A friend asked me to be on a book panel to discuss Manning Marable’s book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention that a group of college honors students had been assigned to read over the summer and I accepted her invitation. Only after receiving the itinerary did I learn that the event would take place a little over an hour away in Macon. My husband and son accompanied me to the event and so that made it a nice drive.
The discussion took place at the historic Douglass Theatre. Since the name was spelled the same as the historic abolitionist’s I initially thought it a tribute to him. In fact, it honors the man who built it, Macon native Charles H. Douglass. Douglass built the theatre after making his money as the proprietor of a bicycle repair shop. We learned that some of the most talented black musicians to come from Macon performed on that stage. It was hard to imagine such an intimate venue framing the expansiveness of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, but apparently, it did. I liked the venue very much.
As our panel organized my son had become antsy, wanting to talk to me from afar. Once my co-panelists began their presentations, my son had to be taken from the venue. As he calmed down, my husband and son would appear periodically throughout the various discussions. Afterwards, my husband shared with me that he had not seen so many people playing Angry Birds and texting at the same time as he saw from his vantage point at the back of the room. He found it extraordinarily disrespectful. “If these are the honor’s students, I would hate to see how the regular students behave,” he said. I agreed. I was put off by their arrogance and struck by how at odds it was from the humble posture that St. Augustine marks as a characteristic of learning. It was also at odds with the lesson Poppy offers his grandson Nate in Toni and Slade Morrison’s interpretation of one of Aesop’s fables and thus from an entire storytelling tradition on the value of paying attention.
In Who’s got Game? Poppy or the Snake, Nate, the favored grandson, tells his grandfather that he doesn’t want to leave his company and be forced to return to school. When Poppy presses him, the boy shares that he has a difficult time concentrating on the lesson because of the fun taking place around him. This leads Poppy to tell Nate a story about the time he accidentally ran over a snake who he then felt responsible for helping to heal. The snake eventually bites Poppy but Poppy had injected himself with a serum that protected him against the poisonous venom. “Oh, that’s what saved you!” Nate says. “Not entirely. Paying attention is what saved me,” Poppy concludes. Paying attention, Poppy told Nate earlier “was just another way of taking yourself seriously,” which was something my husband and I felt the honor’s crowd had not considered.
Taking one’s self seriously wasn’t altogether overlooked by the students as I overheard many of them expressing to the Director the events on their schedules that they were concerned about getting back to Atlanta to attend. Clearly, they had a very different notion of taking one’s self seriously than we did. Taking one’s self seriously for them meant focusing on the calendars they had built for themselves. If they were not engaged in those appointments, they allowed themselves to become distracted from what was occurring before them. Taking one’s self seriously also seemed to be about expressing one’s aspirations for professional success. The students that I was on the panel with discussed their career ambitions and actually used their presentations to describe how they were using the history of Malcolm X’s life as documented in Marable’s historical account to inform their professional pursuits. Thus, many of their presentations combined book reports with speeches on what they wanted to be when they grew up. It wasn’t what I expected.
As much as I like my devices, being convinced by the value of paying attention keeps me from being seduced by them. As with Morrison’s story, I think my early education prepared me to be suspicious of the lure of distractions. Before Poppy schools Nate, Little Red Riding Hood’s mother warned her about being lured from the path on her way to visit her grandmother. The value of paying attention is an early lesson. When I tell my son to pay attention, I think I’m equipping him with a life sustaining piece of advice: paying attention could save your life. In playing Angry Birds and text messaging, those students were showing a very casual regard for themselves at the same time as they were claiming to take themselves seriously. Paying attention is a call to the present. It acknowledges the meaningfulness of the present as a necessary context for any future you plan on having. Playing Angry Birds and text messaging while others were presenting work where they imagined you as a present audience, if not an interested audience, was not only rude, it was reckless. We cannot allow our new devices to tempt us away from old lessons. Paying attention is old advice that matters in an age of new technology.
There’s an article in The New York Times about the first comprehensive retrospective of Carrie Mae Weems’s career opening at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville on Friday. Given that Weems’s series Not Manet’s Type inspires this blog, I thought I would highlight the article and Weems’s work, featured on her website, today.
I watched the 2009 Academy Award nominated documentary film Trouble the Waterthis weekend and it was an enthralling feature. The film combines footage that Kim Roberts captures while she and her husband Scott are trapped inside their home in the 9th ward as Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans. The film also chronicles the aftermath of these events. At one point in Kim’s film, she tells neighbors who are preparing to make their way out of the city that she would leave too if she “could afford the luxury.”
Poverty plays such a central role in the narrative that it easily becomes an effective character in the film. As a result of being poor, Kim and Scott cannot escape the storm; many of their neighbors get displaced; some of them die. Though the fact of death seems hard to trump, some of the most disturbing scenes in the film involve the U.S. military. Kim, Scott, and their neighbors sought higher ground at a U.S. Naval base not far from their homes after the Coast Guard recommended the location. Though the base has approximately 200 family housing units and over 500 evacuated rooms in the barracks, Kim and Scott’s group was refused. When Scott asked a guard if the women and children could be accommodated, he reports that a guard told him to “get off the property or they were going to start shooting.” One soldier disputes Scott’s report that soldiers loaded their M16s, another soldier appears to uphold Scott’s version of events. Refused shelter at the Naval base, Kim and Scott’s band moves on down the road to Frederick Douglass High School where no one is there to refuse them. In the scene’s aftermath, soldiers are featured outside of Douglass High School discussing their recollections of encountering the group. One soldier describes the scene as “a wreck” and another claims that he means “no offense to civilian people” but he claims from what he witnessed, civilians “have no concept of how to survive.” It seems to have escaped this soldier’s attention that this particular group has survived one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Despite the hostility directed at its own citizens, President Bush awarded the Navy officers a commendation for “defusing a potentially violent confrontation.”
Kim and Scott offer a representation of poverty that defies the government’s view of them. From the government’s perspective, poor people are generally violent and immoral. Where they clearly understood the poor as figured in Kim, Scott, and their group as pathological, the story that Kim tells through her camcorder offers a narrative of such authenticity that the one told through the film’s broader narrative has greater credibility and challenges the myth of the rapacious poor. Through Kim’s lens, the viewer sees she and Scott extend their home and space to neighbors who would have been alone otherwise; and though they have few resources, we see them sharing all of what they have with those they shelter. While the film can tolerate an understanding of these obviously poor people being generous and thoughtful, the government cannot. I thought about such intolerance as I read and thought about Little Free Libraries this weekend.
Last weekend, I went to the Decatur Book Festival and saw some of the Little Free Libraries being auctioned off there. These reflected the creativity of builders throughout the country who have taken up this project. Little Free Library is a national organization and the project involves communities creating tiny public libraries where community members are free to exchange books. When Little Free Libraries are officially established, their location gets placed in Google Maps and there is additional written documentation of the library’s history thereby blending old and new technologies.
As Little Free Libraries seek to use books to build community, they suggest that lacking an ethos of sharing and generosity involves all communities and not just poor ones. Frankly, the hostility often shown in doctors offices regarding magazines not being removed reflects the ethos in some elite communities over resources, particularly reading material, and a need for a greater spirit of generosity.
The starting bids for the Little Free Libraries at the Decatur festival began at $300. Though I didn’t sign-up, I like what they represent. As it stands, my version of exchange takes on the vernacular approach like that of Kim and Scott: I assist however I can. In considering their story, it raised issues for me about what “community” actually meant as neighborhoods installed their adorable little libraries. Did it only refer to people who lived on your block or had people intended a broader understanding of “community?” To that end, I wondered how comfortable Kim and Scott would feel “borrowing” books from a library on a block where they did not reside; I also wondered if they would be welcome to do so. In other words, issues of race and poverty, trust and suspicion definitely interact with this very engaging public service project.
Little Free Libraries highlight the rarity of the sharing of resources but a simultaneous desire of doing so. Even though they did not have very much to give away materially, what little they had, Kim and Scott shared it. The government’s view of poor people as exemplified through the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina rejects recognizing the poor as anything but pathological. I wonder if communities across the country offer a better model of recognizing the generous poor.
Searching for school supplies might be the one time when I enjoy shopping. I actually think that good school supplies can contribute to an improved attitude and inclination towards doing school work. Crayola 64s prove this point. Anyone who has ever received a box of Crayola 64s remembers what it was like to have these crayons and set out to use them right away because of the box’s built-in sharpener; new pens, notebooks, and other devices worked similarly. I wanted to use them to test the color of the ink or the precision point of the pen; the width of the paper’s spacing; the tension of the calculator’s buttons.
Here are a few school supply items that I am currently enjoying:
I bought these journals at Target. I pick-up little writing journals all the time. I think they’re good for just jotting down ideas. These are small enough to fit into your back pocket but not so small that they are hard to keep open while you write.
The covers make them attractive. I’ve visited each of these places so I’ve played with the idea of making them travel journals but then I’d have to keep up with that and instead of being able to just pick up a journal and jot down any idea, I would have to remember to separate them. So I decided they weren’t for specialty writing, just writing.
Zebra Sarasa Pens come in fun colors and only cost $1. I have only ever seen them in the check-out line at Staples but I think I’ve purchased every color.
I stumbled upon a great list of note taking app suggestions. From that list, I purchased Day One and I love it; especially now that they’ve added the photography feature. It’s a beautiful app that lets you jot down ideas and also provides a way of keeping a visual log of those thoughts. Since I can’t draw but enjoy images, I love that I can have a photography journal without the hassle of developing the pictures and organizing them in a book.
My relationship with my father was a hard thing for me to describe to people who only knew me as being estranged from him; so I usually didn’t talk about it. It was hard to explain how I knew that my father adored me, that he loved me as much as he was capable; I never, ever doubted his love. Ever. As I thought about it over the years, what I understood was that I could see and embrace my father’s love throughout my life because even before I had language to describe it, I had accepted that receiving my father’s love required recognition and acceptance for his limitations in demonstrating it; he could only be who he was. Thus, my father loved me through his demons.
I think my father would have benefited from psychological therapy or counseling. It was years before I associated his drug distribution and abuse as being related to his psychological and emotional demons but I think that my father probably suffered from mental illness that led to him self-medicating. As a child, I would have described my father as violently moody and I knew that it was best to stay out of his way when he was “going through it,” which was rather easy for me to do because, thankfully, he and my mother never married so I didn’t live with my father and there was no formal custody agreement. Though I saw my father regularly, I was never forced to, so if I didn’t want to chance a bad spell, it wasn’t required.
I was definitely afraid of my father. I was afraid of his temper and I tried to always stay on the good side of it. He never hit me but I knew him to hit women; he saved his verbal abuse for everyone else, and here, I had been his victim. The final straw came for my accepting his cycle of attack and apology came after my first year of college. My father learned that I had given up my track scholarship and he was livid. Now, my decision to do so only involved my father emotionally because he hadn’t committed anything to me financially or otherwise. During my entire freshman year, he had never called or written, he had never sent money or care packages, and he never visited. My quitting would involve my mother more in funding my college education but not my father. I wasn’t surprised when he called to tell me his thoughts about my decision, but the vitriol he spewed was more than I could bear. After telling me how disappointed in me he was after I had said for years that I was going to the Olympics (something that most people think you want as a runner so you just go along), how could I go and do something like this. “Man, fuck you,” he said. “If I die, I don’t even want you to come to my funeral.” I didn’t say anything. Though I would tell a more heroic story to my friends about how I immediately responded, “Fine, I’ll make other plans,” what I really did was silently cry on the other end of the telephone. I didn’t find empowerment until shortly after I hung up. I had been managing my father’s abuse for years but I decided that this was the last straw. When he came over to get money from me every time he knew I would be attending a formal dance, I figured out that he would ask for half of the total amount that I gave him. So when I knew he would come over high and needing a fix, I would give him a total amount whose half I wanted him to have versus the actual figure. “How much money you got,” he would ask. “Fifty,” I would say. “Give me twenty-five.” I would give him twenty-five and then really have seventy-five for myself because I might have actually had $100. I decided that this latest violence was something that I would have to handle on my own in much the same way and I decided that I didn’t want anything else to do with him. In order to make the break, I needed to get back the hardware-the trophies, medals, and plaques-that I had given him to keep. When I called him the next day, acting as though nothing happened, I asked him if he was going to be around so that I could collect these things. He confirmed that he would be and he also apologized for his crudeness the previous day. I accepted his apology and set-up a time to collect my things, did it, and never looked back.
I didn’t speak to my father again for another ten years or so. This seemed to be a decision that only people who had experienced abuse understood; everyone else was sentimental. People who had also suffered any form of abuse understood that when you acted to stop it, you were moving towards having peace in your life, and that that peace was worth more than living a cliche about relationships. I was never so angry as when people who had come into my life sideways, that is, through relationships that I had with mutual friends or acquaintances, and they would try to repair the breach in my relationship with my father. You know nothing of what I have had to endure and I don’t owe it to your fantasies to re-enter that relationship to take more abuse, I would think. Even as a much younger, vulnerable woman, I was never manipulated into repairing my relationship with my father for the sake of others. If my father was an unchanged man, then he was a threat to me and anyone in my life. I knew that and I wasn’t willing to deny it for anyone else’s sense of what I ought to do.
People who are estranged from others in their lives know that estrangement doesn’t necessarily involve bitterness. I was more at peace when I became estranged from my father than I had ever been in our relationship. Estrangement didn’t mean that I carried hatred, it meant that I had rejected violence; peace was what I carried in exchange, not bitterness. The experience of peace allowed me to forgive my father and to accept him into my life once I was convinced that he had changed in relevant ways. While my father still had significant flaws, he understood that his relationship with me was tenuous and he wanted to preserve it. We never discussed this tenuousness together, though he would talk about it, I only listened, I liked what I heard. My father had no authority in my life and I liked it that way. He couldn’t be trusted with authority in my life so I liked that the balance of power had shifted to me and I trusted how I would handle it.
In his discussions of our relationship and our past, my father spoke in terms of debt. “Do you know how much I owe her,” he told me he would say to people if or when they questioned some measure of generosity I’m sure he told them he was making towards me. I would have never exploited my father’s vulnerability in the way that he exploited mine, or any other way, but I certainly perceived his vulnerability to me as a result of his moral indebtedness. From my vantage point, my father really had done the best that he could or knew how to do. I saw him as a very broken man who tried to love through weakly held together pieces of himself. I could forgive my father because he couldn’t hurt me anymore. He was now safe to love up-close. I trusted that he wanted to be in relationship with me and was willing to forfeit any authority his status as my father granted him and follow my lead. Thus, I could forgive him because I trusted myself.
What I admired about the depth of my father’s understanding of the hurt that he had caused people was his willingness to stand and face the pain, endure possible rejection, and to keep apologizing for it as long as forever lasted. When my father would tell me of his experience in attempting to reconcile with his ex-wife and their two children, I noticed that he would get frustrated at times but he never became bitter or angry with them; he accepted the pain he caused. He didn’t ask them for anything.
I recently finished reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, David Margolick’s very thorough account of the life behind Will Counts’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford’s walk among a hate filled crowd as she makes her way to Little Rock Central High School (LRCHS) on September 4, 1957 and I thought about the lessons I learned from my father about forgiveness and reconciliation and I have wondered how they might apply to race. I certainly accepted that Hazel Bryan Massery, the white woman in the photograph whose contorted face came to figure the hatred of Southern whites towards integration, had changed in significant ways. Even though I don’t think that time makes change inevitable, I can accept that people who want to grow and change can do so. Massery had come to accept the limitations of the views about race that she had as a teenager and she had taken on alternative ideas about it. Had she stopped short of friendship and offered an apology to Eckford for her part in causing her pain, they might have been a model of what we might reasonably expect of racial healing from this traumatic time; instead, they offer a model for much of what goes wrong within the terms of racial understanding in the United States.
Ultimately, in wanting a friendship, Hazel wanted too much from forgiveness and thus Elizabeth. From Margolick’s account, nothing about Hazel suggested she wanted to capitalize financially from a relationship, as far as I was concerned, but in wanting friendship, she wanted something beyond absolution. Had friendship with Hazel been something that Elizabeth wanted and pursued and it matched Hazel’s desires, that would have been fine. Wanting Elizabeth to become a friend asked for too much because it sought to establish a relationship of mutual power and authority. Hazel had no right to ask Elizabeth to open her life to her authority. This was especially true in Elizabeth’s case because she was mentally and emotionally unstable. Doctors diagnosed Elizabeth with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and she had been mentally, emotionally, and financially unstable for years in the wake of her experiences at LRCHS. In most of her relationships, Elizabeth was the recipient of another’s special care; she took more than she gave. Those in her community accepted this because they saw Elizabeth as someone who had sacrificed enough for their sake through her role in integrating LRCHS. Friendship or neighborliness was an everyday recognition of the meaningfulness of history. Given what she had suffered for their sake in the past, they owed it to Elizabeth to do what they could for her, but they decided that she had done enough for them.
Hazel Bryan Massery’s relationship to history was different. She wanted forgiveness to absolve her of her debts to history and for friendship to mark a future where she and Elizabeth were mutually obligated to one another; after all, weren’t friendships about mutual obligations? Being someone who suffered from PTSD meant that history claimed Elizabeth. There was no escaping the literal return of the past for Elizabeth through traumatic flashbacks or the terror she experienced from even seeing the photograph of her surrounded by that mob; her future was inextricably linked to the past. Hazel wanted more from her and this seemed like too much to ask. Too, it showed a profound ignorance of trauma. Margolick and Eckford described Massery’s views and understanding about race naive, I found them so limited as to be reckless. She seemed ignorant of the power of racism to cause traumatic wounds and so she trivialized them. Trivializing race meant that she didn’t know how to support or show concern for the dailiness of Eckford’s encounters with racial blows.
To Massery’s credit, she did not deny Eckford’s past experiences of racial assault; much unlike Ralph Brodie, former president of the student body at LRCHS. I found Brodie’s efforts to minimize the representations the Little Rock Nine offered of their horrific experiences at LRCHS reprehensible. His efforts to cast ninety-five percent of the student body at LRCHS as “good kids” and to place his version of events beyond the master narrative offered by the Little Rock Nine constitutes a racist act because he assumes that he has the authority to dictate what happened to those black students. In doing so, his effort suggests that they lack credibility. The credibility that they lack and the authority that he assumes in seeking to redeem the white students that he feels have historically been egregiously maligned reifies the kind of abuse the Little Rock Nine claim occurred during their time at LRCHS. I thought about Excaliber Gymnastics and the response from the CEO as well as a former gymnast that trained there when I read about Brodie. The CEO essentially called Gabrielle Douglas a liar and a former athlete at the gym thought he could better describe what happened to her in his own terms. Thus, according to Randy Stageburg, Douglas was “bullied” but she was not the victim of racism. The fact that Stageburg thinks that he has the authority to dictate what happened to Douglas presumes power that he does not have. The fact that Douglas did not report her victimization to him or others shows a lack of understanding regarding the humiliation and violence of racial terror and it presumes that those outside of Douglas determine the nature of reality but she can’t. Stageburg made Douglas responsible for naming something she may not have even been able to name at the time. Just like Brodie, Stageburg set himself up as a witness and judge who did not see and was not informed and yet feels that he gets to decide what happened. His ignorance regarding the mechanics of racial terror makes one wonder what kind of witness he could be when he’s blind to racial violence and hostility. In both cases, racism gets reified by the people disputing it.
I agreed with my father’s view of his responsibility to continue apologizing for the hurt that he caused for as long as forever lasted. I accepted my father’s final apology because he had become someone who would honor that by not continuing to commit violence against me. I didn’t owe my father anything beyond that and he seemed to agree. He never seemed to want me to make him completely innocent, he didn’t seem to think he was innocent, as though the past never happened. While Massery accepted the past, through pursuing friendship, she wanted her goodness recognized and she wanted a fresh start. Thus, she wanted a shot at innocence. Such an ambition fails to keep you aware of the ways that the hurt you caused may require forever.