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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

January 2015

Models Monday: Good Advice

I’m exhausted. This is what I plan on doing throughout my recovery:

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Elizabeth Catlett, Pensive, 1963

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

Lorraine Hansberry

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Models Monday: MLK Day at South-View Cemetery

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Spending part of my day in service to those who sacrificed their lives for freedom and for those who wanted both to live and to be buried with dignity, integrity, and respect felt important. Not only were we respecting history but we were also contributing to the beauty of a memorial landscape; indeed, for some of us, #BlackLivesMatter(ed)…trees contribute to the potential of one’s asserting, “I CAN BREATHE.”

Models Monday: Against Inevitable Happiness

Selma Burke, American (1900 – 1995), “Sadness,” 1951, bronze, 18½ x 17 x 11 inches, Bequest of Selma Burke, 1998.1
Selma Burke, American (1900 – 1995), “Sadness,” 1951, bronze, 18½ x 17 x 11 inches, Bequest of Selma Burke, 1998.1. Spelman College

A serious, thoughtful, and careful examination of lived experience undergoes perpetual distortion because of the unique American obsession with happiness. In the United States, sadness, tragedy, crisis, or despair routinely lead to vigorous pursuit of a silver lining, a happy ending, an upside that makes life’s crushing dismay, pain, and sorrow a nearly impossible occurrence. Even as a lifelong citizen of this country, however, I startle upon encountering sanitized violence and smoothed over cruelty for the purpose of finding fictive happiness.

Driving my son to school this morning, we listened to Ellen Levine’s children’s book Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad. Unlike an ebook that might include images, the audible version of this book did not include the Kadir Nelson illustrations that can make any reading experience worthwhile. Listening to the story, without the pleasure of viewing Nelson’s illustrations, probably made me more attuned to this fairytale like narrative of enslavement that Levin offers. As the narrative opens, my ears peaked when Levine writes that “Henry’s master had been good to Henry and his family.” The slaveholder who withheld liberty and freedom from Henry and his family may have been less sadistic than many slaveholders, but the notion of a “good” slaveholder is pure Gone With the Wind fantasy. Though far different, calling someone a “good” slaveholder shares certain affinities with casting a woman who leaves an abusive husband to later marry a much better beater as much better off; it’s absurd!

The “good” slaveholder Levine describes, decides that upon his death Henry would become the property of his son; in other words, he would remain enslaved instead of free. Henry later finds a woman he loves, Nancy, and they have children. Henry felt fortunate that his family remained together, but Nancy, more wisely worried about the stability of their lives together. Unfortunately, money became one factor that motivated the slaveholder who owned Nancy and her children to sale them. The sale of his family becomes the catalyst for Henry’s plan to escape. With the help of those opposed to slavery, Henry was put inside a box and shipped to Philadelphia as mail.

The Author’s Note Levin reads differs in length and detail from the one in the book. In the audio version, she notes that Henry never again found his family, possibly married in England, and was wanted as a fugitive. In the audio version, Levin addresses the difficulty that arrises when offering tales of true and historical misfortune to children. Levine contends that given the horrors of slavery, what inspired her to write Henry’s Freedom Box was recognizing, “the incredible courage, the imagination, and the strength to overcome that kind of disaster.” How does she know that Henry overcame “that kind of disaster?” How does she know that he did not carry buckets of grief everyday in mourning for all that he lost?

Americans aren’t going to like this, but this is the truth: Some people live terrible lives; they die alone and unmourned; they never recover or overcome. Maybe if we stop deluding ourselves, we might be able to offer meaningful comfort, companionship, and support for those so broken that “all the kings horses and all the kings men” couldn’t put them back together again.

Models Monday: Police Protest Yields Wonderful Results

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I became worried that New York City Police officers had ended their protest when they saluted Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner William Bratton at the wake for officer Wenjian Liu. Despite Bratton’s call for officers to recognize that respecting the grieving families should hold precedence over the officers’ and the police union’s “grievances,” many officers outside the funeral parlor, once again, turned their backs as Mayor de Blasio began the eulogy. Unfortunately, these officers have not recognized the arrogance that protesting the Mayor, as Bratton contends, distracts from the valor and dignity of the slain officers. To my knowledge, de Blasio has not backed down from his acknowledgement of police brutality in the city nor has he denounced the instructions he has given his own (black) son about how to handle himself during interactions with the NYPD. Other than acknowledging that easing tensions between the officers and the city are welcome, he has not backed away from his claims on political grounds. I respect him for that.

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While the unconfirmed NYPD slowdown ostensibly reflects no official sanction, the statistics suggests that the officers have adjusted their attitudes and tactics concerning law enforcement. The week after their fellow officers were gunned down by a black man, The New York Times reports that, “the number of summonses for minor criminal offenses, as well as those for parking and traffic violations, decreased by more than 90 percent versus the same week earlier. And arrests over seven major categories of felony offenses were nearly 40 percent lower […]” Do these officers actually think the mayor will apologize when their show of discretion towards crime and punishment accords with the goals of their critics? Had officers staged such a protest before officer Daniel Pantaleo met Eric Garner maybe Garner would be alive today as selling loose cigarettes most certainly is not a serious, criminal offense. The NYPD’s slow down protest appears to offer a model of effective police work. I hope they keep up the good work.

What seems odd, however, is that the officers who turned their backs haven’t been written up for insubordination. The first time they protested at Detective Ramos’s funeral, they should have received a penalty. When they repeated their actions on Sunday, the officers who committed the offense should have been suspended. By not doing anything to hold these officers accountable, the leniency shown them extends the legacy of the crimes and abuses of mostly white Americans who lynched black Americans and escaped punishment with the official ruling being that their heinous acts were committed “at the hands of persons unknown;” now this is a legacy one would think you’d want to turn your back on and embrace another model for holding people accountable…oh well, at least for now, a black kid who NYPD officers catch jaywalking just might survive this criminal act; good luck kid.

R.I.P. Stuart Scott

Stuart Scott of ESPN
Stuart Scott of ESPN

Stuart Scott was a phenomenal anchor at ESPN. One of Scott’s greatest traits as an anchor, to me, was the integrity he showed by embracing the man he wanted to be while working in the mainstream. Despite the many early critics who dismissed his cool, black vernacular style and those who remained disgruntled even when the majority began embracing him, Scott claimed himself while eschewing the need to please others. I’m going to miss Stuart Scott on the network as well as his overall presence in the world of sports.

I wish that his two beautiful daughters find comfort and peace in the coming days…for now though, I hope they acknowledge their sadness, their anguish, and their pain. One day, they may be able to incorporate their memories of their father into their active lives, but for the moment, I hope they reject the pressure to be “brave,” “courageous,” or “composed.” Sadness is a viable option “when sorrows come,” despite our country’s insistence on perpetual happiness.

Rest in Peace Stuart Scott, you certainly will be missed.

New Documentary about the Ruby McCollum Case

…for more on the case and the film, follow this link.

Are You Kidding Me?

Jennifer Schuessler, a movie reviewer for The New York Times, might consider reading Janet Maslin’s review of Ravi Howard’s latest novel, Driving the King, for its effectiveness in offering a close reading with keen understanding of the subject matter. Schuessler’s review of Selma addresses the grievances of some historians and those who worked closely with former President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), but she does so without even a hint of critical consciousness regarding the racist and racialized complaints concerning the film. For example, in response to the “adversarial” portrayal of King and LBJ’s relationship, one of the filmmaker’s consultants, historian Gary May, affirms the expected ire in response to the film, noting:

“Here you have the first film about King, and some people are coming in and saying, ‘The story is really about the white people,’ he said. In historical truth, the story was really about everybody.”

Professor May’s acute assessment of the limited spectatorship of American audiences rings true. Basically, if it (whatever “it” is) is not about the goodness of white people, something’s wrong with the story. May further asserts his contention that “the story was really about everybody.” What exactly does this mean? Bloody Sunday resulted from legally sanctioned discrimination and segregation violently endorsed by local and national government against black Americans and their right to vote.To say that Bloody Sunday was a “story about everybody” romanticizes the violence specifically directed towards black Americans, not “everybody.” An even more jaw dropping revelation from May comes at the moment when he offers his analysis of DuVernay’s portrayal of LBJ: “On balance, the film is a positive force,” he said. But in the Johnson scenes, he said, “there is a problem with tone.”

It’s not clear to me exactly what Professor May means by “tone” because of his imprecision, or the editor’s decision, to cut his explication short. In my estimation, his criticism of the filmmaker’s tone suggests that DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson is that of an angry black woman who paints an unflattering portrait of a white man that might make white people uncomfortable. May doesn’t even recognize his own insight about the problem with criticism of a film about King (which it is not; it is a film about the everyday people who were the foot soldiers of the modern civil rights movement) into a story “really about white people.”

I wish The New York Times would have revealed the civil rights historians who “agreed with the broader point that Johnson and Dr. King were partners, not adversaries.” Whoever these civil rights historians are need to stop calling themselves “historians” and start calling themselves “romance writers of historical fiction.” How could ANY expert trained in American history assert that a partnership existed between the United States government, via the President, and black Americans in a quest to dismantle what black feminist scholar bell hooks calls, “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?” Claiming such an alliance appears more like a piece of science-fiction than the facts of U.S. history…and please don’t tell me what former President Bill Clinton did for Black Americans. On an individual basis, Clinton dispatched the many black people in governmental posts with transformative ideas. Don’t believe me?  Just ask legal scholar Lani Guinier and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders how progressive Clinton was. Despite being granted an opportunity to fight for and support individuals with strong opinions, transgressive ideas he did what was best for the maintenance of his own authority. The same holds true in legal matters. For example, Clinton’s 1996 Crime Bill harshly impacted blighted communities populated by the most marginalized citizens (i.e. people of color-men and women, the poor). It might be my limited imagination, but I can’t imagine any black man in his right mind–especially during a period when domestic terrorism reigned–EVER considering himself in partnership with a white man who just happened to be the President of the United States!

In 1965, King and Johnson were similarly interested in Johnson’s Great Society programs. King was himself eager to have the Voting Rights Act pass, but Johnson thought more time was needed to gain support from members of Congress; our “partners” disagree (to this end, even King was late to the party: SNCC initiated the persistent push for voting rights in Alabama before King meets with Johnson in 1964). Before our “partners” disagreed on King’s criticism of Vietnam, King called out the federal government (which would have the President of the United States as its most prominent representative) for its “timidity,” which he found to be in complicity with lethal violence in Selma; like the state police officers’ bullets that killed Jimmie Lee Jackson (on February 26-the date of Trayvon Martin’s death decades later). While Schuessler’s review offers historian David Garrow’s opinion that “Selma was not Johnson’s idea,” he also contends that [Johnson] was happy that King was out there mounting a voting rights act,” there’s no acknowledgement that historian Clayborne Carson offers an altogether different perspective:

“Dismayed that the demonstrations in Alabama were forcing his hand, Johnson tried in vain to persuade King to defuse the situation. When the two men met briefly on Feb.9, he privately confided to King that he now accepted the need for new legislation. King remained convinced, however, that protests should continue in Alabama to maintain pressure on the president.

“The relationship between the two men was superficially cordial, but was also strained by growing differences over American military escalation in Vietnam and by their mutual realization that the FBI was maintaining close surveillance of King.”

Furthermore, Carson and Garrow disagree with a number of the unnamed historians who take issue with “Johnson’s attitude toward F.B.I. surveillance of Dr. King’s personal life.” Like Garrow, I have not seen the film (it hasn’t opened in my city) but I do take issue with Garrow’s narrow interpretation of the possible connection the film makes between LBJ and the salacious F.B.I. tapes of King ostensibly caught in the act of committing adultery. Garrow contends, “If the movie suggests LBJ had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ.” Garrow’s harsh accusation against this film’s suggestion that LBJ was linked to the tape that Mrs. King described as being indecipherable suggests the scholar’s attenuated reading of complicity with the Kennedy administration and LBJ’s own moral laxity in allowing Hoover to send letters to King threatening to expose his adulterous behavior and urging him to commit suicide. According to Clayborne Carson, King received this material “[o]n the eve of the Selma campaign.” Professor Julian E. Zelizer claims that the film commits the “historical crime” that Garrow notes because it “obviously wanted to create a villain.” I haven’t yet read Zelizer’s book about LBJ but I’m not eager to do so in light of the laughable assertion that one would need to “create a villain” in Jim Crow America.

Reading Maslin’s book review of Ravi Howard’s Driving the King may have helped Schuessler reporting because she understands how art often reconstructs the facts of actual events in an effort to highlight the high stakes of history. As Maslin writes in an insightful caution to readers, “no one should read this warmly enveloping book looking for authentic history […] Mr. Howard wants to incorporate the courage shown by many others in Montgomery into this book, so he significantly altered Mr. Cole’s real story.” According to Maslin, Howard makes the artistic choice to “distort” the facts of Cole’s life because ultimately, the novel “wants to incorporate the courage shown by many others in Montgomery […]” Might Ms. DuVernay have chosen a similar device? Maslin recognizes that artists have an opportunity to imagine scenarios that might lack documentation (if in fact Ms. DuVernay’s representation does). New York Times critic A.O. Scott also recognizes that filmmaking is an art. In his review of Selma he clearly notes cinematic techniques used in powerful storytelling:

Packed with incident and overflowing with fascinating characters, [Selma] is a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling. And much more than that of course: It would be hard to imagine a timelier, more necessary popular entertainment in the year of Ferguson, Mo., a reminder both of progress made and promises unkept. But such relevance is hardly automatic. A timid, pious or dishonest movie about the time–burnished glories of the civil rights era–the kind of soothing fable of awakened white conscience that Hollywood has too often favored–would not do anyone any good.

Rather than an angry black woman or someone who has committed a “truly vile and real historical crime against LBJ,” Scott acknowledges DuVernay’s mastery of craft and thus her ability to push through the “sentimental bosh” of Hollywood to expose the ugliness and brutality of the ongoing narrative of racial terrorism in the United States…and the artifacts available for all to see:

Forrest Statue Stolen

 

 

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