E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems


June 2014

Models Monday: Claim Your Name…and Make Others Call You by It

When my son was a baby, his babysitter called him Little Bean because Bean was my family’s nickname for me. When we celebrated his fifth birthday this year, the ex-babysitter’s daughter came with her son and she referred to my son as Little Bean, to which he replied, “my name is Miles.” She looked at me as if I would intercede and correct some perceived rudeness on his part, but I did not say a word. She tried several times to impose this nickname on him and every time he responded the same way, “my name is Miles.”

Well, the daughter must have told her mother about it because when my mother came to town and the ex-babysitter visited she had this long talk with Miles about how calling him Little Bean was important to her and she pleaded with him to allow only her to call him by this name. Reluctantly, he consented. The next day, however, he said to me, “Mommy, I don’t want that lady calling me Little Bean,” to which I responded, “then when you see her again, be sure to tell her how she should address you.” “My name is Miles,” he told me and I said, “be sure to tell her that.”

I guess there are many opinions concerning what counts as impudence from a child. Clearly, the ex-babysitter and I disagreed about my son’s display of good manners. As far as I’m concerned, my son has the right to decide what name he will respond to and how he should be addressed; especially since he’s a black boy. The earliest experiences of the black folk in the United States involved having names imposed on them. That beautiful scene in Beloved comes to mind when Baby Suggs asks Mr. Garner, “Why you call me Jenny?” In response, Garner matter-of-factly states, “‘Cause that what’s on your sales ticket, gal.” After Baby Suggs details how she self-identifies, Garner again imposes his ideas concerning what her name should be, “Well…if I was you I’d stick to Jenny Whitlow. Mrs. Baby Suggs ain’t no name for a freed Negro” (142). The experience of Pullman Porters also comes to mind regarding the will to overlook how black people self-identify. Black Porters were generally called “George” despite their given names or their self-appellations. If you ever get a chance to see 10,000 Black Men Named George, you should check it out–it’s not bad at all.

And since I’ve been thinking about Muhammad Ali, of course the 1967 fight between Muhammad Ali and Ernie Terrell comes to mind. In this interview and clips from the fight, you can witness how far Muhammad Ali was willing to go to determine what he would be called:

Now of course I’m not advocating taking to the ring whenever a person refuses to call you by your name, but in this regard, my son offers a very good model: he risked impudence. I stood right beside him, proud of the fact that he was willing to risk not being in her favor, not being considered nice and sweet because he gave her the power to tell him how he should be called. My son seems to have a sense of what freedom means. He understands that he doesn’t have to answer to what someone else chooses to call him. If you call him anything other than “Miles,” expect his rebuke and his mother’s support of it.




The Great of All Times
The Greatest of All Times

By the time I was aware of anything going on in my life and in the world, Muhammad Ali was ending his career and thus very far from his glory days. I have no idea how I became aware of him, saw him as the Greatest of All Times (G.O.A.T.) as he said of himself, and an avid fan. I read a great deal about him, mostly about his years as Cassius Clay, his joining the Nation of Islam and taking the name Muhammad Ali, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, and his first fight against George Foreman.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Ali lately because I want to visit the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky but doubt that there’s enough time this summer to go. Recently, I bought a poster with a photo of Ali with his answer to the question how he would like to be remembered:

I’d like to be remembered as a black man who won the heavyweight title; who was humorous; and who never looked down on those who looked up to him; a man who stood for freedom, justice, and equality; and I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.

I chose the poster primarily because I liked that he wanted to be remembered as someone “who never looked down on those who looked up to him.” For me, this sentiment testifies to my view of someone I regard as highly principled (except when it comes to women…with women, Ali was about as patriarchal as they come). I find it very hard to lack admiration for people who are willing to risk something important to them because of their principles (though this does not include those people who harass women at abortion clinics and kill doctors and nurses; their actions are less matters of principle and more about intolerance and intractable ideology masquerading as principle).

Given the respect and admiration that I have for Ali, I am not dismissive of his limitations. As I noted above, he was most certainly a womanizer. At the same time, when I read the Introduction to my favorite sports writer Gerald Early’s The Muhammad Ali Reader I was offended by it and thought it unnecessarily cruel regarding several aspects of his discussion of Ali. After diminishing the value of Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam and finding his rationale unconvincing, Early writes, “Ali, despite all the talk of his brilliance, was not a thoughtful man. He was not conversant with ideas. Indeed, he hadn’t a single idea in his head, really” (XI). According to Early, Ali’s lack of “brilliance” and thoughtfulness depends on very formal terms of education. For example, the first sentence in Part Two of the Introduction begins, “Muhammad Ali could barely read. He certainly never read books” (XV). While I am a strong advocate of reading, the texts that I include as legible extend beyond the printed word. Due to enslavement, scores of black Americans could not read letters, but they could certainly read their world; where they might find safety and shelter; who they might trust. In my lifetime, I knew people who lacked formal education but were expert observers of the doctors and nurses whose care they were under; they could read when they were being insulted; they could help their children with their homework by encouraging their curiosity and providing all the tools they needed to support and supplement their schooling. So while Early contends that Ali didn’t read books, I have read scholars whose writing, specifically about black folk, suggests they don’t think to much about what they have read, how they have read, and what they then say about black people. For example, one scholar writes this in the last paragraph of her examination of the Tuskegee Syphilis crimes:

There is widespread anger that the criminal courts never meted out punishment to those still alive who established and perpetuated it. That kind of judicial assessment is impossible to provide now, if it ever was possible.

Why might it never have been possible to render justice in the wake of crimes against those men and their families in the Tuskegee case? How could those complications have been more difficult than rendering justice in the aftermath of World War II? Somehow, the world figured that out. As far as I’m concerned this endowed history professor hasn’t read her history very well.

Early goes on to write that what “fascinated Ali, like many of the poorly educated, was the authority of books or their failure as authority” (XV). Seems to me that analytical minds would most certainly engage in the question of “the authority of books or their failure as authority.” In part, this investment is what was central to the “canon wars” in the 1980s and it’s certainly at the heart of debates concerning what should be taught in compulsory education.

While Early admits that with respect to Ali, no measure exists to identify “the range of his curiosity or his humanity,” this meager compliment in no way compensates for the preceding insults:

Ali scored a 16 on the Army intelligence tests, indicating that he had a low IQ. A man of his wit and quickness could not be that dumb, we protest. Yet I think the score was an honest reflection of Ali’s mental abilities. Ali was not literate, nor was he analytical. (XV)

In a single paragraph, Ali goes from being “barely” literate to illiterate and Early actually considers the results of the Army’s IQ tests reliable markers of anything meaningful? There are numerous accounts of men feigning mental and physical illness, performing poorly on IQ tests, and fleeing to Canada among other ways of escaping the draft. Leaving out these historical details or stacking the deck in favor of his own conclusion has greatly impacted my appreciation for Early’s work. Though I purchased The Muhammad Ali Reader when it was first published in 1998, I have yet to read beyond the Introduction because I don’t think I can trust the choices made regarding the essays Early selected.

Despite the many aspersions Early casts against Ali, I still think he “shook up the world” for the better.

Models Monday: Contentment

In addition to the many photos I took of Legos while I was at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland last week, I also scanned about as many old photos from family albums that my Aunt Sharon maintains. I used a really good free app that my husband introduced me to called “genius scan” to reproduce all that I could in such a short time. This image is one of my favorite:

Family of 6

I’ve finally learned to recognize family photographs taken in Cleveland as opposed to those taken in Kentucky based on the homes in the background and the children in the photos. The houses in the background in the photograph above look like the one my Aunt remembers living in on 79th Street. Given that my Uncle Eric, the baby in the photograph sitting on my grandmother’s lap, is in the picture tells me that the family has relocated from Louisville to Cleveland because the twins, one on each side of my grandmother, were the last of my grandparents’ children to have been born in Kentucky.

Not only do I like the composition of the photograph, especially my grandmother’s centrality, but I like what I think it suggests about my grandparents’ generation that I find quite attractive. Both of my grandparents graduated from Catholic Colored High School in the late 1930s and my grandmother was quite bright, having graduated from high school at 16-years-old and also the recipient of a scholarship to Xavier University in Louisiana, though she did not choose to attend college. She chose to become a homemaker. For a black woman to have such a choice and to be able to exercise it at this point in history fascinates me. My grandfather wanted for her happiness, but I also think some scholars assume the reign of patriarchy when black men wanted their  wives to become homemakers, but I don’t think that’s always true. In Louisville, during the time my grandmother graduated from high school, I think I read that the percentage of black women in domestic service was around 98%. I understand why black men and black women would want to stay away from labor that made black women vulnerable to the licentiousness, physical violence, and poor pay that often accompanied such labor.

By contrast, my grandmother’s best friend Josephine, who was also a graduate of Catholic Colored High, did go on to college and later worked as a teacher. Like my grandmother and grandfather, Ms. Josephine married a classmate from their high school. Ms. Josephine went on to have children, like my grandma, but she also held a career outside the home. From what I could tell, both choices for both women seemed equally satisfying. I don’t ever remember meeting Ms. Josephine, but my grandmother wrote to her and spoke of her often and nothing negative

Grandma with her best friend Josephine.
Grandma with her best friend Josephine.


was ever said about the choices they made. It seemed to me, then, that they were content with their choices, a choice the contemporary world doesn’t appear to hold out as an option.

My grandparents never longed for a bigger house, a luxury car, nicer clothes, better neighbors, luxurious or exotic vacations. They seemed to like the rhythms they created from the choices they made. If you were to tell someone today that you were happy with your life, I think you would be met with some skepticism: “Well, you say that now, but down the road, you will probably want to move up the ranks” or “I know that’s what you think now, but you’ll outgrow that house.” Today, if you decide that your life is good enough as it is, you’d be described as having low ambition. The one choice we seem capable of making is the one where you can accept that your life is not good enough as it is.

Now of course I don’t mean that issues of character and elements of one’s interior life should not be the objects/subjects of constant pruning, but for the strivers I spend a great deal of time around (it just comes with the territory of having to earn a living) such issues are never the topic of “upgrading” one’s life. Unfortunately, the few folk who are my dear friends who seek greater clarity in their lives, desire to become better listeners, want to have greater patience, and who aim to control their stress level are not the ones I interact with most frequently. The folk I spend most of my time around talk about wanting to make partner at a prestigious law firm today, though they’ve only recently graduated from college; they imagine that some quiet person in the office has her eyes on a better paying administrative post; they actually long to buy luxury goods; and worship people with money. Basically, I live in a world where most of the people talk about their ambitions the way that celebrities talk about building their “brands” or their “empires.”

I learned from observing my grandparents that time was the greatest wealth to pursue. Thus, I always wanted to be time rich so that I could control my movement through my days; I could linger over some things and skip over others. Time is a very precious resource and I’d just hate to waste it dissatisfied with my house, my car, my clothes, and my shoes. Longing is not living and my grandparents seemed content because they didn’t spend a lot of time fantasizing about the life they weren’t living or didn’t have. They found the place that was comfortable, felt like it was where they wanted to be, and they filled it up with the manifestation of the interior lives they so carefully pruned.

Congratulations Cleveland!

(Photo: Brendan Maloney, USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Brendan Maloney, USA TODAY Sports)

…on that San Antonio Spurs 2014 NBA Finals Victory.

Models Monday: Going Home

I traveled home to Cleveland this weekend to celebrate my mother’s retirement (as she would say, “from a job she hated”) after 42 years of service. I drove so it took about 11 very long hours, but since being here, I’ve done some pretty fun things with my son. I took tons of pictures and these are a few of my favorite:


Entry to the Cleveland Public Library Reading Garden.
Entry to the Cleveland Public Library Reading Garden.
Maya Lin sculpture in the Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library.
Maya Lin sculpture in the Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library.
One Tom Otterman's sculptures in the Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library.
One Tom Otterman’s sculptures in the Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library.


More Tom Otterman sculptures.
More Tom Otterman sculptures.
Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library.
Reading Garden at the Cleveland Public Library.

My son and I also went to the Great Lakes Science Center. We had a really fun time. The Omnimax experience is very different from the Imax experience. Not only is the Omnimax screen six-stories-high, but there are times when you feel like the seats are rotating to capture a better point of view. Journey to the South Pacific was the film we chose to see.

In addition to the film, we visited several exhibits. My son’s favorite was the Lego Exhibit and play area:

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Of course there were interactive science exhibits and many things to learn about the body, DNA, and the solar system but we spent most of our time building Lego cars. It was a fun time.

Models Monday: Telling a New Story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie being fly.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie being fly.

When I was young, I heard stories about the awful perils of the dreaded inner-city from my elementary school teachers. Their stories certainly made me afraid of that place. It wasn’t until my high school teachers told those  same stories of predation, poverty, laziness, and despair of inner-city residents that I finally realized they were describing where they thought I lived. I was incredulous. The “inner-city” they described was nothing like the “inner-city” I knew. My “inner-city” was actually a place where most of my neighbors left their doors unlocked and always welcomed your unannounced entry; where all of my neighbors gardened and generously shared the rewards of their harvest to as many people as they could; where people shared power tools and brought food to comfort families in mourning; where people held religious services in their backyards–just like my family held mass in ours. The complexity, the values, the belief in education as well as hard work were nowhere to be found in the homogenous, single stories my teachers told about the experiences, the values, or the qualities of the people I knew in the “inner-city” who apparently sprang from their limited imaginations.

I recommend viewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the dangers of accepting a single narrative of people and of nations:

The similarities in the many powerful stories that Adichie shared and the one that I offered involve the absence of assuming responsibility for teaching folk about the fullness and richness of our lives. Revoking responsibility in this way is certainly another model for how we can all respond to the “danger of a single story.” You don’t have to waste a single minute of your time making lesson plans for how to correct another’s ignorance regarding your identity; it’s much better to spend time learning more about who you are and living out this understanding. Personally, I have very little patience for playing the native informant for all those liberal and racially well-intentioned friends, colleagues, neighbors, or strangers about my people, our hair, or our anything else.  A really good example of at least one response to an encounter with a single story of race, heritage, and culture is the one Adichie offered the young man who asked her about the brutality of the men in her country. Telling that young man about her take on American Psycho may not have taught him about the limitations of his presumptions, but it at least led to him leaving her alone– and sometimes, that’s good enough for me.

Models Monday: Because that’s what he would have done

In Toni and Slade Morrison’s retelling of The Ant and the Grasshopper the reader is left with the dilemma of how you respond to the needs of those who have given you non-tangible gifts. The Grasshopper, Foxy G in their tale, is driven by his craft to create music. He doesn’t reject preparing for the winter because he is shiftless or defiant, he feels compelled to make art. The music he creates provides the background music for Ant, Kid A, who works diligently to gather provisions for his family. Once winter comes, Foxy G finds himself without provisions. Desperate, he seeks help from his friend:

“I’m cold kid, with nothing to eat. My wings are freezing and I’m dead on my feet. I’m not going to make it out here with no heat. So, say, my friend. Can I come in?” asks Foxy G. We see Kid A munching on his “doughnut” smugly regarding his friend:

“You’re cold? Hungry? No place to stay? Look at you, man. What, can I say? I planned ahead and stored up things. You wasted time on those funky wings.” Kid A was very self-righteous about his planning ahead and sacrificing for the future so that he didn’t experience the deprivations of his friend. Morrison tells us that “Foxy tried to smile but it didn’t work. The tears in his eyes made him feel like a joke.” While the focus of the division between the friends centers on art, the conflict between deprivation and surplus emerges for me as an even more general frustration.

Toni and Slade Morrison. Pictures by Pascal LeMaitre. Who’s Got Game? The Ant and the Grasshopper. Scribner, 2003.
Toni and Slade Morrison. Pictures by Pascal LeMaitre. Who’s Got Game? The Ant and the Grasshopper. Scribner, 2003.

With deep remorse, I have seen this scenario up-close. The music that Kid A could just  take, seemingly unaware of its tangible rewards, differs from what I saw. My friend Thomas, who recently passed away, gave people cars! He worked for Ford and he would co-sign for cars for “good” people who needed help but he also gave cars to people who were in need. At his funeral, people testified to how he knew that they struggled as single parents without vehicles and so he would show up at their homes with automobiles; nieces and nephews told of how he was responsible for them acquiring their first cars. Thomas, in fact, co-signed for my first car, a Ford Escort, that he also secured for me at an incredible discount. A few months before he passed, I visited him. My uncle had died and so I was in Cleveland in January to attend the funeral. I went next door to visit Thomas. His wife, Betty, was in the hospital and I had just missed his daughter who would be returning later to be with her father. As we sat and talked, I could almost feel how happy he was to have company; so I asked him about his visitors. “Do you get many visitors from your church,” I asked. I knew Thomas and Betty as deeply committed to their church and thought them much beloved so I figured he would have tons of guests. Thomas wanted to say yes, but then he said, “No, they don’t come by much. Or call.” Thomas had never been much of a talker, but he was on that gray, cold, snowy evening. He went on to catalogue the tithes that he paid, the carpet that he laid down and the air conditioning that he personally paid to have installed in the church but how in return, he had received scarcely a visitor or even a telephone call from either the leaders or the parishioners in the church. It was a painful discussion. Thomas had always been exceedingly generous.

I am among the many people who would have described him as financially comfortable. What was impressive about he and Betty’s money is that it was tempered by great humility. They lived in the same house for over thirty years; they gardened; they shopped locally; they used cash; they took their meals at home; they stayed home; they saved; they gave. They were simple, frugal people; quite remarkable. I wanted to voice that to him as he sadly recounted the ways that people became unavailable to visit with he and Betty.

When Thomas passed away this summer, his funeral became an extension of the righteous way people took from him. He and his sister died within hours of one another and so they were given a common funeral. The funeral wound up being a shameful tribute to Thomas. His daughter was led to believe that it would in fact be a service commemorating both her aunt and her father but it became an event that extolled his sister and only nodded to Thomas. In fact, I was the only one on the program scheduled to speak on his behalf. At one point, Tammie, went to the podium and told everyone how troubled she was at the tribute being paid to her father and asked that the service conclude as quickly as possible. It was heartbreaking. Betty died four days after Thomas and Tammie did a wonderful job organizing a service that paid equal tribute to both her mother and father.

Thinking about how entitled people feel to take from Thomas and not pay respect and tribute to him has deeply affected me. Sometimes I wonder if people think that giving is free for the one who dispenses; that somehow it doesn’t cost them anything or that it doesn’t come as a sacrifice, but what they give is necessarily extra. Like Thomas, I have given to people who I watched take with a sense of entitlement that I found shocking. And like Thomas, I didn’t stop giving all together, but I stopped giving to those people in the way that I once had.

It also seems to me that some people look upon giving as weakness. From this perspective, giving marks an urge to please. People seem to imagine that you are in fact giving to them because you want to be their friend. Giving is seen as pandering. It’s a troubling perspective.

I have an uncle whose generosity has also been taken for granted. In his case, people presumed that he did not care about anything so it was fine to take things from him without feeling any sense of obligation to him. As his body is beginning to fail him, he appears to be in the company of people with short memories.

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