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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

April 2013

Models Monday: I Dedicate This…

imurphy1As National Poetry Month draws to a close and the Kentucky Derby approaches, I dedicate this post to poet Frank X Walker and his book of persona poems on Isaac Murphy, Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate this Ride. Murphy descended from slaves and rose to prominence as a jockey, winning the Kentucky Derby three times. The title poem of Walker’s collection and reprinted on the Affrilachia website offers a sense of the rich interior life Walker imagines for Murphy:

I Dedicate This Ride

Isaac Murphy

When I come barreling down the stretch,

I always think about my daddy, James Burns,

a runaway slave turned soldier.

At the start of every race I pretend

he’s in the crowd, standing at attention,

watching me ride for the first time,

his brass belt buckle gleaming

like his proud mouth.

I tell myself I don’t dare lose

that this race is for the Union,

for all ex-slaves who joined up,

who stole away with their families.

They taught us about sacrifice,

dug trenches, carried supplies

and ate a whole lot of rebel bullets

just so they could keep the freedom

they hungered so much for.

Just so their children could dream.

So I could ride horses and enjoy true quiet

and these visits with him

in the middle of all this noise.

I’ve written about Murphy before and reflected on his final resting place at the Kentucky Horse Park. I’d still be curious to know what you think about his fate, as Walker would have it, as a “ghost lawn jockey.”

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Models Monday: Finding Joy Through “Cool”

I liked Anthony Hamilton’s “Cool” the very first time I heard it. It’s a hopeful cut that suggests other models for finding joy and pleasure in life. The song soulfully challenges the notion that personal fulfillment necessarily derives from realizing the goals of the most casual of our “best laid plans.” Instead, Hamilton suggests that fulfillment may in fact derive from our ability to rethink our agenda and take pleasure in having another idea about joy, love, and happiness.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about representations of joy and fulfillment as they are presented in American popular culture. This presentation suggests that only rich people and solidly middle-class people know joy and fulfillment. I wonder what this representation does to those who fall outside of these parameters. Do they overlook the joy present in their own lives and the lives of others they know because of the difference it marks from the popular, overarching depiction? Do rich and middle-class people think joy and fulfillment are privileges only they enjoy?

One of the presumptions existing in popular American culture suggests that people want what celebrities have–their homes, their cars, their clothes. Television programs and magazine articles describing how you can have “this look for less” offers one example of this presumption. This point of departure assumes that viewers and readers find the look desirable. Such an entry point further supports the construction of the poor that feminist scholar bell hooks claims dominates popular culture. In her reading, representations of the poor overwhelmingly show them longing for material wealth and finding very little pleasure in their own lives. In general, it’s like the culture can’t even imagine poor and working-class folk thinking what Anthony Hamilton tells his friend, “if you’re cool, then I’m cool, then we’re cool.” The culture doesn’t presume that you can be poor, working-class and cool…but they’re wrong.

Models Monday: Living Learning Out Loud

A smiling Malcolm X.
A smiling Malcolm X.

I was a girl when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm wasn’t a figure that I learned about in school but as someone coming of age in the ’90s, his name was referenced in rap songs and references were being made to him through the Xs emblazoned on t-shirts and baseball caps sported as popular fashion. I wanted to know who this guy was that seemed to be so popular for the older teens of my generation so I picked-up a copy of his autobiography–the one I still have all these years later.

I don’t know too many schools that assign The Autobiography of Malcolm X as required reading, but they should. His story, as told to Alex Haley, has music in it. As I read it, I heard jazz, my grandfather’s music, as the backbeat of his life’s story. I don’t know that I can explain where the sound comes from for me in the text, but the book definitely resonates acoustically. Perhaps the changes that Malcolm was forced to endure, initiated himself, and inspired others to make influenced the text’s sound. These changes certainly are what make his life an interesting one to contemplate. As critical of America as Malcolm was, the self that he fashioned from the losses that he endured, the home he was forced to give-up and remake, and the trials he suffered through to become a public person who tried to lead a moral and purposeful life makes for a very American story.

I’m currently reading James H. Cone’s book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare so Malcolm has been on my mind lately. I’ve always thought about Malcolm through the lens of change but because Cone highlights the changes King makes in his own thinking about America towards the end of his life, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how public and open Malcolm’s changes appear when compared to King’s. King expanded his ideas about how and where suffering occurs, as a matter of class and not just race, he was not forced to admit that he was wrong in the way that Malcolm had to in his blind support and commitment to Elijah Muhammad; in his effort to build coalition through religion. Malcolm changed course in a very public way. He lived learning out loud.

My father was a great admirer of Malcolm’s. I think he was drawn to the in-your-face, assertive, confrontational form of masculinity that he offered. Towards the end of his life, my father liked to voice his own criticism of America through what I took to be his own Malcolm-like posture. My father wouldn’t have been a very good preacher, but what I appreciated about him in relationship to Malcolm was how publicly he lived out his faults and attempted to correct his mistakes. I’m sure it’s easy for certain kinds of personalities to boast and speak out with great volume, but no matter who you are, admitting that you’re wrong in that same pitch requires courage. As I saw with my father, it can also be very generous to share your faults, your humanity, with other people; I appreciate them both for that.

I’ve written here before about speaking to a group of college honors students about Malcolm. What I didn’t say in that post is that while the students on the panel were there to discuss Manning Marable’s wonderful biography about Malcolm, they all did so while noting that they had not read Malcolm’s autobiography. Apparently, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is not required reading for honors classes and though you would expect honors students to be curious enough to go and read the work for themselves, that isn’t happening…and I think that’s a shame. Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X is certainly worth your time.

Models Monday: Trembling Heroes

For a while I have been wanting to watch Of Gods and Men and this weekend finally presented me with the opportunity. The film offers a cinematic interpretation of the actual events surrounding the fact of French Trappist monks living in the mountains of Algeria whose commitment to cooperation between Christians and Moslems obligates them to remain in their community despite the very real threat from the lethal hands of Islamic Fundamentalists. While some of the monks were clear early on that they would not leave their home, others wanted to flee. Ultimately, those set on fleeing decided there was no where  else to go. Though these men discussed their family lives outside of the ministry, they mostly felt themselves more at home with those they had created family with through their common faith. As different and perhaps even strange as their lives might have appeared to others, the men all searched within themselves and affirmed the authenticity of their fashioned ties.

The film was interesting because of its attention to the trembling fear of death for even those who appeared the most resolute about remaining in their besieged monastery. It was a compelling emphasis because fretting heroes aren’t readily apparent in American cinema…or American culture for that matter; in life though, this just isn’t true. Take Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example. Scholars who write about King agree that he was disquieted by the persistent threats to his life. For instance, in his Pulitzer Prize winning work Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow offers the perspectives of King’s close friends and relatives on his anxiety regarding the violence he perceived in American culture and thus the violent end he expected to meet. Despite King’s public claims that he had made peace with the threats made against his life, privately he trembled. On one of these occasions, Garrow writes:

“The constant death threats and the reminders of Malcolm’s and [Jimmie Lee] Jackson’s violent ends, had put King in a morbid state of mind. As the March started out for the cemetery, King beckoned SCLC board member Joseph Lowery to come with him. ‘Come on, walk with me, Joe, this may be my last walk,’ King remarked in a bantering tone that did not conceal the serious concern underlying it” (394).

By 1967, King’s deep depression and melancholy worsened. Quoting his friends and longtime aides, Garrow noted the following:

“‘In the later years he was given to a kind of depression that he had not had earlier,’ Andrew Young recalled. ‘He talked about death all the time….He couldn’t relax, he couldn’t sleep….Even when we were away on trips, he’d want to talk all night long….And just physically, I was afraid,’ Young said, of how worn down King was. ‘He was spiritually exhausted.’ Longtime Birmingham friend Deenie Drew noticed the same changes. ‘In his last year or so, I had a feeling that [he] had a death wish….I had a feeling that he didn’t know which way to turn.’ Bayard Rustin, despite his public break with King, had a similar worry, and discussed it with Levison. ‘Both Stanley and I had some very serious talks because we thought Martin was becoming a little too concerned about the possibility of death.’ On one occasion, Rustin suggested that misgiving to King, only to be brushed off. ‘You think I’m paranoid, don’t you?’ Sometimes I do, Martin,’ Rustin responded. Young had tried to counsel King, but had met the same reception. ‘If you said anything, he’d brush you off.’ (602).

Michael Eric Dyson has dedicated an entire book, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, to death as a bio-critical consideration of King. As he writes in the opening pages of this work:

“You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., and not think of death. You might hear the words ‘I have a dream,’ but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life it is, and was, death that ultimately defined him.”

I actually read these works in the reverse order of how I have presented them here, but until I encountered Dyson, I had not really thought about King in relationship to the possibility of his own mortality. Though I agree with Dyson’s point about how death defines King’s public narrative, I think I understood it more as a fact than as a haunting element of King’s daily life that plagued or even consumed him. Perhaps I didn’t think about it because the culture doesn’t encourage the association between heroes and trembling; instead they’re marked by fearlessness…but it’s important to remember that human beings are afraid. What I liked about Of Gods and Men is that it underscored this fact: fear greats even faithful men.

I AM a MAN: R.I.P. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ernest Withers
Ernest Withers, 1968
Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas, 2009

Today, the striking Memphis sanitation workers whose efforts King supported in 1968 are once again concerned about being diminished as workers, as persons, and as citizens as the city is considering privatizing sanitation work and thus effectively eliminating the Union. 45 years after King’s assassination on this day in Memphis, the fight for dignity continues.

The Importance of Questions

socrates

There is a very short article and a 2:53 video at the Big Think site about the value of asking the right questions. According to the article, data from the U.S. School System reveals that “the average high school student asks one question of substance per month in a classroom.” This troubling find would make for interesting conversation. Why does American culture devalue the significance of asking questions? 

Models Monday: National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month

talkearlytalkoftenlogoweb_0

Today begins National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. I was reading around on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center site thinking about the work that I try to do as a parent to keep my son safe and to keep him aware of his responsibility for ensuring the safety of others. Perhaps one of the most mundane things is in reminding him to keep his hands to himself. As I was helping him dress the other day, Miles said, “No one touches my bottom, right Mommy?”

“That’s right, Miles,” I told him. “And you don’t touch anyone else’s. NO TOUCHING BOTTOMS.”

“That’s right,” he confirmed.

That exchange reminded me of his four-year-old wellness visit when his pediatrician was examining him and told him that he’s not to let anyone touch him, examine him, in that way; and then she qualified herself, “except Mommy and Daddy.” And to that I said, “and if you said ‘no’ to any of us, we would have to respect that.” We all agreed.

When I was a young girl, I broke a total of three fingers under three different sports related circumstances. On one occasion, my basketball coach didn’t know that my finger was broken and assumed it was jammed. She kept trying to persuade me to allow her to pull my finger so that the joint would become properly aligned. I refused her every attempt. Finally, she asked my father who said to her, “that’s her finger! I can’t give you permission to pull her finger.” I was very grateful to him for that. It was an early lesson in the authority that I possessed in constructing my own bodily boundaries. It was very powerful for my father, who was partly responsible for giving me life, to declare in a very public way that when I set limits regarding my body, other people, including him, had to respect that; otherwise, a violation occurred.

I think it is quite wonderful when a parent or a pediatrician can give a child a message regarding bodily integrity, but I am also quite comfortable with it coming from a teacher. I don’t expect to receive a note in my son’s book bag about the lessons his Play School has prepared for National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month or a permission slip for me to authorize his participation in related educational programming, but I would definitely be cool with it; would you?

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