E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems


May 2012

Models Monday: On Being “Caught Up”

It was Mother’s Day yesterday and I spent a lot of my wonderful time in peace and quiet thinking about my father. I guess about a week ago now, I wrote in a post that the rapper T.I. reminded me of my father because he is “a talented, charming guy with lots of potential who keeps getting caught up in things far beneath his thoughtfulness.” I knew that I would need to return to those words because I am still struggling through the idea that people get “caught up” in as many things that go wrong in their lives as they claim; or better yet, to stay current, I should use President Obama’s language here, and say that I am “still evolving” concerning my views, which I think is fair when you’re trying to be a thoughtful person. Anyway, I was writing to a cousin who was in prison several years ago and in his letters, he never failed to express his desire for a better life outside of prison in language that forewarned of his doom–as far as I was concerned, at least. He would say things like, “I just hope that I don’t get caught up in the same stupid stuff that got me here in the first place.” And I thought but did not say, “well, if your mistakes resulted from mindlessness, then you will get “caught up.” In part though, I didn’t say that because I don’t fully believe that people who are imprisoned are always guilty or that they aren’t targeted. I do believe that people of color are targeted and made into criminals by the criminal justice system. I believe that what Angela Davis refers to as the “prison industrial complex” is profitable and in America, if it is profitable it persists.

Marcus Garvey in ceremonial robe. Visit UCLA’s African Studies Center as the original source of this image and others.

So I’m not fully convinced by my own critique of being “caught up.” I do know that it can happen. Marcus  Garvey informs my views on this as well; especially as they merge with Hip Hop. Marcus Garvey was the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) who proffered an oppositional message regarding the value of seeking a homeplace through a return to Africa and a beauty ideal that privileged blackness. Together, these views galvanized a vast majority of poor and working class black men and women in reference to being “caught up” in the everyday indignities of discriminatory cruelty. Garvey’s vision of going back to Africa involved building a shipping line, the Black Star Line, that would provide for the passage of blacks throughout the diaspora on their journeys home. The Black Star Line was incorporated in 1919 but three years later, it had fallen prey to internal dissension, mismanagement, and expensive repairs. The UNIA had been the subject of harsh criticism and they suffered harassment from the U.S. government. In 1922, the federal government indicted Garvey for mail fraud involving the Black Star Lines’ promotional claims and sentenced Garvey to prison. In Garvey’s letter to his supporters upon his incarceration, “First Message to the Negroes of the World from the Atlanta Prison (1925),” he tells them that he has not abandoned them in life nor will he abandon them in the afterlife. Garvey writes:

If I die in Atlanta my work shall then only begin, but I shall live, in the physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s glory. When I am dead wrap the mantle of the Red, Black and Green around me, for in the new life I shall rise with God’s grace and blessing to lead the millions up the heights of triumph with the colors that you well know. Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.

“Look for me in the whirlwind…” I think about Garvey when I hear Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend (1996).” I hear it as an interpretation of this Garveyian sentiment to remain relevant despite an apparent demise. It offers hope to those in a storm.

“Me and My Girlfriend” appears on Tupac’s final studio album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, recorded before his fatal shooting on September 7, 1996. Death and resurrection as they appear in tandem in Garvey’s letter to his supporters also serves as a theme in Tupac’s lyrics. In fact, ‘Pac was rapping under the stage name “Makaveli” on this CD in tribute to his rebirth. “Me and My Girlfriend” entangles love and violence quite seamlessly. The “girlfriend” being the 45mm gun that he keeps as a faithful and loyal companion while navigating the harsh ghetto life that confines him. This personification suggests that there is much truth to the claim that despite their previous beef, ‘Pac was greatly informed by Nas’s “I Gave You Power.” In addition to this text as one that informed him, I think that ‘Pac’s reading life and his legacy as a child of a Black Panther suggests Garvey’s influence. The tone of Garvey’s letter from prison that looks directly at his bleak fate and yet remains defiant before it finds a place in Tupac’s voice as an echo of Garvey’s words. The first words Tupac utters after the gun, personified through the voice of a “Bonnie,” are “Look for me/Lost in the whirlwind.” He also ends the song with these words. The passion that Tupac has in this song authenticates his claims of feeling lost. His choices are so constrained by the violence of the world he was born into that he can’t see “another model by which to live,” it just doesn’t seem possible or plausible given the world he’s in. His resides in a world where romantic love is indistinguishable from violence. While this seems to be just the kind of experience that calls for “another model by which to live,” I also understand how impossible it might seem. A great many ‘hood tales show that the outcome of “having other models by which to live” only sets in relief the tragedy of the alternative through the death of one of its members (think Boyz n the Hood). That is to say, staying “n the hood” with “another idea” about how to live risks your very breath or at the very least, your potential for sustained joy. So how do we live in different worlds with our new ideas? How does one forsake the good that they know to exist in the place that they knew as the world, for a chance at a new world with no assurance of any of those same goods? We don’t talk about this a lot in the States, but people’s choices are often constrained (by poverty, race, gender, age, outlook, education, health care, disability, geography, transportation, language, etc.). So how do we redefine our worlds in light of these pervasive constraints? Garvey was a figure of hope for just this sort of spirit that felt “lost” in the whirlwind. His promise suggests that there could be hope even in turbulence. I think this is precisely why so many people found Tupac attractive. He seemed to understand their turbulence and his voice offered them at least the hope of recognition.

In part, I think any way out, any way of seeing sunlight in a storm, involves being alert. If you are really paying attention to your life, the patterns that come to define the rhythm of your days and that of those around you, then you are the recipient of  valuable information. This is true of the hustler’s days as well as the homemaker’s. I remember finding myself in situations where I would ask, “how did I get here?” But when I heard myself say, “how did I get here again,” I knew that I needed to do some serious thinking. Of course, I prized the tools of critical reflection. So maybe I can’t answer those big questions that I posed above today, but I can at least make a pitch for valuing non-material things like getting still and being quiet; about valuing self-reflection, honesty, courage, thoroughness, meticulousness, reading, and writing that don’t require any money but are necessary for living a good life in the face of the constraints that set the plot for where we find ourselves. I can’t say enough about sharpening these skills for improving the quality of your days.

I wish we still had my grandfather’s presence and his thoughts “that would bust yo’ brain wide open,” to influence us from his position on the porch. Our front porch was a gathering place for people who came by to talk about the ways they felt trapped or “lost in the whirlwind.” I try to use my blog to extend my front porch. To have a place for healing, recuperative talk. To have a place to remind us that a good day can be one where you rejoice over the slide of cucumbers and tomatoes from your home garden chillin’ in vinegar mixed with water and a touch of sugar; a good day can be spent looking through photo albums and thinking about the lives of loved ones long before you were ever considered; a good day can be one spent reading books or listening to old records thinking about what it was like to live under the influence of those words and those songs; a good day can be one where not a single dime gets spent, but where you get “lost” in your own thoughts about what life has been and what it could be if you adapted “another model” for it.


Living Civil Rights in the Age of Obama

I am happy that President Obama has made a statement confirming his support for marriage equality. I have long been disappointed in the denial of the civil right to a legal union for same-sex couples in the United States. Being gay in America should not place you outside of citizenship. I am proud of the President for making this stand today. Like so many others, I believe that his support makes a powerful statement and that it gives some hope to children who struggle with being able to claim who they are for fear of being ostracized. Perhaps the President widened the circle of inclusion today.

The Songs of Your Life

I read these remarks from an interview with Eddie Levert in the Huffington Post and I was stunned:

I really wanted to work with a lot of the hip-hop artists. I really would love to work with R. Kelly, I really would love to work with Kanye West, I would love to work with Jay-Z, I would love doing things with these people. But until I can prove to them that I am worthy of being in their presence and that I can be an asset to what they’re doing also, and I think that I was really looking at this album to be the one to prove [to] them that I am still [a] valuable artist.

The headline for the interview drew attention to Levert’s claim that “every girl is not a freak,” and while I think that it’s a shame that such a view has become remarkable, this was not his most stunning assertion. I like Jay-Z well enough–I especially like his public persona. I appreciate that he and his wife help to maintain the importance of privacy as a value in a culture that strives to erase all boundaries between public and private life. I appreciate Jay as an artist when he’s performing live more than I like his records. As a lyricist, I actually prefer Kanye. Though he and Jay both show a knowing appreciation for words in their bending of lyrics to fit a rhyme, I actually think Kanye does this to superior effect; perhaps because his personality seems to allow for a greater range of personas; Jay prefers the cool alone. However, having said all of that, I think it newsworthy that Eddie Levert feels the need to pander to them (“But until I can prove to them that I am worthy of being in their presence…”)! I mean, come on, we’re talking about EDDIE LEVERT, who as a member of the O’Jays sang, “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby,” “Back Stabbers,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” “I Love Music,” “Brandy,” and “For the Love of Money.” I mean, will you please take a moment to look at this video (if it doesn’t play, follow the link):

They are gettin’ it! This is the way it is supposed to be done.

Like most things that are good, you can get old to Eddie Levert’s music. In the video above, the O’Jays are still moving the crowd and looking as smooth as ever (!) doing it. They help to define the cool that Jay-Z enacts. All music owes its existence to an archive and none more than Hip Hop makes this more obvious. Sampling is like an old loft that makes its former life as a warehouse apparent. Of course R. Kelly, Jay-Z and Kanye West know of Eddie Levert’s relevance–don’t they? Wouldn’t they have to?

Though I came of age with the birth of Hip Hop, you couldn’t have told me that Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Al Green, The Spinners, The Dazz Band, and The Gap Band were irrelevant or not a part of my generation. They were all so much a part of my acoustic life that I was sure they belonged to my time. It wasn’t until I got a job working in an Archive that I realized that I had received an education right at home.

I worked in Special Collections for a few years processing the William Levi Dawson papers. The people that I worked for were amazed by the artists that I recognized in the photographs in his archive. Dawson had been a composer and musical director for the Tuskegee Choir. Some of the photographs were taken by C.M. Battey and others by P.H. Polk, who had both been important photographers for their beautiful work documenting the life and culture of Tuskegee Institute as well as of the city and its residents. I’ve always been interested in photographs because of the presence they assumed in my life growing up, but I hadn’t realized how much I learned from them until I started being asked to identify black people in photographs in other collections at the library. As I did it, I recognized that the skill came from home, not school. I saw many of those faces on album jackets and on magazine covers. At the time I wouldn’t have recognized a Miles Davis tune by ear, but I certainly knew what he looked like. As I matured, I wanted to recognize him by how he played as well. I considered it a part of my education to know the music of my grandparents’ generation–my parents insisted that I know theirs. Parents used to impose their culture on children. When an adult was around I didn’t have a choice about what I was watching on television or about what I was listening to on the stereo or radio. As a result, I knew The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Donny Hathaway, Hall and Oats, The Bee Gees, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan–and “the beat goes on” (The Whispers).

If you aren’t making your children listen to the music that you grew up with, then make a promise to yourself that you will start doing that today. You are denying your children a valuable education when you neglect to provide them with a musical heritage; otherwise, television takes over. If a child learns music from television, they are likely to mistake the voice and sound of the Great American and Soul songbook for a jingle. You cannot allow your children to believe that Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s music was about ice cream and chocolate bars, or that The Temptations and The Four Tops were singing about dust mops and sweepers. Young people need to know that Eddie Levert and the O’Jays are still relevant.

Models Monday: Living Other Models in the age of Obama

Barack Obama accepting his party’s nomination for the Presidency in Denver, Colorado August 28, 2008.

And Democrats, we must also admit that fulfilling America’s promise will require more than just money. It will require a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F. Kennedy called our “intellectual and moral strength.” Yes, government must lead on energy independence but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.

Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility–that’s the essence of America’s promise.

In his acceptance of the Democratic party nomination for President of the United States of America, Barack Obama called for “other models by which to live,” and that seemed to be what people were longing for him to show us. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged the responsibilities of the government for people’s lives but he also stressed the responsibility that individuals had for making discreet and intimate changes that would show a commitment to the enhanced lives people claimed they wanted. “Each of us must do our part,” he said. “Programs alone can’t replace parents,” he continued and suggested that the work of parents involved turning “off the television” and making “a child do her homework,” and for fathers to provide “the love and guidance their children need.” I think that Barack Obama’s humility is authentic, and so he did not realize that people wanted him to tell them what to do everyday to make their lives reflect the kind of responsibility he was calling for them to assume. I don’t think he realized that people wanted him to give them instructions for how to go about making the decision to turn off the television. “What did that actually look like?” people wanted to know. “If I turn off the television, then what?” I don’t think that Barack Obama realized that people wanted to do more than just look at his life to see how they might live, I think people wanted him to tell us.

Michelle Obama seemed to understand this better than her husband.

In one of her earliest public efforts as First Lady, Mrs. Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House, the first of its kind since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden in 1943 during World War II (the Clinton’s grew vegetables in pots on the White House roof). In planting the garden, the First Lady offered a model of what it looked like to take seriously the health and nutrition of one’s family. She also talked about it; brought people in to see it; wrote a book about it; shared the produce. While she acknowledged that she had a lot of help and that everyone might not be in a position to plant a garden, she made suggestions for those families to begin eliminating processed foods from their kitchen cupboards. When I was a child, having a garden was not something that anyone perceived as a luxury of the elite who could afford a staff. Usually, having a garden was associated with the migration of families from the South who brought with them the skills of making the earth yield foods that corresponded to the memories of what their families grew at home. Thomas Greer, one of my dear friends and next door neighbor from Cleveland, told me once that his favorite thing to grow in the garden was tomatoes because “he remembered his mother growing tomatoes in her garden.” Thomas and his beloved wife and my dear friend Betty kept a garden for as long as I can remember; as did my grandparents. The Wilson’s who lived next door to Betty and Thomas were considered master gardeners. They actually grew cantaloupe and watermelon in addition to the peppers, tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, and sometimes zucchini that everyone else grew.

Like her husband though, Mrs. Obama made choices in her life that do not reflect a dominant trend and yet she does not seem to tout these choices as unique. I’m thinking specifically of her decision to live at home with her parents while she worked as a corporate attorney at Sidley & Austin, “one of the biggest and most prestigious corporate law firms in Chicago.” I have only ever read this detail in one place (the Chicago Magazine link that I provide here) and I have been in attendance for a Commencement address where Mrs. Obama discussed leaving the law firm for more meaningful work and accepting less pay, but she didn’t mention living at home with her parents. I wonder why?

My guess is that Mr. and Mrs. Obama both seem to take for granted the many interesting choices they make in living deliberately and in the process offering “other models by which to live.” For example, I think it’s interesting that Barack Obama lived in an apartment as a Senator that his staff told him was worse “than [where] his 25-year-old employees” lived. Michelle Obama wouldn’t even sleep there. What influences the Obamas to make choices beneath their means? When Mrs. Obama worked for Sidley & Austin one can imagine that she could have afforded a place to stay while saving money. The same is true of Mr. Obama when he was a senator. How do they think about how to spend money on property? While the President and the First Lady are thought very fashionable now, an image of Mr. Obama’s shoes during the campaign for the presidency did not sartorially reflect the jazz man’s cool that he projected.

Barack Obama’s worn shoes.
Adlai Stevenson’s “Boston Cracked Shoe.”

The image of Obama’s worn shoes reminded many of William M. Gallagher’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II. It would be interesting to hear how Barack Obama would describe his view of good shoes.

The Obamas lead very attractive lives. What is interesting to me is that they’re doing it at a time when representations of their class in popular culture are so strikingly ugly. American popular culture makes wealth appear synonymous with waste. Wealthy people are those who are marked by all of their excesses. In this climate where wealthy people and those who are striving to be wealthy desire multiple mansions, expensive cars, and costly clothes, the Obamas are interesting because they make choices to live in ways that seem within reach of more people.

As I was reading David Maraniss’s article in Vanity Fair about Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but to be impressed by the strength of his thinking as he conveyed his ideas through letters to one of his former girlfriends. It seemed to me that as much as he was struggling to define his racial identity, the importance of having an interior life that he cultivated and pruned was a significant aspect of his identity. I would be interested in hearing Obama discuss the relationship between his interior life and the exterior presentation of himself. More specifically, I am interested in his interior life and what it has meant for him to have money. It seems to me that the rich interior life that he has diminishes his need to spend money to appear wealthy–but that could just be my own bias.

The Obamas are interesting people. Despite Barack Obama’s reluctance to offer a step-by-step program on how he gets through the day and suggestions for how we should, I do think that looking at his life and his choices suggests a model. The same is true of the First Lady. Together, they offer alternative ways of approaching life and imagining what makes it good.

A Critique of “Young Barack Obama in Love”

It has taken me days to read “Young Barack Obama in Love: A Girlfriend’s Secret Diary,” the story that David Maraniss adapts from his biography of Obama entitled, Barack Obama: The Story. It has taken me so long not because of its difficulty or its length but because I have been trying to figure out the love story itself–well, not really figure it out, but find it. I was at first troubled that the story involved the letters and journals of the President’s ex-girlfriends. It seemed to be rather tacky of them to share this material given that the President is married and has two daughters. I am someone who finds it problematic that women who allegedly had affairs with John F. Kennedy make up a sub-category of books within the genre of presidential biography. In Obama’s case, it just seems to be in poor taste to have his family have to encounter aspects of his past romances as though they have some urgency. This article seems to give these women romantic currency in a way that they did not have for Obama. To that end, one of the most talked about moments in this article occurs when Genevieve Cook reports the time when she told Obama that she loved him and he said, “thank you.” Cook, and perhaps Maraniss, read this moment as an example of Obama “appreciating that someone loved him.” However, I find this a rather duplicitous claim. It suggests that he was insecure and that Cook’s declaration fulfilled a constant need of his. What it doesn’t acknowledge is the sort of view that Demetria L. Lucas offers. Lucas sees Obama’s response as evidence of the fact that he “just wasn’t that into” Cook. Even though in the interview with Maraniss, Obama admits that the woman that he claims to love is a composite of his girlfriends, it’s as though the article refuses to admit that and insists that Obama loves Cook as a singular subject but could not say it. My reading, in line with Lucas’s, sees Obama as very much a gentleman who did not say what he did not mean. It seemed to me, at least from what was written, that he did not love Cook and so he did not say that he did. Instead of considering his response in the context of his graciousness, Cook read Obama as “guarded.” From my point of view, I thought Obama offered a very smooth response. He didn’t cooly reject Cook, he accepted her love as a gift to which he responded with the proper courtesy. This reading is one that may come from the Maraniss article, but it doesn’t fit with the overall representation of theirs as a love story.

What I found much more interesting about the story was how voraciously, thoughtfully, eloquently, honestly, and deliberately Obama wrote and read. His approach stood in stark contrast to the way that Maraniss interpreted Cook’s reading and writing about Obama. Thus, it seemed a glaring omission when she wrote that she experienced Obama as being behind a “veil” and Maraniss makes no reference to the preeminent writer, scholar, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois who famously wrote this about the experience of being black in America:

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yield him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Granting attention to Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk would have made sense in this context given that the article attempts to paint Obama as being driven by his search for identity. Instead of engaging Du Bois directly, however, this article only proves the reason why Obama needed to keep reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the interview that Maraniss gives to Vanity Fair, he reveals that he entitles one of the chapters “Genevieve and the Veil.” I can only hope that he cites Du Bois there.

UK Basketball Goes to the White House

Coach Calipari told President Obama that when the University of Kentucky Basketball team won the 2012 National Championship they were jumping up and down “not saying, ‘We did it! We won!’ They were saying, ‘We’re going to the White House! We’re going to the White House!’ because they wanted to meet [President Obama].” That marks a change from when athletes used to say, “We’re going to Disney World!” I love the shift–especially since it’s my team making it!!!!! Congratulations once again to the UK Wildcats and to all of the fiercely loyal fans of the Big Blue Nation.

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