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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

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February 2013

Eunique Jones Gibson’s “Because of Them, We Can…” Series

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Tonight, my son will be performing as Thurgood Marshall in the Black History month celebration at his school. Gibson’s photograph of this potential Marshall holds extra charm for me in light of Miles’s connection to the former Supreme Court Justice.

Today is the last day of February, and so the last day of Black History month, but I hope it isn’t the last day for Eunique Jones Gibson to produce additional photographs for her enchanting photo series Because of Them, We Can... Each day during Black History month, Gibson released one photo per day on her website as well as through other social media outlets. The photos depict a black child posed to emulate in visage and in pursuit distinguished African Americans for their historical contributions. Gibson now sells posters and calendars on her site so that she can continue this engaging project; I of course bought a poster of mini Marshall.

Models Monday: Alpha Robertson

Mrs. Alpha Robertson
Mrs. Alpha Robertson

Alpha Robertson’s reflections on controlling one’s personal feelings of anger and hatred come at the conclusion of Spike Lee’s Academy Award nominated documentary film 4 Little Girls. Robertson’s 14 year old daughter Carole was one of four black girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Robertson tells Lee that holding on to anger and hatred “wasn’t going to do [her] any good,” but she acknowledged that she struggled with those feelings. Robertson’s obviously gentle, loving spirit makes watching her publicly negotiate what clearly remains an open wound painfully difficult to witness–and I’ve done so on numerous occasions; it’s an absorbing film.

I have thought about the scenes Lee devotes to Robertson and they strike me as masterful. She helps to set in relief the terrible ugliness of racism as the antithesis of love. It produced Carole’s absence and forced a gentle spirit, her mother–and by Mrs. Robertson’s account, her husband as well–to absorb a powerful blow. The shaky, unsteadiness of Robertson’s voice throughout her scenes in the film disrupts any comfort the viewer might take in imagining the salve of time.

I read in at least one place that when the bodies were recovered from the blast, they were so mangled that the girls could only be identified by their shoes. This might explain why in Christopher Paul Curtis’s young adult book The Watson’s Go to Birmingham–1963, Kenny finds his own sister’s shoe and worries that she has died in the blast as she was supposed to be in church that morning. In Lee’s film, Robertson recalls that Carole was wearing her first pair of little pumps, with a slight heel, when she attended church that morning. I imagine Carole’s delight.

Carole is clearly identifiable in the morgue photographs Lee includes in his film. Since he did not ask the families’ permission before including these photographs, one can only imagine how Robertson experienced these post-mortem images of her daughter as they flashed across the screen. How do those terrible photos sit with her recollection of her daughter’s “little heels?” Her daughter’s delight?

Alpha Robertson was 83 when she passed away in 2002. I think about her sometimes and I marvel.

That’s the Day: “Altar Call”

Hroyuki for The New York Times
Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, and Wynton Marsalis performing In This House, On This Morning. Hroyuki for The New York Times

There is a moment in Bruce Broder’s delightfully engaging documentary film Chops (2007) when T.J., a very talented young trombonist, asks famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis the difference between the sound of church in one’s horn playing and the sound of soulfulness. Marsalis offers a great response:

O.K., this is the difference between soulfulness and church. Soulfulness is something that everybody has. Soulfulness is the feeling that when I am around you, I don’t want to leave. That’s soulfulness. You walk into somebody’s house, man you want to sit down there forever […] And that’s a part of our music, the down home, the soulful, the warm, the inviting. Sometimes church is that, sometimes it [ain’t].

I can’t say that I’ve experienced enough church to have encountered the absence of soulfulness that may be found there, but I have known a few church going folk who reflected the lack of soulfulness Marsalis describes; whose homes were not inviting and warm. At the same time, I’ve known people whose church experience has been limited to attending funerals but my encounters with them are certainly soul satisfying, spiritual experiences. Maybe these encounters are ones that informed my long held belief that ministering to the needs of others, caring for the soul, could occur beyond the physical space of a church; which is not to say that church is irrelevant. Church matters–particularly in an increasingly secularizing culture that elevates materialism above all else. Church insists upon the relevance of nonmaterial, spiritual values as well as a higher spiritual power than celebrity. So church matters, but so does the potential for it to occur beyond its walls.

My grandfather performed ministerial work from our front porch during the summer and from our t.v. room in winter. He listened without judgment and offered encouragement to those whose lives seemed far, far from glory. I never talked to my grandfather about what music offered him, but I associate music with the healing he offered others; jazz especially. Not knowing that many church going folk once thought that the secular sounds of blues and jazz were “the devil’s music,” I didn’t consider the possible incongruity between ministry and music in my grandfather’s work. When I learned of Wynton Marsalis’s In This House, On This Morning, a twelve part composition structured in the form of African American church services, I thought first of my grandfather’s lay person’s soulfulness as well as other encounters with soulful church services that I experienced as a child. Here is a bit of Marsalis and his Septet rehearsing “Alter Call,” one of the movements from In This House

I think my grandfather would have approved.

Models Monday: Make Beans

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Melissa Clark’s beans. Photo by Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times.

I don’t agree with Melissa Clark’s suggestion that beans make good dinner party food, but I do recommend them. Clark makes pinto beans using a red wine reduction. You can watch her make her recipe by visiting this embedded link. I’ve tried pinto beans this way before and they are quite tasty so I recommend them…but, if you want to really make beans but you want to put in as little effort as possible, then I recommend throwing them into a crock pot. I don’t use any meat to flavor my beans. For one pound of beans I use about four cups of water and two cups of vegetable stock (if you’re not trying to avoid meat, then use chicken stock). For additional flavor, I add 1/4 teaspoon of thyme, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, 1 small diced onion, 1 bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon of salt (you can add more salt later but I recommend starting out with only 1 teaspoon). I set my crock pot on high for 4 hours and let it do all of the work. When my beans have about an hour left to cook, I peel and halve white potatoes and add them to the crock pot. Adding the potatoes thickens the liquid–the pot liquor–and provides added heartiness to your meal. At some point while my beans are cooking, I make cornbread and then that’s dinner. Easy. Inexpensive. Filling.

That’s the Day: “Come Sunday”

I have long been a reader of The New York Times’s “Sunday Routine” series. I read the accounts of Sundays by notable New Yorkers and think about the absence of routine from my own Sundays. The only thing consistently true about the way I experience Sunday is that there is very little that might be said to be routine about it. Even as a girl growing-up in a Catholic household, church was not a consistent part of my week because we might attend mass on Wednesday or Saturday; in fact, I liked that about Catholic worship. Most of my friends were Baptist and they seemed to be in church all day on Sunday and I didn’t like the idea of spending the entire day in church before having to return to school. For a while, I thought the same thing about attending church on Sunday in relationship to work on Monday. And even if Catholics experienced a shorter service, I didn’t like the idea of having a requirement to attend service one day before returning to highly structured and regimented  environments like school and work. My thoughts about Sunday worship began to change the more I thought about the meaningfulness of Sunday worship for African Americans.

Historian Jacqueline Jones stressed the importance of Sunday for the formerly enslaved through their experience of work. According to Hannah Davidson, a woman formerly enslaved in Kentucky, “Work, work, work” characterized her day; except Sunday, as it was “the only time they [those enslaved] had to themselves.” The rhythm of “work, work, work” as a defining aspect of black life continued far beyond the period of enslavement. Sunday was an important day for worship and physical as well as spiritual recovery. Spiritual renewal was certainly important in an environment where terror reigned. Here I am thinking about lynching, rape, and mob violence that threatened and claimed black life from the late 19th century through much of the 20th. As James H. Cone notes in The Cross and The Lynching Tree, “On Sunday morning at church, black Christians spoke back in song, sermon, and prayer against the ‘faceless, merciless, apocalyptic vengefulness of the massed white mob,’ to show that trouble and sorrow would not determine our final meaning.” For African Americans, Sunday was a day of witness and meaning making.

In a post some time ago, I wrote a little bit about Sundays. At that time, I was interested in designating a part of each Sunday to sharpening my listening skills and thus thinking about how I could become more reflective. Since then, I’ve continued thinking about my relationship to the history of African American meaning making and Sunday’s role in that production. I’m interested in participating in that history by reflecting on moments where I find Sunday meaningfully appearing in African American texts; so I begin with “Come Sunday.”

Duke Ellington first recorded the song in 1944 but it wasn’t until 1958 that he collaborated with Mahalia Jackson to produce the version featured at the top of the page. The song speaks to the hope of Sunday in a deeply affecting way. It reflects African American faith in God’s capacity to renew the soul and spirit of rightfully exhausted folk. The mournfully optimistic song addresses itself in the perfect pitch to the weary faithful.

Models Monday: Beauty and Everyday Life (Re-Post)

Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton of Mobile, AL., 1956. Gordon Parks.

Earlier this summer, I read Maurice Berger’s article in The New York Times about the discovery of a series of Gordon Parks photographs believed to have been lost. The photographs chronicled the daily life of an extended family in Mobile, Alabama in 1956. According to Berger, the found photographs expand upon themes established in that same series of 20 photographs published in Life magazine. Contrary to the documentary photographs from the civil rights period showing brutal inhumanity in black and white, Parks’s photographs reveal the dignity and humanity that black people procured for themselves as they made their lives as rich as they could, amidst demeaning circumstances, in full color and thus vibrancy. Berger contends that the full scope of Parks’s work captures the spirit and will of people committed to living fully in the face of grueling oppression.

The photograph above shows one of Parks’s photographs and confirms Berger’s contention; too, it reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s observations about black life–interestingly as she observed it in Mobile. Thus, in “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she offers the following:

On the walls of the homes of the average Negro one always finds a glut of gaudy calendars, wall pockets and advertising lithographs. The sophisticated white man or Negro would tolerate none of these, even if they bore a likeness to the Mona Lisa. No commercial art for decoration. Neither the calendar nor the advertisement spoils the picture for this lowly man. He sees the beauty in spirit of the declaration of the Portland Cement Works or the butcher’s announcement. I saw in Mobile a room in which there was an over-stuffed mohair living-room suite, an imitation mahogany bed and chifferobe, a console victrola. The walls were gaily papered with Sunday supplements of the Mobile Register. There were seven calendars and three wall pockets. One of them was decorated with a lace doily. The mantel-shelf was covered with a scarf of deep home-made lace, looped up with a huge bow of pink crepe paper. Over the door was a huge lithograph showing the Treaty of Versailles being signed with a Waterman fountain pen.

It was grotesque, yes. But it indicated a desire for beauty.

The Thornton home looks nothing like the Mobile homes Hurston describes as “average Negro” abodes. These sitters strive towards respectability. Hurston’s observations put me in mind of the Parks photograph largely because they situate diversity in black life while at the same time acknowledging a common “desire for beauty.” I saw this desire not only in the bouquet of flowers placed on the coffee table and formal wear of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton but also in the neatness and order that so marked their uncluttered space.

I’ve been learning to take greater pride in my own efforts to maintain a well-ordered environment. Rather than as a chore to be done, I now think about how in sweeping the floor, vacuuming the carpet, washing the dishes, and cleaning the commode I am not merely doing what needs to be done but I am making a claim about the value of my space. I better understand now that in maintaining my environment, I am making an assertion regarding its value. Under Jim Crow segregation, Mr. and Mrs. Thornton were not supposed to think that they led lives of value. The photograph of them shows that they had another idea about that–they disagreed with their culture about the measure of their lives. For those of us who live anonymously in small homes without great material fortune, we have a similar fight to declare the meaningfulness of our lives.

I am keenly aware of how little regard I am supposed to have for myself as a result of the trappings of success that I lack. It would seem impossible not to know this. Popular voices in American culture assume a common starting point for measuring success and so much of what you read or view in the culture trumpets money and the loot it affords as the standard for judging human value. If you are at all critical, however, the absurdity of this standard through the lens of popular culture undermines itself. For example, I was reading an article on a celebrity news site about boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s release from prison. Apparently, the night before his release, his current girlfriend had a birthday and Mayweather paid for the cake to look like an expensive bag, he bought her expensive jewelry, and perhaps he paid for everyone’s meal. I have to admit, I was confused about the gifts and can’t be sure if he also bought his girlfriend the purse that the cake was based on or if the cake itself was expensive and that’s what was supposed to be the fact to acknowledge; all I know for sure is that he spent a lot of money. The author of the piece did make clear that readers were supposed to be jealous because we weren’t similarly feted; but of course, this was completely absurd–at least to me. Floyd Mayweather was in prison for having attacked his ex-girlfriend while his children watched. Expensive goods do not replace this fact. His purchasing power does not eclipse the fact that his ex-girlfriend was not a worthy contender for the boxer leading authorities rank as the best pound for pound in the world. To me, the ex-girlfriend is lucky to have escaped with her life. Given that precedent, I do not envy his current girlfriend anything.

Maybe Floyd Mayweather, his current girlfriend, and the author of the article all have a “desire for beauty;” maybe we all do. The critical point is that we are living at a time when acquiring beauty is thought to be available only to those with money. The Mayweather example highlights the difference between acquiring beauty and spending a lot of money. The goods that Mayweather purchased for his current girlfriend, whatever they were, were certainly expensive but they actually may cost too much to be beautiful if they were given by an unchanged man. I can afford everything in my life and that’s what lends those things value. And when I am broke, without a dime to spend, I can always straighten, clean, wash, cook, or iron something that will then provide me with the beauty I desire. The Thorntons showcase the availability of beauty in the most oppressed circumstances to those invested enough to invent it.

Models Monday: Charles “Teenie” Harris Exhibit

Waitress at the Crawford Grill 1952
Waitress at the Crawford Grill, 1952. Charles “Teenie” Harris

The above photograph by Charles “Teenie” Harris was one of the many from his extensive collection that distinguished scholar Deborah Willis discussed at the  Atlanta University Center Robert Woodruff library on January 31. The Carnegie Museum of Art houses the Harris archive and can be accessed on-line. If you’re not in the Atlanta area and won’t be able to experience the exhibit at the Woodruff library, then I highly recommend searching the on-line archive as another way to engage Harris’s work. Doing so is well worth your time.

One of the things that I like about Harris’s work is that it recognizes broadly articulated expressions of beauty in black life and culture. In the photograph above, Harris focuses on the waitress, who is certainly a beautiful woman, in a clean, crisp uniform–but a uniform nonetheless, taking time out from her work to smile for the camera. Harris’s choice of subject is interesting given the elegantly dressed woman in the background who is privileged enough to at least not be working in that moment and dressed so as to be camera ready; she even seems to admire the waitress.

The photograph of the waitress at the Crawford Grill reminds me of the photographs of my family that I enjoyed as a child. At the time, I didn’t understand that I was looking at working class people whose lives the larger culture discounted and thought devoid of beauty. I didn’t know then that their working class experiences were supposed to place them outside the frame of even my interest. I remember admiring the beauty and elegance of the sitters and wishing that I could possess such charm. The Harris photograph makes the issue of class a more overt concern than the way I understood it at the time and challenges the broader view that beauty can only be an elite affair.

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