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Archive for the ‘African-American literature’ Category

The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are … The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will be given pensions — Between the World

During, before and after the [Civil] War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired, or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything … Locked and chained down … unusual (even for a girl who had lived all her life in a house peopled by the living activity of the dead … Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which [the Klan] could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will — Beloved.

Friends and readers.

One definition of chattel slavery, what differentiates it from all other forms of enslavement is that the enslaved person has no future and effectively no family (he or she can be sold at will at any time) and that he or she is answerable with his or her body. Coates demonstrates in his Between the World and Me that up until the year of writing his book, and conceivably for years beyond, black people are now and will continue to be answerable with their bodies — unless US society undergoes a massive inner transformation. African-American people cannot go out in the street, cannot in fact stay home, cannot travel anywhere without enduring an ever present danger — losing one’s life, being beat up, arrested, put in prison, harassed, or raped. Coates wants to revel in what the world offers to human beings that are alive: deep pleasure in one’s body, for one’s soul, but between him and the world is the white person’s Dream of invulnerable power and unassailable child-like pleasures, which come down to a series of unreal and/or unreal and happy images of themselves in life eating ice cream, barbecue, wine-tasting, holding just so parties in a room-y house, a Dream from which non-white people are excluded. His argument can be said to explicate in general terms what happens in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.


From the film adaptation of Beloved — Oprah Winfrey as Sethe

Toni Morrison’s Beloved might be said to offer the past history behind the reality Coates describes and demonstrates to be true. We are led to live first within the bodies and minds of African-Americans (they are African-American by this time) in the years just after the Civil War, what life was like for them when they could no longer be driven to work or to submit to another person every hour of their existence, and then through memories, dreams and their present behavior, assumptions, thoughts, lack of self-esteem, security, literacy for the most part what life had been like during enslavement. For the heroine, Sethe, life had been since age 14 perpetual rape and pregnancy amid perpetual degrading debasement and fear. She has had many children, and is unable to account for what happened to most of them; she was told one of the males enslaved by the Garners in Sweet Home (the family of owners and their plantation name), one man, Halle, was to be regarded as her husband, and it appears at least three were his. He has vanished, and the only other family tie she has had to hold onto was his mother, Baby Suggs (the names of these people are painfully undignified, left-overs of how they were named when enslaved), who died some years ago; two of Sethe’s last sons ran away when still children, and she has left only Denver, named after a white indentured servant, Amy Denver, who stopped her from dying of despair and exhaustion and terror and helped her give birth to this girl. In the first chapters Paul D, the novel’s hero (in effect) also enslaved by these Garners (all the men were named Paul with just an initial to differentiate them) comes back to the place he knows and she takes him in as a lover-companion as this is all she has known, and both are in desperate need of affection and stability. The POV of the book moves between omniscient Sethe, Paul, & Denver. The two females dominate and their relationship makes the book feel like a mother-daughter novel at times

There is a fourth main character. Unlike The Bluest Eye, which is strongly grounded in the here and now, and strictly realistic, adhering to ordinary probability, Beloved reaches out to the vatic and symbolic, and uses the realm of historical romance, to layer the book with fantasies from Christian gothic (there is such a genre — see Tyler Tichelaar’s Gothic Wanderer). “124” is a stigmatized house no one wants to come near because a ghost lives there, this weird presence is revenant of a two year child whose throat Sethe slit rather than allow the child to be sold away from her and subject to all that she has known as an enslaved woman. The weirdness and deep un-home-like feel comes from the form this ghost takes: not a 2 year old or even a baby, but a grown woman whose bone structure is as soft as an octopus, whose expressions are those of a neonate, who quite literally creeps about in an uncannily frightful because however apparently vulnerable stubborn way.

I found I could hardly put down Coates’s book; like Baldwin’s essays, his prose is so eloquent, his sentences fall into memorable quotations capturing deep truths. The style is plainer than Baldwin but eloquent in its pure searching self-honesty. By contrast, I had to give up on Beloved, and gave up near the end — after skipping to the last pages to satisfy myself that there was not some horrific last cruel act to match those remembered and lived through by both Sethe and Paul D, when they were separate and still enslaved. I wanted badly to ascertain that the ghost left because her presence was felt as horrible, and inhibiting but alas, not quite. Paul D, unable to take Denver’s discomfort with him, Sethe’s inability to speak openly about how she wants to trust him if he will stay, vanishes like those before him. Denver reaches out to some black women in the community and they exorcise this ghost. (Another book I found so dreadful, leaving me on the edge of my chair in a state of anxiety, with the horrific violence to the fore, Bessie Head’s Question of Power, has this kind of voodoo in it.) Now a white man shows up who means to offer Denver a job; it’s he who had offered 124 to Baby Suggs when her son, Halle, bought her freedom; Sethe thinks he is another man come to rape and claim another of her children, Denver, and takes an ice pick to him. She fails to kill anyone (it seems) and while she is left in a trance, and Denver goes off to the job, Beloved finally disappears and Paul D returns. But it is too late for any sanity: Sethe cannot take in Paul’s attempt to tell her not that ghost, but she herself must be the basis of her existence.

The two books complement one another because Morrison offers electrifyingly dramatized and embodied instances of what Baldwin argues are in principle and for selfish asocial considerations are the daily cruel and unpredictable practices and behaviors of people who consider themselves white towards African-Americans in the near past and today. They are also so part of American literature by European-Americans or whites. Beloved confirms my sense of the deep religiosity of American literature, and by extension American culture — if you want to belong as an American of any kind, you must have a religion, go to some church. There is no other on-going cultural institution that binds people (like in the UK the pub). American history is far more drenched by the emotions and beliefs of the groups who came to the Western hemisphere to get what they called religious freedom (which turned into individual tyrannies most of the time) than any Enlightenment ideas or thoughts. The Enlightenment ideas shape the constitution (but only insofar as private property values, hierarchies and originally patriarchy allow). Beloved resembles Lincoln at the Bardo, also about a ghost made up of guilt and retribution (Bardo was among the first choices for an American book for the Booker.) Neither book looks to class structure, socialist thought, but ground their sense of the world in individuals amid families or friends. We cut through manners to lay bare passions, which are near the surface. All very un-English, un-European.

There are also strong contrasts between these books. Coates moves by logic, reason, argument, while presenting his memories and life history to his son as burning incidents vivid in his brain making him what he is to today. He wants to protect by explaining and actuate his son to be stronger, more immune to the pain and danger and humiliation he must know. Morrison uses the device of stream of consciousness. Although the book is divided into chapters, there are no numbers, no chapter headings and within sections, the mind of the character moves freely from past to deep past to present. Sudden phrases break through and it’s not clear (at least to this reader) how what’s said relates to the rest of a section. The structure is cyclical; yes, it’s a woman’s book. It’s much harder to pluck epitomizing passages or utterances. I admit I enjoyed her preface as much as anything in the book, for there she writes straight-forward prose about how she came to leave her job and try to write novels, who the historical Margaret Garner was and her first vision of the ghost.


Howard University — wintertime, snow, the research center can be seen

I first became aware of Coates as a columnist for the Atlantic, and then I read his Reparations, where he demonstrates that the reason African-Americans have not as a group of people accumulated wealth in family or as individuals is that the structures and laws of white society prevented this. They were refused places in universities, in professions, deliberately targeted for fleecing over mortgages; refused a fair deal, paid painfully little. Put into prison at the slightest opportunity. This imprisonment stopped sometime in the 1960s but resumed in the 1990s with a real vengeance: now you would not be put away for a few years, but for life. When any community became rich, it was targeted by whites; one group of upper class African-Americans in Oklahoma actually massacred. Violent strikes up north after World War One by whites demanded of bosses they give no jobs to blacks. It’s a factual essay, documented history.

His non-fiction, partly life-writing partly essay book is about the inner life of African-American people, where they are robbed of security, where they are made to be more violent to their children in order to teach them to kowtow to whites. He is opening up before us the mind-set of a young black man brought up in American culture. At times he so reminded me of Baldwin whose terrain is the same; I was especially reminded of the sense of alienation and deep hurt of Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” where he is a black man and somes to live in Switzerland in a snowy area where white people have never seen a “negro.” I used to assign the essay to students. Most famous in the book is the incident where his friend, Prince, living a good life, having gone to college, with all hopes before him, is simply gunned down by a policeman because the policeman felt like it. No charge even is ever brought. The book ends with Coates’ visit to Prince’s mother. Less famous is the incident where his son is pushed aside by a white woman and he for a moment loses it and is indignant and endangers the boy, himself, is threatened with arrest. There is a rage in this book about how white people lie about the history of the US and simply refuse to acknowledge the “mass rape” out of which the workers of the early US came, his “ancestors [who] were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” (p 69). There is solace: there is Howard University, a Mecca for African-Americans and people of color to be free, diverse, proud; it provides more than an employment support mechanism, it builds self-esteem and a sense that they are a people, a community, not alone.

Beloved provides no such hope or place. I did watch the excellent American Masters program on Morrison, The Pieces that I am, where she allowed herself to be interviewed. You can rent it as a DVD from Netflix. It is just so good: informative, moving, absorbing. It’s available on Netflix as a DVD to rent

Much of it consists of a long interview later in life (after she wont the Nobel) interspersed with narratives, other interviews, film clips. It takes you through her life as a woman, black person/woman; through her career from early years of doing well in school to going to Howard, teaching in a traditional black university, and then landing that job at Random house as an editor. It was there she was able to became what she did — a writer of American masterpieces. I also goes over her novels and major works (not always categorizable as a novel) and you come away understanding their content. It also includes her relationships with her readers, including people in prison (so many black men put in prison); these are illuminating. Her dream life, what pictures matter to her.

I think I was most interested by her account of how American history is usually viewed, either without blacks or lower class whites or the vulnerable, and when these groups are included, without women. So the story of enslavement is the story of an enslaved man, usually how he tries to break free and either succeeds or fails. The women’s stories are much more devastating: for the first time I considered the common photograph of black woman standing by cabins or in rows with babies in their arms — they are being sexually used/abused and worked to death too

I did not know that the book by her most rejected by the white establishment has been The Bluest Eye. It is her first and it is the one that has been most consistently singled out for banning. That is interesting – -it is very raw and hits hard at realities rarely depicted from a deeply compassionate standpoint — well written, beautifully written.

Very important along the way the people who helped her in Random House and in black literary and political movements – they are there interviewed. Also her interviews with interviewers on TV.

It tells her life-story interpersed with going over each of her books and how the book emerged from her consciousness. She too went to Howard; she became part of a publishing house and brought out many black authors. I felt very enthused about her Black Book, a history of black people in photographs. Much interest in the visual is true of the two novels I’ve read thus far.

Gary Goldstein of the LA times has it right. A.O. Scott of the Times is fair to the documentary (and the piece has less flashing ads than most nowadays). Literature, the hopes and true dreams it can offer she says in an essay are central to young people’s futures; it was so for her.

I end on a reading from his recent novel, The Water Dancer, and an interview of Coates under the auspices of Politics and Prose at the Lincoln theater (I assume) in DC:

These two books are important right now, today, in this pandemic, where, for example, in both Chicago and all of Louisiana, 70% of those who have died from the coronavirus are African-Americans, when in Chicago African-Americans comprise 30% of the whole population, and in Louisiana 32%. This virus, to quote the Washington Post this morning, is killing African-Americans at an alarming rate. It is a respiratory disease: many African-Americans are poor; they have no health care now that Obamacare has been gutted (can’t afford it); they suffer from diseases you get from stress; take drugs of various sorts to cope. I can see why the turn to historical fiction in Coates and Morrison: the past explains the present. How can one find words adequate to this? I’ll be back later with an attempt through a poem.

Ellen

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Porgy (Eric Owens) and Bess (Angel Blue)

Friends,

I have little to add to Anthony Tommasini’s finely discriminated strong praise of the new Metropolitan Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as realized by a group of effective nuanced performances — the nuance, subtlety, and self-reflexive comic distance, which the actor-singers brought to the parts did a lot to de-emphasize and re-shape most of the white perspective on black people. I invite my reader to click and read Tommasini on the individual singers and specific events within the opera on stage.

To me it was a splendid appropriately pitched production. I sat there mesmerized.  The songs were beautifully sung by each and all the performers, the play acted believably, the dancing, singing and then individual behavior of the large black chorus on stage made the action into a modern masque that figured the pleasure and repeatedly last minute, unexpected (yet perpetually expected) tragedies of the people in the streets and on the docks, in the apartments and in the symbolic community buildings, and its Esser-like structures. The opera reminds me of the couple of mid-20th century American operas I’ve seen, e.g., Aaron Copeland’s A Tender Land: it is an ensemble meditative lyrical piece. There are dramatic scenes and a story line, but the emphasis is the group, individuals stand for types within a group, acting out necessary roles.

I thought Owens as Porgy outstanding and Angel Blue as Bess perfect in each phase of her role — the acting was in general pitch perfect from caricature to deeply felt. Everyone else is supportive or contrasting (the two bully males who Bess succumbs to).  I was drawn by the strong women characters, amused by the comic males (Sporting Life was done tongue-in-cheek), aware of the stories and losses of individuals. Archetypes were used and strongly emphatic performances.


Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) and Bess (Angel Blue)

There was a continual use of comic exaggeration to distance us and make us think about what we are seeing and as entertainment:


Maria (Denyce Graves) and upside-down the bully Crown (Alfred Walker)

The applause at the end was thunderous, and without meaning to take away anything from what literally happened on stage, as John Berger averred long ago, nothing occurs in a vacuum and I felt that everyone watching and acting was aware we as a group are living in a larger society now driven by bigotry, a renewal of race prejudice and open vile violent punitive behavior not seen openly in several decades. To do this opera and in this lavish way is to create a meaningful counter-punch against all Trump and his Republican party and their ignorant voters can do and assert belief in. The production is selling out and more performances than originally intended are now scheduled.


One of many ensemble scenes — there is much dancing, some ritual-like

The opera has a complicated often thwarted history because it has had to make its way in a racist society. The talk here shows how the opera is being seen as rooted in its context; its past and the surrounding society then and now embedded in the present production which has a message of hope, at least endurance and survival in a better future. Now we attend to the use of African music, the songs of African-Americans intermixed with the Broadway music and song rhythms and how this is worked into mid-century operatic traditions, both sentimental and stereotypical. And it is still daring to have a home-y kindly aging disabled man for a hero, a heroine who is raped in one scene (when Crown drags her off from the picnic) but in others succumbs to temptation, who sees the better way and cannot leave off her addiction.


Bess and Porgy in a companionable moment

Just a taste of the memorable poignant sensual Summertime as sung by Clara to her baby, a lullaby (the soprano Golda Schultz):

For this production the Met has mounted a show of black performers at the Met since its inception: it’s made up of pictures and the memorabilia of all black singers, and dancers too who were in operas on stage. It’s called Black Voices at the Met, though some of the people commemorated are there for costuming, sets, choreography. It seems also to remember those excluded: Paul Robson is there

I end on two poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

We wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Sympathy

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

Ellen

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Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

***********************************

I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

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One of several competing portraits of Edward Marcus Despard (wikipedia offers a barebones outline of the man’s life)


Promotional parallel shot of Aidan Turner as the somewhat aging Ross Poldark, and Vincent Regan as Despard in his last 4 years (Season 5)

Friends and readers,

I had not written until now on the fifth season of Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark because I’m in several minds about it. Having watched the whole season twice, and now going through carefully each episode Sunday by Sunday I know had this been the first group of serial drama episodes I saw I would never have gone on to read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I first read the first four quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan, written 1945-53, and set between 1783 and 1793) after watching the first four episodes of the 1975-76 Poldark (scripted by Jack Pullman, mostly directed by Christopher Barry).

I learned later Winston Graham detested Pullman’s adaptation of Ross Poldark (Pullman departed radically in linchpin scenes), but I found myself having a deep affinity with them, and unexpectedly, as the series was itself ceaselessly disdained as romance costume drama [for women], and I assumed the books would be perhaps a cut above what was called “bodice rippers” (historical fiction except for a very few writers had fallen to a debased level in the early part of the 20th century), fell in love with them. They seemed to me fine historical fiction with something serious to say to readers barely out of, recovering from the devastation of World War Two.

Horsfield seems to have made the decision to fill the ten year interval between the ending of the first trilogy of Graham’s Poldark novels (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide, written & published 1974-77/8, set 1794-99), and the beginning of the second The Stranger from the Sea, The Miller’s Dance, The Loving Cup, written & published 1982-4-84, set 1811-15) — not from the fragments of details about the intervening years found in the later five books, but by inventing a story whose source and treatment resembles that of Graham.

In my paper on the use of documentation in Graham’s historical and suspense fiction I demonstrated Graham had a penchant for choosing the minor real figures of history who were just and decent men scapegoated (using law and state terror and legal violence) by or part of a reactionary establishment but often meaning to do good or not wholly bad men. His deepest sympathy was for the humane rebel, the Che Guevara type combined with the elegance of Gainsborough historical romance males that his own hero, Ross Poldark, represents. To have picked a man like Edward Marcus Despard speaks very well of her, we must give her the credit of calling attention to this man to a wider audience than ever reads non-fiction about the French revolution, the analogous upheaval in the UK in the 1790s for reform (prompting the reign of state terror by Pitt and his state machinery).

As the promotional photo for the series suggests, in real life Despard was such another as Ross Poldark in Jeremy Poldark where we see him come near to hanging and/or transportation because his very real illegal activities leading a huge group of local ordinary desperate people to remove and use for themselves the flotsam and jetsam of two wrecks from a violent storm were used by his enemies (and the local state apparatus) to make an example of him to deter people from combining to demand a far better life and share in the good things of the earth than they had ever had. Apparently Despard was part of a revolutionary group whose deepest aims were to radically alter, overthrow (if you will) the oligarchical and unjust orders of the 18th century European gov’ts, but he was not guilty of what he was accused of. He was rather a political enlightenment Anglo-Irish Protestant around whom revolutionary people swirled, and was potentially willing to lead a rebellion if one could succeed — with say the help of the French in Ireland.


Promotional shot of Kerri McLean who plays Catherine (Kitty) in this fifth season of Poldark

She also brings to the viewer’s attention other people who lived during this ten-year interval and whose life history also has much to say to us today. Joseph Merceron, a corrupt Godfather boss of Bethnal Green (or Spitalfields, as a blog about this older area of London calls it), a Trump type colluding with Pitt’s gov’t to spy on and help imprison, transport, execute anyone who wanted to change the status quo. James Hadfield, a pathetic religious fanatic, crazed by his life and experience, who tried to kill George III (Andrew Gower, fresh from his brilliant complex portrayal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart makes the few moments we glimpse this man memorable).

Catherine Despard, about whom records are sparse, come from just the period of her (probable) marriage to Despard, life with him, continual remarkable unusual pro-active activities on his behalf, including publicizing the horrific conditions in the prison he was thrown in for two years (Coldbath Fields), showing herself (probably a Creole, daughter to a freed African woman living in Nicaragua, herself alas the owner of enslaved Africans) to be better educated than many European women, until the time of his execution, whereupon she disappears from public records. It is thought she took her and Despard’s children to Ireland in an effort to appeal to the consciences of his Anglo-Irish protestant family. No picture survives


Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans), the only conventionally romantic couple in the season ….

Catherine is interestingly accurately likened to the wholly fictional Cecily Hanson, daughter of Ralph Hanson (Peter Sullivan). Catherine was an educated woman who understood how to negotiate with upper class people and could hold her own in political salons (it takes Demelza many years to learn this). Cecily shows self-esteem and agency in her choosing to engage herself to Geoffrey Charles, and then when (in a later episode), she finds he is beaten senseless by her father’s thugs and cannot begin to hold onto their relationship, give him up. A feel of poignancy hovers around Geoffrey Charles, as the orphaned son of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark.

Hanson’s name harks back to a real brutal plantation owner from the Caribbean, Hanbury, a composite figure (such men did make money producing natural wood for mahogany found in mosquito-infested places), who Hanson attempts to coerce into an advantageous marriage with the sadly-reduced but still cruel and amoral widower George Warleggan (Jack Farthing sustains the difficult part of a man hallucinating from grief and guilt, rescued from heinous treatment by Dwight Enys, Luke Norris in the familiar Graham conception).

I’ve discovered Debbie Horsfield’s William Wickham was an under secretary of state, working for Castlereagh in 1802, the supervisor of a group of spies (see Conor’s Life and Times). (There was another William Wickham, official in the foreign office during Canning’s time — and given Graham’s respect for Canning and in the later novels make his Ross an reporter-spy-negotiator for Canning — so to use the name could leave room for a return to the 8th novel, Stranger from the Sea, which there are various signs in even the first four episodes of this series Horsfield and the film-makers, crew and actors would be willing to do. She’d conflate the two figures.)

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Promotional shots push viewers to liken Demelza to Tess and Demelza in this series is presented as seeing herself in Tess

So with all this important history for interested intelligent viewers to explore, which can also be linked back to Graham Winston’s own novelistic achievements and politics, what can be the cause of my dismay? 1) that Debbie Horsfield’s interpretation of Despard is that of the authorities and establishment of the later 19th century which stigmatized and degraded Despard into a “nut,” a deluded naive upper class male who courted his own destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in scene after scene we have Ross and Demelza and Catherine stopping a foolish man from following the obviously provocative antics of envious revolutionary thugs; 2) that freed from any text, Horsfield abandons the middle-of-the-road perspective of Graham on the revolution (his stance might be likened to the Girondists) continually to condemn any rebellion as coming from envy and dense stupidity, actuated by spite. She turned Graham’s Keren Daniels (who had some cause for discontent) into a dense promiscuous thug; now she invents such another in the character of Tess (Sofia Oxenham). I also cannot stand the way she re-interprets Demelza to be an pro-actively distrustful wife.

It is painful for me to consider (as I do) that Debbie Horsfield might be accurate: there are scenes of Demelza showing hurt, anger and resentment at Ross’s cold distrust of her in the second half of Jeremy Poldark and after her love affair with Richard Armitage. Similarly in Graham’s suspense novels post-World War Two, and later Poldark novels Graham evidences a great conservatism. That’s why I am in several minds. I may have been misreading Graham for all these years.

I face the reality that my love of many film adaptations derives from my love of the source book and the original conceptions of the key characters. I have no doubt that Debbie Horsfield’s conception of Demelza as frequently vexed with Ross, dominating when she can (masculine in her approach — as made visible in her mannish outfits), pro-active on behalf of the material needs of her family makes sense prudentially. It might appeal to non-romantic women in the 2nd decade of the 21st century that Horsfield introduced the idea that Ross regards Demelza as his savior, and he repeats this ad nauseam in season 5. Demelza likens herself to Catherine Despard (Eleanor Tomlinson must follow the script she is given) by asserting she too “entrapped” a man whose kitchen she also was (this is a startling travesty of what happened in Graham’s Ross Poldark, Jack Pullman’s adaptation and also Horsfield’s own Episode 4 in the 2015 Poldark). I can only assert and ask those who have read the books if I am correct: Graham’s Demelza is the underdog, a different kind of misfit from Ross, having given her ego, her very soul into her relationship with Ross; like him, finding deepest pleasure in disinterested activities and quiet solitude. What is so appealing about their relationship is they never bicker, are unself-conscious about their deep compatible character geniality.

Now that she is freed of Graham’s texts, I feel Horsfield travesties all Graham major women characters, but Verity, who is dropped, perhaps with relief? (Several of the students I taught Graham’s novel, Ross Poldark to, maintained she was a female Ross as understood in that humanely idealistic book, figures who found peace in solitude.) Graham’s Morwenna loathed the child Whitworth impregnated her with; Horsfield’s is turned into a sentimental fanatic, trailing around abjectly after the boy child, barely protected by the vulnerable (because low-class) Drake (Harry Richardson). She is made to behave as self-destructively and more than half-mad as Horsfield makes George Warleggan in his grief for Elizabeth. Debbie Horsfield is more comfortable or wants exaggerated emotional states: in the later novels we are told George grieved, felt guilty, remembered ever after all Elizabeth’s finer qualities, but he did not go mad: Jack Farthing’s acting carries it off as would Elisse Chappell were I not embarrassed for her — perhaps some viewers will be embarrassed for George:

I found irritating Morwenna and Rosina being turned into tenderly loving schoolmistresses — back to the patriarchy. Caroline (the now anorexic-looking Gabrielle Wilder) reminds me of the medieval statue of Barbara, always with lamp except she carries around a deliberately chosen fat dog. She is now resentful and jealous of Catherine whom Dwight does seem drawn to. Even he is travestied, becoming belligerently aggressive toward Ross in order to pressure Ross into giving up his loyalty to Despard (as imprudent). Dwight’s complete lack of this kind of emotional blackmail has escaped Debbie Horsfield (or she is glad to shed him of a characteristic generosity and inability to pressure others many would despise him for). OTOH, as in the books he shows himself to be his own man; he has his professional conscience and follows it despite his wife’s upper class prejudices and ignorance.


Dwight helping George by taking him to his wife’s grave: he utters an idea which is a play on a sentiment that Graham ends The Angry Tide with: all we have is that we are alive here today and that is what we must make what we can of

I find the relentless pace of these four episodes and constant switching back and forth of the scenes destructive of any development of conversation or thought. Many of the recap blogs wax snarky over this. Debbie Horsfield does trust her viewer to have the patience to see small moments develop slowly. We cannot dwell in the relationship of Ross and Demelza when it is deeply companionable because the scenes are so rushed and embedded in distractions (juxtaposition, switching back and forth):


The look on Eleanor Tomlinson’s face here suggests to me she has read Graham’s books, and some of her comments show how much she has invested in Graham’s heroine ….

I realize the larger content, the actual thrust of episodes is so often sheerly repetitive of the first seven books and earlier seasons. Again Ross is saving countless victim- miners and their children from death in an avalanche. Again he risks all his estate and fortune, this time to save the miners from unemployment. At least in Graham’s books, he does this to begin a business for himself, because he is guilty over Francis’s death and wants to control Elizabeth, make her dependent on him.

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Opening of episode 1: gradually we focus in on Ross out in his boat, and watch him come into shore

A few elements to praise:

I wish there were more moments in the four hours that derive from Graham’s Poldark books or conceptions, which the reader of Graham’s novels, someone who has read some 18th century history and knows the importance of the French revolution and the Enlightenment to a modern way of life today, and the lover of thoughtful period costume drama is left alone in peace to enjoy. Examples: At the opening of the first episode this season we see Ross out in a boat fishing by himself quietly. He is taking a needed break. George at first leaving Trenwith to rot; then his beginning to see Elizabeth and returning to Trenwith to find her is touching. I thought the conception of George’s half-craziness and coldness towards his son well done by Farthing, though he is blackened since in the books he did pay for Geoffrey Charles’s education as far as Geoffrey Charles asked for. The depiction of less major characters too — that Morwenna will have a hard time coping with sexuality is at first presented with sensitivity as is Demelza’s attempt to win over the workers.

Episode 2 has much that is persuasive and interesting politically — as a historical film (the way the first four seasons presented mining, farming and other realities of the era). The 1790s was a period of severe repression — unfairly because the English protesters were out for reform, but Pitt and the wealthy were frightened by what had happened in France. And they did frame people, and use just such printed circulating pamphlets. The gov’t did have surveillance techniques. Despard was far smarter than she presents him, he was impulsive and used to using violence; all characteristics praised and honored by the establishment of this era — very like Nelson (who he was friends with, worked with in the Caribbean) in some ways, only more controlled.

Episode 3: There is an anticipation of a sixth season in the behavior of the children: the young Clowance looking yearningly over the fence at Trenwith. We will find her there in the first phase of The Stranger from the Sea. Sam and Rosina slowly getting together over Bible-reading. Valentine ever alone wandering, picked up by the kindly Ross (who we see is his father from visual resemblance).


Ross watched by spies, enemies ….

In this interim plot-design, we are shown how slowly Hanson and Merceron in London draw a noose of inference and suspicion around both Despard and Ross, to accuse them of treason. This was done in the 1790s and people were tried, imprisoned, hung — 10 famously got off partly by the brilliant defense, Godwin’s publication of a treatise on equity and justice, and the reality the population was deeply against this repression. Of course our characters use Tess as their mole and encourage her to get at the head of gangs to destroy houses and people (highly anachronistic the idea any mob of men would automatically obey a woman). A noose of inference and suspicion is gradually being unfolded around Ross, ever oblivious in her desire to help his friend, bring about meaningful reform, love his wife and children …

Harry Richardson as Drake Carne attempting to care for a mentally distressed young woman delivers a pitch perfect performance; his behavior a parallel to Dwight Enys in the fiction; Luke Norris has his character as far sterner, but then he does not love the people he is treating.


Epitomizing shot

The linking together of the neglected Valentine with the once abused Morwenna is valuable symbolically.

I’ll conclude with my finding that several of the heroes of Graham’s suspense novels involve themselves politically, usually on the left, and act in ethical ways against their own interest, endangering their lives. In one I have been studying, Greek Fire, a depiction of the US-UK ruthless intervention in Greek politics in the 1940s and 50s to destroy social democracy — it result in years of dictatorship, but then Papandreos took power by election and a social democracy for years emerged — Graham’s hero is characterized in ways that recall Ross. Greek Fire was written not long after Warleggan. Here is one typical characterization: a friend wants the hero to give up his ethics, morality, efforts: and the man says here you are “pushing on, never letting up, … why do you not accept life as it is instead of trying to worry it with your teeth all the time, like a terrier with a bone. Is this not Ross too?

Ellen

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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

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I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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After long grueling hours of separate interrogation, the boys are put together & meet for the first time

Friends and readers,

Ava DuVernay has made another movie you must not miss — her others are Selma and 13th. Many people will know about the case of the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili (called “the Central Park Jogger”) where four African-American and one Latino boy were accused (“the Central Park 5” was the designation), but not necessarily that the accusation was not just wrong but utterly unfounded (not a shred of evidence linking any of these boys to this woman except that all were in some place in Central Park that night), nor that the confessions which were used as the evidence were coerced (by hounding, harassment, hours of isolated interrogation, threats, lies about what “cooperation” meant or would bring). We see how the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, and DA, Linda Fairfax saw that there is no evidence and Lederer at least is bothered, but goes ahead to do all she can to convict the boys, Michael Sheenan, the head of the operation to wrench confessions, and they acquire a Judge Galligan, known for harsh sentences at Riker’s Island.

The five spent from 6 to 14 years in prison, Corey Wiser, a bit older, was tried as an adult, and put into tough adult prisons. It also seems not well known that in 2002 they were exonerated when Matias Reyes, the real criminal came forward (a man with convicted of rape, with an assault record very like that of the man who raped Meili) and said he did it alone, and the DNA found on her body was discovered to match Reyes’.


Coercion

That’s the outline of the familiar story. The way it’s told in four parts is a display or demonstration of how egregiously unfair is the operation of all the parts of the “justice” system: the first part shows us quickly how early in the evening all five young men were spending their time, how they all somewhat differently came into Central park that night, the jogger coming from her building into the park, and then clips from news shows about the assault and rape; the next 3/4s of an hour make us undergo the same grilling the five young men do: see the members of their families also coerced and threatened, or uselessly angry (not knowing what to do), the confessions imposed on them, and the ultimate result, their incarceration as the plans for the trial are formed.

We see they are innocent; they had no idea there was such a girl in the park; the stumbling nature of what they confessed (they are urged to agree to the story the detectives tell them to through hints), and the final scene in the room brought together where they decide confessions or no, they are going to insist on the truth: they are innocent. It is emotionally wrenching to sit through this — the young male actors cry and are hurt, puzzled, beat up. So too their parents & siblings indignant without knowing what to do to protect themselves.

The second part is the trial, we see how it’s conducted; the hysterical social campaign in the newspapers which play the part of a lynch mob, which results in the social death of these young men. Not their very closest but further off relatives begin to believe they did it; we see the furor in the streets, and Donald Trump’s famous ad demanding the state murder them, saying how he hates them and wants no psychoanalysis, no attempt to explain. We get a glimpse of his repeat he believes them guilty in 2016 and his sneers at the court case which finally was allowed to go forward (Bloomberg blocked it) where NYC paid them 41 million dollars in damages.

They cannot and do not get a fair trial. The felt atmosphere makes whatever the attorneys say or do feel so useless as when one attorney points out there is no evidence linking the boys to the jogger at all. The prosecuter does not come across that strongly, but the tapes have an effect on the jury. The guilty verdict, the boys and parents’ hysteria. And then scenes of the earliest experience of juvenile prison in four of the boys, where we are told that they hear Corey is “in solitary” but know no more of him. It is a grilling episode.

A secondary story told in both parts is that of the family life of each of the boys — we see different relationships, with some parents (two fathers) in desperate straits for money, one has a criminal record the police start to threaten him with. In part one some of the parents do tell the boys “to cooperate;” others demand the child be left alone; a great moment is when one mother says to Fairfax “Shame on You!” Corey’s mother seems not willing, unable for some reason to come visit her son. The latino boy, Raymond, seems to have only his father.


There is no place for Raymond and his girlfriend to find privacy once he is let out of jail

The third part fast forwards to the time (different) when the four boys treated as juveniles are released. A different set of actors are now playing the central boys. We see how the cards are utterly stacked against them. They have to tell anyone who hired them they are felons accused of sex crime; they have to be in their house every night by 7; they have to report to a police station every 90 days for the rest of their lives. One has a chain on his ankle. Worse they come back to groups of people not ready to have them or downright unwelcoming. Raymond’s father has remarried and the new wife is deeply antagonistic to him; he is given no room of his own. She calls Raymond a rapist. They cannot be hired for gov’t jobs, for various professional jobs. Strain as they try to make friends, have a girlfriend. Raymond taking an apartment of his own with his girlfriend, is fired, and ends up drug-dealing to support himself. He is caught.

The point is no help is given them to build their lives and hard obstacles put in the way.


Corey disobeying rules to hold his mother’s hands; there is no one for him to tell of the abuse and bodily harm inflicted on him

The fourth part is the most painful. I can hardly bear to tell it. We see Corey Wise put in Riker’s Island. Immediately he is surrounded by scary thugs, which include the guards. One guard asks Corey, if Corey has something for him, and when Corey seems not to understand, has five prisoners beat Corey up. Corey tries to appeal to a nurse who is afraid to help him as a guard is watching. He begs for solitary confinement as a place he can be safe in. I had not realized this might be one reason for the increase in solitary confinement in prisons: to escape the mob violence. We see terrifying scenes of humiliation. We see and hear the noise, the lack of decent food, something to do. Little vignettes: we hear parents saying “for a 10 minute phone call $23.” No medical help worth the name. She does omit probable sex abuse — we are left to remember and to imagine.

Each time Corey meets with his parole board he gets nowhere as the thing demanded of him first is to confess to his crime and say he is remorseful. He is moved to Attica, and now his mother says she cannot come there as it is too far for her to come regularly. Corey is pulled out of solitary confinement one day to be told his brother is dead. He is told that he is told this for his sake. Clearly that’s not so. No one offers a word of consolation. In a flashback from his mind it emerges the girl I thought one of his girlfriends was his brother, a transvestite who dressed as a girl; Corey remembers his mother loathing her, throwing her out. He becomes hysterical: no one cares for him. Robert, his guard, grabs hold of him and hugs him hard to help him exert self-control. This is probably the first hug he’s had in years.

One gleam of light: Robert, the guard in charge of his cell now begins to be kind, offers him magazines, and better food (the guard says he has a son back home), gets him a job cleaning floors. So he can leave solitary confinement (where he appears suffer badly from the heat as no air conditioning comes through his vent until this guard somehow gets it “fixed”). But Corey wants to be transferred in the hope he will be near his mother. So he loses the guard-friend and ends up in a worse place. He is immediately picked on because he is known as the Central Park Rapist: it’s an excuse. Beaten very badly by other inmates.  Laughed at by another guard. And so it goes on and on. A couple of vignettes at the end show his conditions are improving as he learns how to cope and simply keeps surviving and ages so is seen as less of a susceptible victim to bullies.

So DuVernay has put it all before us – this is the system, it’s still in operation, see what it has done. QED. I have not described her powerful use of film techniques because it would produce too long a blog.

The last ten minutes cover quickly the confession of Reyes, the refusal at first of Fairfax and Sheenan to believe it — he is trying for attention; okay there was a sixth. But a new lawyer and Morganthau (who had appeared briefly as protesting the trial because of a lack of evidence) and people we don’t see manage to bring the evidence out and in the last five minutes we see the five men told they are exonerated. For each it’s a different experience as has the whole thing been.

Raymond now in prison is seen looking so joyful with his things walking to the door, and his father comes for him and they hug. Corey as usual treated with no deference or consideration; he is living in a better place again, and no longer in solitary (learnt to hold his own), the guard Robert has somehow helped him again, and he brought out of the prison yard and to an office and given a phone and hears his mother’s voice telling him he is going to be freed. Fast forward to the other three told on their jobs or at home, and then all five standing together on a stage, holding hands.


The young actors


The real individual men as they are in 2019

The coda is moving. An inter-title tells us about the court cases and litigation and their monetary compensation. And then we hear where each of them is in life now. At first we see the younger actor, then the older, and then (very moving this) the real man. All but one has left New York City and all are thriving to some extent, married, with children, one in business, another writing and teaching, one opened a business to help people wrongly accused of crime. Seeing the real men, their real faces brought tears to my eyes.

You should watch it because to do so will be part of Netflix’s rating system and perhaps more movies like this can be made. Any Goodman has devoted a full hour to this movie: she shows clips and interviews DuVernay. I went to find reviews; Roger Ebert’s site has a review which does justice to the film and gives fuller details than I do. It speaks of flaws: I see none. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian is better, she speaks of heart-wrenching (dare I suggest that there is racism in the Ebert site and not here); Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic: three of the men now live in Georgia.

It is important to know that Linda Fairfax has shown no remorse, and in fact continues to maintain these young men did the crime! and has publicly protested the film, saying it is inaccurate. It is not; the public records are available. She should be tried and put in prison for what she did to these young men.


Felicty Huffman plays the part


Linda Fairstein — she makes money writing crime books; I read the publisher has pulled them off shelves; that some honorary degree she got is now lamented over


Vera Farmiga as Elizabeth Lederer who also maintains she did the right thing but has enough decency to not call attention to herself

For my part being frank here I’ll say at the time I didn’t understand Trisha Meili, the young woman, had run out into the park after dark. I thought that there was understood to be curfew not to go into the park after dark. Of course you can’t fence in the park. But this series does show that late at night groups of people did go in. I may be criticized for this but one of my gut reactions is I don’t understand why Meili went out at that time of night to run by herself. Did she think she was immune to dangers? did not her expensive building have a gym? Was her sense of privilege so strong? She did not understand how we are all at risk and some situations very risky? she should have thought of other people and understood she should find some other mode of exercise.

I am simply puzzled that a young woman like this would go out running late at night in the park. Why did she not realize how dangerous this would be. I cannot see myself courting danger this way, taking this kind of chance. When I was young, there are a couple of instances where I took a crazy chance, but (without telling these) these were not risky to my body. The park is enormous and has many dark people-less spots. I’d like to say a curfew was understood except the movie showed that lots of people went to or were in the park late at night. It might be that I thought there was a curfew because I think there ought to be one: when there are events in the park (like a concert, or Shakespeare play) one must walk back but my sense was of being in a crowd walking on lit lanes and cops around.

Meili has since made money on her book, permitted herself to become something a celebrity (“I am the Central Park Jogger”); there is something wrong with a book about this incident given the sentimental gush subtitle “A story of hope and possibility”


Middle class costume, jewelry, make-up — has she learnt anything?

Trisha Meili is not to blame — the blame falls squarely on the man who did the crime and the cops and the DA and prosecutor. They simply picked out five black young men and proceeded to nail them for the crime. They did not try genuinely to look for the insane woman-hater who did this. They did not follow the clues they had: the semen nor the evidence she had been dragged on the ground by one person. The same police officer and judge were judging Reyes during the same period. Meili was unlucky and so have thousands of other young women been throughout history. They did nothing to protect any girl from another such assault.

We today still refuse to protect girls — think of how the Republicans on the Senate believed Christina Ford and yet put Kavanaugh on the supreme court, an exposed hypocritical thug who for years enjoyed himself and his masculinity by leading fraternity boys to humiliate and rape girls at parties. The concern was to punish these black young men “as a warning,” not to discover who raped and nearly murdered Meili.

To sum up: the movie shows that the lynching mentality of the first half of the century was operative in NYC in 1989 – that the privileged girl was white is central. Indeed Trump is still sneering at DiBlasio for allowing the litigation for compensation to come to court. To me that the center of the push to make these young boys/men confess is a woman just brings home how women can be as reactionary and racist as any man — and reminds us that the person who signed that Alabama bill criminalizing pregnancy was a woman.

The prosecutor who framed them is part of and respected in US society today — and she is objecting mightily to the portrayal of what she did with the help of all her colleagues in the system. Her way of objecting shows she is guilty of having framed these young man and her justification is to assert all she did was legal and they were guilty. She seems to think it was her job to frame them. This was and still is legal — so too plea-bargaining which the boys refused once they were put together.

I repeat she calls what DuVeray presents as lies at the same time as she justifies (she justifies) how those boys (now men) were treated and just about says (despite how the movie shows a complete lack of evidence) they are guilty – were it not for those DNA tests, they’d be in prison still. She implies the DNA tests she leapt on when she found the sock and semen are inconclusive. Doubtless she would not believe in climate change were it in her interest not to believe. Fairfax now has show-off photos taken of herself smiling in a red suit in front of the supreme court put on her site. Indeed, shame on her!


Ava DuVernay

In DuVernay’s interview with Goodman, DuVernay says as she is speaking someone in the US some African-American person is being wrongly treated in an early phase of the criminal justice system; that the whole of the way and where and how people are incarcerated is profoundly wrong, and that she herself believes it will take a long time to fix, against many objections (not least the private companies running prisons) and may not be righted in her lifetime any more.

Ellen

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August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

The narrative Wilson’s plays tell us say that the public story of progress for African-Americans from 1960 is false: the changes in law intended to change norms and improve lives of black people have not worked. What the story over 10 decades shows is while there was some feel of progress and hope justified in the 1940s and 50s, by the 70s it had been swept away by new customs destroying the communities, individuals of black people in the US. Start with King Hedley II, then read Joe Turner Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and then Two Trains Running. Gem of the Ocean ostensibly about 1904 but actually mirroring 2004 tells the intermittently but consistently appalling story of grief and loss in a parable.

In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.

Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams

he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.

And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.

August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
— Rita Dove

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

Over the course of the last nine to ten weeks for a class I took at the OLLI at AU I’ve thus far read 9 out of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote in an endeavor to realize through poetic and realistic enough drama on the stage the African-American experience of life in the US from the first to the last decade of the twentieth century. I have been stunned by their brilliance, how he makes poetic drama out of the language and experience of African-Americans seen truly out of the lens of their own culture (the only exception here is Fences). His work is as important, beautiful and insightful as James Baldwin’s (who is the other black male writer where I have read a number of the texts).

Wilson did not write these plays in chronological order partly because it took time for such an aim to emerge but we read them in the order of the life and attitudes African-Americans ended up experiencing over the decades each one is intended to present, explore and realize powerful comedy and tragedy from. They are sometimes called the Pittsburgh cycle as most are set in Pittsburgh, from which city Wilson came and where he educated himself in the public library. Through his involvement and place in the African-American community there he was gradually recognized as the great playwright he was and given opportunities to stage his plays.  He was eventually given a position at Yale where the support of a few central or key dedicated artists in the drama department and theater his plays led to the staging professionally of his plays. Then some of them were performed to New York City theaters . In case you don’t know the titles and year of each, here they are:

Gem of the Ocean (2003): set in Pittsburgh in a symbolic retreat house (threatened with demolition) in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Esther claims to be 285 years old.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984): set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. Joe Turner, was the brother of a Tennessee Governor, who would kidnap young African-American prisoners and force them to work in hard labor for a pittance for years on end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982): set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh). This dramatizes the individual black musicians’s characters, conflicts, and their forced subservience to white producers.
The Piano Lesson (1986): set in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It revolves around a piano, whose early owners bought the enslaved grandparents of the present African-American owners: a brother, who wants to sell it to buy the land the original white owners are now offering for sale; and a sister to whom it stands for bitter and precious memories of her murdered husband, and a way for her daughter to become a pianist.
Seven Guitars (1995): set in Pittsburgh in 1948. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. I was not able to read this one as it is so drenched in supernatural ghosts I could not tell who was really alive and who not. One of its overt themes is the perpetual killing of black men with impunity by whites, which we see in most of the plays.
Fences (1984): set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his two sons; he betrays his wife Rose. It almost seems modeled on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and is the most white and bourgeois of all the plays. No surprise that it is the one which has been commercially filmed.
Two Trains Running (1990): set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline; the city wants to seize and demolish it (just as it wanted to seize and demolish Aunt Esther’s house).
Jitney (1979): set in 1977 in an black people’s taxi station (one which has emerged because no cabs run by white people will pick black people up) threatened with demolition. It was Wilson’s first play.
King Hedley II (1991): set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. This is the darkest and bleakest of the plays: major characters murder or beat up or threaten people viscerally; the protagonist says:  “It used to be you got killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.”
Radio Golf (2005): set in 1990 Pittsburgh, the last play he completed before his death. We are back in Aunt Esters home, still threatened with demolition to make way for real estate development in the depressed area (for whites). Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. I will probably not read this one as I have had to buy them all and will not be in the US for the last class (I will be in Cornwall) and I feel I have understood the cycle. But I regret not reading it.


Joe Turner Come and Gone — Roger Robinson and Marsha Blake (see NYTimes review below)

The plays have recurring characters, often move into symbolic realms and modes. While many are set in Pittsburgh, through the memories and backstories of the characters, places in the south, up north (Chicago) and elsewhere on the East Coast mostly are realized vividly so the plays do present a cross-section of African-American experience, including enslavement (with memories of the original kidnapping in Africa and hideous passage in torture ships), in most of the plays horrific violence inflicted on them by whites determined to keep them in subjection, the various forms of harsh injustice and discrimination typical of each era, and also the characters’ own strong effective will to survive and achieve some measure of self-fulfillment and joy and friendship, family life, their gifts (musical, from playing instruments and singing, and as central to their community lives), the important function religion plays for many.

The one flaw or lack that is seen in many is that these are written from a strongly masculine perspective; some plays have just one female character; females are in the minority, seen as wives, girlfriends, sisters, and presented as “good” and valuable when they spend their lives serving the males food, having their children, accepting their sexual promiscuity or mistresses, and just support the men absolutely. Some are comfort pillows (there for sex); others downright Victorian heroines transposed. The teacher called them angels. I found many self-negate, are all self-sacrifice but in a way that refuses to go aggressively after individualistic desires that presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal or conformist (and thus demanding of these males that they make good money) and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find yourself in. In Two Trains Running, there is a heroine who practices self-harm to keep others at bay. They can win out this way or be pro-active by holding onto lieux de memoires: in The Piano Lesson, Beatrice holds onto her precious piano and the memories that sustain her.  She was my favorite character across all the plays.  Wilson did not side with her (I found).

On the other hand, it must be said that even in these limited roles and small space allowed in the plays, Wilson empathizes strongly with many of women enough to transcend the limits they are circumscribed in and one can see were they allowed far more living space, realization of multiplicities of traits (as the male characters are) they could appear in Lorraine’s Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf — the only two plays by black women that I have seen and remember. There is an underlying current through much Afro- literature so I will also say the female types found in Wilson include those found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and black British males in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and the writing of Zadie Smith. The question of who you are, what is your identity is central to Levy and Wilson.

Here is an excerpt from King Hedrick II where Viola Davis as Tonya explains in anguish to Brian Stokes Mitchell as her husband, Hedrick why she must get an abortion or has gotten one: she cannot bear to watch another daughter grow up and lead a life of violence:

I feel inadequate before these plays because as a white person I have not myself experienced except by analogy (having been poor, excluded by virtue of my class, parentage, and disabilities) and imaginative understanding (not the same thing as experience) what these plays put before us. I do know I was often deeply moved and could remember analogous experiences of my own, and found (much to my discomfort) that when in a classroom with others (all middle class white older people in the class, with the teacher a black man who is a librarian at Howard University) that I would risk my own emotional safety trying to explain to the others the roots of devastation these plays register in these characters’ reveries of deep emotional trauma, desperate, circumstances, often profound resentment and loss of self-esteem, anger at one another.

I cannot say I enjoyed the class because I found it a stressful class to be in. The contexts presented were not literary but became personal: intertextuality beyond the inevitable Bible was not recognized or just didn’t interest these people. You might say the identity crises in Wilson’s plays transferred to these readers. I wish I could have gotten myself to say less.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore. …
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, from his poem Harlem (1951) — but what if you never had that dream …

FWIW, I found Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson to be the finest masterpieces of the ten.  Piano Lesson shows the characters getting what they want; it has buoyant comedy at moments.  Gem of the Ocean is a summing-up parable (like Shakespeare’s Tempest). Great anger in Ma Rainey, poignancy in Two Trains Running. I saw the movie made from Fences and while it was superbly well done (Denzel Washington was perfect as Troy, Stephen Henderson as Bono, his loyal friend), and I felt for the son, Corey (like Biff in Death of a Salesman), so liked the son, Lyons, rooted strongly for the wife, Rose (Viola Davis did win an Oscar), I felt the justification of Troy perverse (based on shoring up his punitive masculinity). It has a recurring type: the male so traumatized that he lives in a child-like state (Gabriel, his symbolic name in this play). King Hedley II is as tragic and desperate as Lear; I felt the black people there (representative of the 1980s) had been Americanized much (gun culture on display and deadly, fatal) to their own detriment; they are insecure, unsafe, paid no attention to by those whites whose access to technology, contracts and justice the black people need. Jitney is revealing as a first play and there is a valuable staged reading to watch in YouTube form:

There are numerous good essays on Wilson if you know where to look. Unfortunately on the Internet, much is behind paywalls except for immediate reviews of particular plays (which are highly uneven), but there is Ben Brantley’s powerful Wilson’s Wanderers, Searching for Home (New York Times, April 16, 2009) on Joe Turner Come and Gone. I also recommend reading John Lahr’s Been Here and Gone (New Yorker, April 8, 2001), or the introductory essays to separate volumes, especially those published by “Theater Communications Group; also an afterword essay by Paul Carter Harrison called “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics” in a volume called August Wilson’s Three Plays; this has an introduction by Wilson plus his own notes to the three chosen plays.

But the best thing is to read and to see Wilson’s work, and there is a superb dramatization of the whole of The Piano Lesson on YouTube, so gentle reader now take the time to feel deeply, be uplifted, and come alive with the actors.

Ellen

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