whether the president’s recognition of the feeling moved him to invite the boy to confirm their similarity. Certainly what passes between Obama and young Jacob differs dramatically from Ashe’s description of his encounter with Serge; especially the final silence. What exactly did Serge’s grin mean? How did it answer Ashe’s question about what his hair felt like? Young Jacob answered the president’s question directly, telling him that their hair felt the same. It was a confirmation of sameness, a sense of shared humanity. The grin and the laughter that passes after Ashe’s question to Serge makes no sense. What it doesn’t do, it seems to me, is bring them closer together through shared sameness. The empathy that passes between Obama and Philadelphia does not appear to occur between Ashe and Serge.

The direction of the touch anchors the power of the Obama/Philadelphia photograph. As the photograph suggests that the child has the power to ennoble an apparent supplicant, it moves beyond charm and enters a more substantive realm given that the crown young Jacob touches actually belongs to the one who holds the highest office in the land.

Models Monday: Memorial Day 2012

Norah Jones’s rendition of the Gene Scheer song “American Anthem” hits all the right notes and it frames my thoughts about this Memorial Day.

My grandfather, Charles Albert Hite, served in World War II and by all accounts, he was none too happy about it. My Uncle Eric wrote about my grandfather’s views on serving in some of our correspondence. According to Uncle E’s memory, my grandfather “listened to FDR’s speech promising all them mamas that their boys would be safe from the draft, but if I can remember correctly,” notes my uncle, “he and Uncle Frank received their draft notices the next week.” What isn’t apparent from the Honorable Discharge report itself and my grandfather’s frustration with FDR involved his enlistment date on February 19, 1943: my grandparents were married only six days before he was drafted on February 13, 1943.

The Honorable Discharge report shows that my grandfather mastered the rifle, but according to my Uncle E, my grandfather had no interest in using his skills. “I can remember the Ole Man being angry at the Blacks back home who constantly went to the press about wanting the Blacks to have a bigger participation in the War effort,” he writes. According to my uncle, my grandfather “didn’t like that shit at all.” In fact, my uncle continues, “he was real cool with ‘digging ditches,’ and didn’t want nothing to do with the fighting.”

Today, as it is Memorial Day, I think about my grandfather’s service now through the lyrics of Jones’s resonant voice–even though those lyrics don’t quite fit his story. When I think of my grandfather, I wonder how he must have processed going into war with a new wife and and a baby on the way. I wonder how flimsy hope must have felt to him as he thought about making it back for them. My grandfather was fortunate since he did return to his wife and son. Today, I’m wondering about the soldiers he met who didn’t make it back. Did they have young wives and children who inspired their dreams of making it through the war? For my grandfather, Norah Jones’s bluesy, plaintive voice doesn’t quite strike at the core of what he might have been feeling–Louis Armstrong’s (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue best captures the frustrations of a Black man from the Jim Crow South sent off to fight for a country that did not even protect him from Kentucky. When I imagine the friends that he might have lost, though, Norah Jones’s tender, raspy voice moves in deeply when I think of their mothers. I think of the soldiers telling what they might have believed but when Jones sings “America, America, I gave my best to you,” I imagine their mothers singing that part and I am deeply moved.

I know a lot of folk who celebrate Memorial Day with barbecues and picnics on Sunday. When I look around my neighborhood, there aren’t too many folks partying today, which seems appropriate. Today should really be a day for thinking about those mothers who gave us their “very best.”

Recovering Trayvon Martin

Though race gets made in the culture and not in nature, like processed food, the manufactured product has many powerful and potent uses. Though not a natural product born from the earth, Twinkies, Doritos, and Corn Pops can effect real damage on the body as well as on the earth. Over-consumption can clog the body’s arteries and lead to the damage of vital organs. The energy that goes into manufacturing these products create additional pollutants that are reeking real damage in the environment. The fact that race is not natural but created does not diminish its power; its potency.

Scientist/Artist: Charles White, An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799). This representation of The Great Chain of Being shows the “Negro” as nearer to the ape than the ideal.

The Englightenment Age investment in studying the body as the primary source for an engagement with the science of race and its grounding–though totally misguided as a rational, disciplined, responsible practice–continues to inform how we engage the subject of being raced or having race. When we want to point to race or to indicate its meaning, we often do that through an engagement with the body. So if we had moved beyond examinations of race that equated it with the natural sciences, we could, even in our casual conversations, discuss the way that language makes and constructs race, for example. We would talk about the way that language brings race into being through its system of signs. But no, we make race about how bodies look and what we think is in them. Such a view of race has been boldly present in the Trayvon Martin case.

That child has been made into a character of black malevolence in the on-going racial plot line of American history through depictions of his body and the internal networks that make it go. The most recent narrative regarding the autopsy report makes this plain. George Zimmerman’s system showed the presence of manufactured drugs in his system, Temazepam, a drug also known as Restoril, which is used to treat insomnia. The headline dominating the news, however, is not the story of the drugs in the body of the living man but the ones inside of the body of the dead child. Despite the fact that the U.S. National Library of Medicine makes the suggestion that Temazepam users should “tell your doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms: aggressiveness, strange or unusually outgoing behavior, hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist), feeling as if you are outside of your body, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, new or worsening depression, thinking about killing yourself, confusion, and any other changes in your usual thoughts, mood, or behavior,” Zimmerman’s use of this drug isn’t being discussed in the mainstream in terms of his credibility. Instead, the trace amounts of THC, the drug found in marijuana, in Martin’s body have been used to reify the very notion that he is not entitled to our sympathy because he is outside of the terms of civil, manageable, and properly sociable practices and habits.

The marijuana that Trayvon Martin smoked apparently confirms his status as a “thug.” The egregiousness of this charge becomes most apparent when you accept how racialized it is. “Thug” functions as a racialized term for talking about black boys and men that performs in the way that poet Cornelius Eady describes it in his poem “How I Got Born,”

“When called, I come.”

There are no public service announcements about how we can save our sons from the traps of being a thug; there are no Lifetime movies about black boys who are vulnerable to peer pressure and choose the posture of a thug to attract girls. Michael Eric Dyson tells just this story of Tupac Shakur in his wonderful bio-critical work, Holla if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, about the slain rapper. Tupac was a thespian whose penchant for the arts didn’t help his ambitions to be liked and popular with girls. Tupac’s story of adolescent angst doesn’t resound on American television and in mainstream articles like the stories about troubled kids who go on school shooting rampages or who binge drink or who bully. Those things become causes for national attention. The pressures that might have been placed on a black male honors program student who baby sat, volunteered, and baked cookies has no thematic resonance with stories of white adolescents who are coming of age.

Trayvon Martin was no thug. He was a young man coming of age who found representations of being a thug attractive…and why wouldn’t he? Reflections of the glamour of thug life abound in American culture. Justin Timberlake finds thug life attractive. If he didn’t, why would he make records with Lil’ Wayne and T.I., two rappers who perpetuate this image and have both faced jail time? Will Smith rhymes, why not rap with him? Robin Thicke doesn’t mind being associated with the image of thuggin’ either. He also raps with Lil’ Wayne. And while Beyonce has been shrouded in representations of upper-class motherhood of late, the lyrics to “Soldier” by her group Destiny’s Child celebrates thug glamour:

We like them dem boys who be in them ‘lac’s leanin’//Open their mouth their grill gleamin’//Candy paint keep that wheel clean and//They keep that beat that be in the back beatin’//Eyes be so low from their chiefin//I love how he keep my body screamin’//A rude boy that’s good to me with street credibility//If his status ain’t hood//I ain’t checkin’ for him//Better be street if he lookin’ at me

The photographs of Trayvon Martin that came into circulation once there was speculation about his character reflects the image that Destiny’s Child heralds. Just like the photograph of Martin trying to look like he was a tough, hard, football player, the photographs of him with a grill as well as the one with the subdued eyes show an effort to be the “rude boy” with “street credibility” that young people find attractive.

Trayvon Martin was not a thug. He exemplifies some of what I learned from thinking about the lives of two of my cousins over the years. One cousin, who I’ll call Dame, was the product of a marriage that disintegrated and he lived in an inner-city project with his mother. His situation with her was never stable as she was drug dependent. The other cousin, who I’ll call Curtis, lived in the suburbs with his two parents who worked very solid jobs. My aunt was a very present mother who would take furlough time as much as she could so that she could be at home for her family or make home for them. Despite my aunt and uncle’s presence and their ability to provide for and nurture my cousin, he wanted very much to have the life of our cousin who lived in the Projects. I remember Dame talking about how much Curtis wanted to “get down” selling dope, stealing, fighting. Dame said that Curtis wanted him to teach him that life but that he just couldn’t do it. As Dame explained it, his life had to be as it was. He didn’t understand why Curtis wanted to do what he didn’t have to in order to make it.

Curtis’s view of Dame made sense to me. When we were younger, I remember thinking that Dame seemed capable. Before I realized how sad it was, I used to think that his ability to provide for himself, to secure clothes, food, and shelter, seemed mature. Even though Dame stopped going to school after his 8th grade year, I used to feel stupid about making my way in the world compared to what he could do. I mean, I wouldn’t have known how to catch the city bus from my house to downtown, but I imagined that Dame would always know how to navigate through the world. I got lost one time in the city. My aunt had taken me to a friend’s house with her and asked me to go to the store and purchase some things for her. When I left the store, I had no idea how to get back home. As I tried desperately to find my way, I vividly remember crying and thinking how this never would have happened to Dame. He would have known how to get back home.

The level of maturity that inner-city kids like Dame have to assume at a young age is heroic when it’s represented through the lives of white kids. Thus, Ree, the character that Jennifer Lawrence plays in Winter’s Bone impresses us because of the responsibility that she takes for her life as well as the young lives of her siblings, but as a culture, we seem to be impassive when young black kids do the same thing. It made sense to me that Curtis would want to be like Dame. Dame was forced to be a man when he was five. You have to mature for that to break your heart. It makes sense to me that young Trayvon would have wanted to wear the mantle of a thug. It is a posture of defiance, independence, control, and power. It makes sense that a young boy coming of age would have wanted to embrace the markers of the authority that he did not feel. He was a very smart young man so it just breaks your heart that he didn’t get a chance to live long enough to contemplate his vulnerability.

See Also:

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

Summer Reading

During the summer I add food writing and adventure tales to my usual reading list. I don’t quite know why I incorporate these categories at this moment but it has consistently worked out that way for at least the past several years. I haven’t compiled this year’s list yet, but I suppose because of my dreaming of eating in Cleveland, I thought about my previous years’ reading where hometown food writer Michael Ruhlman consistently ruled.

As I think about Ruhlman’s book, The Making of a Chef, I guess I do get a sense of why I read food writing during the summer. In The Making of a Chef Ruhlman writes about the experiences of students, himself included, at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the Harvard of cooking schools. Not only are the stories of how people found themselves at the school interesting, but the impact of the education on the book’s author helped to crystalize the value of learning and showed proof of what it can do. The presentation of food can reflect heightened understanding. In one memorable scene from the book, Ruhlman describes his desire for a morning cup of coffee and finds that his coffeemaker isn’t working; he’s without the use of his stove because of some home remodeling taking place; and if I can recall it properly, he can’t go out to buy coffee because there’s been heavy snowfall. So how can he have his coffee? After having only been at the CIA for a few months, the impact of the program shows in his decision to use his charcoal grill to prepare his coffee. His education had awakened him to novel possibilities.

Ruhlman’s grilled coffee offers an edifying example because it suggests that we can indeed be fulfilled–satisfied because oftentimes, we do have precisely what we need. If you are living in the United States, then you are residing in a culture that ceaselessly tries to convince us of the inadequacies of what we possess. It’s an unexpected and odd equation whereby ownership equates to shabbiness. Ruhlman’s turning to his grill was a meaningful act because it suggests the value of our everyday things and their purposefulness despite their diminished gleam. Such an act of reclamation identifies what I mean by a good education. A good education is one that helps you to discipline your thinking so that you enter into the habit of contemplating your life beyond apparent constraints. Ruhlman’s coffee suggests that such an approach brings savoriness into your life.

I have only recently realized that my interest in cookbooks has a great deal to do with wanting to immerse myself in just such a notion of savoriness. As I flipped through Dori Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours the other day, I noticed that my thinking wasn’t really concentrated on making the wonderfully delectable treats pictured and plotted but on how they would fit into my life for eating them. So for example, I was thinking that I would enjoy the Orange Tart. I didn’t picture myself actually making it as much as I saw myself having it finished and wondering how I would store it. Then I moved from that thought to how wonderful it would be with a cup of warm tea, but then I realized that I would most likely be the only person eating it. My husband’s not really an Orange Tart and tea kinda guy. Miles would eat it…it just wouldn’t BE the picture. The picture suggests that the Orange Tart is just good. Period. Want it. Make it. Eat it. So then I thought about how television cooking shows really do a successful job of putting recipe ideas into a life plan. They don’t just offer the recipe, show you how to cook it, and then sample it. They tell you how the food might fit into a concept of some sort; a dinner party, reception, gallery opening–that kind of thing. What I realized was that I have been disappointed sometimes with food that I have prepared, not because it didn’t taste good, but because it didn’t fit within a larger plan for how it should be consumed and how it would be enjoyed. When I am thoughtful about the food, all goes well; nothing gets wasted. And that’s really what I want my life to be focused on: Relevance. When nothing gets wasted, that means that everything had a purpose and that purpose was served. Thus, all was relevant–and for me, this reflects the weightiness, the tied to the earth goodness that makes life savory.

Perhaps another reason that I like food writing and why I read it during the summer is because the summer marks a period of restoration for me and efforts to feed the body are always about replenishment and recovery. I am interested in how people seek to replenish themselves. To that end, Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio’s Hungry Planet: What the World Eats is a sumptuous delight. The book features families from around the world photographed with one week’s worth of their groceries. A table also organizes the food so that the photograph gets chronicled through types of food and financial commitment. Thus, as one example, the book’s focus on the Melanders family of four includes a tally of one week’s worth of food in November that breaks down through categories and expenditures in this way: Grains & Other Starchy Foods: $31.98; Dairy: $64.33; Meat, Fish & Eggs: $51.31; Fruits, Vegetables & Nuts: $78.10; Condiments: $31.83; Snacks & Desserts: $14.56; Prepared Food: $66.78; Beverages: $70.17; Miscellaneous: $91.01; Food Expenditures for One Week: 379.39 euros/$500.07. The list itself is even more detailed than my representation as each category chronicles the food shown in the picture. The authors include a recipe from each family in addition to stories about how they consume and consider food.

I flip through Hungry Planet from time-to-time throughout the year. I have noticed that the Menzel aesthetic gets reflected in many of the food blogs that I read. Sometimes menu planners will show photographs of the food they purchased for the week, and other times home cooks will lay out the ingredients used in a recipe they’re sharing. Mimicry serves these bloggers well. Menzel’s aesthetic underscores the beautiful colors and textures that make up a large percentage of the time and attention we devote to feeding ourselves.

I do know that this year’s food reading list will include Michelle Obama’s book American Grown: The White House Kitchen Garden and Garden’s Across America. Though some critics held a rather cynical view of Robbin Gourley’s children’s book, First Garden: The White House Garden and How it Grew, I appreciated the work. It tells a colorful, vibrant story of family and gardening at the White House potentially informative to children and adults alike. It seems to me that this book serves as the kind of inspiration that the First Lady encourages.

Gourley’s first book, Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis, would be a pleasant read as well. I flip through The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis, pretty regularly. Lewis’s family was among three who claimed a community as freed people in Virginia. They called their

community Freetown. Reading The Taste of Country Cooking is a rich experience that elegantly demands that you consider the historical context and the meaningfulness of the labor demanded for living in light of what had to be a feeling of indescribable assurance. As strenuous as farming is and as anxiety producing as it must be to have to work in accordance with nature, performing such labor in the shadow of the horrors that existed before in slavery must have been an extraordinary feeling. When I read this particular work by Lewis, I think I do so to try to come to language over what that feeling must have been like. One of the reasons why I find the title of the “award winning” documentary about Lewis, Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie (featured above), disappointing is because it renders the ineffable through lazy racial allusions. To be fair, Mrs. Lewis does have a section in The Taste of Country Cooking where she writes what she voices in the film that makes the first part of the title relevant. Mrs. Lewis doesn’t say anything about Sweet Potato Pie though, she merely gives a recipe. To the point of Gourley’s book, Mrs. Lewis’s memories about pie involves apples.

I heard Peter J. Hatch on NPR recently discussing Thomas Jefferson’s garden and this inspired me to want to read his work, “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.” I’ve never visited Monticello but it’s definitely on my list. So is Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. Interestingly, the description for the book about dining and hospitality at Mount Vernon, Dining with the Washington’s, doesn’t mention slavery’s role in that practice–unless you count the line that says that the book looks at “those who served” the meals to those guests. Such a line becomes difficult to accept as a reference to slavery, however, because the description claims the volume to be “charming.” Well, there’s certainly incongruity between hospitality, charm, and slavery. Nevertheless, this book is also on my wish list.

I didn’t have a chance to get to my adventures in adventure reading in this post, but as I reflect on the food reading leading to imagined excursions, my reasons for reading these titles is also coming into focus. So I’ll write about those books another time, but for now, all I’ve got to say is: Don’t sleep on Moby-Dick! I can’t wait to read that one with my son. Great, great book.

12 Hours in Cleveland

My mother knows all of the best places to eat in Cleveland. My husband thinks that when she retires, she should give culinary tours of the city. What I’ve learned from paying attention to the places my mother eats is this: If you walk in and see lots of old people, and I’m talking very, very old people using canes and walkers, and wearing thick bi-focal glasses and you suspect that they’re not just grandparents but probably great grandparents, then you have hit upon a gem! Old people need actual food and not that processed stuff. I’m talkin’ real potatoes and fresh carrots–nothing frozen, manufactured, or held over from another time. You can expect to be able to see and taste your food. There will be chunks of onions and celery in your gravy and big flakes of freshly ground black pepper. You will be able to cut your chicken with a fork…and the bread will melt in your mouth. There will also be light! Forget that stuff about mood, atmosphere, and ambiance. There won’t be any dimmed lights in the place. You will be able to see how clean your flatware is and how much salt you shake on your food. Old people. They hold the key. If they are in the house, the food will be real and it will be good.

I was reading Clotilde’s blog, Chocolate & Zucchini, and she had written a post about imagining spending 12 hours in Paris that she patterned after her friend Adam’s post a few years ago about how he would spend 12 hours in New York. I decided to try planning my own culinary trip to Cleveland, enjoying places that my mother has generously brought into my life.

So, I am going to choose a Tuesday as the day where I will enjoy the food, but I would need to spend some time on Monday getting it all together because I want to plan for a picnic at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. So on Monday, I would go to the the Westside Market, which is only open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

This gorgeous photograph of the West Side Market comes from the “All Things Cleveland Ohio” blog.

The West Side Market is Cleveland’s oldest publicly owned market. I used to love going there as a child. It is a feast for all five senses. I don’t have to work hard to try to convince myself that if I’m still enough, I can travel back to the sweet taste of crisp white grapes pulled with quick hands from a vine that I desperately wanted to take home. I swear I can hear myself chewing the grape and hearing the rest, the remainders on the vine, slide into a bag before it gets handed to a young man who will weigh it as we count out cash to give to the young woman who manages such things. Thinking about how I buy fruits and vegetables now at the grocery store, the most prominent thing I remember from buying from the West Side Market is actually being able to smell, see, and touch the fruit at the stands because nothing was pre-packaged in bags or in plastic containers. Brown paper lunch bags were available at each stall and you would take a bag and fill it with what you wanted. Those were the days when you could select every cherry you wanted for your bag in order to ensure the sweetness of each one. My Uncle B.B. was also a big fan of the cheeses and the deli meats. I remember bringing home grapes and melons, cheeses and fruits. Adults were excited about buying meat from the market–especially for holidays. They would buy their ribs, chicken, and steaks there. I don’t remember even knowing that you could buy pastries at the West Side market. The fruits and cheeses were my delight. So for the picnic I’m imagining at the Zoo, I will buy three pounds of grapes–one pound each of white, red, and purple seedless ones. I will also buy cheese–one pound each of pepper jack, cheddar, and colby. I will purchase one seedless watermelon, two pounds of cherries, one pound of bananas. I will also purchase about three pounds of shaved smoked turkey. I’m debating about whether or not to have sandwiches for my picnic; maybe the meat will be for another time. Of course I won’t use all of this food for my picnic, we’ll save some for home.

Next, I would go to Joe’s, a fine deli and restaurant in Rocky River. Joe’s is one of those places where you’ll see those old people I told you about above.

This is an image that I grabbed from someone’s Four Square page. I daydream about being able to go into Joe’s and take my own pictures of some of my favorite dishes. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water! Thanks to whoever took this photograph. I envy your access.

I would purchase two “Chicken Pasta Salads” and curse the fact that I couldn’t also take along my favorite salad, the “Cranberry Chicken Salad,” for the actual picnic. Follow the link to read about the glorious items in that mix. When I’m dining in, I usually order the Cranberry Chicken Salad with the House made Balsamic Vinaigrette, which is beyond heavenly. As much as I want this salad, I think the pasta salad is a sturdier option for a picnic and it uses the same dressing but I wouldn’t have to deal with the lettuce, which wilts under the warm chicken and so would not hold up until the next day’s picnic. So the “Chicken Pasta Salad” would work because I would get the dressing and the chicken and it could be served cold. In addition to these salads, I would also get about five pieces of their Baklava (walnut or pistachio makes no difference to me because I love them both) and at least one lemon bar just to enjoy on the way home. The desert menu is embedded here in case you want to imagine what you might enjoy.

I grabbed this image from Yelp. My Mom goes to Joe’s for her potato pancakes but I really like the ones served here. The place looks like an old railroad car. I don’t know what makes my Mom try some of these spots but I’m glad she’s so adventurous.

I think that I’d have to go to the Breadsmith for my French Baguettes and then I’d pick-up a few extra rolls to go with my Tuesday morning breakfast. On Tuesday morning, I’d stop by John’s Diner and get a few orders of potato pancakes with sour cream and carry them home so that I could eat while I assembled our picnic fare.

Off to the Zoo

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is the bomb! When my husband and I were dating, I brought him home with me once just so that we could visit the Zoo. He was so impressed with Cleveland’s Zoo that it became the measure for all of the other Zoo trips we would take during the course of our travels. I think it’s such a good Zoo because it offers a full experience of the natural world. You feel like you’re in a big park and there are lots of things to do and see in an incredibly vast space. Too, it’s very reasonably priced. Adults pay $12.25 and children over 2 pay $8.25 during the summer months. During the fall and winter months it’s $8.25 and $5.25 respectively. I’ve always thought that Cleveland did a good job imagining family experiences. City planners appear to think about how families might be able to enjoy themselves on a range of budgets. Too many outdoor arenas these days make it difficult for people to picnic, which traps you into buying overpriced things at the venues and standing in those long lines.

I used to enter the Zoo and head straight to the Rainforest. I’m incredibly afraid of snakes but I think I would tough it out for my son’s benefit so that he could get the full Cleveland Zoo experience. I’d be ready for some picnic fare around 11:30. I didn’t pack drinks because I love the fruit juice that they used to sell at the Zoo that comes in fruit shaped plastic containers. I used to struggle between the strawberry and the grapes (or maybe the choice involved the orange), but I think I liked grape the best. So we’d get our drinks and eat our grapes, melon, cheese, pasta salad, and smoked turkey sandwiches while we watched the waterfowl. We would take in more exhibits until about 3 p.m.

Heading Home

On the way home, we’d stop at United Dairy Farmers (UDF) and get strawberry milkshakes and I would get four scoops of strawberry sherbet to store for later. UDF is a taste explosion! You have not had good sherbet until you’ve had it. When I worked at the Cain Park ticket office for a summer job, there was a UDF across from the park that seduced us all into tendering over our summer pay. I will never forget the night when one of my co-worker’s parents came by to visit us while we worked our late evening shift and brought us each scoops of my favorite sherbet! If you are ever in Ohio and you happen to see a UDF, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a milkshake or a scoop of sherbet. You won’t regret it.

At around 6 p.m. I’d call in an order at Nunzio’s for pizza and a few salads. This pizza is a taste sensation! (The salads are really good too! The mozzarella cheese is good and the house dressing is pretty amazing.) The photos on their site do their food little justice. My mother lives directly across the street from a Nunzio’s so I would order the food and just run over and pick it up. We’d enjoy pizza before eating the Baklava that I got from Joe’s and the sherbet from UDF.

O.K., so all of you Cleveland readers, I’m sure , will notice that my entire eating experience involved the West Side. So how would you suggest incorporating the East Side into my plan for a Zoo picnic?

Models Monday: Oprah’s Commencement Speech at Spelman College (Update with Video)

Spelman College’s 125th Commencement. Order of Exercises. May 20, 2012.

I had the great pleasure of being in attendance at Spelman College’s Commencement on Sunday, May 20, 2012. Oprah Winfrey offered the Commencement Address and she also was the recipient of the Board of Trustees Community Service Award.

What crystallized for me during her address was the clear distinction between Winfrey as an interviewer, a journalist, and the woman who is the subject of her own views. Perhaps because she has become a personality who rivals anyone she interviews, she captures your attention and your imagination; you can’t push her aside. Thus, when she interviewed Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes for Oprah’s Next Chapter I thought I heard her answers to the questions she asked as much as I heard those men when I wrote about it for my blog. Now what I realize is that I had not heard Winfrey’s own unique voice; instead, I heard her meeting them where she thought their answers were and confirming that what she heard was accurate. Thus, “I get that,” doesn’t mean, “that’s what I think, too,” but it means something closer to, “I understand what you are saying,” because what I know for sure is that the Oprah Winfrey who spoke at the 125th Commencement at Spelman College as the subject of her own views certainly has an interpretation of what it means to live a good life that offers “another model by which to live.”

You can’t tell that this iPhone photograph shows Oprah Winfrey during the Spelman College Commencement ceremony.

Winfrey offered three charges to the graduates–an appropriate number given that three of her students from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa will be heading to Spelman in the Fall–that appear pretty straight forward: 1.) Know who you are. 2.) Find a way to serve. 3.) Always do the right thing. For Winfrey, who has been distinguished by the money, the power, and the acclaim that have come through her talk show, production credits, charitable gifts, magazine, and now her television network, it was significant that she made a very clear distinction between knowing who you are and knowing what you do for a living. (This was something that I have written about on this blog as a problem that I had with a scene from The Help when Skeeter asks Aibileen if she always knew she would be a maid and Aibileen replies “yes” as if she wouldn’t have made a distinction between working as a maid and being one.) Eschewing greatness through professional titles, Winfrey identified greatness with recognizing life forces beyond human control whose existence she encouraged everyone to accept as operating in their lives. Such forces as God, the Angels, and the Ancestors, who in the case of those black women whose lives were circumscribed in the United States and so may not have been able to realize higher visions of existence through the egregious and unholy acts of racist and sexist violence as it framed their own lives, Winfrey encouraged the graduates to see themselves and their matriculation as a stamp paid for by their ancestors. In citing Toni Morrison, Winfrey eloquently exclaimed, “your crown has been bought and paid for.”

For Winfrey, “your cup runneth over” was about being the recipient of all of the best intentions of the good life forces that preceded one’s singular existence. Being so wealthy in this way and giving generously to others, she said, would bring jealousy and animosity from others. Her advice was to find better friends. “When you have gallons of goodness to impart and to share with others, you cannot give your gallons to pint sized people,” she said.

Now this iPhone photo looks like the Oprah Winfrey you recognize! It was the best I could do.

Finding a way to serve makes for greatness and it is of the sort that is beyond fame. She cited Martin Luther King, Jr. Winfrey reflected on service as a common thread that connects legendary figures and encouraged the graduates to pursue this path. Winfrey discussed how in deciding to use television as a service through which she could try to improve people’s lives, she aligned herself with a greater civic purpose and mission.

“Always do the right thing” and you will know that it’s the right thing, Winfrey said, “because it will bring you peace.” She then imparted a story about a woman who was to be a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The woman was a Bible School teacher by day and a sex machine/stripper by night. When Winfrey interviewed the woman and asked her why she wanted to tell her story the woman told her that she wanted to help people. That woman, however, had a ten-year-old son. After the interview, Winfrey told the woman that that interview would never air because Winfrey had such great empathy and concern for the one child, the woman’s son, who would be forced to contend with his mother’s story that she thought it reckless to promote it for public consumption. “The rating point” that might have occurred through such titillation, Winfrey contends, was not worth the potential loss to that child. Winfrey knew she had done the right thing because she had met with peace in the face of it.

Ultimately, Winfrey concluded that these three things-knowing who you are, finding a way to serve, and doing the right thing-will not only lead you to a gifted and rewarded life, but a “sweet life.” The “sweetness,” is important, she said, “because when you have had it, it gives you the comfort of knowing that ‘this too shall pass’ and that grace and mercy will meet you with warmth” again in the aftermath.

It was a lyrical address that included references from Isaac Newton to the character Celie from The Color Purple. She cited Langton Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou casually and effortlessly; dropping heavy inspiration without any great, or even apparent, appeal to a printed script. She dramatized her address. It felt authentic; and people responded as though they were in church. You could hear people saying “Amen” and see them raising a hand in witness. She definitely preached a sermon, and it was a good one because of its authenticity. She didn’t adopt a voice unoriginal to her own and she told a story that seems very familiar to her public character. Thus, it was a story about how to live well in a world that makes that exceedingly difficult. For her, as a black woman with her story, to be the Commencement speaker at an historically Black college for women, it gave the much needed hope that “catching hell” might just have a terminus.

Update: Spelman College has made their recording of Oprah Winfrey’s Commencement Address available on their YouTube Chanel. Here is the video of her extraordinary address:

Chief Lee’s Peculiar Confidence and the Troubling Role of Race in the Story of Trayvon Martin

I have continued following the Trayvon Martin case in the news since my previous writings on it. I continue to find it very upsetting on a number of levels–especially as the reports attempt to present the racial strands of this story as if they are marginal or obstructive. Race though, is quite central to this tale. In this case, race informs how membership in a community is constructed and who gets imagined as belonging. Race informed the way that George Zimmerman described Trayvon Martin to the 911 dispatcher. And what interests me about today’s headlines is how race works in tandem with il(logic). To that end, I do not understand the temporarily sidelined Sanford police chief Bill Lee Jr.’s failure to understand the poor work that his Department performed. Here is a brief sample of his remarks as they are integrated into an article in The New York Times:

Chief Lee, whose resignation was not accepted by the City Commission last month, said in an interview that his department’s work was as fair and thorough as possible.

“I am confident about the investigation, and I was satisfied with the amount of evidence and testimony we got in the time we had the case,” he said.

“We were basing our decisions, which were made in concert with the state attorney’s office, on the findings of the investigation at the time,” he added, “and we were abiding by the Florida law that covers self-defense.”

Quoted in The New York Times, May 16, 2012 by

Maybe because I’m not an attorney or a police officer, or maybe it is simply because I have no formal training in the law that I have no idea how Chief Lee’s remarks, ostensibly in support of the Sanford Police Department, do him any good. I don’t understand where his confidence in the investigation comes from. To claim that their investigation was controlled by their efforts to prove that George Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense were true commits the fallacy of begging the question; doesn’t it? Aren’t they assuming the conclusion that they are supposed to be trying to prove? If you are truly investigating a case then that means that they should be trying to determine what actually happened. How can you be doing that if you are governed by the conclusion, which in this case would be the law that you are using to guide your search. It would have been one thing to claim that you were confident that your Department thoroughly investigated all of the possibilities related to a claim regarding self-defense but he assumes that assertion as true already.

This just doesn’t seem like a good way to pursue a solid conclusion. When I have been ill, the best doctors don’t just take my word regarding my ailments and treat that claim as the official diagnosis. The diagnosis that I might even present to the doctor upon an initial consultation spurs their inquiry. The doctor who I have come to visit first performs her own examination, then she asks to see the notes, examination records, x-rays, and other documents compiled by my other doctors. She then uses those reports to support her own observations and tests. All of the information gets used to determine an illness, but the best doctors don’t start from the diagnosis and work backwards to prove it. They go on a search for a probable cause for why I am not feeling well, and this search begins with at least a question: What is wrong with you? Or: Why are you feeling poorly? In the Trayvon Martin case, it’s as if the local investigators set out to prove the diagnosis but never considered asking any questions. It would be like the doctor saying, “let’s prove that you have cancer” instead of pursuing what might be making you feel ill. These investigators do not appear to have been led by the most basic questions. I could have imagined the following as relevant: What happened here? Is this living witness a credible one? Are there reasons he would have to lie? Are there other witnesses? How do their stories compare? Instead, if these investigators had a question, it seemed to be this one: How can we show that George Zimmerman was standing his ground? That is a biased question. Thus, the biases in this case continue to haunt me.

It concerns me that we seem to struggle with how to talk about the history of race and its status as a metalanguage to examine the way that it functions in how we continue to make sense of our world. Through such an understanding of the ever-present, thoroughly entrenched quality and character of race to help us articulate meaning and order in our lives, I am interested in Lee’s claims of confidence in the face of his Department’s many failings. How do you explain administering an alcohol and drug test on a dead seventeen-year-old boy but not on the living man who shot him? How is that unbiased police work? How is that not a macabre extension of the narratives of racial profiling that plague this case?

When I read today that George Zimmerman’s family doctor confirmed a series of injuries that may corroborate his story, I thought about how the narrative of these statements compared to discussions that I had regarding a neighbor’s screams on Mother’s Day of last year. My husband and I awoke to a woman screaming for help at about 6:45 a.m. I heard her as clearly as if she were standing in my kitchen just a floor below. My husband and I jumped out of bed and ran to our bedroom window because her voice was truly so clear that we thought she was literally screaming from beneath us. He ran outside toward where he continued to hear her and I ran to get my son. By the time the scenario was over, we learned that she awoke to her attacker standing over her telling her that he would kill her children if she screamed. As he turned his head to apparently allow her to disrobe, she hit him and screamed. He got nervous and ran.

I told everyone I could about this and to a person, they all said, “good for her for not being silent and fighting back.” I remember wondering if I would have had the courage to defend myself or if I would have been paralyzed by the horror of what was happening to me; or if I would have taken the chance on him hurting my children had I screamed. It was a moment that I vividly recall hoping to never have to test in my own life. I don’t want to know if I would have that kind of courage in the face of such an urgent danger; hypothetically, though, if I’m being honest, I’m just not sure that I would end up looking like a hero to anyone.

When I read the report regarding Zimmerman’s family doctor, I didn’t think that Zimmerman’s story was confirmed as much as I thought that Trayvon Martin thought his own life was worthy of defending. That when he was faced with the horrifying possibility that his worst fears might be realized, he decided to fight for himself. Instead of Zimmerman’s defense, I thought about Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die.”

If We Must Die
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

See Also: 

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

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