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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

January 2013

Models Monday: Micro-Galas and Inauguration 2013

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My aunt attended an inaugural brunch four years ago in the home of a friend and she would repeat that experience this past Monday when President Obama was sworn in a second time. About thirty people attended the first brunch. While there weren’t as many people attending this most recent inaugural brunch, my aunt said everyone had a wonderful time. On the menu were waffles, eggs–any way you wanted them, bacon, sausage, fresh fruit, chicken salad, and mimosas. Apparently, there was no particular dress requirement, but I imagine everyone was pretty covered-up as Cleveland saw very low temperatures on inauguration day.

A good friend of my mother’s runs her own day care and she had an inauguration party for her kids. Ranging in age from three to nine, the children were required to wear red, white, or blue; they learned how to pronounce the word inauguration and learned its definition; they came to identify the members of the first family; they rehearsed the songs of their country as they heard them play out throughout the ceremony. On their menu were waffles, hot dogs, sloppy joes, chips, and brownies.

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Daniel Day-Lewis in the Lincoln Bedroom in the private residence at the White House on November 15, 2012. Day-Lewis was so good at playing Lincoln that I completely forgot that he was acting. Pete Souza.

My husband and I caught an early morning showing of Lincoln the day of the inauguration. It seemed like an appropriate film to screen on such an historic day.

I didn’t hear much about these kinds of celebrations in the mainstream media, but I suspect that there were similar micro-galas and carefully chosen events to mark the King Holiday and President Obama’s inauguration hosted and planned by everyday folk throughout the land. Real life really does push past its representation in popular culture. As I impatiently waited to see Michelle Obama’s ball gown, I got so bored watching television tell the same stories of the day’s inaugural events as they imagined them to have only occurred on Pennsylvania Avenue. My aunt’s recap of her day discussing current events, generational change, family, and fashion was far more compelling than most of what I saw featured on television. The television narrative about those of us at home was that we spent it envying the people who scored tickets to the balls that we wished we could attend. My experience of inauguration 2013 both personally and through the stories of friends and family never even came close to envy. We enjoyed our own deliberate efforts to commemorate a very important day in our nation’s history.

I was surprised that many of the blogs that I read, specifically those focused on cooking and entertaining, didn’t share a special inauguration cupcake, cookie, or cake; usually those bloggers will create a scenario so that they can make something to share. Friends of mine who have Facebook pages said that people didn’t tend to post pictures of the events they may have hosted to celebrate the inauguration as much as they documented their reactions to what was playing out on television in relationship to the event. I hope we get to see more in the coming days about how people marked the day. Perhaps folk don’t recognize that there are people hungering for stories more interesting than the non-story of where Beyonce actually performed the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Unfortunately, one of the reasons why I believe people may not have posted their inauguration menus, recipes, and lesson plans may have been because they are still salty over President Obama’s victory so they tried to avoid anything having to do with the inauguration. I definitely think that this was the case at my son’s play school, which is located in a very conservative county. I received conflicting reports concerning whether or not the inauguration was marked at his school. My four-year-old son is not very reliable when it comes to giving reports but one of the little girls in his class, a slightly older girl, told my husband that they had an “inauguration party.” When I asked the teacher about that she told me that the school did not host any events leading up to the election and they did not encourage any activities recognizing the inauguration. My son’s teacher confirmed that she hosted an “inauguration party” in her classroom, but that actually became an act of resistance. I think that it is grossly irresponsible for a school to ignore an event as nationally and historically significant as the presidential inauguration. No matter who gets elected, the inauguration is an element of U.S. governmental procedure acknowledging voting rights as a fundamental democratic practice; it is also a non-partisan event–even John Boehner was there; Chief Justice Roberts, a George W. Bush nominee, officially swore in Obama on Sunday and Monday.

There are wonderful resources available at the Smithsonian’s website that could be used by educators in marking the inauguration. Given that the 2013 inauguration also fell on the King holiday, there are equally provocative resources at the Smithsonian’s website that would have served an educator well. What I know for sure is that young people are ill served when educators decide to allow partisanship to influence class content. Since I’m being very honest, I have to admit to being disappointed that some of my favorite food bloggers failed to provide inauguration brunch menu suggestions or inauguration themed sugar cookie recipes on their sites. Perhaps like me, they will be posting their experience of Inauguration 2013 later, once they’ve had an opportunity to process it all. I certainly hope that’s the case because it’s hard to believe in someone’s entertainment and home hosting expertise when they fall silent on the occasion of the nation’s greatest opportunity to celebrate the outcome of our democratic process.

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Sarah Collins and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (Update)

On December 17, 2012, I wrote a post that attempted to link the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that occurred on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that occurred on September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. In that post, I included a picture of Sarah Collins, one of the survivors who was in the ladies lounge with the four girls who were killed when the bomb exploded. Here is the photograph that I used in that earlier post [You can find this photograph in The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (text by Lorraine Hansberry). I found the book at Amazon at a very low cost–though the copies available on Amazon’s site now are pretty pricey]:

Sarah Collins, Addie Mae Collins's sister, the one survivor present in the ladies lounge when the bomb's explosion ripped through the bathroom.
Sarah Collins, Addie Mae Collins’s sister, the one survivor present in the ladies lounge when the bomb’s explosion ripped through the bathroom.

NPR has a short feature about Sarah Collins Rudolph on their website that is worth your time. The story chronicles her long hospital stay as well as the physical and psychological damages Collins suffered. The story also notes the financial costs of her survival: “Medical bills […] have mounted over the years as Collins worked in factories and cleaning houses–mostly without health insurance.”

Sarah Collins Rudolph today.
Sarah Collins Rudolph today.

Collins sought financial assistance from the Birmingham City Council, but has not received any support. Though Birmingham Mayor William Bell claims that he is not heartless and recognizes her suffering, he contends that no legal obligation exists for the city to act…perhaps the Mayor has never heard of compassion, empathy, or simply morality as a motivating force.

Models Monday: Honoring King and Witnessing President Obama’s Second Inauguration

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Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to the crowd at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
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President Obama takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John G. Roberts in the Blue Room of the White House on Sunday, January 20, 2013. Michelle Obama holds the family bible while daughters Malia and Sasha look on.

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Lance Armstrong and Bottomless Rage

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I watched disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong in his much hyped interview with Oprah Winfrey on her OWN network Thursday evening with great interest. Like disgraced track star Marion Jones, he’s one of those athletes who has admitted his wrongdoing and who I find incredibly compelling. As with Jones, who also owned up to using performance enhancing drugs, Armstrong admits to his personal flaws and to his sporting transgressions. In the case of both athletes, I find myself watching the fallout and listening to the commentary wondering how long the master narrative of public contempt against them is supposed to last. While I understand the disappointment that many feel towards these once athletic heroes whose admitted cheating comes as a tremendous blow, I usually end up feeling great sympathy for the wrongdoer because of the seemingly relentless, untempered venom directed their way. Perhaps I see the public displaying of their flaws as a peek behind the curtain upon the ugliness that most of us get to hide from view and believe that the self-righteousness of the contemptuous ignores these all too human limitations reflected by our fallen heroes. Perhaps. What I know for sure is that as I watched Armstrong on Oprah’s Next Chapter, I recognized how hard it was for me to look at him as I thought about how embarrassing and shameful it must be to admit, in such a public fashion, that you lied and cheated. As I watched, I considered the meaningfulness of those feelings of sympathy in an environment that seems to make little room for any human sentiment beyond reality show like mean-spiritedness and treachery.

Watching Armstrong testify to his own flaws reminded me so much of what it was like talking to my father once he was ready to accept responsibility for something that he had done wrong. There was always something rather hollow about the admission. It was the revelation of a truth without the parting of the sea; the earth didn’t move either. But in admitting he was wrong and that he had flaws, it was like he had served an ace. He hit a ball that could not be returned and as the recipient of the serve, I was just left standing there. I remember feeling powerless at the same time as he won the point. Though I was the recipient of the admission and the apology, it never felt like I had ever won anything. At the same time, I never felt manipulated by my father’s apologies. I knew that my father never lived with a clear conscience. He suffered from terrible nightmares over how he had hurt people. But even if he hadn’t, I never thought that I should feel guilty for offering him my sympathy and compassion given his tremendous need for mercy. Typically, I just wanted to move on from the whole scene, I wanted to get past the ugliness of it all.

I ended up being the only one of my father’s four daughters who spent what was to be his last, full living day with him before he died. He had invited his other three daughters over to spend the day with us as we had never all shared space together. I can’t remember why his five-year-old didn’t come over but his two next oldest daughters had initially agreed to come; ultimately, they changed their plans because they said they had to attend church services. When my father told me this, I expressed to my mother what a mistake they seemed to be making. Though I didn’t know that it would be my father’s last full day, I knew that he was dying. “When your father is dying of cancer and asks you to stop by,” I said to my mother, “I think you should show up” as there might be deep regret for not doing so were he to die. Eventually, his two daughters did not come to his funeral. I thought this was more of the drama that I had seen from them and experienced through my father’s final stories about his previous meetings with them. Meaningful venom, it seemed to me, would have kept them estranged from him. Their repeated attempts to hold him hostage to the inadequacies of the reasons he tried to give them for why he stayed out of their lives for so long just seemed pointless. “If no answer will suffice,” I thought, “what is the point of repeatedly asking the same question?” They seemed to have drawn their own conclusions regarding the questions they posed to him so I wondered why those answers weren’t good enough. It all just seemed needlessly dramatic to me.

Though I certainly held an opinion about the decisions my father’s daughters had made, at the same time I believed that they had the right to whatever their relationship was with our father. I don’t know that I would have cared about their relationship one way or the other had it not impacted me; and it did. My father had expressed to me that he wanted to be cremated, but because he did not have a will, the three of us needed to authorize the process. One of his daughters was quite reluctant to consent. According to my stepmother, her oldest daughter’s faith did not support cremation. I was nearly furious when she told me this. Whatever her faith, this was a young woman who seemed to feel no deep sense of commitment to our father so why should she bring her faith into the decision regarding what would happen to him. In the end, she consented but I wonder now about the ways that an unwillingness to think through the consequences of bottomless contempt and endless rage as expressed in the public venom shown former heroes might be comparable to the personal drama that I experienced with my father’s daughters when he passed. My father’s daughters’ fury became my problem and it shouldn’t have. I had nothing to do with whatever harm he had caused them. My father’s daughters were too righteous about their fury to empathize with how I might have felt. I wonder if the public fury that we watch played out against cultural heroes has similar costs. As a culture, do innocent people suffer from the seemingly boundless rage of those who feel victimized?

As I watched Lance Armstrong repeatedly assert how sorry he was for his lies, I didn’t feel very optimistic about his apologies being well-received. People don’t like the powerless feeling that comes from being the recipient of the ace, the un-returnable serve that an apology oftentimes streaks right past you. The stories that seem to get told in popular culture regarding being a victim and then the recipient of an apology requires an intransigent commitment to holding on to anger and contempt as the victim’s duty. Over the course of the next several months, I expect to hear many, many stories of people’s attempts to sue Armstrong. They’ll talk about all of the pain and suffering he has caused them and their lawyers will explain their efforts to sue him as an attempt to receive justice. Justice, once again, will eclipse any hope of mercy.

See Also:

Reading with my Father: Intro

Models Monday: Getting Up

Models Monday: Viewing “History”

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Every film that takes historical events as the core of the story it tells is not a documentary. To that end, Django Unchained does not claim to be a documentary about slavery and it is not a documentary about slavery. The film offers a fictive take on the antebellum period in United States history and captures the brutality, licentiousness, depravity, incestuousness, and ugliness of what black feminist scholar bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” very, very well. So if we do go to the movies to “learn stuff” as hooks asserts, Django Unchained enables a long look at the everyday humiliations of the dehumanization that slavery involved and the daily (sexual) perversions it maintained as it permeated every aspect of American life. In the film itself, Django represents the hope that the enslaved created for themselves through dissemblance, absconding, the establishment of fictive kinship networks, worship, marriage, storytelling, dancing, and music.

A very dear friend of mine aptly calls Django Unchained “Faulkneresque.” This description brilliantly captures what she terms the “Southern Gothic” very well represented in this film; it is macabre. The “Mandingo fights,” the “fancy girl” network, the hinting towards incestuousness in Quentin Tarantino’s film appear as direct references to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! One of the more powerful scenes in the film for me occurs when Dr. King Schultz recalls Calvin Candie’s dogs ripping an enslaved man apart; the memory haunts him. This representation of a traumatic memory underscores the powerful and peculiar impact of slavery’s violence to actively render the past a present catastrophe. Thus, time’s passage does not permit an easy escape from the horrors of this sadistic institution.

Unlike Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Django Unchained resists romanticizing slavery. The love story between Django and Broomhilda doesn’t romanticize slavery, as a nod towards historical understanding, their love story represents resistance of slavery. Despite slaveholders’ propaganda, slavery was not a system designed to benefit and enhance the lives of the enslaved. Narratives like Mitchell’s depicting kindly, benevolent slaveholders who take good care of their slaves misrepresents extreme paternalism and the violence of owning and commanding human chattel. If life became worthwhile for the enslaved, it was because they made it so. Marriage served as a site for just such a possibility. In Help Me to Find my People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, Heather Andrea Williams notes the role that marriage played in the interior lives of enslaved men. For some, she notes that “it could be an antidote for loneliness and emotional pain […] For some, marriage was what made the hard labor and abuse of slavery bearable. For others it was an act of soul preservation.” In recording the reflections of Francis Fredric, a man enslaved in Virginia and Kentucky, Williams reports his suggestion that “marriage and family served as the sole outlet for their emotions.” Continuing, Fredric believed that “some men focused all their affection on their wives and children because they had nothing else, no career or material possessions to compete for their attention or to give them a feeling of worth. Sometimes, too, marriage and fatherhood presented the only opportunity to exert a sense of power, ownership, or protectiveness, feelings not generally allowed to enslaved men.” This discussion of marriage and the suggestion of loving bonds suggests the active, use value of love. For the enslaved, love between them was about facilitating whatever semblance of life they could manage in the confines of their bondage. While Django Unchained used a romantic fairytale as a frame, ultimately, I think it showed an understanding that love between the enslaved had to be useful. In the film, usefulness is murderous but historically, usefulness wasn’t limited in this way, as Mr. Fredric’s testimony attests.

My friend Carmen has been hosting a series of wonderful posts about an “anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls” that will focus the writing courses she teaches. Her reflections on the limits of popular, fairy tale romance, especially for young black women and girls, have certainly impacted how I am processing Django Unchained. In one of Carmen’s posts, she uses the Williams book to discuss a fantastic assignment that she will require of her students. The kind of imaginative work that she is asking her students to do reminds me of the question my mother posed to me at the conclusion of Django Unchained: “So what’s going to happen to them after this? Do they even make it out of Mississippi?” What kind of life was possible for black people in such horrific circumstances? Coming to imagine the possibilities of how black Americans made lives for themselves requires doing the kind of work that Carmen has planned for her class. It is work that involves the archives and not simply going to the movies.

Models Monday: Following the Lives of Real People

I greatly enjoyed this holiday season. I liked that we:

found a tree :IMG_0031 and decorated it a little earlier this year:

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I liked that my mother got to visit a while longer to help us enjoy the gingerbread people my son and I made:

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I liked that we finally got to have that New Year’s Eve picnic like my Aunt Janet and Uncle Be Be:

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This is a season that reminded me of the importance of turning to the real people in our lives for a model of how to live. Television, “reality” or otherwise, does not provide a good model for how real people create pleasure and meaning in their lives. I thought about this when I received so many kind messages about my New Year’s Eve picnic and the accompanying story I shared about my family’s tradition. Television makes all New Year’s traditions the same: every woman wears a sparkly dress; men wear suits and tuxedoes; they all don cardboard top hats and blow air thru cardboard horns; sometimes they have rattlers; they sip champagne and kiss at midnight…unless you’re in Times Square. If you’re in Times Square, you skip the sparkly dress and the suit but keep the other stuff. It’s just monotony packaged and sold as a good time.

I know real families who create wonderful rituals and traditions to enjoy that television does not portray. On my friend Carmen’s wonderful blog, she thoughtfully writes about preparing black-eyed peas for the New Year as a tradition that she and many of her friends ritualistically perform as an element of familial and community history. I actually first learned that black folk prepared black-eyed peas for New Year’s day after reading the Darden sisters’ cookbook, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (a cookbook I truly love as a book of good stories and photographs as much as for the recipes)My grandmother never cooked black-eyed peas. I suspect it was because they weren’t her favorite beans. She cooked pinto beans. Like her, I prepare pinto beans; they’re my favorite. When I first learned that African American families prepared black-eyed peas for good luck in the New Year, I improvised and made pinto instead. As my mother was visiting this year, I didn’t cook beans at all because she doesn’t eat them. In fact, she was most happy that she wasn’t in Cleveland so that she didn’t have to field numerous invitations from friends to enjoy a meal of black-eyed peas and collard greens as they are two foods she abhors. What my Mom’s friends did in preparation for the holiday season that she liked, as did I, was they ordered big ethnic meals for their families to enjoy before they prepared their big dinners. Thus, she had friends who ordered fanciful Italian dinners for their families. Other friends ordered Chinese food by the carton full so that they didn’t have to cook a thing themselves on Christmas Eve. One year, she told me that she had a friend who hosted a sandwich bar. In that vein, we had sub sandwiches on Christmas Eve.

We do ourselves such a service when we pay attention to the people in our lives; learn from them. T.V. people do not allow an assessment of the full scope and measure of their lives. Mostly what we see from television people is how they spend money. Thus, they might give us insight into how to shop–or better yet, how they shop, but not how to live.

Happy New Year!!!

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We decided to wait until later today to barbecue the ribs.

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