Asagai: (Charmed) All right, I shall leave you. No–don’t get up. (Touching her, gently, sweetly) Just sit awhile and think…Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.
A Raisin in the Sun: Act III, Scene 1
A Raisin in the Sun: Act III, Scene 1
I had the privilege of being one among a small gathering of people who greeted Prof. Anita Hill before the screening of the Frieda Mock documentary about the impetus and the aftermath of Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991 regarding the sexual harassment charges Hill leveled against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita foregrounds the many women who rallied in support of Hill in ’91 and interestingly, most of the women who narrate this highly provocative media spectacle wherein 14 white men interrogate a black woman, forcing her to recount Thomas’s crimes in graphic detail, are white women. While these women address the significance of the strong narrative of racial betrayal leveled against Hill for her charges against a black man, someone of her own race, and thus disrupting his smooth path to judicial distinction, the narrators say nothing about the sanitized spectacle of this country’s long history of rape against black women dating from the antebellum period. Maybe they did not want to seem to be making a case for Hill as a victim of a “high-tech” raping akin to Thomas’s charge of a “high-tech” lynching having occurred. Charles Ogletree appeared to understand the significance of the intersection between race and gender in this case and decided that showing solidarity with Hill was both his moral and civic responsibility; he said the words, “black woman,” that others noted but were not called to think of in terms of U.S. history. To that end, instead of embracing her as an “icon,” Ogletree acted as someone who knew she needed cover.
Ogletree recognized that no black men were seen who publicly supported Hill and decided he would be among the first. He not only saw Hill’s vulnerability, but that of his daughters and grandchildren who have been born along the same sick, sordid trajectory that begins with antebellum U.S. history and extends well beyond it. Beyond Ogletree, Hill’s former law school classmates and friends offer testimony on her behalf. One of the most moving moments in the film occur when Hill’s family arrives. Despite the Senate’s attempt to make Hill appear ugly and unloveable, her mother and father held their daughter in a loving embrace the moment they arrived. Their gesture models a worthy rebuke to a history and culture of contempt.
Towards the end of Anita, the camera’s gaze lands on the staged 1956 Look magazine photograph of Rosa Parks hanging on the wall of Hill’s Brandeis office. The documentary makes it resoundingly clear that Anita Hill’s testimony helped disrupt the marginalization of sexual harassment as a public issue. What the film does not do is make the case that Hill and Parks are analogous figures. Hill very explicitly and consistently contend that her professional goal was not to testify before the Senate against Clarence Thomas but, as she states, “teach her classes.” Telling “the truth” was Hill’s motivation to ultimately go before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Thomas’s conduct. Rosa Parks challenged systems of domination on purpose. Parks was not caught up in an overwhelming situation. As a lifelong activist, she was well prepared that December day. It seems odd to link Hill and Parks together; one black woman who chose to resist and another black woman who fell into the role. While both women were modest dressers, careful speakers, and highly visible socio-political actors, Rosa Parks’s consciousness was a radical one. The association Mock makes between Hill and Parks only works as a sentimental tale, but not as history.
I’ve been doing a little bit of thinking about Icons and the dangers that come with worshipping them. Given that this era is reflecting on the past 50 years, I’ve been thinking about the civil rights commemorations that have occurred–as well as those to come–the names we honor and sometimes, the violence their names shield. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a great deal about adultery as the violence of “nonviolent” activism. Adultery has been attributed to most of the men’s names heralded from this era of history, black and white, but as with all human beings, these men have faults. This idea emerged for me most recently when viewing a documentary that notes James Bevel’s role as an activist. Bevel, while praised for his idea to train children in the methods of nonviolent direct action, the quirky, strident man that his old friends lovingly recall was not only an adulterer, he was a convicted child molester.
While reading about Aaralyn Mills’s decision to press charges against her father, I couldn’t help but consider how hollow the ring of Danielle McGuire’s claims regarding the primacy black women’s bodies held for generating, maintaining, and fortifying civil rights activism around black women’s vulnerability given Bevel’s crimes. Men who love the black women who live in these bodies don’t shame us, molest us, beat us, rape us. Today, when reading Sikivu Hutchinson’s precise and cogent analysis of the silence of white feminists as mostly poor and working class black women have been victims of the “New Jim Crow” police officers, like Daniel Holtzclaw, still employing antebellum, slave-holders’ practices of maintaining control over black women’s bodies, I decided that Alabama can issue as many apologies as it wants to: “Recy Taylor” remains unsafe (for more evidence, see the L.A.P.D.’s claim to racial blindness in handcuffing black actress, Daniele Watts, after mistaking her for a prostitute).
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 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.
In 2012, 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.
Last year, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie created Ifemelu, the protagonist and blogger in her novel “Americanah,” one of the smartest and sharpest chronicles of contemporary life on three continents.
Now, readers can catch up with Ifemelu through “The Small Redemptions of Lagos,” at AmericanahBlog.com. This new blog focuses on Ifemelu’s life in Nigeria, a kind of younger sibling to the novel’s incendiary and anonymous blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black.”
The new installment is no less expressive. Ifemelu’s observations are piercing, even on such subjects as a leaky roof at a Lagos airport or a friend who needs to take better care of herself: “Don’t expect water to taste like Coke. It is not Coke. It is water. And it is better for you.”
In the first handful of posts, love interest Obinze (whom Ifemelu calls “Ceiling”) appears, along with best friend Ranyinudo. More characters are expected.
“Americanah” won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was selected as one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, the BBC and Newsday. Earlier this year, actress Lupita Nyong’o (fresh off her Best Supporting Actress win for 12 Years A Slave) announced she had optioned the rights to Adichie’s book, with plans to star in and produce the movie adaptation.
In the meantime, readers will have the web posts to keep them primed. “Ifemulu does have an opinion on everything and why shouldn’t she be like that?” Adichie told an interviewer in March. “I wanted her to be like that. I admire her very much.”
I’m currently re-reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 work Strength to Love. In the introduction, he notes his hesitance in publishing this work because the “essays” are actually “sermons” and thus meant for a present, listening audience. This is important to keep in mind in reading this passage about the church that I find quite timely:
“As the chief moral guardian of the community, the church must implore men to be good and well-intentioned and must extol the virtues of kindheartedness and conscientiousness. But somewhere along the way the church must remind men that devoid of intelligence, goodness and conscientiousness will become brutal forcers leading to shameful crucifixions. Never must the church tire of reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent” [all emphasis mine] (46).
So I read this wonderful line in King’s text yesterday and today I received a beautifully handwritten note from my son’s teacher, at the Christian school he attends, that says this:
“Good day parents: Our book day is Friday. Please do not allow Miles to bring books or toys to school because it distracts him from his work.” WTF?! When did books become toys? Miles is allowed to play with toys in the car before he goes into school, but he’s so good at not bringing toys into school that his Kindergarten teacher noted this fact in one of our many conversations. So if books are a distraction from his “work,” wtf is he doing?
When I was in school, I remember students being admonished for sneaking and reading books after they had completed a test and the teacher had not collected them or if we were being punished and forced to sit quietly with nothing on our desks. Even then, I remember thinking reading was a good use of one’s time once classwork was complete, but I complied with the rule. Although I didn’t say this to my son, his teacher has a stupid a*$ rule as far as books, work, and school are concerned. Ever since Miles has been in school, I’ve stressed the importance of having books in his book bag. I would tell him to read or color before class began or if allowed, to be productive in this way once his work was complete.
Everything in me wants to call this teacher and tell her that EVERY SCHOOL DAY is BOOK DAY!!! It’s the same urge I felt when the principal overheard me asking Miles if he wanted to carry his Bible in his hands or leave it in his book bag and she said, “He doesn’t need a book. Ms. K is going over scriptures in the cafeteria.” I’m not one for rolling up to your spot and telling you how to run it so I’m not going to say anything to them; we’ll just have to accept punishment for this one. If this were 1814, I could see telling an enslaved black child to hide traces of his literacy but a lawfully free black child 200 years later?! My son CAN and WILL carry books to school!
My son’s teacher has a master’s degree in theology. I guess wherever she went to school, they skipped over what Martin Luther King, Jr. had to say about the church’s responsibility of “reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent.” King even goes on to say: “Only through the bringing together of head and heart–intelligence and goodness–shall man rise to a fulfillment of his true nature. Neither is this to say that one must be a philosopher or a possessor of extensive academic training before he can achieve the good life. I know many people of limited formal training who have amazing intelligence and foresight” (47). Like King, I know wise untutored people too and not a single one of them would tell someone that “book day is Friday” and that while in school, books are a “distraction.” Lord have mercy. It’s like you send children to school nowadays to show them how stupid we’ve become.
The Labor Day Edition 2014.