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Caryl Phillips (born 1958)

There are those who are willing to pay the highest price imaginable to resist people who would police their identities. And there are those who will pay the highest price imaginable to secure an identity — Phillips, “Color Me English”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another author, Caryl Phillips, specific quietly stunning novel by him, Crossing the River (short-listed for the Booker the year it was published, 1993) to urge you to read. Until you do, you are missing out! and thus far (what I’ve read) the novels, Cambridge (1991, powerful double journal of white European woman and young enslaved well educated Black man, brought to a violent brutal Carribean plantation), The Lost Child (2015, a sequel to Wuthering Heights, aka Heathcliff’s story), and original biographical fiction of Jean Rhys’ life, A view of the Empire at Sunset 92018); two books of essays, The European Tribe (a sort of travel book), and Color Me English (more autobiographical, about memory), and all the occasional essays I’ve come across (e.g.”One Grim Winter Evening,” TLS 2012, on the Windrush generation, now being harassed or threatened with deportation!, upon he occasion of the Olympics in London, TLS). I am thus explicit because it’s been my experience than when I mention this man’s name, I get a blank look! Nowadays you need to have a movie made of your book to achieve more instant recognition. But he is well-known enough; here he is speaking to a group of people at a Canadian institution in Vancouver on The City and the Newcomer:

Phillips says he presents “migrant experience in its broadest context; he is draw to the intense frustration and destructive laws, customs and hurt the non-white child knows, the insuperable difficulty of truly participating. What are in a culture true signs of inclusivity and change. Why do immigrants refugees when so punished by the place they come to persist in wanting to stay –- it’s question that could be asked of the Kendalls in the movie Shakespeare Wallah. Why do they want to be loyal (and then of course appreciated, understood as belonging) when they go out and fight for this place and culture and be willing to lose their very lives because it is their country too …

For myself I think what caught my eye or attention was the information he was brought up in Leeds (so I first bought Color Me English), where I spent over 2 and one half transformative years of my life with Jim: where I went to university, married him, and stayed on to work at John Waddington (at the time a card and game company), to wander around the West Riding on buses, see York Minister one day, and just become part of the Northern Yorkshire culture for a brief fulfilling (sometimes hard) moment of my life. The above video will show you how formative Phillips’s experience of Leeds was in his life.


Jim sitting on the gate in front of Leeds Church, 1968

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Crossing the River, is, like a number of Phillips’s novels, a historical fiction, one not made up of one long stories, but several intertwined, with a framing that makes his book, though clearly out of the African diaspora, one which is deeply invested in the vulnerable powerless subaltern person of any race, all genders, from a linked group of imagined interinvolved communities. Three of the four stories are about enslavement, enslaved people, two 19th century, one mid-18th. The fourth is about a young working class woman in England during World War Two, given little opportunity to develop her gifts, find herself, thwarted by her class, then ignorant husband; she meets a young Black man in the American military and they fall in love.

“The Pagan Coast,” centers on the relationship between Nash Williams, a freed enslaved man who is sent by the American Colonization Society to Liberia, and his beloved and loving patron and former master, a father, and once lover, Edward Williams. Nash is repatriated there in the 1830s to establish a Christian mission and colony. And much to his deep sense of loss and grief, he fails. As he story opens, it is seven years since Nash was freed by his master, Edward Williams and sent to Liberia. Now a letter arrives, which Edward reads and teaches him that all the letters Nash had sent had been destroyed before he could see them by his recently deceased wife, Amelia (who just drowned herself); in these letters Nash had at first asked for help of all sorts (money, equipment, advice, support) and then increasingly desperate cried out in despair and loneliness, missing his home and all the people he knew so badly; we read them eventually and learn of the impossibility of the task set before him – the unreality given the circumstances of this country and culture of the people. The novella is about these two men, their characters, their relationship, the painful nature of what each does to try to come up to the ideals the other has of him, and in the case of Edward to himself go to Africa, and rescue Nash — too late.

They are deeply appealing characters whom we see embedded in, unable to extricate themselves from the evils and failures of several different groups of people they encounter on their journey in time and space.

“West” is the tale of the life of an enslaved Black woman, birth to death: like the first, it is told through a flashback – we begin in present time when Martha is old, sick, dying, exhausted, and has been left to freeze or starve to death but in a central street in a town where it’s hoped (supposedly by those fellow “colored pioneers” who had to abandon her they felt as too much of a burden) she will be rescued. She is taken to a bare cold room with a thin bed (the stove cannot be got to work) by a kindly woman who appears to be part of some group who rescue the homeless, and as she lays there that night she dreams of her life. I am telling the story in more straight chronological order than it is told — it weaves beautifully from experience to experience. She was snatched from her mother with her two brothers, put onto a slave ship, brought to the US and sold to a plantation owner who names her Martha — she becomes Randolph as that is his family name (we wonder if we are near the Jeffersons). Sold and the second set of scenes is of her married to a loving man, Lucas, who we first met in exhausted silent despair (suicidal, drunk) because the present owner has died, and he, Martha, and their young child, Eliza Mae are to be sold with the other property. He must tell her: “he took me in the circle of his arms and laid me down” — She also remembers the fear and bewilderment of her daughter, and her inability as mother to provide any protection for her child: “I did not suckle this child at the breast nor did I cradle her in my arms and shower her with what love I have, to see her taken away from me …. My Eliza-Mae holds on to me, but it will be of no avail. She will be a prime purchase. And on her own she stands a better chance of a fine family. I want to tell her this, to encourage her to let go, but I have not the heart. . . . ‘Moma’ Eliza-Mae whispers the word over and over again, as though this were the only word she possessed. This word. This word only.”
This is the moment her mind returns to throughout the story; what she longs for most of all is to be reunited with a dream of this daughter grown up, strong, beautiful, living in a fine house, on a broad avenue — towards the end in California.

What happens is she is sold to a couple, the Hoffmans, who themselves seem to own only a very few people, up close to her they see how traumatized she is, and try to help her by taking her to some evangelical events; these do not take her out of her abject state of mind; then they do poorly and must they plan sell her and with the money they hope to make return to the east. At the last minute, they relent and allow her to escape (with nothing but her clothes a bundle of things she gathers together before fleeing). She knows some happiness once again: next scene shows her working with a beloved Black woman friend, Lucy, both cooks in a shop and laundresses, somewhere in the west, protected by Chester, a man who is kindly, generous, the lover of Martha. The story is dated by her saying during this time she is told she is now free because of the emancipation proclamation, but says it has little influence on her life as far as she can tell. Alas, Chester gets into a card game with some white men, they cheat him, he complains and they return and shoot him to death. She and Lucy are no longer safe; Lucy has a man willing to take her with him to California, but not willing to bring Martha along. That’s how she ends up with a group of pioneers making their way west, and for quite a while worked very hard for them (washing, cooking, ordering things) but finally grew ill, and they feel they cannot keep her, whence she is sitting where we come upon her when the story opens.

The story is deep tragedy – she dies, with dreams of Eliza Mae ahead of her, and unknown to her is given a yet another name by the woman who does not know her name. She has more than once voiced how she dislikes being renamed — it is a form of not having an identity when she has one. Or had. All of Martha’s geographical journeys are also journeys in search of family, and journeys that create and perform kinship ties. She finds other daughters (Lucy) and other husbands (Chester) and they all echo her original family. She mothers the pioneers in their trail westwards, “rallying them to their feet” in order that they may realize their dreams of freedom in California. What emerges from Martha’s story is diaspora of connectedness via the pain of original loss.


Dorothy Lange photo of a elderly Black woman in the 1930s

Two more. I can be brief about the third: it is based on captain’s journal, John Newton, whom we might see or argue is the lowest of low human beings – doing just horrific things to all the people he seeks to control, from his officers, to the impressed men, to the enslaved people in chains (or instruments of torture around their necks), a man who resorts to the lash continually, a slave trader, named by Phillips James Hamilton. For some who have not imagined this or read deeply detailed historical accounts (I recommend Clifford D. Conner’s biography of Colonel Despard, who briefly turns up in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels as Anglo-Irish rebel turned revolutionary who is guillotined for his pains, as a scapegoat but also spent years as the leader of British men in the Carribean trying to steal the Native’s lands from the ferocious Spanish and build communities in the fiercely hot diseased ridden islands using enslaved people.) How hard a business his was – he has difficulties picking and buying enslaved people, they run away, they rebel, they also get sick and die; his men get drunk, humiliate the enslaved, insurrections, disease, diarrhea (he feeds everyone rice) aboard ship as well his life (letters home to a beloved woman whom he treats with dainty kindness, discretion, courtesy) is strewn with difficulties.

How can you leave out the colonialist slaver? the nightmares might not have happened had such people not been possible, not existed …. not somehow been allowed to ply their vileness almost globally. I could have gone over the injustice and cruelties step-by-step. Like reading a day in the life of a guard in a concentration camp in Europe during WW2 – maybe not as – a day in the life of police force in the famous ghetto Lodz. But I spare myself and my possible readers.


Scene from a World War Two movie focusing on a heroine ….

Then the last. I unravel a story told in the Faulkner-Graham Swift mode by voice and diary entries arranged not chronologically but thematically so we must slowly work out the outer story as we confront the inner hidden life of Joyce Kitson — whose name also only gradually is told.

The novella-length piece is presented in a journal or diary form in the voice of Joyce, a young woman during the years leading up to and through World War II. Consistent with the title, the small town and smaller village from which Joyce observes wartime England remains unnamed. Joyce has had a hard childhood continually pressured by her hostile mother who has never gotten over the death of her military husband in the First World War and has taken refuge in religious zealotry. Her mother makes her leave school when she is very bright and loves to read – her mother resent this one pleasure of hers. She goes to work in a factory, and does not fit in. One night she goes to a theater to see the Christmas pantomime and meets an actor named Herbert playing in Mother Goose. Suffice to say she gets pregnant, and when she gets no answers for her letters, has an abortion out of fear of ostracizing and pressure from others, but goes to London to find Herbert. When she does, what a disillusion! He flees her within ten minutes (July 1936 to February 1938 but her relationship with her mother is interwoven throughout the letters from the very opening to her mother’s death). When the story opens Joyce has married a working class (it turned out thuggish, violent) young man, shopkeeper named Len from a small village near the town where she lives with her mother. We eventually discover Len beats her, and Joyce knew almost immediately that the marriage is a mistake Len eventually goes to prison for dealing in the black market during the war, leaving Joyce to run the village shop. She feels for him over this as an injustice.

There is a parallel story: a friend, Sandra has a similar experience of marriage (maybe not as bad) but her husband is also gone to war and either she had married him because she was pregnant by him (or another) and has had a child, Tommy, whom she cannot breast-fed (partly anxiety partly lack of nourishing food) and whom she seems anxious to hide from her husband. She says that she has never been able to deal well with people (she thinks Joyce does) and becomes pregnant again (with a friend of Len’s). Joyce advises her to write and tell her husband. Among other things, she cannot put the baby up for adoption without the husband’s permission. Alas he returns and kills her, shoots her dead instantly. As Joyce’s one friend, Joyce never forgets her or that Tommy, the child, was taken away.

Not long after Joyce’s job has enabled her to meet a young Black (colored) man from the US. The U.S. Army stationed a detachment of black soldiers near the village where Joyce lives, and she falls in love with one of the officers named Travis. He is kind, courteous, fun to be with; they lead off a dance one night. He is beaten once by some white officers for returning late (or perhaps for going out with a white woman). She becomes pregnant by Travis just before he is shipped off to Italy. He is able to return on leave to marry Joyce – whose divorce from Len is finally settled (after scenes of his rage beating of her, demanding she give him the shop — Travis intervenes in one beating) – just days before the birth of their baby, Greer. Travis is killed in Italy, and Joyce is forced to give Greer up to the county as a war orphan. (A parallel to Martha and Eliza Mae.) The only time she sees him again is in 1963, when he comes as a young man to visit her in a new life. Joyce secretly continues to love Travis, even in her new better life, still a working class woman, now with 2 children, and she is portrayed as a good person, caught up in bigotry and circumstances beyond her control.

I have probably not conveyed how this story told another way could take 500 pages and how it wrung my heart. The story includes the bombing and destruction of part of her village – which she registers fully the horrors and ordinariness of — which bombing her mother dies in as she will not flee to a shelter.

The book has a prologue and coda spoken by a symbolic father who has foolishly sold his children into slavery, driven to it he says by starvation. He turns into a universal figure standing for those who give into society, who simply provides as children and then grown-ups the characters whose suffering we live through across the centuries. The coda connects Edward and Nash, Martha, Joyce, Travis, to specific cases and types of the hurt and victimized in the 20th and 21st century. All his children. Phillips brings back some of the most painful poetry in each of the sections.

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Poster Art on the Banks of the Gaza Strip

Orwell said “who controls the past (the way it is described, discussed, taught), controls the future.” There has been and continues to be a real drive to erase the injustices of the past and create self-glorifying – or justifying tales for the winners and powerful to tell of their power, well-meaning good acts. Phillips realizes common ground among the subalterns of the world. – subaltern is a person of low or lower status – those excluded from the hierarchy of power. They may get to row a boat but no say in how or why it’s rowed or for what or whom. I love how he often has women at the center of his books – not that common for male writers and I give him the great compliment that he does not see them from a masculinist POV at all. Why do we read colonialist, post-colonialist writing? So we may understand what we are seeing happening in our world all around us today — and we hope be able to do something to improve matters however small.

Ellen

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Mudbound: Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) handing the letter from Resl (German woman) meant for Ronsel t(Jason Mitchell) to his family; Laura (Carey Mulligan) alone on the Jackson porch

Friends,

My theme tonight is adequate movies or films. Over the last couple of months I’ve been watching a number of films adapted from books — I’m not sure what to call them any more as I reach them by different technologies, or software, all of which are accommodated by my computer or my TV (which is after all a computer too). They stream in, I use DVDs, I watch via YouTube. There’s vimeo. I am exploring what makes for excellent film adaptation, without which you have poor hollow movies — or travesties.


The two friends, Jamie and Ronsel

The most recent and one dwelling on my mind is Mudbound, streaming in from Netflix who produced it, a film by Dee Rees, adapted from a book by Hillary Jordan. It is a gripping tale, very hard to watch for me because I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, worried that the members of the Black family would be killed or maimed from the constant threat or menace from the cruel violent whites they (and other Black families) are living among, or that the whites themselves would turn on one another, as in the opening scene where two brothers are burying their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks playing evil man), and it’s not clear that the older brother will rescue the younger one who appears to be drowning, sucked in by the mud the grave turns into as it starts to rain hard. The movie and book show you how racism under Jim Crow worked a constant demand from whites on blacks that they kowtow, humiliate themselves, with an ever menacing threat, every once in a while made good — as at the end of the film and book. The story has been reviewed as a movie far more often than as a book (New York Times; Odie Henderson of Roger Ebert’s site, with the story told and retold. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is breath-taking in its artful suggestiveness.

The book itself reminds me of Faulkner or Graham Swift crossed by Toni Morrison: it’s told in turn by narrators in deeply subjective ways, all of which add up to an eloquent rendering of the misery and deprivation, impoverishment of the best of the human spirit in a racist, deeply inhumane capitalist racist order — Mississippi in the 1940s. The women are utterly subject creatures — in a secondary white family the father beats his wife and rapes his daughter and they have no recourse. We see whites cheat whites; and the way the whites makes money is to exploit the Blacks. We see Laura, the white wife (whose husband takes the car keys from her as a punishment), and Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Black one (whose husband relies on her) create meaning and beauty for themselves through piano playing or doing for their families; they form a supportive friendship; Hap (Rob Morgan), the Black father is a preacher and kind to his family; two sons, Jamie, white, and Ronsel, Black, learn that life can be far more decent and rewarding even during the terrors of war in Europe, and through friendship almost bring upon themselves annihilation but also escape at the film’s end.

But my theme tonight is not the message about how racism and patriarchy work in the US even now (subtler except when it comes to the police), nor even the relationship of the book and film, nor even the splendid art of the film (patterned scenes at the core), but rather that element so hard to gauge, to measure, to explain: why a given film is adequate to the content it seeks to visualize, give sound to, human presences, life, realization.


Stuart Wilson as a viscerally deeply felt Vronsky

I’ve watched several of these over this winter into spring time which are as it were forgotten (not even an adequate wikipedia entry; a 1977-78 BBC Anne Karenina by Donald Wilson (who also wrote the Forsyte Saga), with Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson, Robert Swann; the 1979 Rebecca, directed by Simon Langton (the best of them all), with Joanna David as Rebecca, Jeremy Brett as Mr de Winter, Anna Massey. The 1987 BBC Fortunes of War, written by Alan Plater (from Olivia Manning’s masterpiece epics, Balkan and Levant Trilogies), with Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ronald Pickup, Rupert Graves (among others.


Joanna David (her daughter, Emilia Fox, played the part in 1997) showing that the quiet second Mrs de Winter of the book, is the strong woman

We dwell on these actors but it’s the embedded film world that is made for them as much as the enactment of their characters in that matters. What is it that makes for this depth of apprehension and detailed lived realization? Faithfulness (as it’s called) to the literal surface of a book or psychologies of actors and mood are the means. Each of the characters on a separate journey within groups of characters in a situation. There is the jelling together of the actors as they make the story realized. But more central I find is the inner drive to maintain an integrity of thematic vision, truth to a complex moral on the part of the central film-makers (writer, director, cinematographer, producer).

I stay with my paper written so long ago, the importance of the screenplay — that’s why we should study. In all these cases, that’s what I’ve been paying attention to — as well as watching how the director elicited from the actors the emotions wanted moment by moment. Look upon this as an interim attempt to suggest what I might write more at length once again.

Re-watching Mudbound, reading the book and studying Martin Scorcese notes for his masterpiece Age of Innocence over the past few days too: I’ve been studying Martin Scorcese’s for his 1997 adaptation of Wharton Age of Innocence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel-Day Lewis, and there the give-away are the lengthy descriptions of setting, gestures — and the use of a narrator. And re-watching the magnificent 2004 BBC The Way We Live Now, scripted Andrew Davies, featuring David Suchet — I mention Davies in the same breathe as Plater — in both cases shooting scripts are often available. A signal of the same core resolution and good strong book which can be so parsed.


There is a beautiful still of the Black church open to the sky with stained glass window covering half the space and Hap preaching so movingly in front of it but I cannot find a still among those online

And watching Rachel Morrison discuss the cinematography of Mudbound tonight brought me to bring together these nightly experiences over these weeks and what unites them even if the only stills commercially available on the Net are the far shots of landscapes, medium shots of people and close-ups of actors.

Short tonight, but I hope adequate … Do see the six films I’ve cited and read the six books alluded to in this blog. I want to say stick especially with the BBC later 1970s and early 1980s serials but again and again since then, as in Mudbound, one finds the crew and film-makers doing it again. A sign of seriousness is the published shooting script and in it real essays and thoughts in the appendix about what inspired the people — in Age of Innocence it appears to have been other brilliant costume dramas. Read what Mary J Blige has to say where she discusses why the most horrifying scene in the film is her favorite.


How they all stay in character too: Jamie is to me super-handsome but he is not the actor; and Mary J Blige is Florence throughout

Ellen

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For a US person I infer an analogy to these South African trials is the present trial in Minneapolis of the murderer of George Floyd (who thinks he will get off).  I’ve learned (I watched only the briefest clips but have read what is said) that police protocols in Minnesota and in much of the United States are intended to intimidate and murder Blacks — to hold them in terror so as to bully them at will. Not as searingly cruel as So. African militaries, but very much the same behavior in principle. And it’s upheld: in the court no one questions the police protocol; the only question is did Chauvan “overdo” it.

An article in Guardian by Oliver Laughland describes how the trial of Chauvin is being conducted as a way of assuaging a traumatized community

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the last three or four nights I embarked on a journey through four films telling the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After Apartheid finally ended, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, in 1996 a commission of concerned and able citizens was set up to hold public trials where people could come and tell of the horrific wrongs they and their friends and relatives suffered during the long decades apartheid was imposed on South Africa.

It was mostly Black people who testified about such experiences. I notice in each case a second person sits next to the victim witness there to soothe — and control — them. The people telling what had happened grieve, and occasionally become hysterical. The people who had perpetrated the wrongs the specific Black people were describing were invited to come to the same trial and if they admitted the whole truth of what had happened (which before this had been egregiously lied about, not told at all, distorted and falsifying details presented) and could demonstrate convincingly they were actuated by a political motive, a jury might grant them amnesty. This is not the same as forgiveness: it means a court has pardoned someone for an offense, which he or she can then not in law be blamed for again.


Four young South African men who were brutally murdered (Long Night’s Journey into Day, produced, directed by Deborah Hoffman, Frances Reid)

It was expected that the perpetrator should show remorse and apologize, and most did; a few became genuinely grieved and talked of how they had not since the time they did these deeds been able to sleep or live with themselves easily, but at least four men justified what they were doing by saying that is what they understood to be effective and necessary deeds at the time to achieve “stable gov’t” — and two of these were clearly in their hearts fiercely angry at being forced (if they wanted pardon) to own up. One white woman who came to complain about the death of her white son at the hands of a Black man was livid with hatred, indignation, and not for a moment accepted his explanation that he was driven by the deprived life and ferocious punishments that had been visited upon him. Yet of the three men all received amnesty. The people who did not receive amnesty were the ones where the torture they inflicted on the people they were murdering was hideously in excess in pain and suffering of what was needed to say “extract information” subdue or kill them.

When I first read about these commissions and what they were doing (in the 1990s), and have come across articles since, I was dismissive of what they could achieve. I thought that in reality by telling these terrible acts to those who have been mortally wounded basically for the rest of their lives, those listening would and could never forgive but would generally be made more angry. I now realize I was wrong; I had not read deeply enough, not read any descriptions of these trials at length and especially not seen any enactment. After watching the fictionalized retelling, Boorman and his team’s In My Country (1994); the shaped documentary Hoffman and Reid’s Long Night’s Journey into Day; and a two part report-like documentary made in 1997 by the South African Truth Commission, I’ve changed my mind.


Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) in John Boorman’s In My Country (1994, scripted Ann Peacock, Antji Krog)

On my own behalf, as an excuse I suppose for my obtuseness, one problem was the aim of the commission and the results were not being told clearly: the point isn’t forgiveness. Most of the anguished people I’ve now watched over some six hours of film could not forgive the people who did what they did; there was hardly a human relationship between them. The aim was something far more practical and less personal. In In My Country, it was called ubuntu (if I’ve the word correctly), a word which refers to a recognition that all must live together in one community and are bound together as one people, and must live in peace side-by-side. The aim was to achieve understanding of what had happened by uncovering all the details no matter how painful. Catharsis.  I now see tha good was done.  The person who had been so hurt at least had his (or her) day in court even if by proxy.  Also a hand was held out by the Black people who had so suffered for decades to the whites to be reconciled.

Of the three movies I’ve watched thus far, only the SA Commission Documentary admitted that few whites were in the audiences of these trials, that many whites refused to believe that the trials were telling the truth. Alas, for the most part the only whites who showed were the police and other militarized men seeking amnesty, telling of their deeds, and the relative of a rare white murdered either by gov’t death squads (let’s call them all) or a sudden uprising of mob rage by Black people (uncommon because of the terrible reprisal policies).


From Long Night’s Journey into Day: a rare young white woman, Canadian, who came to South Africa to help work against apartheid was mistakenly murdered
in a hysterical mob action simply on the grounds she was white — we see her anguished parents come to the commission, describe what happened, listen to the Black men who did that deed admit it and say they were grossly wrong and apologize profusely.

There is a fourth film I mean to see, but find The Power of Forgiveness by Martin Doblmeier, yet another documentary, is available as a DVD to be bought. I must wait for it to arrive by regular mail from the post office or Amazon.  The film is said to explore the nature and examples of forgiveness, including personal stories about Northern Ireland, the Amish, 9/11 and the Garden of Forgiveness, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Weisel; to use scientific studies, and of course humanistic discourse. I’m glad I watched the others first, for the implied demand here (you must forgive) skews the nature of what these trials meant to achieve: the aim is not forgiveness of the people who committed such horrific acts by the people wronged; rather it is an attempt by a people to live to live with their past and with those who have inflicted hideous damage on them by asking them to tell the truth and ask for legal pardon.

What I concluded is that the tiny number of white people in South Africa determined to set up a white supremacist state with whites wholly in charge, with all the wealth at their disposal, took horrendous and just cruel weapons of all kinds and hired and kept active armies who treated all Black South Africans as if they lived in a concentration camp where gov’t thugs were free to arrest, beat up mercilessly, torture, desecrate Black people’s bodies at will – and did. They did this because they were such a tiny minority — they used Blacks too as part of their police and surveillance: these were collaborators.

Similarly in Minneapolis, the prosecutors are allowing all the Black people who were forced to stand around and watch a fellow Black person murdered before their very eyes are testifying to the world what they experienced. If this protocol of intimidation and terror forced on Black people and communities all over the is not being openly admitted to, we are seeing it. That this is the way it is being understood can be seen in a British reporter for a far away newspaper picking the reality up and explaining it. The people being reconciled are themselves also potential victims and victims’ families — not all of them are up to it — they are of course hoping that at long last some justice may be done, and if this protocol not be done away with, the man who used it excessively, exultingly, will be judged rightly guilty of gross murder. Many weep as they tell what happened and then have to listen to the excuses and insulting of them and the victim the perpetrator’s lawyer. Apparently the ranks are breaking and some police officers are coming forward to say Chauvan used excessive force.

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I’d like to offer a few details of the three films I’ve seen thus, and when I’ve seen the fourth, add my commentary on it to this blog in the comments.


Anna and Langston at a trial as a South African TV reporter and American reporter for the Washington Post

In My Country is a fictional film, or a historical film fictionalized by the story of an Afrikaner white poet-reporter, Anna (Juliette Binoche) who has come with Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), a Black African man to cover the trials for a TV station and Langstan Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) an Black American reporter who strikes up a relationship them. What conventional suspense we experience is worry for their safety and watching their relationships develop. Anna belongs to an Afrikaner family most of whom disapprove of the trials and her empathy with Black people; her husband supports her and she leaves him with their children to follow the trials as they occur around Africa.


Anna and Dumi

Gradually she becomes friends with the young Black South African man assigned to her as technician, and lovers with the Black American reporter: it is a witty and tender relationship, beginning in antagonism and ending in understanding. She does return to her family and there is tension and loss. Dumi in the one false note in the film at its end is made to confront his past in a brutal scene with other Black Africans.

Juliette Binoche is another actress who appears in films and plays with a social conscience which are beautifully well done; she was a moving Antigone at the Kennedy Center years ago. Samuel Jackson is a well-known multi-faceted star.

But we are also — I was — riveted by the stories told in the hearings and seeing the white men as portrayed by white and black actors.  What happened is I realized that the commissions did succeed in what they set out to do for many. In fact the point was to allow hundreds of Black people to confront their hideous oppressors and tell them to their faces in front of a crowd what they had done — the point was a kind of tranquil shaming. If a particular officer or person showed he was politically motivated (had to do it) and did not go about the job with disproportionate cruelty (which many did), he could achieve amnesty — and the Black person learned what had happened to their beloved relative, friend or heard it said aloud and believed. Brendan Gleeson played the white Afrikan officer whose crimes were so disproportionate and whose remorse so ambivalent he is not granted amnesty but must stand trial for 63 murders.

I have found the whole of In My Country and been able to link it in here, and hope the people who put it on YouTube do not remove it.

Long Night’s Journey into Day was much tougher because the four cases (out of 22,000) detailed were real and there was no sweetening romance.  You learn more seriously the horrors of what Black people were subjected to for decades in South Africa. What I came away remembering best was that there are still many white who are not only unremorseful but angry that either one of their relatives/friends were killed and see themselves as having no responsibility to other people. One white man who did horrific things clearly was as cruel and brutal as ever and he was granted amnesty – for telling the truth. I also saw so many Black people and especially the mothers of those murdered years later still living maimed lives. I saw their continuing poverty. And I saw one white Canadian mother, father and brother, attempting to live up to what their white daughter in her idealism had tried to achieve. I thought this emphasis on women was perhaps a result of having two female director/producers.


One of the mothers of the four murdered young men featured in the posters (see above)

It’s a vimeo:


A young Deborah Hoffman — I can find no image of Frances Reid

Last, the straight two hour documentary made by the SA Commission. It is here we most often meet and listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — he speaks of the white people who refuse to participate as missing an important chance to admit knowing what happened, to become better by doing so, to function more effectively in the true worlds of South Africa. It is a powerful film; I’d see it over two nights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QZO_onxlo (50 MIN)

I regret I have read so few books by South Africans about South Africa. I keep trying to persuade my WomenWriters@groups.io to read Nadime Gorimer with me. As of tonight I’ve only read a couple of marvelous short stories by Gorimer. I have read much Doris Lessing, but most of it not set in South Africa. One exception is The Grass is Singing

Ellen

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John Lewis as Congressman not long ago

Good Trouble: its value is it shows the courage, bravery and real intelligence of John Lewis and brings together through flashback and forward what a horrific struggle and sacrifice it was to get the vote finally for African-Americans, with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965, and at the same time how this right, almost upon the gutting of the bill, was immediately challenged, threatened, eroded and the suppression of black and other poor people’s votes has led directly to the election of the Geogian governor and Trump. The footage shows Lewis as a young man, his hard life. It also centers on Lewis as a man enacting non-violence. I did not know how closely he aligned himself with non-violence as a technique for advancing reform – together of course with demonstrations and protests (just now the Trump administration is accusing another group of people of felonies with sentences of 40 years who were protesting something).


Ella Fitzgerald singing her heart out & below a famous rendition of Mack the Knife where she forgot the words half-way through but who cares?

Then Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

I watched Hamilton for the first time as a film on the computer with Izzy (who bought the subscription for the year). It is not a flawless musical (see below) but it transcends its problems, and was a good show to watch on July 4th. Its intentional humanity and the cast of all but one people of color was salutary tonight: here they are, the descendants of the people the powerful named white men and their tamed white women enslaved, exploited, worked to death. After 3 years of Trump opening up before all of us the horrible entrenched racism, violence, and profoundly brutal cruel anti-social autocratic and bigoted religious currents in the people who live in the United States, the cast itself makes an important statement — about a figure hitherto sidelined, the part white, part black genius Alexander Hamilton. And musically and for its wit it’s very interesting

Friends and readers,

Tonight it is no safer (perhaps less safe) to socialize with others than it was two months ago when I wrote my first blog on WFH movie-watching, or 4 and 1/2 months ago when Izzy first started to work from home through her computer, or when we first understood that all were at risk from serious disease to death from COVID19 (Pandemic). Tonight again I have three online films, which differ from the first three because all of them directly relate to the ripping open before us, partly due to the calamities of this pandemic (unemployment, further immiseration and impoverishment), the virulent racism that is at the heart of the way US society has maintained and increased inequality over the last four decades. For the calculated origins watch Heist

For the uses of racism, I recommend listening to or reading the transcripts from interviews by Amy Goodman with Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West & Bakari Sellers This blog is about the movies, and these issues as they emerge from the movies.

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

The best of the three and the one I urge you to see if you’ve not already, Good Trouble.

The film makes central to his story John Lewis’s alignment with non-violence: to understand why he was not assassinated (he was also a secondary character at the time, did not attract the same attention because he was small, young, not a rhetorician), why he won out for one of the few black seats in Georgia at the time over Julian Bond (and thus appeals to white voters) you need to know this. To see and listen to Lewis talk about non-violence tells you about the courage and risks this man took to try to obtain the vote for African-American people. Violence in the US is now a way of expression; punishment is what US society resorts to first, and brutal police who act with impunity its instrument. In the cases of mental illness, drug addiction, all sorts of social problems, the police are called, imprisonment the option. Lewis stands for reasoning, and for improving the lives of all through negotiation, talk, understanding.

The film’s second crucial topic is the vote: we learn of the long hard struggle, of the final signing by Johnson, and then how it did need to be renewed (and was so by George W Bush) — but how it was immediately undermined and is now badly eroded since the Supreme Court gutted it. We see white politicians take office who illegimately win because the votes are suppressed (not enough polling booths, back to demanding documents, to intimidation, throwing votes out). If it has a flaw, it does not sufficiently show what was gained by the vote — or what those voted in by a majority of the people are for. For example, we do see the beginnings of school desegregation but not what having a congressman or woman representing African-American and poorer white people could try to do: instead of entrenched localism, funding of schools through small local areas so the schools in a wealthy area are very good, and the schools in a poor, inadequate, there could and would be attempts through the tax system to equalize funding across a state. Redlining policies which deprive black entrepreneurs of needed loans to start businesses are mentioned. But we don’t hear enough about discrimination in employment.

But it does convey Lewis’s character: his young years in Georgia as a sharecropper’s son, his early studious ways, his joining with Martin Luther King, the beatings he took, and then after the Civil Rights Bill, his first elections and how central he had become in his district. At the close there is a 15 minute recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. Don’t miss this one.

Where you can see it


President Obama presents 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., East Room, White House. Proud moment

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Ella Fitzgerald, 1940.

As with Good Trouble, Just One of Those Things covers Fitzgerald’s early life: born in Virginia, in her early years she was an outstanding student (like Lewis), with a talent for and love of dancing; her earliest experiences are shown to be harsh — when her mother died and she was left with a stepfather, she became disturbed in behavior (not mentioned in the film, perhaps her stepfather abused her), was moved to Harlem, and ended in an orphanage and (her nadir) a New York state reformatory. She managed to come out not that damaged, and supported herself by singing in the streets (reminding me of Piaf). The famous moment is when she went on stage at the Apollo theater and instead of dancing, she sang. She was not long after introduced to Chick Webb, bandleader and drummer and she became the singer for their troop. The film then traces her success from the years in Harlem (Harlem Renaissance clubs until 1935), through hard struggles to get on stage (helped by Sinatra and Monroe). Her body shape was held against her; she was not white looking


Photo by Carl Van Vechten

We see her with her son, the house she bought; that there was a estrangement. Norman Ganz was a benevolent mentor. She does seem a lonely woman, perhaps sad, but working hard and ceaselessly. Then her later years, a guest on TV variety shows; live performances in Europe. The film does skim over her relationship with other African-Americans during the Civil Rights era; we move quickly to her growing older, frailer as she develops diabetes. The narrator is Sophie Okonedo, and the people speaking are contemporary singers who see themselves as singing in her tradition. One wishes the film had been made 20 years ago so we would have more of her contemporaries (a review).

My real complaint or objection is we don’t experience her singing enough. So, here is another YouTube, a fifty minute show in Berlin, 1968:

Basically Ella Fitzgerald made her way most of the time on her own, and stayed among African-American people where African-American music was wanted and welcome — went to US cities where they had clubs and singers like Louie Armstrong (New Orleans, Detroit). The film (like the one on John Lewis) was too discreet — both films were unwilling to offend the very audience that used to exclude these people (and to tell the truth, let’s say in schools and neighborhoods still does). So you had to pay attention to pick up hints about how much greater was her acceptance abroad and again how brave she was in maintaining her independence.

Where you can see it

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


Of Hamilton let me begin by saying I wanted to like it better and probably my reaction was the result of not seeing it live plus having too high expectations. That I was aware I was watching a movie shows in my regret there are no subtitles.

Miranda’s Hamilton is traditional great man history — though with the important salutary reality that instead of white men playing these roles, people of color today are playing them, the many great-grandchildren of the enslaved women and men owned by these people. British white friends have told me that this switch in races lacks some of the resonance that is felt in the US and so the play wasn’t quite as ecstatically received. It is in fact the usual patriotic history about the colonies, which attributes to the hero’s success, his individual ambition, intelligence, drive, luck, a phenomenal rise in rank. I didn’t like the militarism. Yes in effect duels are criticized, but not by anyone in the play. Hamilton had a son who died this way too. And we watch him grieve, but not learn a lesson. We are not shown that the reason men did this is if someone refused he was for the rest of his life scapegoated, ridiculed, was himself at risk from continual badgering if not more challenges.


Phillipa Soo as Eliza

It was certainly not feminist: the women are all adore the great man, want to bear his child. His wife is presented as spending the rest of her life making him into a saint. Maybe she did. I admit I thought the mockery of Jefferson overdone. Washington was treated with super-respect, and yet he enslaved people. I remember a letter by him where he is inviting another “gentleman” to his house, and tells him of a slave girl the man can have in his bed. Maybe I am overdoing it here, but where are the native Americans?

While I found parts inspired and compelling, giving a new angle, a new twist, I had been led to expect something quite above or different from the kind of show that makes for a Broadway musical hit. It is somewhat different: the hip-hop music, the brilliant rhyming verse, and the reverse of racial/ethnic groups. But stomping kinds of music? I found nothing particularly beautiful, tender; the poignancy came from the acting and at times story. What makes it inspired is the fervor of identification with Hamilton that Miranda conveys.

Miranda read Chernow’s book and took it seriously. He adapted into a musical arguments from treatises, material that is difficult to make a musical out of. Hamilton’s life was spent — a lot of it — was spent writing. There was an attempt at explaining some of the complicated issues. Miranda too offered a strongly pro-immigrant theme, that immigration is the way the US was made, but we should remember the characters on stage were were many of them the bourgeois and rich from the UK. Like many another top-down history, this one tells the tale from the perspective of those in power (men) and the rich (the Schuylers). In a sense its visceral impact lies in substituting the usual white stars for people in the story in power for people of color where refreshingly one could not tell quite who was what ethnicity — and that delights and fools us. It is a musical and as such I was impressed by how tragically it ended and how ironic and satiric it often was. Most musicals are utopian.

To be fair, here is what The Guardian reviewer, Sarah Churchwell, had to say:

Hamilton is the kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals. It joins the likes of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and West Side Story as game changers, innovative productions that forever redefined what came after them. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, Hamilton was created by one man, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book about the musical (only Stephen Sondheim can claim as much, and none of his shows were such blockbusters). Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historical past mingles with the political present …

Miranda had already created a successful musical (In the Heights) when he impulsively decided to read Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography Alexander Hamilton on holiday (Miranda’s whim has made Chernow, who reportedly gets 1% of Hamilton’s profit, a very wealthy man). Hamilton represents something of an anomaly in American history, a founding father who never transferred from official histories into popular mythology. There are many reasons for this, not least that Hamilton’s positions were incompatible with many of our myths – he was avowedly elitist, for example, and supported the idea of a president for life – while his expansion of the federal government prompted the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which he brutally suppressed. Neither of these facts makes it into Miranda’s musical, which is the story of a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant from the West Indies who became the quintessential American success story through a combination of brains, hard work and audacity. Miranda creates a myth for Hamilton by celebrating him as a symbol of immigrant inclusiveness, egalitarianism and meritocracy: historically it’s a stretch, but theatrically it’s genius.

Eventually Hamilton became a hero of the American revolution, George Washington’s right-hand man, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, the co-author (with James Madison) of The Federalist Papers, and the primary proponent for federal government over state government. He argued for a national bank, created the national reserve as well as the national debt, and laid the foundations for the US’s economic success. His dramatic life came to a melodramatic end when he was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr. And yet, despite all these achievements and dramas, Hamilton has been marginalised by most popular accounts of American history. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams have been the subject of countless books, films, miniseries and even their own popular musical, 1776. But 1776, which tells the story of the battle over writing the Declaration of Independence, does not even mention Hamilton …

Yes he has been left out because he was mulatto, and Miranda identified. As Hilary Mantel has changed the way historians understand and write about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall), so since this musical Hamilton is quoted, described, become part of US central revolutionary and constitutional history once again.

Again from The Guardian: Hamilton … explor[es] mainstream history through the music of subcultures. Lines about racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (“you’ve got to be carefully taught”) rub shoulders with Busta Rhymes; Sondheim’s experiments in perspective from Pacific Overtures meet Snoop Dogg. There is a running gag about Adams, in which Miranda riffs on 1776; its opening number is the resounding “Sit Down, John!” in which the Continental Congress tells him to shut up. Miranda is doing the same, telling Adams and the Anglocentric American history he embodies to step aside. He sidelines Adams, waiting until the second act to mention him, and then has Hamilton sing, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” Less explicit (in every sense) is Miranda’s decision to give Hamilton a signature refrain – “I will never be satisfied” — that echoes Adams’s line from 1776, “I have always been dissatisfied, I know that.”

Miranda’s lyrics are dizzying: he rhymes Socrates with mediocrities, before linking manumission, abolition and ammunition. Gilbert and Sullivan are not only sampled, they are schooled; Miranda gleefully told a journalist he felt he’d improved the rhyme in Gilbert’s famous patter, which becomes George Washington’s rap: “Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal.” Puns abound with the exuberant energy of a word-drunk writer: “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance / They only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”


Daveed Diggs — in one of many exhilarating moments

More reviews: the New York Times, fact-checking, and problems with the movie, e.g., we lose the POV of Burke, and it feels complacent: Alissa Wilkinson of Vox

I’m sure I’d like it better if I read books on Alexander Hamilton and then watched and re-watched to pick up the subtleties, nuances of the dialogue and genuine arguments on behalf of this or that measure, which are brought into the play script. I’m probably just now so exacerbated, irritated, jaundiced (from the present regime) that I want other ways of remembering history beyond great men and who did what violence to whom. What has made me so welcoming to the documentaries on Lewis and Fitzgerald has made me have a hard time accepting another male-centered musical with a central train of violence and heterosexual sex, Hamilton.

Alas, perhaps perversely I remembered Eileen Power’s Medieval People and Medieval Women.


The Magdalene Reading by Van der Weyden, 1445 (from the cover)

Ellen

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Cover illustration: an image of a painting by Felice Casorati, a favorite painter of Natalia’s (whom her father presented as a not-so-comic tyrant then naturally abhors)

Of one of the Nazi functionaries Levi meets in Periodic Table, he writes: “, “è nostro dovere giudicarlo, non perdonarlo” [it is our duty to judge him, not forgive him].

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

copy War and Peace
cyrillic type
(fading, spine bent)

cashmere scarf,
arm length
(dirty, white, torn)

photographs of a girl,
two boys
and a woman (frayed at the edges)

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

lined spiral notebook
(nine pages left,
yellowed, blank)

pair of wire-rimmed glasses
(left lens shattered,
nose support gone)

— from Peg Boyers’ Hard Bread, a poetic autobiography for Natalia, this poem the imagined box of things she could have gotten after her husband, Leone, had been tortured to death

“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” — Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play

Gentle readers and friends,

Perhaps not altogether by chance, I’ve been reading a series of Northern Italian and Jewish writers tragically directly relevant to what is happening in the US and elsewhere today — slowly before our very eyes, keeping at this point millions of people quarantined at home with no testing for said virus, or humane exit plan (except death for millions). This in a course I’m taking with Judith Plotz at the OLLI at AU (as after all she picked the books and authors); most of them written between the mid-1930s and not long after WW2; you see the assigned books above. I’ve not been content with these, but added to them Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (with her rightly much admired “Winter in Abruzzi”), a book of essays on her and Peg Boyer’s extraordinarily good recreation of her autobiography; I went back to Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (which I read in Italian in the early 1990s), about If not now, when?, and Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom, in William Weaver’s Open City (an account of his relationship with post-war writers in Rome (these three and Ignazione Silone, Alberto Moravio, Elsa Morante).

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

The longer texts assigned were all ultimately forms of life-writing. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi retells his life through a series of ironic essay-stories which take their immediate inspiration from 21 different chemical elements, each of which allows him to tell of aspects of his life more or less chronologically, as boy and man in Northern Italy, before, during and after WW2, often seen from the aspect of him practicing his profession as a chemical engineer (this helped save him from death in the extermination camps). We meet his family, friends (Sandro and Rita who help him resist fascist culture), people he loved, whimsical utopian dreams, and (in one case) now exposes for committing without ever with understanding or acknowledging the evil enacted. We are led to see how central to our lives is chemistry. Personal stories filled with life’s troubles, philosophical reflections, whimsical irrational doings, often intertwined with his sense of an imposed alienation and stigmatizing as a Jew lead to our seeing a collective experience of humiliation and oppression lightly presented. Unusual and elusive accounts of life in a laboratory or chemist’s shop often ending in a characteristic sobering gesture. I liked especially the individual scenes, with their unexpected turns. This is a kind book by a kind man who has endured much.


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (another translation of the book’s title) feels de-centered: she hardly ever gives us her or her family’s thoughts hidden from the collective outward life; the anecdotes are mostly about others, with her as the quietly presiding POV. Yet the book is about her life, starting with the time she has consecutive memories at age 5 to near the end of her life when she visited England with her second husband, and now somehow freed of her immediate Italian world can spill out what happened the intimate events and calamities inflicted on her family and close friends and associates as well as their relationships, achievements, losses. Family sayings are repeated phrases, words, sentences that the family uses as collective comic glue for themselves. And we can track them (as they add and subtract people) from one place to another as they move around Italy, or are forced to move, hide, become imprisoned, escape (her brother swam across a part of the Mediterranean in winter to reach unoccupied France). Part of the reason for her reticence is this is a memoir, all the people are real, and the events really happened, so she must protect them and herself. I suggest frustration at this led Boyers to write the feelings and thoughts we do surmise (we are given enough to extrapolate) in poems that give Natalia’s repressed reactions and only partly expressed critiques and celebrations full play. I loved her plain matter-of-fact style: simple sentences expect us to provide in-depth understanding as when she says of Jewish and other displaced now vulnerable peoples they are “without a country.” While the surface is prosaic, quietly telling about all sorts of interesting people (many involved in politics and literature), the underlying pattern is tragic. Boyers calls her style and tone “astringent yet passionate.” The refrain: I never saw him again (of her husband); they never saw one another again. Like Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, she produces a portrait of humanity as seen through the lens of a personal rich Italian secular-Jewish culture — during a time of aggressive fascism.


Natalia Ginzburg

One of the unexpected pleasures of Boyers’ poems is that in elaborating, imagining Ginzburg’s relationships to a number of Italian writers mentioned and central to her book (e.g., Pavese), we get close to these.


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

Christ Stopped at Eboli is more than a poetic masterpiece; it is a political argument and ethnographic study. It covers the year he spent in internal exile — a peculiarly Italian form of imprisonment descending from the Roman period, where a person is cut off, exiled from his or her community, isolated in a remote spot and watched to keep him or her from any kind of political activity, news of the world he or she understands. (A number of the Jewish and socialist/communist literati in Italy were treated this way: Ginzburg’s memoir includes a couple of years in Abruzzi.) Carlo Levi may be said to have thoroughly internalized his exterior culture — he acts as physician (he was trained to be a doctor), paints (his vocation), writes, joins in tangentially — which culture during his sojourn expands to sympathize with these strange and victimized (for centuries) people he finds himself among, whom since the Northerners know little of them, he is determined to bring before the world of his readers (the book was written in 1946 after Mussolini fell from power). I think his conclusion that these people live in a timeless realm they cannot be plucked from wrong: they have been given no opportunity, no good choices (like the working class whites of the US), exploited by every group that has taken power over them, and the result has been seething just repressed destructive violence. (The lesson for our era is more direct in Carlo Levi’s book’s conclusions than the above books.) He compels our attention by the riveted and insightful nature of the chronological settling in and living alongside story he tells. His sister visits him at one point, and we see this world from her experienced sophisticated compassionate eyes.


Carlo Levi

Late in life both Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg became directly politically involved, both as independents in the parliament with ties to the socialist parties. They wrote journalism, she worked for Einaudi all her life. Both seem to have been known by other much respected writers and artists — from Croce to Pavese and Elsa Morante. It is a small and elite world these people belong to, but one with a pro-social democracy tradition – now under threat too.

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Movie poster

I’ve now begun the fourth author for this term, Giorgio Bassani whose Garden of the Finzi-Continis (I have the Isabel Quigly translation) has some wider fame because there was a popular movie adapted from the book. I began this autobiographical novel after reading an apparently famous meditation: “A Memorial Tablet in the Via Mazzini.” He differs from the other three by his name (no Levi), because he comes from Ferrara (the others Turin and Rome), and because his tale is of fascists. This epitomizes one of Bassani’s central themes: the moral problem of assimilation. A man whose has suffered unspeakably from the camps and seen so many friends worked to death, outright killed (probably raped — this is only very recently recorded as on Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin) sees his name as having died on a memorial plaque on a wall where there was once a synagogue. He wants to inform all that he is still living, but they are willing (good of them) to acknowledge the mistake and seemingly welcome him back, seemingly sorry for all that has happened, in fact they want him to be silent about what happened, to enable their own forgetting of the roles they played in betraying neighbors, often enough taking their furniture, their things, their property, their positions. It seems to be his moral duty to assimilate in the way demanded in order that the society can return to functioning. But is it? What happens is the one survivor refuses to pretend nothing happened, refuses to forget, demands his house and furniture back. And we see that the others (outright fascists and those who supported the fascists) want to return to the status quo that favored them after the war as well as before. They want to carry on wearing fascist costumes, acting like fascists (the partisans with their machine guns are behaving like fascists).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to be about how uUnlike the Levis in Turn), Bassani’s family in Ferrara, surrounded by fascists and sometimes fascists themselves, were not aware that they could and would be destroyed — they thought their insulated wealth protected them. This naivete is found in Olivia Manning’s depiction of a wealthy Jewish family in Bucharest in her Balkan Trilogy: with what ease the father is imprisoned, personally crushed, his property taken from his family whose best option is flight (if they can manage it).


Giorgio Bassani

The relevance here works a little differently. With the increased monopolization of all trade by a few giant corporations, the film has become one of these unaffordable super-expensive DVDS, no longer on Prime Video on Amazon (gradually such films are being removed) and available only as a blu-ray, merely now very high-priced. A 4 part film of Christ Stopped at Eboli is available only in Italian (as who would get a profit from this, so why provide translations) and at astronomical prices.

While I have my own long-time favorites in Italian poetry from the Renaissance and again the later 19th century to our own time, I’ve been introduced to new poets I hadn’t read or known about. Bassani’s style in his novel seems to be long sinewy sentences moving back and forth in time, drenched with an edgy-raw sort of nostalgia, but here is a poem by him where the emphasis falls on the here and now. The problem is what do you do when fascistic groups have taken over the land you live in and are working to do all they can to impoverish (so as to enrichen themselves) and terrify you into submission. (I cannot reprint the stanzaic form, which you can see here.)

The Racial Laws

The magnolia smack in the middle
of our Ferrara house’s garden is the very
same that reappears in almost every
book of mine

We planted it in’39
ceremoniously
just a few months after
the Racial Laws were brought to bear
it was a solemn-comical affair all of us
fairly lighthearted God permitting despite
being encumbered with the dull historical appendix
Judaism

Walled-in by four walls forewarned
Soon enough it grew
black luminous wide-rimmed
pointing decisively up towards the imminent
sky
full day
and night with grey
sparrows dusky blackbirds
unflaggingly scanned from below by pregnant
cats and by my
mother—
she too confined defenceless behind
the windowsill forever brimming
with her crumbs

Straight as a sword from its base to its tip
twenty-some years on
it overtops the neighboring roofs
beholding every bit of the city and the infinite
green space that circles it
but now somehow stumped I can guess
how it feels unsure
of a stretch up there in the heights a narrow space
in the sun
like someone at a loss
after a long journey
as to which road to take or
what to do
Giorgio Bassani, tr. James McKendrick


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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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.

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

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 to black people 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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Cap Blanc Nez, looking down — the areas of the cliffs takes about 20 minutes by boat


The book

“I am at home everywhere, and nowhere. I am never a stranger and I never quite belong.” — George Simenon

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” — Virginia Woolf

Friends and readers,

I’m back from a trip I and my two daughters, took to the shores and town of Calais, France. We had a good time in the bnb, on the beach, relaxing and exploring the immediate environment around the ancient and now modern town of Calais (deep harbor, channel port on the Atlantic), and for others traveling as far as Paris and London, and then rather closer, Dunkirk, Lille, and the two cliffs across the way from Dover. I wrote about the trip on my Under the Sign of Sylvia II autobiographical blog.


The French coast line of cliffs seen from a distance

We also read, and, among other books, Michel Agier and his team’s important The Jungle: Calais’s Camps & Migrants. There is nothing like comparison and contrast to teach us, and the history of what happened in Calais, from 1997 or so, when the British closed its borders to all but a thin trickle of migrants, until October 2016, when all the townships and encampments which had gradually developed along the northern coast of France were evacuated, and all their structures destroyed, will teach us how such a situation comes about, and what are the results of humanitarian intervention, the results of brutal obduracy and intrusion (it seems the police engage in this continually, and no one including Agier is empowered to stop them) Anyone concerned over what has been happened at the US Mexican-southwest border, wanting to understand how the situation there has come about, and what can be done in humanitarian ways (as opposed to the depraved cruelty of the US ICE agency), and what are the mixed reactions of local populations, when their organizations are not ceaselessly destroyed, the people put in prison (for say, leaving migrants plastic large jars of water).


Children being moved

The framework to keep in mind is that most borders are inventions of local gov’ts seeking to control the mobility, kinds of inhabitants, and social and economic realities of the populations under their control. Once a territory is delimited, and the conditions on the ground are such that cause displacement (war, famine, epidemic disease, poverty), large numbers of people seek to cross the borders or move about globally to protect and build prosperous (or at any rate safe) lives. Special recognized spaces (or hidden or somehow marginalized ones) spring up; exceptions from definitions of belonging (as citizenship) are used by authorities controlling law and military; and exclusions from the normal customs of life by the local population are used to frighten and drive away the immigrants. A transformation, usually urbanization, and politicization goes on within the migrant communities once they begin to thrive. As a whole, given different groups living in close proximity, they might fight or cooperate with one another in a common world, or they struggle for space, movement, rights from the authorities who might and often do treat them with violence or unjustly — though not always.

In northern France (and elsewhere or other than the US), the existence of many organizations charity, philanthropic, humanitarian, doctors, lawyers, set up precisely to help refuges, enabled cultural worlds to emerge, while at the same time xenophobic, genuinely uncomfortable and anxious local people (about businesses, schools, money, property) might be ratcheted up to become angry and want to rid themselves of the burden, and work suddenly to demolish, deport, inflict suffering on the migrants and do all they can to prevent them moving further or assimilating.


One of the emigrant camps seen from a distance

This is a larger generalized picture which in Northern France was particularized by the local culture and the cultures from which the fleeing people were come: middle eastern mostly, Syria, Afghanistan, the Kurds, peoples from the horn of Africa; and the cultures of the people who tried to help or drive them away. Agier, Yasmine Bouagga Mael Galisson, Cyrille Hanappe, Matilde Pette, and Philippe Wannesson all show a crisis and change of attitude is occurring which makes for sudden mobility, and then, depending on conditions, useful behavior that make for solidarities, accommodate world-wide movements, or criminal, violent, and desperately exploitative behavior. It seems the latter was rare; such fights as occurred were nationalistic, ethnic, religious in origin. A logic of harassment and dissuasion went on continually, and the refuges were willing to put up with bad conditions because they wanted to be allowed in, to find aslyum; they did not want to be abruptly returned from where they had fled. As border are externalized, the immigrants pile up, crowd into smaller spaces, live as blocks of people. It seems the preponderance of the migrants were men; there was one encampment which was mostly women and children (Norrent-Fontes). In places where women predominated, few were seen outside the tents or houses as a regular thing. In all places the divisions of space within the houses resembled the divisions of space in the houses from the places these people had grown up and lived in.

The contrast with the American situation is once the borders were closed, no philanthropy or even knowledge of who these migrants are was allowed, not dissuasion but cruelty, humiliation in detention, and forced deportation were the weapons used against these people. If you try to help them, you can be put in prison or shot. No social organizations have been allowed in to see the people.


Room used for religious worship, a church

The first part of the book tells of how the situations were initiated (wars, closing of borders), and specific organizations, countries, NGOs and agencies involved — as well as volunteers. Always there are volunteers. The second part tells of how the migrants spread from Sangatte to Calais, and how the term jungle(s) emerged. Maps of their places and detailed descriptions of the living conditions, and places that were built are here, as in restaurants, schools, hospitals, family and ethnic enclaves. There were “no man’s lands,” and some people lived outside the commonality. Part 3 is sociological, part 4 anthropological. What was heartening was the variety of political expression, types of action, emergence of sub-communities. Spokespeople are identified, and they mobilized themselves or were mobilized by the outside organizations and volunteers. Attempts were continually made to stop disease spreading (showers provided, food, trade in clothing).

Through it all, though, there is push-back, and right-wing larger political and economic groups, always with the police on their side (apparently ever using violence) are succeeding in destroying now this encampment, now that. At the borders everything is being done to stop the continual efforts of individuals and groups to cross illegally and legally. Chapter 5 tells of the destruction, and dispersal of the people, and how some tried to return. Again as opposed to the US behavior, gov’ts with histories of socialism and liberal democracy attempted to move people in groups to where they could assimilate, and gov’ts which represented conservative and right-wing groups, deported, imprisoned (prisons take a variety of forms) but also dispersed people. People were dumped on roads and into places with no help; when all crowded together, there was serious dysfunction.


Push-back

The authors deny that nothing is left. Memories of what happened are everywhere if not openly discussed in anything like explicit or truly neutral terms. The world is turning global because of the modes of transportation available, supranational and yet the old nationalisms are what are used to define and shape and control what is going on. If you become stateless, you are highly vulnerable. All over the world today we find camps, encampments, refugees.

The lessons for the refugee, according to Agier, is that it is possible (maybe not in the ferocious US southern border, and countries run by violent dictators, which use fascist techniques of putting huge numbers of people in isolated places, or simply massacre everyone they can) to inhabit sites. You must appropriate singly and collectively and that produces an informal and egalitarian (in its way) community. They must try to practice coexistence, and collaboration (Local networks), and form solidarities across countries as well as work with the organizations who come to help. A common world which politicizes itself (holding up posters, shouting slogans, demanding human rights) and reaches out to lawyers and the govt’s they find themselves living next to or among. Interlocutors are needed. The emergence of a common world, commonalty, a sort of commons with the different groups policing themselves (according to a “good code”) is ever precarious, with a conflict of meanings in different situations playing out.


Night-time

Some of the particulars are fascinating. Access to space and privacy is at a premium. A housing market with huts for sale spring up. Access to places could be restricted by an entrance fee. There was lots of waiting time — these were jobless people who had to line up for food, documents, shower tickets. Children were put into schools, there was entertainment in the form of team sports; British theater groups came over. Religion is show to give form and structure to daily lives. The activity of trying to cross the borders and move on also gave a rhythm to daily life. It was an unstable society of shifting identities, there were rapes, assaults, murders, destitution, and prostitution by men as well as women of themselves for food, money, shelter. But at the height of the numbers and active volunteer organizations and NGOS, pervasive attempts were made to help children and minors and other vulnerable people, to set them aside, and provide more individual attention and help.


Potted flowers for a garden

Last month I read Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots where her second section on Roots and Nationhood is about a key political issue today: how geographical boundaries when reinforced by national gov’ts become people’s identity and an excuse to exclude and despise people outside those boundaries as different and inferior. She explains or gives a history of how money and the state came to replace much more natural attachments: local, and now the familial is a desperate resort. Nation replaced religion which was seen to be powerless to help you – only controlled you – for African-Americans it was the one place to turn to. She gives history of industrialization as a building of prisons (factories) with severe limits on people desperate for a means of survival – by money. Families break up and shame is used to silence people. Taxes are a totally arbitrary imposition by one of these totalitarian nation-state gov’ts – or groups of people sometime headed by a king. People learned to hate the state but then in an odd inversion worship the very thing in concrete forms (the country) that they hate in people forms (bureaucrats) because they are deprived by people who manipulate these gov’ts for sinister ends … See my previous blog on the exhibit about global displacement over the centuries in the Phillips Collection: The Warmth of the Sun.


Shopping market

Down with fences! In Peter Linebaugh’s book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, on Colonel Edward Despard, he writes an introduction showing a global resistance to enclosures has been going on for centuries: across land, sea, against prisons. We have ever needed to fight the repressive apparatuses of the ruling class of whatever age. We need to embrace common right and share the world together. The amount of people Trump has managed to block up if dispersed could be easily fitted into US society; had he not illegally stopped people from obtaining asylum, had he allowed the slow movement of peoples north for jobs; they would be no harm done and much good.

They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into an Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
— Wm Blake


A group of volunteers

Ellen

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