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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 2013

Models Monday: Repeat Step 1(In Advance of the New Season of the Real Housewives of Atlanta)

I think I might have seen an advertisement on television promoting the new season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. In advance of the new season’s launch in early November, I thought to re-post my thoughts on the show because they’re sure to be relevant because nothing on the show ever seems to change.

Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Tableau” from her book Domestic Work features a man and a woman pretty much in repose:

At breakfast, the scent of lemons,
just-picked, yellowing on the sill.
At the table, a man and woman.

Between them, a still life:
shallow bowl, damask plums
in one square of morning light.

The woman sips tea
from a chipped blue cup, turning it,
avoiding the rough white edge.

The man, his thumb pushing deep
toward the pit, peels taut skin
clean from plum flesh.

The woman watches his hands,
the pale fruit darkening
wherever he’s pushed too hard.

She is thinking seed, the hardness
she’ll roll on her tongue,
a beginning. One by one,

the man fills the bowl with globes
that glisten. Translucent, he thinks.
The woman, now, her cup tilting

empty, sees, for the first time,
the hairline crack
that has begun to split the bowl in half.

I’ve thought about this work a great deal since the very first time I read it. I love its elegant simplicity.

I imagine the man and woman as a married African American couple. I admire their ability to be still together, quiet, and comfortable enough with one another to take leave of their partnership to think their own thoughts and to have their own ideas about everyday things. Their peace enables them to see mundane things anew. While the “hairline crack” in the bowl might suggest something ominous about their relationship, I choose not to interpret the ending in this way. I see that “hairline crack” much like the “chipped blue cup” that the woman sips tea from: a mark of character as well as a feature of the cup. Flaws do not make items disposable for this woman. The cup has not lost its value as a conveyor of her morning drink. Despite being chipped, the cup still works.

The representation of an African American married couple who can be still together and quiet counters the representation offered on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The tableau of African American married life on this show stands in direct opposition to Trethewey’s beautiful still life. The characters presented on this show do not seem committed to preserving anything despite functionality. They constantly shop for new things whose meaning seemingly derives from its brand name rather than its use. This show interprets the meaning of African American married couples spending time together, at least the significant part of it, as mostly scheming to make more money. I see very little beauty here. Why are we supposed to want lives like these women have? 

I was really moved to see the cast showing a common understanding towards Kandi’s heartbreak over her daughter’s poor relationship with her father. What troubled me though was that you don’t ever see any of the women most concerned for their children’s relationships with their fathers doing anything that would improve them. In one episode, Sheree takes her son tennis shoe shopping and she makes some disjointed claims about the relationship she wants him to have with his father. I don’t actually remember what she said but I remember thinking that she would swear up and down that she talked to her son about his father but how little talking actually occurred. I thought the same thing when I saw a clip from an episode featuring NeNe talking to her son. Their descriptions of themselves as party starters, however, does not support their ambition to offer meaningful talk; that requires quiet. Meaningful talk requires thinking through what to say and how. The Real Housewives makes no effort to depict people who spend any time strategizing how to talk. What they offer is a process involved in being mean spirited: Step 1: Make a lot of noise. Step 2: Read nothing. Step 3: Busy yourself with a series of mindless tasks. Step 4: Meet a friend for dinner. Step 5: Talk to your friend over dinner. Once you get to Step 4, you begin to see how following these steps put you on a road to destruction because they gave you nothing to discuss once you reached the fifth step. The only thing these steps prepare you for is being mean spirited; a disaster.

I think that the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta were sincere when they claimed to want their children to have better relationships with their fathers. I also think they were being sincere when they talked to their children about this. However, really being of service to one’s children would require making use of a different series of steps: Step 1: Be quiet; don’t make any noise. Step 2: Read something. Step 3: Focus on what you read; think about it. Step 4: Discuss what you read with someone who spends more time being quiet and reading than you do. Steps 1-4 prepare you to offer advice, but before saying anything, it is extremely important to repeat Step 1.

Step 1 is where Natasha Trethewey’s poem centers all of its action. Those two people aren’t gettin’ the party started; they aren’t spending any money. What they are doing–together–is giving life careful attention. They are catching their perceptions up with the world going on around them. They are making careful observations and adjusting themselves to meet them (i.e. the woman turning the cup so as not to sip from the “rough edge”). They are executing a model of living that I find most attractive. It’s a life that we can all have without spending a dime–so don’t expect to see this life on television; it wouldn’t be attractive to sponsors.

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Models Monday: Duck and Goose: Knowing When to Stop

Usually, I end the evening with my son reading first, Duck and Goose followed by Duck, Duck, Goose both by Tad Hills. In the first book, Duck and Goose discover a ball that they mistake for an egg. In responding to what they take to be the egg’s needs, they develop an appreciation for one another that blossoms into a friendship. In Duck, Duck, Goose a new duck, Thistle, introduces competition into what had been a mostly cooperative relationship. My favorite part of the book occurs when Goose decides that he has had enough of Thistle’s contests.

Tad Hills. Duck, Duck, Goose. Schwartz and Wade, 2007.
Tad Hills. Duck, Duck, Goose. Schwartz and Wade, 2007.

I love that Goose has boundaries. Though he acts as a good sport and participates as much as he can in Thistle’s games, he ultimately decides to move on to something else. “I’d rather look for butterflies,” he decides.

I thought about this recently as I’ve been reading Vanity Fair’s special commemorative issue on John F. Kennedy. I haven’t gotten to the essays devoted to the fatal crash that ended his son’s life, but I recalled another Vanity Fair article about John F. Kennedy, Jr. based on an excerpt from Christina Haag’s memoir, Come to the Edge. Unlike VF’s description, I found nothing “magical” about the trip Haag and John F. Kennedy Jr. took to Jamaica. I judged his “fearlessness” to be reckless and their “romance” to be patriarchal. The example that proves the case is the story Haag relates of the time he took her kayaking in Jamaica after she had broken her foot. Before they encounter the reef that could have killed them or the “enormous swell” that might have, she describes her reluctance and offers his response:

” ‘It’s a reef–turn back, King,’ I heard myself saying in a voice much higher-pitched than my own. We paddled back out and convened. ‘You’re first mate and I’m captain, but we’re a team and I need you behind me,’ he said. ‘If we pull in and you say no for any reason–any reason at all–I’ll turn back.’ He kept his eyes on me and waited. There were bits of dried salt on his large brown shoulders. I wanted that desert-island fantasy, sand and all. I also wanted to feel powerful, as afraid as I was. And somewhere in the mix, I wanted to please him. ‘O.K. But you promise?’ ‘Don’t worry, I promise.’ ”

I had to read this several times before I felt certain I understood what happened. I was confused by the conversation following Haag telling Kennedy, who she affectionately called King, to “turn back.” She told him to “turn in” and he didn’t so how could they even be having the conversation they presumably had where Kennedy tells Haag that if she tells him to turn in for any reason, he will? Though I completely sympathize with Haag’s desire to want to please and found it admirable that she admits this, I did not regard this scenario as attractive. Kennedy seemed insensitive and self-absorbed. There is nothing magical or romantic about someone ignoring you and asking that you forsake your concerns for theirs; that’s just manipulative.

I haven’t seen this “magic” in any of the articles that I’ve read in the commemorative magazine either. There is so much infidelity in the relationships being described that I can’t keep up with it. Too, the friendships all seemed so fragile and dependent on status and wealth. What the magazine presents as glamourous looks quite ugly to me; it appears to me to be a world without boundaries. I guess that’s what I like about Goose, he knew when he had enough. Knowing when to stop, yeah, that’s attractive.

Models Monday: Freedom, Dignity, and Integrity

I finally had a chance to sit down and watch Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. I found it absorbing. Shola Lynch’s beautifully organized, thoughtful film offers an intriguing portrait of Angela Davis that sharply contrasts with the iconic Davis that all Americans presumably know. Knowledge based on her halo-like afro and her leather jacket have come to represent Davis’s total being through terms completely divorced from their political significance. Lynch’s documentary unpacks what Davis herself has critiqued as the reductionist symbolism of her appearance as a “politics of fashion,” through an engagement with how her self-presentation communicated a revolutionary “politics of liberation.” Davis’s embrace of anti-establishment ideas that critiqued capitalism, racism, and sexism infuriated those committed to the flourishing of a system of domination as an order that secured their wealth, power, and authority.

One of the reasons Lynch’s film succeeds is because Free Angela and All Political Prisoners manages to reveal a relationship between radical politics and oppositional consciousness to a profound sensitivity towards human suffering. The documentary casts Davis as deeply committed to a politics that could expose the humanity of those whose suffering derived from deliberately manipulated injustices. For Davis, prisons function as a site for highlighting gross efforts to dehumanize and then to exploit the vulnerability of people of color through a teleology that presumes their criminality. In contemporary terms, the brilliant writer Kiese Laymon describes this telos through one’s birth assignment, “being born a black boy on parole” is how he terms it. The achievements found in both Lynch’s documentary and Laymon’s writing stem from their ability to depict the emergence of an incisive, strident , radical critique through the efforts of quiet, reflective practices requiring deliberate and focused reading, patience, and attention.

In interviews that I’ve read with Davis regarding the film, she has been asked to comment on the similarities and differences between the 1960s and ’70s and contemporary culture. True to form, Davis is very generous in her evaluation of present youth activism. To my mind, Davis is an honest and brilliant woman so when she makes this claim, I can only assume that she’s thinking in global terms. Because if she’s speaking about American youth, I just don’t see it…but maybe I’m not looking in the right places.

Popular culture and social media are certainly not the places one should look for an oppositional consciousness. I thought about this recently as I watched Rihanna’s video for “Pour It Up.”

If you have not seen this video, I should caution you, before you decide to hit play, to hide your children first. Distract them with something, ANYTHING, for about 30 minutes so that you can view this 3:17 video in private and devote the remaining time to praying, crying, or shouting because you will need to do something to prepare yourself to answer the question, “what has become of freedom?”

While I identify myself as a feminist, and have done so for a very long time, I don’t see anything liberatory in glamorizing the lives and the choices of desperate women. When I have made this claim in discussions with young women, they are quick to denounce my views as being aligned with conservatives and elitists bent on “slut shaming” women for using their bodies however they please. Admittedly, I don’t understand how one can reasonably assert that someone might be “pleased” to perform such labor? Doesn’t a system of domination limit the choices of some women so that what they think of as available options contrasts sharply with women privileged enough to recognize, to claim, and to expect other options for supporting themselves? In a culture where great emphasis is placed on human worth being linked to expensive clothes, how would it be possible that this same culture extolls those whose work requires nudity? Routine, public nudity can’t possibly signify haute couture; though “Pour it Up” tries to make a strong case for it.

In recognizing the value of a feminist viewpoint, I understand that the music industry is the engine shielded by Rihanna’s explicit performance. And while I recognize its culpability, I don’t understand what it means for her to be rich. How does all this money, that her lyrics extoll, enable her freedom? It seems to me that if you have a lot of money, then your work wouldn’t require nudity; you could afford to be clothed in all that expensive shit that money can buy.  What the fuck is money for if it doesn’t free you from the choices that desperate women sometimes make? Rihanna, and this nasty ass video, represent, at least for me, the implausibility of American youth facilitating revolution: they’ve got a fucked up view of freedom. [Isn’t it interesting how we can see the ugliness in words and language but not in the cultural inscriptions on (black women’s) flesh?]

Young Americans appear to have no investment in freedom and its role in facilitating a person’s ability to lead lives of dignity and integrity. It’s as though those words have no currency anymore; no value. In Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, freedom, dignity, and integrity were used repeatedly to articulate the meaning of injustice; indecency had meaning. How might activism proceed in a culture wherein indecency may be substituted for glamour? It’s an intensification of the problem Angela Davis identifies in substituting a “politics of liberation for a politics of fashion.” Our current enchantment with indecency not only obscures, but strangles the possibility for the emergence of “other models by which to live,” which interestingly enough, essentially constitutes a review of the ambitions of generations of activists who fought for the righteousness of decency. Angela Davis is still with us and she is still advocating for a world where every person can live with what Martin Luther King, Jr envisioned as one where every [person] respects “the dignity and worth of human personality.” I just don’t see how the ostensible razzle-dazzle of stripping gets us to a better place.

More and more, I’m beginning to see the political significance of beauty; the weight of beauty that Ben Arogundade understands as a “human rights issue.” In order for freedom, dignity, and integrity to matter, for Davis and King to be intelligible, you’ve got to be able to see the ugliness of “Pour it Up.” In order for that to happen, the social critique facilitated by the quiet, diligence, patience, and literacy that Davis values would have to triumph over the speed with which one can upload a new “selfie;” do more than view provocative discussion through the lens of “hot topics;” and value clear, concrete, expression over allowing the claim of “feeling some type of way” about an issue to hold meaning. I wish I could see what Angela Davis sees in young people, but the fact that I don’t helps me see and truly understand what it means to be visionary.

Postscript: Gloria Steinem on Miley Cyrus

According to on article on the Huffington Post, Gloria Steinem has no criticism that would “shame” Miley Cyrus given her infamous 2013 VMA performance and acknowledges “the complex context of Cyrus’s manufactured sexuality.” In response to a question about whether or not Cyrus’s performance negatively impacted feminism, Steinhem reportedly made these remarks:

I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest is in all of its states … the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, we would be saying, “This is why China wins.” You know? It’s ridiculous. But that’s the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.

It’s not clear to me how we’re supposed to change a culture through complicity. And what kind of feminism uses men as a standard for how we imagine liberation? Also problematic is Steinem’s claim that women “have to be nude to be noticed.” What kind of attention is she describing? I’ve never seen Miley Cyrus in a single episode of Hanna Montana but one of the reasons why her VMA performance was so scandalous is because she achieved contemporary stardom playing the role of a wholesome, all-American girl through the character on that television show. Cyrus wasn’t nude on that show and she was “noticed.” In fact, she’s still “noticed.” People are actually discussing this girl’s performance, but what about the “choices” of poor, black, anonymous girls? Does refusing to “shame” Cyrus mean that we create an acceptable space for the ostensible virtue of stripping? Cyrus’s “decision” to participate in the mainstreaming of stripping is shameful precisely because it mocks the violent ecology informing the “decisions” that desperate women make. Miley Cyrus isn’t a good example to use in attempting to critique a culture for subjugating women; unless the point is to underscore women’s complicity in patriarchy. Steinhem doesn’t appear to be making such a critique. Instead, Steinhem wants to emphasize the culture’s role in influencing Cyrus’s choice so as not to focus on an evaluation of her “decision.” Miley Cyrus’s “decision” to sexually objectify herself, like Rihanna’s, is a poor decision…and just a hot ass mess.

Lorna Simpson offers an alternative response to cultural dismissal that is far more compelling and potentially transformative than anything suggested in the parodies of desperation exhibited in the videos and stage performances of contemporary pop stars. In “Waterbearer,” Simpson constructs the portrait of a woman who claims the integrity of her own witness despite her dismissal:

02cott650.2Like a vernacular Lady Justice, Simpson’s Waterbearer exposes the prejudices of the law. Rather than beg for attention and acknowledgement of her authority, she continues on with her work of weighing and measuring injustice.

Models Monday: “This House I’m in Right Now”

After the fourth time my house was broken into, I put my house on the market. Looking at properties I could barely afford made me think about friends and family who never moved. I can think of at least three families who have had the same address and telephone number for at least my entire lifetime. Though they all could have afforded bigger houses at some point in their lives, they chose to stay in those smaller ones. This choice meant that they could save money and could easily afford to travel or enjoy themselves in other meaningful ways.

I thought about this recently after watching the making of the documentary film I am A Man. 

I had read a newspaper account of Mr. Nickelberry’s participation in the sanitation workers strike  and took pause over the fact that he still works for the city. The behind the scenes footage of the film offers a glimpse into his home and it is the same one that he lived in and was working to afford at the time of the strike in ’68. Michael Honey’s book Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle records Taylor Rogers’ reflections on the strike and he reveals that he also lives in the same home he was buying when the strike began. As he tells Honey, “I was just beginning to buy a home, this house I’m in right now […]” The fact of Mr. Nickelberry and Mr. Rogers residing in the same homes since at least 1968 may not have been striking to me when I was younger and still living among my grandparents’ generation because these folk never seemed to move. My mother observes that “old people don’t move, they die” and in many cases, she’s correct. Even with the neighborhood changing and often declining around them, I know old folk who wouldn’t have dreamed of selling their homes. In fact, my former neighbors, Betty and Thomas, recently passed away but when I returned for visits, they lived out their lives in 2009 as they had in 1989. They continued to garden in their backyard; they shopped at Sav-Mor on Harvard; they turned on the sprinkler in their front yard for their granddaughters to run thru. I worried about them though because their neighbors no longer mirrored these habits. They were younger; meaner. Many of them openly peddled drugs in the street.

I wonder if my generation of elderly folk will think about home in the same way as Thomas and Betty’s generation. It seems like my generation is encouraged to feel restless and unsettled–with satisfaction only coming with the next move. I’ve read simple living blogs that recommend throwing out catalogues that come in the mail not only so that you won’t be tempted to buy but so that you won’t be tempted to long for the lives of the folk in them. I have taken this advice but I do sometimes flip through these catalogues but I do so with a more critical eye than I once did. I used to simply think about what might look nice in my house. Now I think about how little room I have in my house for those things. Instead of feeling bad because I don’t have the space, I wonder about an ethics of marketing that requires people to disparage the spaces people have created for themselves.

As a child growing up without these catalogues as a part of my reading, I never judged the spaces and homes I now realize are small. I enjoyed bountiful meals of fresh food grown in the backyard or shared between neighbors. I looked forward to snowy, cold Christmas mornings before brunch with my family. I savored the photographs in albums and taped to walls in the basement. In fact, I never even realized how frightening my inner-city neighborhood was supposed to be because my neighbors never locked their doors; never preyed on one another; shared resources.

Given the market, I couldn’t sell my house. But to be honest I didn’t try very hard. I had convinced myself that I would find safety in a higher price point but this fragile illusion was completely shattered when I heard a new homeowner discussing a break-in with an agent at the property. Realizing that I couldn’t price myself out of danger, I began thinking about people in my life who lived lives they could easily afford, which in itself offers a measure of security.

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