Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘US social life’ Category


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. Their is 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. 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 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

Read Full Post »


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

Read Full Post »


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

Read Full Post »


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

Read Full Post »


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

Read Full Post »


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

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


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).

******************************
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.

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

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

Read Full Post »


Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Friends,

The OLLI at Mason winter term has started, and I’ve had two remarkable classes in two days. For tonight I can offer to you, a two hour plus movie on the art and life of Dorothea Lange, made by PBS, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the American Masters series. All of these I ever saw were of uniform excellence at the same time as differing considerably from one another: each program took its shape from the artist it was about, and the creative film art-biography a shaping spirit in response made. Do take the time:

[A bit of a warning: the full-size screen movie can be seen only on PBS websites that carry; below is this movie, only for reasons I don’t understand the picture takes up only about a quarter of the left hand bottom side of the screen. The voice is intact, the photos shown, the narrative, but on the right side and just above the “movie” space you have to endure a black background with flickering stars]

I could for once leave this at that and for once have a genuinely brief blog (on my part) but I would like to tempt your appetite lest you have said to yourself I’ll come back later, and of course never do. After a prelude where she speaks of her core ideas on how to extract life from all around her into a camera shot, and we are shown her famous iconic picture, “Migrant Mother,”

One could say this picture is the Mona Lisa of American art: in the movie you learn who this woman was, her circumstances and how she felt about the photos taken of her later in life. Neither she nor Lange ever made the money from these they would have had they been controlled by a contemporary studio.


She posed many women and children, some with the children on the mother’s lap, some with their heads and bodies wrapped around the mother

You will move on to a narrative that combines her life story with the stages of her developing art, and at each point where she created some soaring set of hundreds of negatives and then photos, you are told the circumstances of how she came to make this set of pictures (who funded by, when, what the circumstances of the people). Many are shown you with intelligent insightful commentary on the narrator’s part.

Her life story begins with her childhood, how she wanted to become a photographer, how she was trained as a photographer at Columbia University by Clarence H White, how she moved to San Francisco, and there made her way to a job in a shop developing photos people brought to it. She managed while there and photographing San Francisco herself to met crucially innovative photographers running studios, exhibiting one another’s work, and sustained relationships. The film concentrates on her two husbands, both encouraged her: the first a noted western painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children; and 10 years later, after her marriage became strained and she fell in love with Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Berkeley, deeply socialist, who had himself been married, so was now divorced. At one point she was caring for two of her own children, and three step-children; at times, she put them in foster homes to give herself time to practice her art. There is much emphasis on the ambiguous and difficult but brave relationship of her and Dixon, and then the long loving companion with Taylor.


This might be a still from the movie Grapes of Wrath

She began photographing the elite in fashionable ways for money, but when the depression emerged, turned her camera to the real people of the US suffering from the devastation of this catastrophe. We see them in monumental individuality and invulnerable moments, standing there, their struggle t survive. What they value enough to take cross country. And their despair too.

She was enabled by FDR’s agencies: Farm Security, Resettlement. The Oakies were among her subjects, and her pictures are reflected in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A second set of photos are of a large community destroyed by a project to build a dam: this was seen as progress, and it did deliver water across a vast region and gradually improved the lives of those living around the dam, but it drowned, displaced worlds of people.


Pea Harvest, 1937

She also photographs immigrant workers in the fields of California, the hard work and small pay, the dismal housing, how they wrenched improvement for themselves and a better life for the children from such jobs; she does not neglect, average people and the land and natural world of the US. Another third set of photos are of the Japanese Internment Camps, where she had to fight censorship to show the individuals in these prisons.


A family awaiting a bus

These were impounded by the US gov’t and not shown for years. One of her themes is the effect of ripping whole families from their homes, their things, their very identity. You will see other smaller projects: she photographs how poorer people coped with the criminal justice system, courts. Her husband was a social activist and later in life she was taking photos by his side as he went about doing research, working with the UN to improve people’s lives around the earth where they could.


A group of women at a meeting

Her vision was partly the result of her experience as girl, wife, mother and her ability to identify with those who had no voice, including the environment, plants and animals. Her father had abandoned the family when she was very young; she and her siblings went to live with a grandmother; she also contracted polio at twelve: it left her with a weak leg and a limp. I found one of the most moving pictures one of a terrified horse, fleeing the opening thunderous waters of a dam.


Terrified Horse: Lake Berryessa

This is framed by a second story: the 1964 exhibition of her art at the Museum of Modern Art: after the opening prelude, you see her very old (and by this time sick with esophageal cancer) planning with the director and curator of the museum a magnificent exhibition. We keep coming back to this to hear her talk of her pictures, what this set or that mean to her, the beauty of a negative and so on. The movie ends with her death just before the exhibit was opened.

What’s left from the exhibit; the wikipedia article includes a list of good books, and the notes are filled with contemporary article and essays about Dorothea. There are more modern “theoretic” ones like The Politics of Seeing (a John Berger-type pictorial essay).


Dorothea around the time of the exhibit

It is particularly important as a film today where the impoverished, black people, and immigrants such people are being demonized, deprived of the agencies set up for the last 60 years to help them live good lives and protect them from exploitation; they are being put into prison, separated from their children. Budgets are being imposed on us all to make the super-rich in this country even richer and the rest of us (90%) lose much that enables us to live decent lives without debt and with opportunity to fulfill our talents and enjoy ourselves — the National Endowment for the Humanities has been smashed. Four women who left water for some protesting Native Americans were arrested the other day, put on trial. Federal workers expected to work without pay, as the judiciary is now controlled by reactionary judges (what about the 13th amendment). Heads of unions of federal workers try to demonstrate and they are arrested — a powerful group of ruthless reactionaries are intent on destroying the US gov’t as still constituted (though it had taken many hits for some 40 years) when Obama left office

I have over the years done a blog pictorial essays on the lives and art of women artists:  Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The film itself reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman for its social critiques and visual forms of analysis. The film is by her step-daughter, Dyanna Taylor and you see her children now grown speaking of her.


This of Florence Owens Thompson is iconic

The other three women photographers are Annie Lebovitz, Sally Mann, and Vivian Maier (three further films too).  My second remarkable class is on American poetry, and I hope to share some of what I learn and take away on Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop on this blog too.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Again Mabuza and Bokkie in a soft version of the orange-red light of the play’s first act

I want to make rock flowers …
They have eyes, but they do not see us. – Nukain Mabuza

Friends,

This is to urge all those within reaching distance to hurry over to the Alexandria City theater, MetroStage to see the startlingly powerful Athol Fugard play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. It tells the core experience of life of a real artist, Nukain Mabuza, who painted rocks across farmland he was paid a pittance to take care of.

There are two contrasting parts: in the first act, set in 1981, the era of apartheid, we watch and listen to a very old “Kaffir,” Mabuza (played by Doug Brown) suddenly moved by the presence of his perpetual companion, a little boy, Bokkie (Jeremiah Hasty) whom Mabuza treats with real love and concern, to have the boy under his direction paint a symbolic depiction. It is intended to project how Mabuza has been excluded from all that could have enabled him to live a life with enough money to live independently, with decent clothes (he has none), education (he has had none), shelter (he lives in a hut with no amenities), true peers — he lives dependent on the meager charity of the land’s owner, the white Afrikaner, Elmarie Kleynhans (Marni Penning). When he has finished his soliloquy and the boy the piece, she comes on stage to give a bowl of food to the child. At first she pretends friendship and concern, but when she sees that this picture unlike the others is not simply of flowers in circles, rather a coded representation of humiliated oppression, she turns nasty, insisting Mabuza erase it and replace it with flowers. When the boy defends the picture, she becomes incensed with his “disrespect” and insists the old man whip him. The old man grieves intensely when she leaves the stage.


Mabuza putting the painted images on the large rock into words for Bokkie

The young boy actor is not quite up to the wrenching emotionalism of the role, but the older one left me (and the rest of the small audience there) numb with pity and admiration for the deprived nature of his existence and his eloquence and nobility of soul. The character reminded me of Sam in Fugard’s very great Master Harold and the Boys, the only play by Fugard I’ve been lucky enough to see live (twice), only in this case the great-souled character dies a few days later and the listener flees.


Jonathan Sejake putting into words what his experience has been to Elmarie in a stage lit with alternatively white and dark light

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

The concluding contrasting act, 2003, post-Mandela, comes onto the stage a young black man dressed in a suit, determined to restore the now nearly faded rock back to what it was so vividly many years before. He is Jonathan Sejake (played by Jeremy Keith Hunter), speaking a long painful soliloquy with even greater (if possible) searing eloquence about what his life has been since he fled.  Sejake is Bokkie grown up.  He went to Zimbabwe and was treated with true decency, educated, given a chance to take on a fulfulling useful job. He speaks to us and to Elmarie who now carries a loaded revolver and responds in turn for most of the act with open hatred and anger of how the revolting blacks are murdering her people, taking “their” land. He talked piercingly about a life of humiliation inflicted on Mabuza (whom she still refers to by a childish nickname). As someone who was an  invisible adjunct for decades and lives in a house once referred to as “painfully modest” in a local newspaper article about ex-President Ford’s house nearby, I identified utterly.  She “owns” the rock and refuses to give permission, but at last near the act’s end is brought to acknowledge the hurt and destruction she wreaked on Mabuza (whom she calls a childish nickname) and tried to inflict Sejake when a boy. Far more explicitly than in Master Harold and the Boys, the speech persuades a hitherto powerful white (the ambiguously shamed teenage Harold in the first play) into a change of mind or heart.

I was just stunned with the energy and masterful domination of the whole stage Hunter displayed. He gave this role his all and held me (and the audience) mesmerized. He was of course enacting a protest, ethical, upright, with an appeal so obvious to any but the most obdurate closed mind, an enactment of what is happening in the US today; alas, the problem is these closed minds are often (I have met such people) inoculated against any information or moral truth. I went to an end-of-summer picnic two Sundays ago and when I was telling of the documentable facts Mueller has been able to prove Paul Manafort’s corruption with, I was greeted with faces filled with derision, and voices which told me everything in the New York Times or whatever newspaper I read this in is all lies. The white people around this table grinned at me with glittering eyes, and I knew there was no use even talking with them, so filled with resentment and scorn were they. None of them would sit through this play; indeed they’ve never go.

All the reviews I have found describe the performance with as strong favorable words as I have: E. A. Aymer, Anonymous, Debbie Minter Jackson. The writers speak of how this is probably Fugard’s last play; he is in his eighties; as with the one other play I’ve seen, the playwright imagines the beginning of reconciliation. In previous iterations, the praise for the play is as strong.

There is little overt action in this play. The setting is bare stage with rocks with small paintings on them all around and the one big rock off center right.


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

At the back of the stage a veiled screen shows images of South Africa, we see a city, we see boys and men walking, a woman at one point, and at a moment of high emotion (as Sejake tells Elmarie how well he was treated in Zimbabwe, which she has described as a violent corrupt society) a film of Mandela as he was when he first emerged from prison and became the leader of the country. I felt choked up with emotion when I saw his image. The audience is thus shown that miracles can occur, even if (as the young man concedes) that hope that was has turned into disappointment. Life then seemed incomparably better for black people from what it was, and they had hope it would improve more.


Athol Fugard

Metrostage apparently opened in 1987 with a production of Fugard’s Blood Knot, and has staged other Fugard plays over these long years of mostly deterioration in US arrangements — with occasional successful attempts by those governing during the Clinton and Obama administrations to put in place laws, customs, agencies to help the majority of people whose interests the government is supposed to represent. Still it would be a shame worth crying about if this play is not seen by more people than I saw in the theater this past Saturday afternoon I was there (13, 2 black, 11 white). Go and tell others you know about it when you come home.

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

I wish I could say that the play could have some positive effect today on the minority Trump electorate: wealthy powerful people, with their hangers-on who understand that Trump and his regime are further destroying the economic existence of the deluded white working class willing to trade the promise of a better practical existence centrist democrats held out and never delivered on for pride in their race and revenge on other vulnerable people they have been taught to blame for their plight. They represent 27% of the population gerrymandered into a fake majority by an oligarchical constitution. I don’t believe this can happen before an election which brings to power the progressive left wing of the democratic party in sufficient numbers who are honestly willing to pass effective legislation to improve the well-being and self-esteem of huge numbers of impoverished and declining groups of people all over the US. Only thus can you reform the modes of thought that have led to an intolerable situation with a lying tyrant male given almost limitless power by those willing to exploit fear, and gaps in the US government arrangements which allow undermining of all social good they can.

In the 1990s I used to assign Master Harold and the Boys to undergraduate classes and had a tape of a performance (in the form of a video casette) I would show on a TV.


A key scene in the 1982 film I used to screen: Danny Glover as Harold, Zakes Mokae as Sam (Master Harold and the Boys)

More than two decades later I am just now again adding my mite to bring some understanding to the history of the present clash of values by teaching a course to retired adults in the long 18th century I called The Enlightenment: At Risk.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


John Malkovich as the Le Baron du Charlus and Vincent Perez as Morel (Time Regained,1999)

Friends and readers,

For the last day I thought I would tell of Jim’s books, his favorites and those (insofar as I can tell) that influenced him as a boy, had an impact on his memory and outlook and that he kept reading.

As a boy, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (above all, as he’d quote from it,” there’s nothing better than messing about in boats,” or words to this effect; one summer afternoon in London we went to Alan Bennett’s play from it). Surtee’s Jorrocks Jaunts and Jollities (I have a 19th century copy with illustrations), P.G. Wodehouse (yes, he was amused when a teenage boy and called the set we have gay male books). He’d graduated to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by his 5th or 6th form– I bought him a beautiful 5 volume set as my first present to him shortly after we married.

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

As a man: he loved poetry Empson, Graves, Larkin, Auden, e.e. cummings; Basil Bunting (he’d quote snatches of poems from these writers), Cavafy, Anthony Hecht, Clive James. Individual authors he never tired of and had a lot of their books, Bernard Shaw, the plays and theater criticism, Oscar Wilde, all of Proust (he had gotten up to the fifth book, starting in French but switching to English; his favorite movie was Time Regained), Anthony Powell (how much he would have enjoyed Perry Anderson’s long review in praise of Powell in the latest LRB, comparing him to Proust), and some 18th century favorites like Samuel Johnson.


Bernard Shaw

Very fat tomes of history early medieval, archeaology books (JHawkes), philosophical books on war. He would insist he didn’t like the novel that much and preferred novels of the French school, books like the one where there is no “e” (The Void; I remember him reading Life: A User’s Manual, from “l’OULIPO” writers.


Signature Theater production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (Sondheim was Jim’s favorite composer of musicals — I bought him the 2 songbooks 2 Christmases in a row, Finishing the Hat, Look I made Hat)

Favorite movies: by Eric Rohmer and Bergman


In the early 1970s Jim and I went to the Thalia to see Bergman’s Magic Flute — I cried for joy and pain – he loved opera too

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

A thrush in the syringa sings

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush! — Bunting (who said he would not travel outside Manhattan until he had thoroughly done Central Park and after decades he was no where near … , a favored poem from a book I bought for Jim for another Christmas )

Ellen remembering on his behalf

Read Full Post »

Friends,

Carrying on the topic of Internet experiences, specifically worlds of words and digital images, I report on a talk I heard at the Library of Congress at a meeting of the Washington Area Print Group (members of Sharp, a book history society), taken from a coming book by James Farman, “Waiting for the Word: How Message Delays Have Shaped Love, History, Technology and Everything We Know.” Farman’s previous books include the The Mobile Story and he is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prof Farman studies the history of message exchange in (or across) time. Usually I report on talks like these on my Sylvia blog (see Harlequin Romance in Turkey), but I thought this topic had such general and immediate significance for everyone who writes on the Internet, who communicates a lot in cyberspace today. It’s really an aspect of a yet broader topic, the anthropology of social media (“why we post”) be it through digital or post office or smoke signal means.

Prof Farman began by suggesting if the time of anticipation is significant, this will transform the experience of the message once it is delivered. Waiting is the interpretive moment made up of fear, anxiety, longing, hoping, boredom. From the earliest of historical records we find people have been trying to gather knowledge of one another from a distance. Also to authenticate the message came from whom it declares it is from. Very early modern Europe sees the first development of the seal. The first and on-going continuing success or letters arriving at their destination has come through the institution of a post office. The first reliable service in Britain begins in the later 18th century; the first non-corrupt (no bribes, no opening letters for most people) begins in the middle of the 19th. That late. Literary Victorians are famous for the volumes of letters they wrote and preserved (or burnt). The first rapid communication is the pneumatic system of cylinders underground in the US. The telegram, the telegraphic (these are not intimate exchanges), and lastly the telephone (this is or can be) reigned supreme for speed until the arrival of gmail.

A good deal of Prof Farman’s talk was about his adventures doing extensive research in British archives of all kinds to find out how the early modern world’s powerful people sent messages down to the ordinary person on the Internet today. He was allowed to research into the High Court Admiralty in London, a treasure trove of thousands of messages never sent. Thwarted communications. How did you authenticate the message as really coming from you? From well before pre-early modern monarch, Henry VII, seals were used. How do you mark something with your identity? What does a face show except you are still alive, you exist. A king might send a letter and expect it will get there but there is no other sure-proof way except a faithful paid messenger. The changing of the post office to regard letters as private sacrosanct communications between particular people took 250 years. Censorship and reading of the mails only very gradually ceased. In the later 18th century, members of Parliament had a seal to frank a letter with, showing their considerable know-how — and power over others. What people want is certainty, speed, privacy. They also want a response and to be able to respond and to know they are heard.

Authentication is repeatedly the basic concern: passwords were invented on the net to authenticate who you are. Somehow seals have taken precedent over signatures, and Farman said he had done a lot of research into different seals. In early modern times a letter could have several seals attached to it, showing through whose hands it had gone. He shows us pictures of these. In later times a person who had power could frank a letter. Now all of us can buy a stamp. We begin in history where only one numinous person has a seal; nowadays in Japan most people carry seals to authenticate themselves.

Farman suggested human instinctive reality has not been totally able to accept bodily absence. Face-to-face is what’s wanted by most people still. Skype won’t do either — unless you knew the person before in the flesh, in physical actuality. People seem to have a need to be with another person; they believe they know you only after they’ve seen you. It’s true a lot of information is left out from letters and email communications, from photos (which are set up), but there is something else going on here. Farman sees this demand as coming out of that need to authenticate. Uncertainties of geography, rank, social network leaves the known and unknowable existence unauthenticated. People continue to create modes of linking our bodies to messages too — through photographs, emoticons. People try to personalize their messages. But the power of the document, of the extant document over time, in court, as a record, can become more or seem more important or make human viscerally physical contact seem irrelevant (marginalize it, especially if you are a good writer or maker of videos) so we live with and thrive upon texting and emailing.


A cat playing with an ipad

Yet there is nothing like a human hug. Or the cat on your lap.

It was at this point he moved on to waiting time — the person producing the response has the time to choose when he or she will respond — that his talk fascinated his audience most. When it’s a case of a letter or card sent through the post office, I expect if I’m lucky, I may have an answer or reciprocal card in a month. On the Internet, that week, before 6 days are gone. Electronic cards invite the receiver to respond immediately. A good deal of the talk in the audience afterwards and questions were about power relationships through withholding response. One’s relationship with someone is changed, when one is made to wait. Time is not distributed evenly; more powerful people more respected people are given more time. Who gets to define temporality (how much time a person has) is the more powerful person most of the time. Sometimes someone can prefer to wait in the hope of a better response or prefers not to know. There is software which tells someone whether the person receiving your message has read it so the person cannot pretend not to have gotten the message.


Emily Trevelyan reading a letter to which she will respond (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

As the man spoke and people asked questions, I found myself thinking about Anthony Trollope’s depiction of letters in his novels, his building up of epistolarity. As a postman or once postman he is preternaturally aware of how long it takes for a letter to get to someone, its path, how power can lead a person to get his or her letters quicker (a servant can carry it to the city) or leave someone suffering for a response (often a woman) in days of anxious misery. Trollope makes comedy out of this; irony over when a letter arrives. He may be unique in how often this kind of thing plays out in a story. He also uses forgery and shows us characters insincerely performing through their letters. The character who accepts what is written at face-value is at risk.

We know (or we ought to) everything we write here is under surveillance. In the Victorian and more recent periods if you are writing something seditious and it is found out and spreads and influences others it can cause you to be arrested. If a prospective or present employer/institutional affiliation finds out you have been writing what he or she does not approve of, you can lose a job or position or prospect of one. Prof Farman had researched into letters sent during wars, systems of communication among the powerful, in newspapers. Communications can decide whether a battle is fought, whether a war is carried on. Spies are all about discovering communications meant to be secret. Prof Farman suggested one could call this part of the study media archeaology.


Alec Guiness as George Smiley (master spy)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »