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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

October 2012

Models Monday: Family Planning

I am in Indianapolis. I got here yesterday. As I thought about the autographed Peyton Manning jersey in the restaurant where I ate dinner last night,I couldn’t help but to reflect on my life with the Cleveland Browns. I was raised on the Browns. As a child, I slept in a Brian Sipe jersey. Every Sunday from September thru February, my family turned against one of my cousins because he cheered for the Washington Redskins. My cousin seemed like such a fool to the rest of us. How could you not cheer for our hometown team? I never grew to admire my cousin’s disloyalty, but I thought about it over the years. I don’t want my son to be like my cousin in this way, but I also don’t want him to have the Sunday heartbreak that is the weight of the Cleveland Browns fan’s legacy.

The way I look at, I didn’t have much of a choice in being a Brown’s fan. I was a third generation Clevelander with a longstanding history of my family supporting the team. My son has a little bit more room in deciding what his relationship to his hometown team will be without being the Sunday fool my cousin was because my husband and I are new to the region. As new migrants we have history in other places and commitments to other teams. I think it would be acceptable for our son to choose to follow the Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns because of us. After all, my husband became a Dolphins fan in order to establish a tie to his father.

I would like to say that I was so forward thinking that I planned to have my son in a city that boasts hosting an undefeated professional football team right at a time when my son began recognizing himself in terms of the team we told him was his. I can’t claim this power. I am no Pat Summit. I read that the esteemed Tennessee Lady Vols coach was on a recruiting trip out of state when she went into labor. As the story goes, the coach refused to deliver that baby until her plane had crossed state lines into Tennessee. If this story holds true, then in addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom that she has already earned, she deserves for every parent to pause at least once every year in order to pay homage to Pat Summit for her dedication and commitment to home place such that she suffered prolonged labor for it! Again, I am no Pat Summit. Family planning and the role of the state takes on new meaning when seen through the lens of Summit’s decision to prolong her labor. I did not plan to have my son in a city with a winning team, but my history with a team that consistently battles for a top pick in the draft informs how I will teach my son to be a fan.

Being a Cleveland Browns fan has taught me what loyalty looks like and what it requires. 1.) Loyal fans wear fan gear and decorate using their team’s paraphernalia even when the team isn’t playing well. 2.) Real fans always look for the bright side. When your team has won only two games, you need to see the upside it provides for the rebuild. The bright side exists in the future. 3.) Real fans learn to work through their emotions. You will need to craft a healthy way of handling loss. Turning off ESPN until your team wins again is one strategy but it only provides a temporary fix. 4.) Ultimately, real fans never move on from their team. Thus, you can wish Peyton well, but if you’re a Colts fan, you’ve got to stay with your team.

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Benji is Worthwhile Viewing

Chicago basketball sensation Benjamin Wilson.

I have to admit my ignorance. When I first encountered the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary title Benji, I thought it was a reference to the dog of that same name and so I imagined that it would be a film that focused on the dog’s intense training. Only after reading The New York Times article and viewing the trailer for the documentary did I learn that Benji referred to Chicago basketball sensation Benjamin Wilson. Wilson was ranked the number one basketball player in the nation when he was gunned down on the streets of Chicago in the fall of 1984.

You need to figure out a way to watch this film if you didn’t see it last night. Mike Hale of the Times calls it “absorbing” and I completely agree. Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, the film’s directors, tell a remarkable and tragic tale of a young black man coming of age during a time when drugs and gangs are ravaging his hometown. Basketball offers hope for a life far beyond violence, but not necessarily beyond Chicago; after all, Chicago became the home of Michael Jordan after the Bulls selected him with their third overall pick in the 1984 draft, merely months before Benji gets gunned down. The story isn’t so much a love letter to Chicago as it is to Benji. He clearly meant so much to the men who were his teammates, family, and friends. I was moved by the players who paid tribute to Benji by wearing the number 25 throughout their careers. It was a great lesson in Chicago sports history.

I couldn’t help but to wonder about Benji’s story alongside Emmett Till’s story, especially given the prominence of their mothers after their deaths. Like Mrs. Till-Mobley, Mrs. Wilson allows her son’s death to become instructive. She even has an open casket funeral like Mrs. Till-Mobley hosted. Ultimately, Mrs. Wilson decided to move her family back to Mississippi some years after Benji was murdered, reversing Mrs. Till-Mobley’s move. What circumstances led her to view the South as a safer place for black boys in the ’80s? Mrs. Wilson’s actions place her son’s story in a historical context beyond the scope of basketball.

Follow this link to the ESPN page about Benji. I hope you get a chance to watch this extraordinary film.

Models Monday: Quitting an “Elite” School or Cheryl’s Mother’s Example

The view inside my son’s Pre-K classroom.

The article in The New York Times this weekend about Dalton, the Calhoun School, and Trinity, all on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, suggests that minority students’ experiences don’t help make the case that these “elite” schools are good ones. While these schools were apparently interested in recruiting minority students, they weren’t heavily invested in the students’ welfare once they arrived. No one considered how difficult it would be to afford a $1,300 class trip to the Bahamas for some of the schools’ new recruits from low incomes families. No one considered how effective stereotypes of blackness and otherness can be in marginalizing students of color from routine experiences. For example, students of color at these “elite” schools were often imagined as occupants of “bad” neighborhoods and were refused visits by classmates when they extended them invitations to their homes. In addition, one student told a heartbreaking story of feeling estranged from beauty as markers of racial otherness set her outside of the dictates of beauty that saw being “white, skinny, and tall” as its ideal.

I went to a very small, private, all-girls school. I loved it but I recognize its limitations. One of the reasons I was able to thrive there was because there was enough diversity at the school to enable me to find the support that I needed. My needs, though, weren’t very great. One of my classmates, Cheryl, did have significant emotional needs and the school failed her because they relied on stereotypes of blackness to drive their understanding of her behavior. Cheryl’s parents were going through a divorce and it was a devastating experience for her. Teachers and administrators alike read Cheryl’s sadness as hostility and they  pulled her aside several times and told her that she needed to “get it together” because they weren’t “going to put up with her attitude.” Cheryl’s mother intervened and explained the difficulty of the divorce on her daughter but administrators were unmoved so Cheryl eventually transferred.

Cheryl’s mother provides me with a model for what I plan to do if a school fails my son in any way similar to how my beloved alma mater failed Cheryl: I will withdraw him. Cheryl’s mother’s move was a radical one in light of my own schooling experiences because I had never known anyone to support their child in that way. I disliked my elementary school, but I was made to endure it from kindergarten through eighth grade because I only seemed to register routine gripes about it. Admittedly, my elementary school experience wasn’t soul crushing so remaining there didn’t cause me great harm. The children who were featured in the Times article seemed crushed, so it’s not very clear to me why they stayed. The article takes for granted that these “elite” schools were “good” schools and so maybe this viewpoint was also taken-up by the parents and the students alike. I’ve certainly known people who described devastating experiences in schools that they went on to describe as “good.” One such student was one of two black people in her school; the other black student was her brother. When she was entering the bus to go on a field trip with her class, her teacher said to her, ” we saved you a seat at the back of the bus where you belong.” Her classmates all laughed, which only added to this girl’s humiliation. This same girl was also humiliated when her teacher called her “Kizzy” when she entered the classroom wearing braids and her class had been reading Alex Haley’s Roots. If I were this girl’s mother, I would have definitely talked to the teacher but I also would have removed my daughter from this school. From what I knew of this child, she was far too fragile to withstand this school’s personality. As far as I was concerned, this girl’s “good” school seemed far too brutal.

In her memoir Project Girl, Janet McDonald describes the consequences of taking for granted a young person’s emotional, psychic, and spiritual needs in failing to size-up schools and the choices students have in making decisions about them:

What I gained in possibilities was nearly outweighed by my loss of grounding. The message I received as a child equated home with failure; fortune could only be found elsewhere, with people unlike me. The contrast between my actual background and the world where I was sent to find role models was brutal.

It was in coming to recognize the constructions of the home that I prized devalued that I came to see the limitations of my high school and thus to recognize its racism in viewing my friend as a black girl with an attitude instead of a wounded, hurt, and sad young girl mourning the loss of her parent’s marriage.

I’m not necessarily thrilled by the way my son’s school seems to imagine him, but he doesn’t seem impacted by it; he enjoys himself at playschool. Going forward, my son’s soul will be the measure of whether or not a school is a “good” one. No school that diminishes a child’s soul seems worthy of the title “elite.”

Models Monday: Getting Up

Marion Jones on the courthouse steps October 2007 in White Plains, N.Y.

“Why do we fall, sir? So that we might learn to pick ourselves up.” Alfred Pennyworth, Batman

This weekend, I watched 30 for 30: Marion Jones: Press Pause–this after viewing 9.79*, another 30 for 30 documentary about the track and field doping scandal involving Ben Johnson in the 1988 Seoul Games. Watching Press Pause was painful because the film spends so much time dealing with the moment captured in the image above when Jones first publicly admits to having made false statements to federal agents about using performance-enhancing drugs and to making false statements regarding a check fraud case. As much as some folk expressed ire towards Jones for lying and for so publicly claiming the fruits of gains that she had not honestly earned, I felt sadness for her in equal proportion. I was not happy to see Jones’s humiliation.

The film 9.79* suggests that Ben Johnson may have used performance-enhancing drugs for a steady portion of his career. In fact, at some point, most of the runners who lined-up to compete in the 100 m. dash final in Seoul tested positive for some banned substance. Perhaps much of my own sympathy for Jones stems from following her for much of her career and knowing that she has always been incredibly talented. Like Ron Rapoport, Jones’s biographer, I saw her drug use as so unnecessary. While I don’t know that she would have won five gold medals at the Sydney Games without doping, she certainly would have left decorated.

Viewers responses to Press Pause were quite scathing. People were upset with John Singleton, the film’s director, for appearing to give Jones a platform for providing a very biased account of her failings and that didn’t push her to be more forthcoming about other aspects of the case she might be hiding. What isn’t clear to me in cases such as these is when a person has suffered enough. The woman has had to suffer through prison–something Barry Bonds probably will not have to do, though he was convicted of obstructing justice–having to leave her young children and her husband for six months, and enduring the public humiliation of having to admit that she cheated and lied.

Despite her failings, I’m still rooting for Marion Jones. I think that people deserve the opportunity to pick themselves up after a fall. Jones appears to be refusing to allow herself to be defined by her shortcomings. Though she admits her limitations, she has not allowed them to ultimately determine how she will identify herself. She seems a perfectly good model for getting back up after taking a tumble, which happens to all of us at some time or another. It just can’t be that we always win, make the right choices, do what is best. And in those times, the champions might not be our best models, it might just be the losers who have something to offer.

Models Monday: Sustaining Fictions (Re-post)

I don’t know how these things are connected, but I’ve been holding them together in my mind for some time now. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about these lists we chronicle in popular culture at this time of year at the same time that I have been thinking about the stories that we need confirmed despite their veracity. So for example, I was thinking about or better yet, dreading, the television shows and magazines dedicated to which celebrities divorced or filed bankruptcy or were engaged in some scandal alongside my thoughts about the documentary film 51 Birch Street. Have you ever seen this film? If not, go directly to Netflix and add it to your que. The film is about a man who learns that the relationship that he believed that his parents had was an illusion after his father marries a woman who had been his secretary soon after his wife of 54 years dies. Doug Block, the filmmaker and son, had been close to his mother but found his father difficult to get close to. The viewer expects to like and respect the mother but one of the great surprises of the film is how much you like and respect the father. Doug learns that his parents’ marriage was rather loveless when he discovers the almost daily journals that his mother kept chronicling their marriage. I’m not going to give it all away, but one of Doug’s pressing concerns involves his father’s swift marriage. Were they having an affair, he wonders.  In one very poignant moment between Doug and his father, Doug asks his father this very question. It reminded me of an episode of Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane that I happened to catch when one of her daughters asked her if she was actually nude in a PETA advertising campaign she had seen printed somewhere.

Kimora Lee Simmons for PETA

The audience had been privy to the behind the scenes footage of the photography shoot and knew that Lee Simmons was actually in the nude so I was curious to see how she would respond to her daughter’s inquiry. She looked directly at her daughter and said, “No, Mommy was not naked.” The little girl let out a sigh of relief and moved on. I remember thinking it was a sweet moment because Lee Simmons knew that her little girl wanted her to say exactly what she did. That if she could have accepted the possibility of her mother’s public nudity, she wouldn’t have needed to ask the question. So when I heard Doug Block ask his father if he had had an affair, I thought his father must have heard a little boy asking the question.

Maybe I’m curious about my own need for sustaining fictions and whether or not I would recognize them if I asked them out loud. I wonder if there is something fundamental about the parent/child relationship with respect to these sustaining fictions. If, for example, we find the need for our husbands or our wives to support these fictions for us, are we asking our marriage to perform paternalistically. If we need our friends to perform this function, then are we asking our friends to perform paternalistically. 

I still don’t know why I’ve been thinking about the year in review alongside sustaining fictions but in thinking about the two ideas now I am more intrigued by what a year’s end list of questions might look like. Maybe I don’t like the fiction of facts that we chronicle. I don’t like the suggestion that because we know the quantity of something or the state of something, that we also know the quality of it. Maybe I would more greatly appreciate a list of the mysteries of life that we have encountered and the ways we encountered them. Perhaps I’ll work on this list as a model for a more interesting chronicle of our times. 

James Meredith at Ole Miss

James Meredith photographed in a classroom at Ole Miss where students have cleared out in protest of his presence.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s first day of class at the University of Mississippi. NPR’s “The Picture Show” has some of the photographs that Ed Meek recorded. NPR also has two wonderful discussions about Meredith and the violence that occurred on the campus over desegregation. Thus, in addition to checking out “The Picture Show,” I also recommend these stories:

“Integrating Ole Miss: A Transformative, Deadly Riot” 

“The Fight to Desegregate Ole Miss, 50 Years Later” 

Models Monday: Ava DuVernay

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (left), author Tananarive Due (center), and actress Emayatzy Corinealdi (right) at Spelman College.

Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of being in the audience at Spelman College where filmmaker Ava DuVernay screened three clips from her film Middle of Nowhere, which won her the Best Director’s nod at Sundance in January. The film personalizes mass incarceration through the lens of one couple’s experience. If you have not seen DuVernay’s first film, I Will Follow, I recommend it. This film centers on how a niece copes with the death of her beloved aunt Amanda and in doing so examines a taken for granted hierarchy embedded in how sympathy gets accorded in the aftermath of loss. Maye, played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, literally finds herself displaced, being forced to move from the home she once shared with the aunt she cared for by her cousin Fran, Amanda’s daughter. As Amanda’s daughter, Fran legally assumes primacy for her mother’s affairs, but Maye was not only physically closer, she was emotionally tied to her aunt through a great regard for the integrity of how she wanted to die and a rich resource for recording her memory.

I Will Follow was the first film distributed through the African-American Film Festivals Releasing Movement (AFFRM). DuVernay founded the association as a way to distribute films outside of the predominant corporate model. AFFRM brings together premier black film organizations, including Urbanworld Film Festival, Imagenation, BronzeLens Film Festival, ReelBlack Film Series, and Langston Hughes African-American Film Festival to market and distribute films whose value may be found beyond Hollywood’s recognition. This collective recognizes the potential of what it means to have “other models by which to live.”

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