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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

November 2013

Models Monday: Given the Hour

Given the hour, and my commitment to always posting on Monday, I wanted to make a post–even if it has to be quite brief. Thus, my recommendation for living in opposition to mainstream assumptions regarding what it means to live a good life is that you READ over the Thanksgiving break. Here are some of my suggestions:

Fiction

Ravi Howard, Like Trees, WalkingThis narrative elegantly commemorates the crude lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama on March 21, 1981. Usually, I don’t read fiction before history but in this case, I was interested in Howard’s experience of this event as an Alabama native and how he used fiction to represent what history cannot. After listening to an interesting NPR interview with Howard, I was convinced that I wanted to read his debut novel before reading B.J. Hollars’s creative non-fiction account of the Donald lynching in Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America.

Poetry

In talking to a dear friend and thoughtful, engaging, and very accomplished poet, I shared my recent discovery of Marilyn Nelson’s brilliance. Though I started with her award winning book, A Wreath for Emmett Till before moving on to the award winning, Carver: A Life in PoemsI recommend starting with another award winning work, Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. I suggest this as a starting point because it was only this year that Mr. Fortune was finally given a proper burial. Until now, his cadaver has been used by Dr. Porter, the slave holder who once held Fortune captive in life, to use in medical training and study. Mr. Fortune’s skeleton remained in the Porter family for four generations before being donated to the Mattatuck Museum and placed on exhibit there in 1940 and remained on display until the 1970s. Thus far, I haven’t read any work that makes  a connection between Mr. Fortune and Sara Baartman, his death in 1798 pre-dates her birth by nine years. They share the story of being used for “scientific advancement” and their remains being subject to public exhibition. Baartman was finally returned to her birthplace in South Africa and buried in 2002, thus pre-dating Fortune’s 2013 burial in a formal ceremony at the church where he was baptized (I’ve read the Crais and Scully book on Baartman that extends the essay hyperlinked above and I highly recommend it).

What I find truly provocative with respect to Nelson’s poetry is that it’s directed towards a pre-adolescent- young adult audience! The sophistication, complexity, and beauty suggests great respect for the intellectual ability of young readers. In addition to her rich poetry, a reader comes away with a profound sense of how much contemporary education insults the capacity of young people to read, reflect, and think in complex, sophisticated ways.

Non-Fiction

Given my keen interest in 1963 as an interesting and significant year in American history, most of my non-fiction reading has been about John F. Kennedy. If you have an e-reader, I recommend the Kindle single, The Kennedy Baby: The Loss that Transformed JFK (cost: $2.99). The work centers on the death of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy who died August 9, 1963. What I find most interesting about much of what is written about the Kennedy’s is how this work ignores aspects of JFK’s experience of the triumphs and tragedies of the human condition alongside the catastrophic losses black American families faced during the same year. To that end, rarely do mainstream accounts of JFK’s life, loss, and assassination engage facets of his experiences alongside the June 12, 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and its impact on his widow, and their anguished son, for example. Life magazine used a moving photograph of Myrlie Evers comforting her grieving son, Darrell Kenyatta Evers, at his father’s June 15th funeral. In addition, there’s no mention of how JFK’s loss impacted his experience of the horrific loss that six black American families faced in the aftermath of the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.

I also recommend Vanity Fair’s commemorative issue of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. While the articles, which are mostly excerpts from previously published books, are clearly invested in glamour of JFK, his wife, and their heirs I found the unremarked ugliness informing these articles striking. From Jacqueline Kennedy telling William Manchester that she would “ruin” him because he would not agree to accommodate her firm attempt to halt the publication of his book (which she had not initially read, and shifted this task to her personal secretary; upon reading the work years later, she called it “Fascinating”) to Caroline Bassett Kennedy referring to Sean “Puffy” Combs as a “thug,” no one appears to acknowledge their behavior and their characterizations as ugly, elitist, and racist though it seems obvious to me.

Viewing

Continuing with this Kennedy theme, I recommend watching Letters to Jackie, the TLC work based on historian Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book of the same title. I have this book, and I’ve read most of it, but from what I’ve read so far, there’s not a moment in it where Fitzpatrick acknowledges the ugliness informing some expressions of grief in our violent culture. For example, Diane McWhorter admits that when someone came into her class at Brooke Hill School for Girls with the grim news that JFK had been shot, some “people cheered.”  One of the articles in the Vanity Fair commemorative issue on JFK also offers an example of the gleeful response of  some people in Dallas who opposed Kennedy. To that end, one of William Manchester’s discoveries for his book, The Death of a President, “[revealed] that in a wealthy Dallas suburb, when told that President Kennedy had been murdered in their city, the students in a fourth-grade class burst into applause.”

O.K., that’s all I’ve got. What are you reading or planning to read during this time of thanksgiving? I know one thing I won’t be doing: shopping for “Black Friday” sales 🙂

Models Monday: Why We Can’t Wait?

130415151936-king-jail-story-top
1963 photograph of King in a Birmingham jail cell.

On April 12, 1963, eight, white clergymen published the second of two letters penned in 1963 responding to the changing political climate regarding race and desegregation in Alabama. The April letter, printed in local newspapers challenged the timeliness of civil rights demonstrations:

[…] we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

King’s response to these clergymen, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” first appeared in May 1963 and a later, edited version appeared in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, in 1964. Responding to the clergymen’s critique of the timeliness of the demonstrations, King contends that:

we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. […] Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

Ultimately King concludes that an act of empathy is required to understand the difficulty of waiting. As he writes, “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” For me, King’s letter clearly emerges as having greater moral authority than the clergymen’s letters.

The arrogance of these eight men with respect to King’s response to their open letter is apparent in their claims of being wounded by its contents. Jonathan Rieder, who articulates a common yet unchallenged assertion that King, “never bothered to reply personally to his critics, a failure they found wounding and even exploitive” is problematic. Only through an embrace of racial paternalism and racial superiority does one find it reasonable to claim that King wounded and exploited these men when they published two open letters without consulting him even one time. Those clergymen did not seek King out as they made their public statements and did not have them approved by King, so why would they expect that of him? Again, the moral authority they claim is illegitimate in light of its reliance on white supremacist logic.

1000-3153-20511602-nelly
Rapper, Nelly, was recently featured in a discussion regarding his dying sister’s need for bone marrow and the “timeliness” of a conversation about representations of women in the media.

I have been thinking about these letters in light of a recent interview rapper, Nelly, gave to HuffingtonPost Live in response to Marc Lamont Hill’s questions about the national attention a bone marrow drive received that Nelly planned to host at Spelman College in 2004. This drive became a site of protest for some students who questioned the use of their campus, one belonging to black women, in uncritically accepting the rapper’s project in light of his portrayal of black women in his videos; particularly, “Tip Drill.” Now, if you have not seen this video, let me warn you, it is beyond Triple-X rated; it’s just straight up nasty! One can clearly understand why young black feminists would take issue with this video. When the student group learned that their Student Government Association (SGA) agreed to host Nelly’s bone marrow drive for his then dying sister, these students required that he engage them in a conversation concerning his video, “Tip Drill,” and the representation of black women in the media in general. He decided that Spelman would not be the venue for him to host the drive. Despite this, Spelman students along with the help of a local D.J. held the bone marrow drive at a local mall and registered over 300 donors. According to Nelly, their request for a conversation was ill-timed.

In the interview with Hill, Nelly challenges the urgency of this conversation given his sister’s mortality. Today, those former students who were responsible for requesting the conversation as well as one of the professors whose class served as a foundation for grounding their activism (along with another women’s studies course), appeared on HuffingtonPost Live to share their perspective on the events that transpired in 2004. Even as a feminist, I don’t find the lines of moral authority here as clearly defined as I did when considering the Birmingham letters of ’63.

First, it’s not clear to me that a man who would make such a nasty video would have much to offer by way of critical interrogation that would make having a conversation with him worthwhile. To that end, the letter the white clergymen composed and King’s written response offer a model of protest that actually offers criticism of “conversation.” As King notes in the “Letter,” “[t]oo long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” In American culture at least, the presumed “conversation,” often boils down to a lecture given from the ideological standpoint of the interlocutors. To King’s point, though he wishes this weren’t the case, there is no dialogue; just two clearly staked positions. I am curious to know what the Spelman students actually thought would come from a “conversation” with Nelly. What did they actually think he would say? What words might be satisfactory? Too, I also wonder about the content of the “conversation” these students had with members of their own SGA. Were they in agreement over the need for “conversation?” Were they seen as having an equal voice in the decision to add a requirement to Nelly’s bone marrow drive at the College?

Moya Bailey, the past president of the feminist organization that sought to hold Nelly accountable for the depiction of black women in his videos, addressed many of the issues Nelly put forward in his interview with Hill through an open letter. Two things that the letter doesn’t address are most interesting to me in light of the history of “timeliness” identified in the exchange between the white clergymen and King in 1963. For Bailey, “timeliness” gets associated with Lilly Allen’s video in its heavy citation of “Tip Drill,” but what about “timeliness” in the way that Nelly raises the issue? Did the request for a “conversation” with him have the same urgency as his sister’s mortality? Given that there was no timeline given to Nelly concerning when he would have this conversation, why not ask at a later time? To that point, even King had to accept a more nuanced view of “timeliness” and morality after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Though King wanted to return to Birmingham, prominent black leaders in Birmingham, with far more conservative views, ended his hopes for reviving demonstrations there. “Timeliness,” then, can be greatly informed by the fact of human loss. One wonders how this understanding framed how the Spelman activists reflected upon Nelly’s sister.

Though Jelani Cobb addressed the open declaration of physical violence against women that Nelly asserted in his expressed desire to “kick somebody’s ass” over the protest, Bailey’s letter supports the maintenance of such violence. Her claim that she’s “ready” once Nelly names the time and place for a throw down misses an opportunity to not only address physical violence against women but also the ecology of violence that normalizes the rape culture Nelly glamorizes in “Tip Drill.”

Marc Lamont Hill made it clear in his conversation with the former Spelman protesters that he invited Nelly to enter into conversation with them, to offer his response to their stated position, and other such configurations allowing him to share his views. Honestly, if I were Nelly, I wouldn’t take any of them up on such an opportunity. As the conversation is being framed, a meaningful engagement over appearance and reality doesn’t seem possible in that forum. What can he possibly say to assuage the obvious fact that his raunchy video does not support a feminist point of view? Let’s say he gets that–understands it, now what? What kind of “love” is Bailey suggesting as she closes her letter when only a sentence before, she’s talking about being ready to fight this man?

The moral complexities of this case are quite compelling. There is no easy resolution; no clear winners…and it just be’s like that sometimes.

Models Monday: This is not Love…Richie Cognito is Racist

Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito

The coverage of the violence Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito directed towards his teammate, offensive tackle, Jonathan Martin has been problematic in the way that it questions Martin’s masculinity. Martin left the team due to the emotional stress of having received voicemails, such as this one, from Incognito:

“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of [expletive] . . . I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. [I want to] [expletive] in your [expletive] mouth. [I’m going to] slap your [expletive] mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face (laughter). [Expletive] you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

Reportedly, another teammate threatened Martin’s sister:

‘We are going to run train on your sister. . . . She loves me. I am going to f–k her without a condom and c– in her c—,’

In addition, Martin surrendered $15,000 to Incognito for an unofficial team trip to Las Vegas that did not include him. Given this history, when Martin sat down for lunch and all of his teammates left the table, Martin decided that that would be his final day with the Dolphins.

Bullying provides the general frame for this vile story, but that term does not seem appropriate here. Bullying conjures the actions of school children and adolescents viciously accosting one of their peers. Using this term to describe Incognito’s behavior makes his actions appear childish and thus Martin’s response becomes overly dramatic; like a woman’s response. Even though I find Lawrence Taylor to be disreputable, his place in the Football Hall of Fame makes his opinions credible for some sports journalists, commentators, and fans. Taylor’s public comments questioned Martin’s toughness for a sport like football when he remarked, “if you’re that sensitive and weak-minded, then find another profession.” The conversation on NPR’s Tell Me More explicitly questions Martin’s masculinity through a segment of the show called “The Barbershop” that features Michel Martin discussing current issues with a pretty consistent group of male journalists. “Should Jonathan Martin ‘Man Up’ Or ‘Leave it on the Field” identifies the title of their discussion on the offensive tackle’s departure.

I will accept the term harassment to describe the violence Martin experienced in the locker room, on Twitter, and through voicemail but I think terrorism is an even better term. The ferocity of the racist and sexist violence that characterizes Martin’s experience with his teammates doesn’t recall a scene on the playground where you have a chance of coming out alive, but instead recalls the spectacle of a lynching. This notion that Martin could “man up” and defeat a mob of people determined to harm him is unreasonable (unless the expectation is that Martin should unleash the black beast within). Martin did exactly what a free man can and should do: he got away from the mob.

In his first public comments to Fox Sports after being suspended from the Dolphins for “actions detrimental to the team,” Incognito claims to be Martin’s best friend on the team. He further contends that his messages to Martin did not emerge from spite, he claims:

I can just sit here and be accountable for my actions. And my actions were coming from a place of love. No matter how bad and how vulgar it sounds, that’s how we communicate, that’s how our friendship was, and those are the facts, and that’s what I’m accountable for.

Terrorism is not an act of love. I never did understand the title of Eric Lott’s book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Defining racism as love reflects its pathology. Blackface Minstrelsy mocked black humanity and suffering. I can’t find the love in that spectacle. Neither can I find the love in Incognito calling Martin “a half nigga piece of shit.” According to Incognito, “nigga” and other derogatory terms get thrown around the locker room constantly. Apparently, Incognito’s African American teammates support his claim that he is not racist and that his use of the term was cool with them. No one ever seems to question the authority white people seek from black people in asking if it is acceptable to degrade blackness. Over the years, I’ve read stories where coaches and teachers defend the decision to use the term “nigga” because they got sanction from their players or their students. Players do not have the authority to determine practice or game schedules and students do not have the authority to design and grade their own tests but when it comes to whether or not a white person can use the term “nigga,” all of sudden that authority rests in the hands of black people? It bothers me that those foolish Dolphins’ players don’t understand the problem with a white person asking them if it is acceptable to degrade them. It also bothers me that black culture gets very little acknowledgement for what it has offered American culture in terms of culture, morals, and values but when it comes to using the word “nigga,” because black people use that term, it is somehow a model that everyone should follow; it’s just absurd.

Lawrence Taylor was partly right when he said that Martin was “sensitive.” I see Martin as someone “sensitive” to history; as someone who then understands that “the only good nigga, is a dead nigga,” so he got the hell up outta there and good for him.

Models Monday: The Seduction of Reading

When my friend Carmen first told me about Walter Dean Myers’s book The Blues of Flats Brown, I knew that I had to get it for my son. The story is about these two dogs, Flats and Caleb, who are the unfortunate wards of a junkyard proprietor named A.J. Grubbs. Flats and Caleb flee the junkyard after a terrible fight between Caleb and a dog Grubbs has recruited for the task. After he vows to have Flats fight the next day, the two dogs make haste before the fight can take place.

Flats and Caleb survive, with Grubbs hot on their trail, by singing and playing the blues. Eventually, Grubbs grants Flats his freedom when he hears Flats sing a song that reflects his understanding of Grubbs’s character. At that point, Myers writes one of my favorite lines in the story. Everyone thinks that Flats will stay in New York and make lots of money but Myers writes that what “they didn’t know was that Flats was a blues playing kind of dog, not a filthy rich kind of dog.” Flats has “another model by which to live.”

The Blues of Flats Brown by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Nina Laden

The idea that he’s not eager to dedicate himself to making money reminds me of an essay on representations of the poor where feminist critic bell hooks decides that representations of poor people in American popular culture show them spending all their time longing for money and the material things it can buy (reality t.v. now does the same thing). She contests this vision with memories of her poor and working class family members who valued creativity and integrity over money.

In The Blues of Flats Brown, Flats and Caleb’s friendship and their ability to sing the music they love means more than living in a big city and making lots of money. Myers notes that some people don’t believe it when they hear the story of two dogs playing the blues down on the waterfront in Savannah, Georgia and I’m sure in part, they don’t believe it because they cannot believe that Flats would choose to give up the chance to be rich. For Flats, wealth was an indulgence of a different order. It involved the time to be creative and to enjoy camaraderie through creation. The way I see it, then, Flats didn’t give up being rich. He exchanged one idea of it for another. Thus, Flats was rich.

Recently, Walter Dean Myers was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. I read a wonderful interview conducted with Myers in light of this award and he offered thoughtful words on the role reading plays in contributing to the kind of wealth that Flats enjoys. “It’s the people who read well,” Myers tells the interviewer, “who are going to live a good life.” I especially like the way he qualifies reading. It’s not just reading itself that will lead to a good life, but Myers stresses the importance of reading well. Reading well demands time, attention, discipline, and focus. It requires deliberateness. These are all qualities that the skill itself does not demand but this additional effort makes the experience worthwhile because, as Myers also notes, this sort of reading “will give you clues to how to live your life.”

Myers chose the banner “reading is not optional” to serve his campaign to encourage youth literacy. I have not won a single award for children’s literature so the Library of Congress (loc) won’t be calling me to ask about my banner choice but in the spirit of reading and imagining, if the loc were to call, I would tell them that my banner to encourage reading should say “reading is seductive.” I first thought about the seductiveness of reading after thinking through a passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. Consolata asks Mavis to help her in shelling pecans. As Mavis sets to work, Morrison writes:

Later, watching her suddenly beautiful hands moving at the task, Mavis was reminded of her sixth-grade teacher opening a book: lifting  the corner of the binding, stroking the edge to touch the bookmark, caressing the page, letting the tips of her fingers trail down the lines of print. The melty-thigh feeling she got watching her. Now, working pecans, she tried to economize her gestures without sacrificing their grace. (42)

If I were asked, I would play up how enticing reading can be. Of course the challenge would be trying to ensure that my message wouldn’t become vulgar, which seems to be the penchant in American culture. But for those of us who find reading seductive, the challenge of convincing others to be similarly enticed remains constant; so perhaps it would be a worthy campaign banner if the loc ever comes calling.

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