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


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The white lawyer

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

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


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

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

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


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Last night meaning to read a Christmas story by Anthony Trollope, I was deterred by Amazon. Amazon strikes again. On my stoop I found one of their harassed employees had left C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, finding the book irresistible, read it through instead of Trollope. And naturally a blog came …


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark, where we have just experienced a sequence of Christmas scenes

In a (to Trollopians) a notorious screed against most matter produced for Christmas, Anthony Trollope defined what he thought a work for Christmas should contain:

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity” (from An Autobiography)

Should it be that? Trollope’s own “The Widow’s Mite” is the story by him that comes closest to this but not all the others are quite that.  “Christmas at Thompson Hall” the one he produced after writing his frustrated thoughts is a story of comic anguish and strong stress in a woman trying to reach her relatives once a year from abroad on Christmas day.

What I discover is typical is a story usually set around Christmas, but it need not be (not all Trollope’s are, as for example, “Catherine Carmichael,” The Telegraph Girl,” and “Two Generals”), a story where characters are in need of kindness and show kindness, characters who forgive, reconcile or accept themselves with one another or something, but also make sudden philosophic comments appropriate to the story, who reach for some meaning.

I have a few recent Christmas movies and stories as examples, and C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a meditation on the story behind one of them, for a coda.


The last pair of lovers, the lucky Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Steevens) clutching one another wildly in front of enormous house …. (Downton Abbey, 2011)

I’ll begin with the TV “Christmas special” (two hours) I watched tonight:  appropriate to Christmas eve, thought I, a “feature” or coda which ended the second season of Downton Abbey, itself set during World War One and mostly about World War One (much softened). The sequences of events, the stories, what the characters are doing are all shaped by their occurring from a few days before December 25th, until what seems to be Twelfth Night, or January 6th, at any rate some time after the 1st when we’ve just had a “servants ball.”

Has what we have just experienced been Christmasy — well, yes, as the characters have put up and decorated a tree, had two servants’s special lunches and dinners, a Christmas eve party complete with charades, went shooting, exchanged presents. But have the individual stories been imbued “with a desire for … Christmas charity.” Not altogether but there has been much forgiveness of others and the self, some growth in self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s circumstances without blaming someone else, there’s been some real selfless love enacted, and just scenes of feeling good, partly by the characters all making sacrifices (however small) to enable another character to feel better about themselves, and have a good time. There’s been regret at having done a bad deed (but the deliberately lost dog was found), and we’ve even had ghostly doing with a ouija or spirit board.

My favorite line in the two hours is Mrs Hughes’s answer to Daisy’s “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?”: “I don’t believe they play board games.”


Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother (1990 Metropolitan)

Two nights ago I saw a similar effort. The way Whit Stillman appropriated Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is to set an analogous set of characters and action in Manhattan Christmas week (starting a few days before Christmas and ending just after New Year’s Eve) in the 1990s. Metropolitan is to me a deeply appealing movie because it’s one of the few appropriations which use words from Austen (more from Emma than Mansfield Park) and mirrors some of her central ethical questionings.

We see a group of upper class twenty-year olds from very wealthy families accept among them a young man with far fewer funds (he lives on the West side, not East, takes buses and walks instead of hailing cabs); they discuss what is a good person, reject sexual harassment (and rape), worry the question of success for upper class people like themselves who have too high expectations and have never had to endure boredom, hardship or work hard as yet. The Fanny character (Audrey) rejects Lionel Trilling’s reading of Mansfield Park as egocentric, narrow-minded and domineering. (He does not like Fanny Price and says no one can; well, Audrey loves Fanny.)  The characters squabble, insult, and even fight one another (to the point of toy pistols), but the stories show our favored characters ending up tolerating, understanding, controlling themselves more out of respect for others, getting a wider perspective.

I admit I respond most deeply to the filming of typical NYC scenes during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center, on TV (the burning Yule log on Channel 11), shopping, lonely crowded streets and people going to rituals. Each time I watch I cry when Audrey and her mother sing carols in St Patrick’s cathedral.


Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) reads Goethe to Elizabeth on Christmas Day eve (towards the end of A Christmas Tale)

Last year it became my favorite Christmas movie and still is — why I began with Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. A family strained for many years by an estrangement between the middle living child, Henri, who facing bankruptcy, took advantage of the father and made him liable for his debts. The family would have lost their beloved ancient spacious house and their cloth dying business gone under, but the oldest girl, Elizabeth, is a money-making playwright and paid off the debt with the proviso Henri must be excluded from the family from now on. But Junon, the mother (played by Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, is probably dying, so all now must pull together, including a younger son, Ivan, and Sylvia, his wife. It is explicitly a story of attempted reconciliations of all sorts.

What I love about this movie is what I like so about the Downton Abbey piece and Metropolitan, only here this central characteristic is so much stronger, more in play: just about all the characters are so complex in the way of characters in a novel, and (like Rohmer and Bergmann’s movies) you can watch and re-watch and each time learn more about all the characters. A viewer probably tends to focus on Elizabeth who is so bitter and who has a good relationship with Abel, her highly intelligent reading father, but not with Paul, her son who we’d call autistic and whom she wants to put in an asylum; her husband, Claude, has little patience with the boy. Also on Henri who dislikes his mother since she dislikes him, his grief over his dead wife, and restless Jewish girlfriend. It is Henri who helps bring Paul back to himself by paying attention to Paul: Henri identifies with the boy

This time (my fourth through) I noticed Junon, the mother, had self-consciously married a man who was ugly, not of high status, because Abel is kind and competent, a protector, loyal, and that he has enabled her to spend her life keeping at a distance from everyone. Also that Simon, the best friend of Ivan, Junon and Abel’s youngest son, and Sylvia, Simon’s wife’s has been leading a depressive life, until (in this week) he and Sylvia become lovers and Abel takes him into the factory. It seems that he was a rival for Sylvia long ago and she chose (probably not wisely she sees now) Ivan. This time I noticed it is Abel who takes both Simon and Paul into the family home they all find so precious, a kind of sanctuary inside a hard industrial city. Abel is seen quietly cleaning up, always there, the mainstay those who need to, lean on. In other words, the parents as complex people began to emerge in my mind.


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

I’ve two more, neither occur around Christmas. Briefly this past Saturday afternoon, Izzy, Laura and I saw at the Kennedy Center the extraordinary (in the depths of feeling it occasionally reached) for an group concept, Canadian musical; and astonishing (in sudden individual moments, separate soliloquies, character sketches), Come from Away. It is the upbeat story of how a large group of American planes were landed in Newfoundland, Canada, because the area had a large unused airport, and how the people living in the towns all about welcomed the people on the planes, took care of them.

It’s a story we are much in need of since the spread of hatred and fear these past few years by Trump and his regime, and others like itaround the world. I’ll content myself with a review in the New York Times. Ben Brantley explains this show and its context better than I could.


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

More at length: last week with a friend I watched Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of the slow coming together of C.S.Lewis in his later year as a Don, with Joy Gresham, an American woman with whom he had been corresponding for years. If Christmas is mentioned, that’s because the movie covers a number of years. It does show characters behaving with singular charity and forbearance towards one another. It’s Christmasy, though, because it seeks to put the events of the story, especially a painful death of Joy Gresham (played by Deborah Winger), a relatively young woman, from bone cancer; a framework that makes it meaningful at the same time as the central character, “Jack” Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) cries out in anguish over the senselessness, cruel suffering and loss such a death entails. It is shaped by Christian apologetics, so to speak, especially on the existence of pain (as found in Lewis’s own writing). In the film we see Jack giving sermons on this topic.

Shadowlands was a hit the year it came out, gained many prizes. C.S. Lewis is nowadays known widely for his children’s fantasy series, Narnia Chronicles, whose stories may be allegorized as about the life and figure of Christ. I knew Lewis’s work from my 20s in graduate school as a brilliant literary critic (The Allegory of Love springs to mind), but Jim when I met him knew and was still under the spell of Lewis’s religious apologetic polemics ( which years later Jim found abhorrent): The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Surprized by Joy, the story of his supposed conversion from atheism to Anglicanism. Maybe this is why the movie was dared and accepted.

The problem is, for some, maybe many, Lewis’s arguments can be seen as ultimately sadistic, a romancing of pain and suffering. The movie is hagiographic, follows an idealizing biography of the Gresham-Lewis relationship (with the same title): by contrast, another by Abigail Santamara tells of how Gresham pursued Lewis consciously, was very ambitious, and how Lewis was at first reluctant, married her yes to provide her with the right to live in London, and gradually fell in love. It’s a popular-oriented film so we get this reductive idea Lewis was simply cold, inhibited, in retreat, not daring risks like the figure in The Roman de la Rose (which he lectures on), and Joy brought him out of this. She is presented probably as she was — slightly obnoxious, rude in her bluntness. But the romance is very well done, the script intelligent, tasteful — the history of Joy’s cancer; the diagnosis, first radiation treatments, the remission, the return and then the decline into death is done realistically (to some extent) and made moving. We watch Lewis by Joy’s side throughout; he is there for her as she goes out — as I was when Jim died. The movie does not stop at her death but carries on, showing Lewis at first in a rage, then slowly calming down, and towards the end still with his brother and now Joy’s boy, his son growing up, if not accepting what happened, able to deal sanely with this unexpected past.

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Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

I’ll end on the book I was prompted to buy after seeing Shadowlands. It arrived today, just in time for Christmas Eve: Lewis’s A Grief Observed, yet another memoir of someone dealing with extreme grief over the loss for him or her of a beloved person, and the death and suffering that person knew. All four of these movies record deaths: in Downton Abbey, it’s the hero’s fiancee, then her father, the scullery maid and cook’s husband, son of a farmer who has lost all his children. A Christmas Tale begins with the death of the first boy of Abel and Junon, age 6; he is never forgotten during the film. In Metropolitan we are told of the death of some of the characters’ parents, the divorce of others, and one of the intelligent young men discusses what he says is everyone’s need to believe in God, and what he regards as the probably that there is a God. How else carry on? These kinds of inference I think come from over-reaching: you can see life as good and enjoy much even if it has no meaning beyond the experience of life itself. Come From Away shows awareness that thousands have just been killed in an engineered disaster.

As I began to read, I found myself remembering immediately what a wonderfully alive writer Lewis is, how eloquent, how daring his use of language. And how brilliant he is, and how persuasive he can be — partly because he tells enough truth, is so perceptive about whatever experiences he is getting down. He spoke home to me, and ranged widely. He kept several notebooks from which this slender book came. Towards the end he talks of the “arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ “Poor warped fragments of humanity.”

The first chapter is his own strong anger, and fear. Lewis finds grief feels like fear — yes, I felt profound terror when I first truly had the thought I would have to be alone in the world without Jim. He talks of how “it is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ In this first state he is an embarrassment to others; he cannot endure to listen to them. It resonated with me when Lewis says he cannot remember Joy’s face (he’s seen too many versions), hear her voice, imagine what she would say or do in this or that situation. She is now an absence. I like how he says Joy remained the other, a self apart, and when she would be with him, he would see how he had distorted her in his mind.

In the second chapter he draws himself up and realizes he has been thinking only of himself: what of her, of the pain she knew, of her loss, what happened as she experienced it. Then the cant: she is in God’s hands. Right. Will fatal disease be diagnosed in his body too? “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? what does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.”

The third and fourth chapter are much harder to capture. Unlike Julian Barnes’s masterly grief memoir in Levels of Life, Lewis does not move as an argument because in a way there is none: he sees the senselessness and cruelty of what has happened and then refuses to infer there is no God, and so moves in circles around the torturous draining traumatic and gradually therapeutic experiences he is enduring. He questions himself a lot. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have bee so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.” He explores what love is. We all experience “love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career … bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Then what grief: “something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

There is much more: on God, on human consciousness, on misunderstanding less, on mystic experiences, and how he and Joy their intimacy could only reach so far. He ends with a quotation from Dante where Joy is likened (if I am not mistaken) to either Beatrice or some eternal presence and “Poi si torno all’eterna fontana.”

I hope all who read this manage a contented cheerful Winter Solstice.

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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Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

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

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

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


Refectory

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


Trail of Tears

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


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

First Neighbours

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

thought I tried to adapt

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

Go back where you came from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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


Coercion

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The young actors


The real individual men as they are in 2019

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

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

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


Felicty Huffman plays the part


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Ava DuVernay

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

Ellen

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Caroline Mortimer as Alice Vavasour reading the morning after her and Lady Glen’s night in the priory at Matching … (1974 BBC Pallisers)


Alice brooding just before she accepts John Grey (from original illustrations to the novel by Miss E Taylor)

Friends and readers,

What a time we had in my two classes with Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Nobody wished it longer but apart from one Doubting Person (isn’t Trollope just bit repetitive?) most seemed to think the length justified. We had so many different kinds of conversations about the characters, Trollope’s landscapes and uses of symbolic houses, his plot-design and themes, epistolarity in the novels, irony, point of view, and much that has been probably said elsewhere, but one perspective I used is perhaps not the usual: from Arlene Rodriguez’s “Self-sacrifice as desire”, a thesis for a masters’ degree (sent by one of the people in the class): it attracts me partly because it forms a counterpart to Trollope’s definition of manliness (as I saw it years ago in a paper at a Trollope conference): Trollope’s Comfort Romances for Men.

Ms Rodriguez begins with a group of ideas that she takes from John Kucich in his Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Charles Dickens, ideas ultimately adapted from Michael Foucault and Judith Butler – theorizers of sexuality. Like Lucy Snowe, Dorothea Brooke, Esther Summerson, Alice Vavasour is a self-controlled repressed figure, the kind of heroine who seems not so much masochistic but simply refusing to join in on things you might suppose she wants very badly. Trollope has a number of such characters and they are very much disliked by the fans, who can become vehement in their distaste, particularly those women who refuse to marry for a long time or not at all, but the type behaves in this supposedly self-negating manner in other areas of life, take for example, Mary, Lady Mason, a forger for her son, in Orley Farm.

I had a hard time with it because it seems perverse and anything on the face of it perverse ought to be scrutinized. The idea is if you self-negate, if you refuse to be aggressively after desires that are presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find or create an identity for yourself in. A secret self, another authentic existence. These natural desires are social constructs, not natural for all of us; many of us just don’t want for real what we are assumed instinctively to want. For example, I never in my life wanted a wedding, much less a big one. I never had one. The last thing in the world I’d want to bothered with. Vexation and cost and time-consuming. That’s conformity forced on us: you concede you’ll have a small affair and before you know it you are involved with a large headache. In the usual paradigm we have characters filled with appetites that are thwarted by society who forces conformity on them.

But what equally if you don’t want to get sexually involved; you don’t want to fall into paradigms of self-abnegation, be a subordinate woman; you really don’t want to elope with this guy; or, you don’t like the person others admire, or the career your parent wants you to choose, or in Can You Forgive Her? sticking by an engagement or being coerced into a marriage that will leave you unable to do what you enjoy (say live in London), suits the aggrandizement of others (Burgo Fitzgerald) or helps them hide themselves. What if truly you want none of this?


Kate Vavasour — after George wrenches her arm, drawn parallel to Alice — Sharon Marcus suggests she is Trollope’s portrait of a lesbian secret self; marginalized in the theme adaptation she is repeatedly central to the Vavasour story

You don’t like the choices on offer. The example I can think of best which captures this and which I do understand is anorexia. People have a hard time accepting someone who does not want to eat? surely eating is natural, and needed. Who would give up eating? Many young women? why? As Hilary Mantel put it, “Girls want Out” (a diary entry in the London Review of Books one year). Mara Selvini Palazzi’s Self-starvation is about how family and school pressures are as central to anorexia as sexual pressure. In order to obtain some autonomy, to escape social’s demands you don’t enjoy. This condition of mind is found increasingly in upper class Indian women. Alice is ever eager not to go out. Kate, we are told, never dreams of marriage to a man. She proposes on George’s behalf to Alice. She may be said to violate Alice when she gives George Alice’s letter. Very aggressive for what she wants that no one will recognize. She ends living with Aunt Greenow at Vavasour Hall — I love how Aunt Greenow ends up in charge of the family country house. Poor Miss Arabella Vavasour that was.

Kucich argues that self-negation was very well understood by Victorians and enabled them to have a far livelier and more varied sex life than we suppose because they practiced public self-negation. Turn to Eleanor Bold a central character in three of the six Barsetshire novels. She likens herself to Iphigenia; she will immolate herself on her father’s behalf. He wants out, and she wants out too. She refuses to marry or have anything to do with John Bold until he gives up his case in the newspapers. She performs self-negation several times in Barchester Towers, and thus achieves not only autonomy and peace of mind for herself but also her father.


Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding, Janet Maw as Eleanor, sharing a well-deserved drink at the end of The Warden … (1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles)

We went over so many examples of this kind of behavior in Alice I don’t know where to begin; but there is a problem for unlike say Lily Dale, Mr Harding, Mary Mason, and in Dickens Arthur Clenham (males can practice this kind of carapace too) Alice ends up in a situation she is still ambivalent over, and in the last chapter of the book her author-narrator cannot stop himself from needling her and having the characters around her triumph unkindly, from Lady Midlothian (it’s as if a Lady Catherine de Bourgh took a central role in Darcy and Elizabeth’s wedding), to china, to diamonds. On these latter I wished Lizzie Eustace had been there to embody the notion that diamonds are being made to mean more the money (for myself I ended up endlessly pawning mine from my first marriage until I simply sold them). To the end of the book Alice has more in common with Isabel Archer than is supposed: thinking about having said yes to John Grey,

“She would have striven, at any rate, to [think as he thought] But she could not become unambitious, tranquil, fond of retirement, and philosophic, with an argument on the matter — without being allowed even the poor grace of owning herself to be convinced. If a man takes a dog with him from the country up to town, the dog must live a town life or die a town death. But a woman should not be treated like a dog.”

The probability of the ending does not validate it as the choice Alice wanted. In the film series, Simon Raven alters the question so that it becomes she must choose life as this is the only life on offer for her (Raven has Grey ask Alice not just in a graveyard but inside a tomb).

And the paradigm makes hay of the parallels set up by Lady Glen’s story whose reference archetypes are take us in another direction, though the drawing by Miss E Taylor configures her outwardly analogously.


Lady Glen after Lady Monk’s ball from which she has not eloped with Burgo


Philip Latham as Palliser at the breakfast table – he wins in the book because the argumet is conducted on his grounds, where he is hurt, not hers

In the film, by mid-morning the brooder is Palliser:


Now walking away from his colleagues, he passes a woman selling flowers, a church, meets George: Raven gives him voice-over

“The quidnuncs of the town, who chanced to see him, and who had heard something of the political movements of the day, thought, no doubt, that he was meditating his future ministerial career. But he had not been there long before he resolved that no ministerial career was at present open to him. ‘It has been my own fault,’ he said, as he returned to his house, ‘and with God’s help I will mend it, if it be possible.

Trollope’s definition of manliness I once argued undermines macho- and predatory male norms, and functions as a counterpart to female self-negation. A rooted original trauma in his life is at the core of these fictions.

“My boyhood was, I think, as unhappy as that of a young gentleman could be, my misfortunes arising from a mixture of poverty and gentle standing on the part of my father, and from an utter want on my part of that juvenile manhood which enables some boys to hold up their heads even among the distresses which such a position is sure to produce” (1:2)

A few paragraphs later he offers concrete examples of what he means by an “utter want” of “juvenile manhood:”

“Then another and a different horror fell to my fate. My college bills had not been paid, and the school tradesmen who administered to the wants of the boys were told not to extend their credit to me … My schoolfellows of course knew that it was so, and I became a Pariah. It is the nature of boys to be cruel. I have sometimes doubted whether among each other they do usually suffer much, one from the other’s cruelty; but I suffered horribly! I could make no stand against it. I had no friend to whom I could pour out my sorrows. I was big, and awkward, and ugly, and, I have no doubt, skulked about in a most unattractive manner. Of course I was ill-dressed and dirty. But, ah! how well I remember all the agonies of my young heart; how I considered whether I should always be alone.

In my paper I wrote:

In many Victorian texts, successful manliness is equated with “courage, resolution, and tenacity,” “the repression of the self,” “financial independence,” and doing useful work. In Trollope’s novels, however, the use of the term “manliness” and all its cognates usually refers to a more narrowly-conceived social behavior. When the young Trollope had insufficient “juvenile manhood,” he was not able to exercise a self-government sufficient to hide his social predicament and to maintain the respect of others. … manliness also manifests itself in [A] firm limiting OF susceptibility to pressure from the views of others in ways that permit a perceived private self to assert an individual presence, self-esteem and power implicitlY.” Thus Palliser can reject the position of Chancellor of the Exechequer after long pressure from his colleagues.

It is important to be emphasize Trollope is making a case against conventional norms. The character who is ugly, awkward, dressed wrongly, relatively poor, and even not quite a gentleman is frequently presented as nonetheless admirably manly. [While physical bravery matters], the word “manly” is much more often attributed to moral courage of the type which enables Mr Harding steadily to quit a compromised position. Trollope repeatedly dramatizes stories which reveal that when a woman chooses a partner based on how well he enacts conventional social norms for heterosexual male sexuality, she courts emotional disaster.

I told the people in the class: Drawing on his personal experience, Trollope dwells over and over in unheroic heroes and redefines worldly loss, defeat and individual withdrawals from social life and competition as misunderstood and understandable choices whose courage is underrated And then for the happy ending he shows the self engulfed – Alice wanted just one bridesmaid. Forget it. Or you integrate in a compromised ironic way. That is the ending of Phineas Finn: a position as a workhouse inspector in Ireland. Characters are unable or unwilling to articulate their point of view because they fear shaming and defeat. Their inability or refusal to manipulate these social codes disables them in the continual struggle for dominance against submission that Trollope depicts as also what shapes most human relationships. I do see homoeroticism coming out in some of the male relationships, especially when they are after the same woman (or have had her, as in the case of Burgo and Palliser or Phineas and Lord Chiltern)


Susan Hampshire as Lady Glen turning away from Burgo one more time …


An extraordinary scene between Palliser and Burgo (Barry Justice) at Baden …

Yes Trollope is intensely concerned over achieving a modern career (“making your way”). It was not having a job but a position you rise in to become someone influential and important. George Vavasour may not have had the patience, but he also didn’t have the money. Nicolas Dames in his essay on careers in Trollope suggests Trollope redefines the successful artist in term of money success with his vocation emerging as mere obsessive motivation, not the negotiation of fitting into a situation, finding the inner logic of what will make for promotion, which is what counts in gaining respect. The older Trollope criticism emphasized ethical relativity and went on about specific values; this way of seeing Trollope is post-modern: you achieve a life-style, a career or marital discipline as you rotate endlessly “upward towards the light,” ” except for those who fall by the wayside. So the first desire of most people is protect their place in organization. Suddenly Barsetshire becomes the world we live in today. I’ve felt that The Three Clerks ought to be have titled: The Way We Work Now.

But I have moved away from our Victorian heroines who have no need of forgiveness, much less vehement dislike, only understanding — for they are some of us.


Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson looking at herself in the mirror when she is beginning to recover from small pox (2005 Bleak House)

Ellen

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August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

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

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

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

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

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

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

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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First editions — 1945 and 1946 bookjacket cover illustrations
Friends and readers,

Last night I was one in a sold-out auditorium in the Smithsonian Ripley Center come to listen to Julie Anne Taddeo speak interestingly and entertainingly on the “World of Poldark: Historical Realities and Fantasies of Georgian England.” I write this blog to share with readers some of what she said.

Her encompassing thesis was that “Poldark engages us with history and contemporary issues.” In a room filled with many people who themselves felt a personal connection with the Poldark matter she told of how when she was a girl she’d watch the Sunday night line-up of period drama on PBS Masterpiece Theater with her mother. Poldark aired at 7 pm, and inspired an active following: people went to Cornwall, they named their children after favored characters; it “fueled their fantasy life.” She came to the books after watching the films, and since for an entrance exam in high school when she wrote about Poldark she won a scholarship, she can say it influenced her life crucially.


Robin Ellis from the first hour of the 1975 series, episode 6, as Ross Poldark accosting Elizabeth Chynoweth as his betrothed


Angharad Rees from the third part, 1975, episode 6, as Demelza, defying Ross’s attempt to cast her as a pathetic dependent on him after they have had sexual intercourse

A “cult” had developed around the show, which could be felt when in 1996 an attempt to film the eighth book, The Stranger from the Sea, using other actors, failed, partly the result of the vigorous protest from fans. (I add that the two hour show under strong American influence also de-politicized the book, omitted all mention of its Peninsular war context so was very weak.)

Julie suggested that the terms of the re-selling of the books as TV drama in 2015 can be seen in the first trailer to the first season, which she played: very sexy, sensual images abound, hard-driving rock music against a gritty background. They spent hugely and were after a younger audience than they assumed had watched the first time round. It turns out that the audience for this iteration has been “quite diverse.” Yes the actors were made to become “hunks” by going to the gym, a female-homoerotic gaze was prioritized. Unlike naked women, this photographing of near naked men enhanced their authority. It is easy to poke fun at aspects of the films; they are inevitably inaccurate. She defended the show, and then quoted Graham’s axiom like statement: “The past has no existence beyond through what our minds can give it.”


For myself I find this still of Aidan Turner astride a horse (from the first episode of the first season), the camera shooting from below at an angle, makes him look magnificent


This of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with her dog from the same first hour seems to me vibrant and touching

She then moved on to the multiple contexts embedded in and surrounding the books and films. First the 1940s: she felt there had not been much written about the later 18th century. I’m not sure this is so (the Enlightenment was a popular topic among philosophical scholars and historians; the influence of and the French revolution as a topic has never ceased to fascinate), but I agree with her that this show is one of the first in large social media to show us history from below, the lives of ordinary lower class people, workers and miners. Winston Graham was, as Julie suggested, “a pioneer” in including varied classes of people in his historical romance texts. He said (I add as usual self-deprecatingly) he did not begin with the idea of writing a series of novels, but just one with “a gloomy beginning” and “happy ending.” But there was something far more in the structure of this conception that resonated deeply and he carried on with these books.

She then covered the period of writing (1945-2002) and how the novels reflect the eras in which they were written and the eras written about. Her interpretations here differed from mine. She feels that in the first quartet Graham is showing the UK needs to redefine its empire, face its loss, and he was suggesting bridges to ameliorate life by. In the first trilogy that followed (1970s) he was mirroring the mining crises (these actually occurred in the 1980s and so influence Graham’s second trilogy) and the rebellious spirit of the era. She quoted a long interesting speech from one of Alistair Cooke’s introductions to the episodes. Cooke’s words suggest that Cornwall for the viewer was perceived as almost a different country, separate from the rest of England, an arcane older culture, a wild landscape, while the reality was Cornwall was where there was much industrial innovation. Naming other well-known artists fascinated by the place she cited Matthew Arnold, D.H. Lawrence (who lived there too), famously Daphne DuMaurier. (I’ll add Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy.)  The music in these serial dramas is intensely important and Julie played the themes we hear at the beginning of each hour in the recent adaptation. (The theme music for the previous one was alluring too. These paratexts of images and music are often crucial for many of these dramas, setting off the hour from the rest of TV experience.)


A still from the paratexts of the first season: Aidan Turner as Ross astride his horse on the cliffs


A still from the paratexts of the second season: we hear Eleanor Tomlinson’s singing a song Demelza sang in the program, POV hers

The recent series was accused of Disneyfying: much is of course left out: the severe poverty of most of the population, their short lives, hard work (including children), political corruption. She felt this was unfair — the series is not meant to be a serious history text and does present the time as accurately as a program intended to please (and instruct) a large audience can. In the books (and films) we see how unjust is the criminal justice system (a “bloody code” of hard punishment was central); the rotten borough procedures and how George buys himself a seat by buying huge parts of the borough. We see young men unfairly imprisoned, hung, die from “prison fever.”


Jim Carter’s (Stuart Doughty) death from typhus & gangrene caught in prison — he poached (1975, Part 4)


Sam Carne (Tom York) framed and near hanged and rescued at the last moment, not in the book (Fourth season of the 2015 series)

Many aspects of Georgian England are put before us: its diseases, the class structure, the new ruthless capitalist behavior. Ross says aristocrats treat their animals better than their servants. She quoted another critic on how through capitalism, the hierarchical system (ambition) and new industries that money was made in Cornwall, and she suggested in the series (and books) we see a conflict between old aristocratic norms (decadent, a life lived for pleasure) and a new work ethic for a growing middle class, which Ross’s work makes him belong to and shore up. Ross in the new series is presented as a man of the people, somber amid his workers with them as the leader of a band of brothers. She suggested the (I’ll add radical) methodism explored in the novels is felt in the new dramatization of Demelza’s brothers (it was there in the depiction of Sam in the older series). She liked the sympathy the new series showed for George Warleggan as an ambitious man and felt for his need to conform to new upper class norms in order to elevate himself.  She saw Ross as simply a kind of Whig, deprived (because of the laws and customs of primogeniture), at first influenced by (involved in) the nearby French revolution, then leaving the Cornish world, to participate in Parliamentary debates. Travel is on horse, by the mail coach (you could use a boat); London is far away from Cornwall so Ross begins to leave his Cornish and egalitarian nexus behind.

The Demelza story she likened to Richardson’s Pamela: female servants were vulnerable to harassment (I’ll add rape, pregnancy, dismissal) and a wish fulfillment fantasy still allures. We watch Demelza teach herself slowly to dress, dance, behave like, become a lady. Caroline marries down, defying her uncle’s pressure for her to marry wealthy gentry. These, she suggested are fairy stories, and cited Charles Fox’s marrying his mistress, Elizabeth Armistead as a rare instance of a man marrying beneath his rank a woman he has made his mistress. Another case I can think of is Henry Fielding marrying his housekeeper after his first wife died. Fielding was jeered at by his rival, Samuel Richardson (he also wrote Clarissa) as in the recent series Dr Choake and George Warleggan jeer at Ross.


Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) shows continually that she is suffering from abuse (2015, Season 3, Episode 8)

But the new series has its own themes too, and she felt that these historical fictions show Graham to have been “an instinctive feminist.” There is the story of the coerced marriage of Morwenna and how her husband is a sadistic rapist she cannot escape until he dies. We see Verity fight and nearly lose her right “to choose” (to have) “her own life.” Julie sees Agatha as showing us the fate of the spinster, old, worn, powerless. Elizabeth’s story is of a woman with few options. How could she have accused Ross of rape? She would be regarded as an unreliable witness and her reputation destroyed. She is driven to take a dangerous drug to bring on early parturition to soothe her husband’s infuriated pride and dies of this. I agree with Julie’s statement that Graham dealt with psychological trauma inflicted on women with real sensitivity.


Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) pretending to be a Mrs Tabb come to a doctor for a drug to bring on early parturition, told it is dangerous (1978, Part 13, Episode 3)

Julie dealt with a few separate topics too, ones that are central to the books and films. For example, the precariousness of life and its dangerous pleasures. She showed how in the new series the pleasure gardens in London are realized. It is not specified that syphilis was a spreading and grim disease. I agree with her that the major characters sympathized with by Graham all dislike London (a kind of Babylon) and its false sophistications. She showed stills of Tomlinson as Demelza, Turner as Ross, Luke Norris as Dwight looking grim in London. Dwight is a sincere and earnestly hard-working doctor who would rather be in Cornwall.

She (rightly I felt) went on about Dwight as a “cutting edge” physician; Choake is a quack, Dwight well educated for his time where some scientific knowledge was beginning to be understood. She showed illustrations from the era (an apothecary dying), and said that resuscitation was practiced from an earlier age. Sickness abounds in Graham’s books. We have characters dying of diptheria (morbid sore throat); Hugh Armistead probably dies of meningitis; Dwight and Caroline’s baby dies of a congenital heart defect. This is transferred into the new series and reinforced. When Dwight is captured and witnesses horrible treatment, atrocities, torture, he is traumatized: she felt this reflects our own era where military men are abused by too many tours. I can vouch for themes drawn from medicine as common across Graham’s work.

Other strengths:  we see men comforting one another in the new series. There is little comic relief (that has been noticed again and again and that the earlier series had more comedy), but the Poldark books are mostly not light or comic; there is much death, grief, characters who could be better happier people are twisted and self-destruct from their background, upbringing, childhood (Francis Poldark, Valentine Warleggan). Ross and Demelza’s relationship is not an idyllic romance, but a real marital struggle with discord, misunderstanding and love.

She ended by asking why does Poldark matter endure: most of the books have never fallen out of print; we’ve now had two successful TV series 40 years apart. Is it the timeless themes? The heroine moves from waif to lady. The renegade hero becomes a strong pillar of his community. Other of the stories strike chords in us too. Then she quoted Graham again musing that when he dies and goes to heaven, he hopes St Peter will let him in even if he has been responsible for crowding Cornwall with tourists and summer people in caravans.


Photo of Winston Graham with his dog, Garrick

I enjoyed her talk very much. I plug on reading through the whole of his oeuvre insofar as I can reach it and time permits — in the midst of teaching, reading with others online, other projects that draw me on — I live but once and I am fading in some ways now, losing abilities by the month, my able time growing shorter. I am even now listening to Oliver Hembrough reading aloud Ross Poldark (on CDs) while in my car — so as to make more time for myself and books. I have the first seven Poldark novels on such audio CDs, and will go through these this way, and then read the last five over again. Alone as I am, with the obstacles I face (I’ve outlined some of these in the notes to my recent paper), no connections or contacts, little money for travel (and less appetite and ability), I sometimes despair of actually writing a book before I grow too old to do it.

Nevertheless, when I hear a talk like this and find myself returning to Poldark’s Cornwall and re-reading Graham’s words, I am drawn to the man who wrote the historical fiction and those of his books set in Cornwall, and am re-energized with enthusiasm, courage, and hope. I have thought of a good title, at long last too: A Matter of Genre: The Life and Writing of Winston Graham.  There’s my angle in a nutshell.

Ellen

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Typical catalogue

Dear friends and readers,

Anyone who reads this or my other blogs regularly know for the past five to six years now I have been working as a volunteer teacher in two local Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning. Each spring and fall, and now most summers, I put my syllabus on this or my Austen reveries blog so the people in my class have an on-line document to refer to, which I can link into other sites, and also change as we go along. I decided to write an essay explaining what Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning are: their goal, their history, the development of such places thus far, who works there, takes courses, on what terms, and then discuss the pedagogy appropriate for such places for a person like myself teaching humanities or literature courses. Since I wrote it for an 18th century publication, The 18th Century Intelligencer, I concentrated on the 18th century courses I have taught, but the same pedagogy and closely similar kinds of experiences occur when I’ve taught Anthony Trollope’s novels, a course I call “19th century women of letters” (basically 19th century novels by women framed by a more or less feminist historical perspective), historical novels, Jane Austen, the gothic ….

So if you want to know what these syllabuses and the blogs I sometimes write coming out of my experiences with these people my age (many professional of all sorts) are the outward manifestation or signs of, you can read my paper now on academia.edu under the title: Teaching Eighteenth Century Texts in Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning Programs.


The building the OLLI at AU resides in

As I reread my text I want to stress more how alike both places are, and (lest I leave a wrong impression) that for me as a person teaching at these and as a person taking courses, I often find the courses at OLLI at Mason as, and often more academically satisfying, than the ones at OLLI at AU. It depends on who is teaching, what is the material the course covers, what’s the goal, and how long the term lasts. One great advantage the shorter terms in fall and spring at the OLLI at Mason allow are genuine winter terms (4 weeks) and summer terms (6 weeks), which are not found in the other. I enjoy myself very much in summer at the OLLI at Mason and I’ve had some wonderfully educational courses in their winter terms: one year Dante’s Purgatorio, and Early American Women Writers, another James Joyce’s Dubliners (these three given by lecturers and professors who came over from Mason itself, two of whom I sort of knew).


The fun thing about this course is it was taught a man who my daughter Izzy took a graduate course in Irish Literature with when she attended Mason at night — so she and I could talk about these courses together

Practical courses are important too. Personally important for me two winters ago, a genuinely basic course in how to fill out my taxes at the OLLI at Mason, with advice on going to the AARP who have volunteer teams to help you or fill out your taxes for you. I don’t know what I would have done without those people at the AARP this and last year, and am glad I understand something of these tax forms, even if it is only to see how I am unfairly fleeced proportionately to my widow’s annuity. At last now I know how the corrupt system is taking so much from me that they eat into my needs so that the hugely rich corporations and super-rich individuals (with all their lawyers and deductions and tax-havens) can keep egregiously more of their income than in a just society they would be allowed — all the while themselves drawing on tax-payer money to make themselves richer.


A picnic at OLLI at Mason June 2013

And finally such places are there to help create and enrich the social life of everyone who goes there. The importance of companionship in shared and congenial activities and in contributing to the community, being part of it actively for older people cannot be over-estimated. If I didn’t detail this part of my and others experience that much, well that was not the theme of my paper. My evolving pedagogy for teaching literature to older adults is the methodology I’m describing.  My topic is teaching the 18th century especially. And along the way I hope I convey what I am learning about teaching and how learning happens.

Ellen

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Tape Recorder used by Malcolm X. Wollensak Stereo-tape magnetic recorder, Model T-1515

Revolution is not a one-time event — Audre Lorde

Friends and readers,

People, if you’re in any doubt, go. It’s not only worth it, it is not as upsetting as you might imagine it will be, nor is it aggressively mournful, angry, or even celebratory. I think attempts have been made to make sure that an African-American coming to this museum, will leave with a sense of a strong determined identity confirmed in such a way as to make him or her feel proud and good.


Traditional European-style history painting of the Revolutionary war in the museum


The opening remarks of Barbara Jordan giving her keynote speech in 1976 is on the top floor, “Culture galleries”

Since my day at the African-American Museum, I have found myself having different and much more aware reactions to things I see and words I hear daily than I had had before I went; I filled out gaps in knowledge I didn’t know I didn’t have; I came away with explanations for phenomena I didn’t realize needed more explanation; I understand the source or origin for familiar images; I understand why Marcus Garvey said that African-Americans must build their own separate community or state on land outside white American society, that African-Americans remain a captive people.

I didn’t know that in the later part of the 19th century African-Americans did attempt to build their own communities, and these were destroyed by envious or resentful groups of whites. I didn’t know that just after World War I when African-Americans began to leave the south in droves, having had an experience of liberty, confirmed self-esteem, and education in an armed force, a new active lynching movement sprang up in the north and west, and there were riots against their new presence; I did not know that lynching was followed by mutilation of the person’s hanging corpse and then cutting off the head — every desecration that could be piled on. I saw this in the remarkably few photographs of lynching the museum displays. I found I am particularly ignorant of the history of African-Americans immediately after the civil war was over — the brief period where they were treated decently, began to vote, sat in representative assemblies; of their history again at the turn of the 20th century (devastating cruelty inflicted on them, in effect re-enslavement through laws forbidding them to leave the south, to leave a job where they owed money perpetually; the prison system; and again in the 1920s, and 1940s apart from the war.

I was impressed by the self-control and moderation of tone with which the history of African-Americans in the United States was presented. Inside the memorial for Emmett Till I began to cry.


Emmett Till’s casket when it was still in the old garage

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A corner of the corona building — with that delicate design work in iron seen in golden light

I finally made it a week ago Tuesday, and spent some 5 hours there. I left when I did because I felt my feet and legs had just enough strength to take me the trek back home. I had been wanting to go there since I saw Gwen Ifill’s first segment on it on PBS (and she’s been dead some years). Pondering the obstacles of early on getting tickets, and then when someone like me could, the distance (drive to train, train, walk it was said 15 minutes from a subway stop), so finding the place after having bought timed-tickets on a wekbsite and/or waiting outside on lines, I had begun to give up hope. Still I told myself if I could just plan a day, pull myself together, and go, I should probably manage it. Then at OLLI at Mason this January, a woman came from the museum to deliver a 2 hour lecture on the history, architecture, exhibits, doings of the place, and said you didn’t need any ticket at all ahead for this January and February. So now or never. Three weeks ago I was un-surprized to be thwarted because an inch of snow closed the place down, but two weeks ago all clear.

I found it by going to the Smithsonian stop (so glad I had wit enough to chose that one of the three cited on the website), and with the help of a man who works in the Metro. I had fallen and a man in the booth came over. I said I wanted to find the African-American museum. I told him there was no map on the website, and was seeking Constitution Avenue, he nodded and said that was not necessary. He said go up the escalator and turn left. I said, no that cannot be as that is the park. So he came up the escalator with me and walked into the Mall park and pointed to the building. It’s distinctive; it stands out. So I had to turn left in the park and walk in the direction of that building and it took about 7 minutes or so.

You first enter a grand concourse, all sparkling glamour with a bronze chariot hanging from the ceiling (“Swing low, sweet chariot … “). Like many recent museums, there is so much space wasted — super high ceilings, large desks with not much information, a cafeteria to the side, an auditorium for cultural events (Oprah Winfrey), and glass doors leading to different corridors. One takes you to a large elevator where you go down some three flights at least and then coming out walk through history set up as exhibits of all sorts in a large maze with inner rooms and outer, gradually rising to the concourse again. There were places you could sit and watch films. Places you could sit and read the plaques explaining what you were seeing. Like the American Museum of Natural History in NYC big glass cases set in walls with exhibits.

You begin with the period where the practice of enslavement of (eventually) thousands and thousands of people. I thought about the period where they were captured, manacles with horrifying hooks put about their necks, stripped to nakedness, and then forced aboard ships. What few remnants and relics survive are surrounded by modern pictures, explanations of the economics of this capture and deportations; the (to me) familiar mappings of these hellhole ships. Then the exhibit divides into four localities to show enslavement in Chesapeake area, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and up north. You look at decrees, see artifacts, read of the many rebellions, horrific loss of life, all dignity and comfort to those alive – and evidence also of people trying to hold onto their original beliefs, form family groups.


A reproduction of a mural, “The Old Plantation” circa 1785-1795, watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia

In the middle sections — after the Revolutionary War and leading up to the civil war — you can try to observe how enslaved black people lived among white people who were by law backed up by guns and horrific punishments their owners or also all the other people all around them. How everyone accommodated movement. Their houses in the fields. Their working conditions. Tools. I remarked there were few whips — there was in this museum an attempt to downplay the misery of such an existence. A few people managed to buy themselves out of enslavement; a few learn to read, learn trades. We see the papers they were required to carry (and danger they could be snatched back into enslavement and their papers destroyed). For my taste there were too many statues of famous white American males. There was an ancient beat up square piece of stone about one foot high: an auction block. Much about resistance, about attempts at some semblance of life outside body-killing work and continual subjugation. Not nearly enough on the horrors women would have experienced (rape, pregnancy, exhibition, beating, babies and children taken from you &c) — the museum has what photos have lasted — mostly groups of African-Americans around shacks and in the fields.


Clara Brown — one of my favorite statues — her story is both sad and courageous

Born enslaved in Virginia, Clara Brown married at age 18, and had to endure all four children being taken from her and sold; after the Civil War she moved to Colorado and worked as a cook, laundress and midwife; she invested her money in mines and land, and used it to help support community organizations. All her life she searched for her four children. When very old she finally was united (the plaque said) with one daughter.

Much on the civil war — because more and more photos, artefacts, relics, documents and here occasionally books mentioned.

Very educational were the rooms for the turn of the 20th century because an attempt was made to show how African-Americans were building their own institutions, creating their own associations (NAACP), were developing a genuine middle class, with a small elite business community. I did know how these groups reached out to one another and to more isolated people to do what they could to educate one another, get decent jobs. Each time (I must add) there is a cruel push-back — no, they cannot get into unions (so the history of Pullman Porters); there seems to be always some group ready and able to re-impose isolation, poverty. But you see a black press, and very important the development of talented people in the arts, music, literature, and then doctors, lawyers, teachers. The early minstrel shows (with black face) have one wall. This section before and during the push for civil rights after World War Two (this began in the 1950s) had films of individuals, and was dependent to a large extent on African-American people supplying their own saved relics — like a parlor organ from 1911 (a room with books and rugs is built around it). Famous African-American people have separate glass cases, from Ida Wells and Booker T. Washington.

In the middle of the higher level is a Southern Railway train. Now what’s remarkable about this is the section reserved for “coloreds” is so much more comfortable, suggesting aspects of the treatment of colored people during this segregated era on trains much much better than passengers on planes in economy seats today.

I went in and saw the colored people’s chairs had armrests. What airplane gives a passenger a comfortable armrest? There was plenty of room in the aisles and people faced one another. The whites had bigger seats, bathrooms at both ends of the cars, more accommodation for food, but no one was treated (as far as the construction of the car lets you see) in the abusive manner airlines do today. You have room for your body to sleep, eat, be comfortable.

This was not the only place in the 20th century part of the history that I observed poorer and ordinary (not people part of some exclusive “club” where they pay extra) people today are treated as badly and worse than segregated African-Americans in public places they shared with whites. And see forms of enslavement today for millions of black men in prisons.

Once I moved into the 1960s, I was on familiar ground. There was a long cafeteria like counter with seats in front of which are perpetual films. Some of the more troubling things is that the Angola Prison exhibit is about a prison still going whose treatment of prisoners is still deeply inhumane. But also in these various modules of the 20th century an exhibit about the Hope School, a fine school for African-American children where those lucky enough to go there probably received a much better education than they did when they entered an integrated public school at first. There were uniforms worn by African-American nurses (at first black women couldn’t enter this profession) and a touching photo of an AFrican-American midwife taking care of a new born.

Again in the 1980s and 90s, no where near enough about the roles of the FBI in destroying the Black Panther movement. The frankest parts of the museum heritage galleries were the films and histories of events of the 1960s. There is a set of film clips ending on Johnson signing the civil rights act. As others have said before me, I was disappointed to see so little of Martin Luther King, to be told so little of other leaders who were most of them killed in their 30s (Medgar Evers comes to mind) – let us not forget (see Muhiyyidin D’baha, this past February, another potential black male leader shot dead in the streets).

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Upstairs

What one has also to remember is this is not a museum intended to show high cultural art; like other Smithsonian museums the core idea is to reflect the history of a culture.

The lower floor with its community galleries continues the story of how difficult it has been for African-American people to achieve fulfillment in the US. One exhibit called the “power of place” shows how important to people are the places they grow up in but also how these function to segregate people. You see slow hard climbs of individuals and how they are helped by black groups to become successful this way or that: including making beautiful hats (Mae Reeves’s Millinery shop, for church and then selling these more widely).

I know nothing about most sports and can’t get myself to care who wins prizes so I skipped a whole section of the middle floor. Another section of this floor was about military service and how African-American men (& women nowadays) fought in both wars (I and II), and how ambivalent the experience originally was, but how once integrated the armed services has been a place African-Americans can have and have had fulfilling success and gained respect and power.

Then the highest floor where you can look out to the park too: I had expected to be more amused by the movie and music industry part of the museum than I was. Here I do have a mild criticism: instead of letting the viewer watch say the whole of Barbara Jordan’s speech say one day and then Martin Luther King another, we have ten clips each lasting less than 5 minutes. Or we have clips from famous movies one after another lasting less than 5 minutes. Everything is there then as a sort of celebratory symbol; Chuck Berry’s 1950s Cadillac (with a spotlight) took a good deal of room. Several different groups singing and songs played all at once even if a few yards apart do not allow you to appreciate the music. Little attempt is made to show the slow progress of black people in films or TV. I was surprised to find how painful I found the comic routines of male African-American performers: several were making routines out of the ironies and miseries of their condition, out of the color of their skin, as a source of humor. I didn’t find it so but it does teach you what was acceptable to do to black people in the 1950s and early 60s. And as for today, too much celebrity glamour.

It also seemed to me the finest African-American women singers, actresses and other creative people were not there. No Lena Horne for example. Instead young black sexy icon-types, the huge money-makers, politicians, and silent videos with lots of neon. The most disappointing section was the arts. A truly tiny section of painting, sculpture. I have said that’s not the purpose of the museum. But the lack of interest was startling — again one can go to the other Smithsonian museums to see exhibits of fine African-American photographers. Perhaps the competition is too keen. But the truth while women were equally represented every where but sports and the military, famous women’s dresses are there (Rosa Parks) and typical working outfits for women as well as men’s and women were obviously organizers, active as volunteers and paid heads of organizations, and also part of the elite black world, when it came to the arts, individual good women artists (singers, young actresses, painters, sculptors, performers) were nowhere to be found.

I don’t want to end on a “down” or sour note. It took a very long time from the initial daring proposal (1916, black veterans from World War One) to actual plans, provisions (2003) and finally funding and hiring an architectural firm (2009, thank John Lewis among other people) to this magnificent place. It will be here a long time and there is (as I said) lots of empty space.

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Back on the concourse: the cafeteria specializes in soul food, southern black cookery and is expensive, but you can buy small plates of the food as side dishes and there is coffee, each day a different soup, and sodas and some decent juice. I got a small plate of spinach and a bottle of genuine orange juice.

Then I went into your usual museum shop: lots of jewelry, scarves, T-shirts, commemorative objects. I bought two good books, one a Vintage collection of African-American poetry, and an anthology of “slave narratives” edited by Henry Gates. The two people at the register were friendly and thanked me for supporting the museum. Entry is free. There were also serious books about African-American history and culture and individuals as well as your usual popular stuff, and Michelle Obama’s Becoming in many copies.

I’ll end on this highly intelligent capable woman who had some luck and has been able to live a good life with a man worth of her. Michelle Obama fits into the super-respect given to women politicians and the women who run organizations and are part of the black elite (Hilary Clinton is part of this in her white world and it was these black women who voted for her):


Read this thoughtful review by Isabel Wilkerson (NYTimes Book Review)


As a college student

What’s it like to be an outsider? How can a museum represent the inside world of a particular person? This one didn’t do that enough. It was about black people breaking into the inside of the white world, and about black people who formed their own inside black worlds.

When I look at Michelle Obama at Harvard, and read about the family life she knew, the communities she was part of, and listen to her quoted, I feel she doesn’t know any more for real what it is, though she carries on trying to help those (as they say) “less fortunate.”  I don’t begrudge her her luck, and am glad for her that she has not been excluded because she is an African-American. In Michelle Obama’s case, being a woman hurt her possibilities much more. After all she did not become president, though out of school and into a job, she was Barack’s mentor.

Oprah Winfrey can make huge amounts of money appealing to whites too and build an auditorium; a extraordinarily good older woman actress, she can help Barack Obama centrally by declaring “he black!”, but she knows better than to run for president.

Ellen

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