Saturday, March 8, 2008

GINNY BATES: 2005

(Quilt by Annie Mae Young of the Gee's Bend, Alabama quilters)

Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post on February 25th. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.

NOTE: At the request of a Loyal Reader, I've numbered the Ginny Bates posts in more or less chronological order in the Labels section of the sidebar. Some posts were theme-based and covered several years, but if you want to read the novel with minimal confusion, follow the numbers in brackets. Thanks for the suggestion, Loyal Reader!

Early 2005.

Myra got up from her desk and walked into the kitchen. Gillam was just coming in the front door. His oversized pants were halfway down his hips; at least six inches of his boxers were showing.

Myra said with irritation, "You know what jailin' means, don't you? Why on earth do you choose to glorify the appearance of someone in the criminal justice system by dressing in a way that imitates their subjugation?"



Gillam, stopped in his tracks, looked her levelly in the eyes and, after a Ginny-like pause, said "Linda Evans. Leonard Peltier. Jane Alpert." He went on upstairs.

Myra heard a cackle from Ginny in her studio. She turned around to face her and Ginny called out "You're the one who let him start reading Lesbian Connection when he was four years old."

During the spring, Margie took an extension course in metallurgy and jewelry-making, along with Sima. When she wasn't busy with that or schoolwork, she was with Jaime. Gillam and Ginny spent a great deal of time taking photographs or playing in the darkroom. David called twice a week and had long conversations with first Ginny, then the kids. Allie was working on her new book, when she and Edwina weren't absorbed in researching both their lineages, now that Edwina had gotten hooked on the process. Myra spent one evening a week going out with Chris, as they had before Ginny came along. Otherwise, she had luxurious hours in which to write, and she was preparing another volume of poetry concurrently with working on her latest novel.

She and Ginny kept seeing Nancy, however. They found the talks on the drive to and from Nancy's place as illuminating sometimes as the sessions themselves -- the promise of help at hand gave them permission to take risks. On one drive, Ginny asked "Do you think Margie is falling in love?"

Myra made a turn as she considered. "I can't tell. I think Jaime adores her, but it looks like as much of a best friendship as them being, well, hot for each other."

"And that's a good thing" said Ginny emphatically. "She's calling him last thing at night, you know."

"No, I didn't know" said Myra.

"She's using the land line, after January's upset -- " in January, Margie had run out of cell phone minutes and been unable to persuade her mothers to share theirs with her. She'd been off her cell for two weeks, and there was daily drama about it. After that, she'd begun hoarding her cell time. Myra and Ginny grinned at each other, remembering this lesson learned. Ginny continued "Sometimes in the morning I find no dial tone, because she's gone to sleep with the phone off the hook."

"Well, that's not okay" expostulated Myra, "What if there's an emergency?"

"I talked to her about it. We'll see how she does. But I think she's attached enough to him to need to hear his voice as she goes to sleep" said Ginny.

"Oh...that sounds like she's fallen, then" said Myra, feeling empathy for her daughter. "If she's like me, she's going to wind up with a fractured heart. Because they're way too young for this to be it, you know."

"I know. But you're right, she won't" said Ginny.

During another commute to Nancy's, a couple of weeks later, Ginny said "I found a magazine in Gillam's room today with, shall we say, scantily clad women on the cover".

"Oh, god" said Myra. "Which one?"

"Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition" said Ginny. Myra was silent long enough for Ginny to say, "What's up?"

"Well, I'm trying to parse my reaction. My first thought was 'That's not so bad', and of course it is better than Hustler or something else. There really are levels of pornography, although all of it depends on objectification and dehumanization. And I asked myself if it was possible he was just interested in the sports, but -- don't worry -- I realized I was kidding myself right away. He's curious. He wants to look. Although he's not lacking for information about what naked women look like..."

"Ewwww, Myra. That's me you're talking about."

"And that's the point. He wants to see what quote real unquote women look like. And where is going to find those images? Not in porn, soft or hard. If I wanted to give him an accurate source, I'm not sure where I'd turn. Something published in Sweden, maybe."

"Myra, I don't think he's after strictly visual stimulation. Stimulation being the operative word, here."

"Oh, god" Myra said again. "Well...remember how Margie diddled with herself most of age four? We finally decided to make her wash her hands a lot and not do it at school or in public."

"Did you masturbate as a kid? Or teenager?"

"No" said Myra. "I was busy trying to avoid sex until I was 14, at which point my training kicked in to make it something another person did TO me. I didn't learn how to pleasure myself until Liberating Masturbation came out. What about you?"

A sly grin crossed Ginny's face. "I did. I was quite proficient by the time I was 14."

"Do you ever...now?"

"No need" said Ginny. "You're as good as anything I can come up with myself, usually better."

"I'll take that as a compliment" said Myra. "You know, I had a subscription to Playboy when I was 18."

Ginny was astounded. "You, the WAVPM member?"

"This was before WAVPM, and before lesbian-feminism gave me other doorways to my sexuality, doorways not framed by male interpretations of female. I can't remember what I made of looking at the pictures, since I certainly wasn't getting off on them. Ginny, what were you doing in his room? Were you snooping?"

"No, I went up to grab that file of photos from Isla Bartolomeo, I wanted to use one of the images in something I was working on. The Sports Illustrated was lying on his desk, in plain sight."

"Well, do we bring it up? For that matter, don't we think Margie's been curious, too?"

"I have anatomy texts, from art class. Those are fairly real-looking people, in some of the photos. I could leave them on the coffee table" suggested Ginny.

"Let's be sure to warn our friends first, I can imagine how Chris will go off on it" said Myra. They giggled together.

One Saturday in early May, Myra was in the kitchen making a shopping list when Gillam got up at 10 a.m., late for him. With sleep still in his eyes, he looked through the pantry, rejected all the regular bowls, then finally pulled out a mixing bowl and emptied half a box of Oatios into it. He sliced a whole banana on top of that, threw in some currants, and used the last of the milk. Settling onto a stool, he starting shoving it into his mouth like a combine.

Myra added cereal, milk, bananas to her list, then said "You're still getting taller, Gillam. You're going to be a really big guy out there in the world some day".

"Huh" said Gillam, chewing with his mouth open. "You know, when I was little, I was pretty set on living here with you and Mom forever. That's all I wanted."

"Well, you can, if that's what you decide. You'll buy your own groceries, though" Myra grinned.

"No, I can tell I'm going to want something else. I just don't know what, yet."

"You have years still to figure that out. When I ask kids about their future, I never ask them what they're going be, as if they aren't anything right now. I ask them what interests them most, what kind of person they admire, that sort of thing."

There was a pause, then Myra added "Not that I'm saying you're a kid. Not anymore, really."

"You started writing when you were eight, right?"

"Nine. The same summer I realized I was a lesbian. But I didn't know I could live as a lesbian -- it was 1965, nobody I'd ever heard of was gay or lesbian. And I didn't think I could earn a living as a writer. I knew some people did, but those were people in cities, people from the upper classes, not people like my family."

"Well...Maybe it's none of my business, but do you earn your living as a writer? Now?"

Myra stopped what she is doing for a moment. "You can always ask questions about money, Gillam. Any detail at all, I'll tell you. To answer this question, yes, I think I am now. Maybe, if you don't count how much I pay for therapy kinds of stuff. The fact is, your mama pulled in way more money last year from her paintings than I did from my writing. We could live off of that without the lottery winnings."

"Wow, I had no idea."

"We've been so incredibly lucky. I don't mean to minimize her talent, or mine, because that's real enough. But the chance to develop it the way we have -- that's luck. Starting with the lottery, that allowed me to stop work and get tons of therapy. Working class people can't afford therapy, so we make do without it. But just like what happens when we don't fill our prescriptions when we get sick -- well, that's why my mother died young, she was constantly faced with the choice of feeding us or refilling her heart medication. So doing without help you need has life or death consequences."

"I hate it. I hate it that I didn't get to have a grandmother. Or the uncle I'm named for."

"You should hate it. It's a hateful thing."

"So the lottery got you therapy, and not having to work."

"Yes, me and Ginny both. But we made choices about our time. If we had not had kids, perhaps we'd have produced even more. Someone I knew used to say that every child a woman has is one book she won't write. Even with Hannah, even with all our financial security, I think that's true for me. Jane Austen was a fluke. If you want to read a really good book about those choices, as well as something that would mean a lot to you as a Jew, check out Tell Me A Riddle. It's by Tillie Olsen. Somewhere on my bookshelves."

Gillam mouthed the title to himself. Then he said, "Are you sorry you had kids?" He didn't seem worried about the answer.

Myra roughed up his hair. "One less book, but a million kajillion moments of joy and the deepest spiritual lessons I could ever have asked for? I got the good end of the deal."

"How about Mama? Are there paintings she's not done because of us?"

"Likely. But Ginny and I are different. I need space and time alone to write, yes, but if I get a few hours' chunk at a time, I can come and go from it without losing the thread of what I'm doing. Ginny used to have to work like that, in dribs and drabs, because she had a job, and, just between you and me, she had tight-ass girlfriends who took it personally when she went into Painterland. So she was almost never able to get into the deep zone that she does now."

"You never took it personally? I sure have."

"Yeah, and I'm sorry I never noticed how much it was affecting you and Margie. I got a little put out right at the beginning, but I'm an artist too and I really did understand what was happening, even though it was to a degree different from how it happened for me. And I was so in love with her, I am so in love with her, I just wanted her to do whatever she needed to do. I am thrilled that her work is out there in the world; it's my world, I want her art working its magic as much as I want my own out there."

"You've carried the load for her, as far as I can see" said Gillam. "I mean, when she comes out of her spells and has to sleep for a long time, the way you curl up with her, it's like you're her mother, too."

Myra was disturbed. "Oh, no, that's not right. I'm her sweetheart. I mean, yes, there are times I mother her, but not about art. With art, I'm feeding the beast. I have the beast inside me, too. You really have no idea how much Ginny has done for me, for you to say that. How much she keeps doing for me. She carried you kids in her body, then gave me equal access to you. She handled the finances, maybe you don't know that. I eat healthy because of her; she doesn't nag at me the way she does you, she never would, but she makes sure there's good stuff in the house all the time. And there's so much...I honestly think I might be dead by now if I hadn't met Ginny, or someone just like her."

"Okay" Gillam says. He reached the bottom of his bowl. "I hope I find something like what you two have. I don't know any other parents like you. I don't know how I'm going to find somebody."

"You know what, Gillam? You will. You in particular will, it's part of who you are. I am certain of that with you. And you can stay with us until she comes along and steals your heart away."

Gillam seemed to have taken this in. Then he said, "So, about the finances thing -- can I really ask you questions? Like about the cost of a car, and other stuff?

As she was answering "Yes, me or Ginny", Myra stepped over to look in the cupboard under the stairs. She fell backward in fright because there was a large shape huddled on the bottom stair. It was Ginny, pressed up against the wall, eavesdropping.

Myra clutched her chest and said "How long have you been there?"

Ginny pulled herself upright and says "Long enough." She leaned around the corner, smiled at Gillam and said "Ask me any time you want. We pay bills on Sundays after breakfast, come sit by the desk and look at the family books with us." Then she kissed Myra ever so lightly and whispered "They were tight-assed, and not in the good way." She went on back to her studio.

As summer approached, Margie took driver's ed the last six weeks of school. She lined up jobs for the summer, as a lifeguard, waiting tables at a cafe, and clerk at the downtown map store she'd haunted since she was eight. They were all part-time but would amount to 35 hours a week. She wanted to buy a car, she announced. Myra was impressed with her diligence, though a bit less so when she found out Jaime was spending half the summer with his father in California and the other half at what Margie dismissively called "space camp". In fact, it was a fellowship in aerodynamics that was only available to top students in the country.

When the time arrived for Jaime to leave, Margie wept wildly and went to bed for the day, calling in sick to her afternoon lifeguard duty. Myra and Ginny coaxed her down for dinner, and she managed to resume her schedule the next day, though she had dark rings around her eyes. Her exuberance of the spring did not entirely return. Her talk was peppered with plans for the week when Jaime would be back but school had not yet resumed. She clearly thought she'd have a car by then; Jaime had his license and she daydreamed about drives they could take outside the city.

In early August, Myra sat Margie down in front of a used car sales site on her computer and had her come up with a list of her top ten choices. Half an hour later, in the kitchen, she heard Margie crying and went to see what was wrong.

"I can't afford ANY of these" sobbed Margie. "Not even if I work all through the school year afternoons and evenings!"

"I know" said Myra gently. "We'll have to help you."

"Oh, will you? Will you really?" said Margie, her face making Myra's heart turn over.

"Of course. But we'll have to okay your choice. Keep going, sweetie, decide what you like and want, then we'll all talk."

Myra went to find Ginny gardening on the upstairs deck to let her know. An hour later, Margie had her list of ten cars. To Myra's delight, in her top three was a 1968 Volvo Amazon.

"I knew you'd zero in on that one" said Margie sarcastically, "Just because of the name."

"It's a fun name, but what excites me is that it's a very safe car. This one has been rebuilt in ways that matter, and I think it could be an excellent buy" said Myra. "Where is the seller? -- Lake City? Well, we can see if they're willing to let Sadie check it out."

Ginny was reading the details. "It has standard seatbelts, which surprises me, that far back. But no air bags."

She and Myra looked at each other. "I want air bags in her car" said Myra quietly.

"Call Sadie in the morning and see if they can rig 'em for this model" suggested Ginny. She looked at Margie. "It won't drive like the cars you've trained in."

"Well, then, maybe I should go with the Camaro" said Margie, "I like its color better anyhow."

Myra was not going to okay the Camaro. "Maybe we can get the Volvo repainted. If it turns out to be worthwhile, mechanically-speaking."

Margie's eyes danced. "I get to pick the color!" she declared.

"Of course" said Ginny evenly.

Thus, a week after Myra's birthday, Margie's new/old car began being parked out front. It was a pale, shiny pink, with oyster-grey upholstery and a new dashboard holding airbags. Gillam dubbed it the Cerebellum, because of its shape and color. Margie didn't find that at all funny, and insisted instead it was to be named Oyamel, which after a Google search Myra finally figured out was a forest in Michoacán where Jaime's family was from. However, to Margie's intense irritation, Cerebellum stuck as the name -- it was all Myra could think of when she looked at it.

When school had let out in June, Carly had joined them. He accompanied them to the Gulf Coast, and flew back with David and Gillam to spend a week in Denver with them. Upon his return, Myra had a long list of maintenance jobs around the house to keep them busy four hours a day most of the summer: resurfacing the carport, replacing grout in bathrooms and around windows, helping Ginny with canning and preserving, sanding down and restaining the deck, and upping their dinner-making responsibility to four nights a week.

Ginny had embarked on a new "period" of painting, with canvases that looked once again utterly different from anything she'd done previously. Almost every painting had some version of an iguana hidden in the scene. Myra found even more time to write.

Myra turned 50, and Ginny threw a big party for her. In addition to barbecue and a pie buffet, Ginny rented a set-up to make their own fountain Cokes, with syrup and seltzer. Margie gave her a silver bracelet she'd made herself, and Ginny collaborated with Gillam on an album of photographs they'd taken for the past six months. The gift that made Myra cry, however, was a quilt made by Annie Mae Young of Gee's Bend, Alabama: Not just a work of art, but a convocation of ancestors. Myra hung the quilt over her daybed.

Two weeks later, Jaime came home. His mother was picking him up from the airport, but he had promised to call as soon as he could. Margie hovered around the breakfast bar, her cell lying beside the land line, picking at fruit in the bowl and ignoring Narnia's body language suggesting a walk would be great right about now. Myra had come into the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea for herself, and she almost dropped it when Margie suddenly screamed and bolted for the front door. A few seconds later, she heard the sound of Jaime's Vespa in their drive -- Margie's ears must be as good as Narnia's, she thought.

Ginny joined them in the living room to welcome Jaime. He looked jittery; Myra thought it was probably fairly intimidating to come back into Margie's orbit. As soon as Margie could, she dragged him upstairs. Myra wanted to remind her to keep her bedroom door open, but decided not to. She went back to her desk, and Ginny returned to the back yard -- tomatoes were ripening almost as you watched them.

Twenty minutes later Myra heard a door slam upstairs. She waited half a minute, then walked toward the front, just in time to see Jaime going out the front door. She heard his Vespa start. Wondering, she walked upstairs and saw that Margie's door was shut. She went toward it, and right before she knocked she could hear Margie wailing inside. She let herself in.

Margie was face down on her bed, sobbing into a pillow. She rolled over avidly when she heard Myra's footsteps, but when she saw Myra, disappointment flooded her face. She buried her face in the pillow again.

Myra sat beside her, putting her palm on Margie's heaving shoulder, and waited. She tried to think of what could have sparked a fight this big between them in such a brief amount of time. Margie responded to the contact by crying harder, as she had done since she was tiny. She was an expert at purging.

After five minutes, Ginny came into the room, saying "Oh my god, what's wrong?" She sat down next to Myra as Myra said "I don't know. Jaime left, I came up here and found her like this. She hasn't been ready to talk yet."

Ginny stroked the back of Margie's head. Her crying was slacking off, and she rolled over to look at them, her eyes red and stunned. She sucked mucus back into her head and said "He broke up with me!"

"What? I don't believe it -- why?" said Ginny.

"He met a boy at that fucking camp! He says he's gay!" Margie screamed.

Holy shit. Myra wanted it to be a mistake. Margie continued "I hope you're happy, all of you! You got another recruit for your fucking side!"

Ginny pulled Margie to her, and Margie didn't resist. "Oh, sweetheart, my side is wherever you are! Of course I'm not happy, I'm heartbroken for you. Did he say that, did he actually say he was gay?"

Margie's throat was thick with grief, though no more tears could come at the moment. "He did. He said he loved me, and he wants to be friends, but he's realized that I'm not -- he doesn't love me 'that way', is how he put it. I don't understand, Mama, how could it have changed? Was he just a big liar all along?"

"No" said Myra, "You wouldn't have come to love a liar. He didn't know himself. Oh, Margie, I'm so sorry. This is the hardest thing on earth to face, I know. Any change of heart is difficult, but when it excludes your basic identity..."

Margie looked at her, suspicion on her face. "Did you do this to someone? Leave them because they weren't built the way you decided was acceptable?"

"No. I never dated boys, and I've -- honestly, mostly I've been the one broken up with. Three of my exes went -- back in, I guess you'd say, returned to men from being lesbian. Two of them did it as cleanly as they could. But one -- she nearly killed me, with how mean she was about it. I -- it doesn't sound like Jaime was mean to you, was he?" asked Myra.

"He ruined me!" cried Margie. "I loved him, I'll never love anyone again like him!"

Myra wanted to argue, but Margie wouldn't hear it and, besides, she was right in a way: Your first love was never duplicated.

"I am fucking NOT going to be his fucking friend" said Margie with a vicious tone. "I'll make sure none of our other friends ever speak to him again, either."

Ginny spoke up. "You can't do that, Margie. You can't try to hurt him, no matter how bad you feel. You can't out him or talk trash about him. You just have to get through this. We'll help, we'll do everything we can. But you have to let him go without taking action. In the long run, you'll be glad of staying kind."

Margie began crying again, burying her face on Ginny's shoulder. A little guiltily, Myra wondered how Jaime was doing, if he had gotten home safely. She had really liked him. And she had some idea of what torment he must be experiencing as well. She thought he really had loved Margie. How could he not?

After a while, Margie was coaxed downstairs where Myra made her steamed milk and Ginny sat with her on Myra's daybed. They listened until she was talked out. Carly and Gillam came home, and Myra waved them off, saying she'd explain to them later. Gillam asked, in a whisper, if it would be okay for them to start making dinner. Myra nodded.

But their presence subdued Margie, or perhaps it was the shame of having to go public with her rejection. Ginny asked if she wanted Allie and Edwina to come over, and after considering it, Margie said yes. She reached for the phone herself to make the call. She had to leave a message.

While she was doing that, Myra went into the kitchen where Gillam was looking in a recipe book. "Which is easier, chicken kiev or roast chicken?" he asked her. She told him, then got between him and Carly to say in a low voice "Jaime got back today, came over, and he's broken up with Margie. He came out while he was away this summer, says he's gay now. She's torn to pieces over it."

Myra saw a flicker of something on Carly's face that wasn't surprise. Gillam, however, marched into the study and knelt in front of Margie, grabbing her hands and saying "Oh, sis, this is just awful. He's a dummy, a total dummy!" Carly was on his heels, and their combined sympathy was like a tonic for Margie, Myra could tell. After a few minutes, Gillam offered to make whatever Margie wanted. She said chicken would be fine, and something with avocados and artichoke hearts, too. He and Carly went back to the kitchen.

After dinner, Allie and Margie went up to her room and talked for an hour. When Allie and Edwina went home, Ginny asked Margie to bring her jewelry-making tools to her workbench and show her some of what she'd learned that spring. While Margie was gone, Ginny said "I'm going to offer for her to bunk with us tonight, is that all right? Being alone in her bed is going to make her miserable."

"Yeah. I'll sack out in the spare room, I think" said Myra. "Did you have any idea? About Jaime, I mean?"

"Not a clue. But -- I can understand her being his last hope at forcing himself to be het" said Ginny.

"I wonder if he's coming out to his mother as well" said Myra. They looked at each other, and Ginny voiced their shared doubt: "Not with the way Nadia is. Poor guy."

Margie suddenly had a week with no work and no Jaime. They got her in to see Nancy the next day, who mixed her a Bach Flower Remedy that Margie said helped. She made two appointments with Sheila. Ginny and Margie alternated spending the day with her, letting her drive them to hiking spots, farmer's markets, junkyards, any place that Margie thought was interesting. They had several near misses with her driving, not just because her emotions were high but simply because she was extraordinarily easily distracted behind the wheel. Myra instituted a rule that her cell phone had to be turned off before the ignition was turned on, and no channel changing or manipulating the CD player while the car was in motion. She promised dire consequences if these rules were violated, and said she would be checking up in sneaky ways.

Amy, whose friendship had been somewhat neglected the last several months, came over for dinner a couple of times and they went out to the movies afterward. When Carly was called back home, they all took him to Olympia, Margie getting to drive, and stopped at the outlet mall on the way back to shop for school clothes. But Gillam was visibly depressed at the end of summer, and Margie was clearly dreading having to go back to school and see Jaime in the halls.

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ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

(Harriet Tubman, photo by James A. Gensheimer)

I like to think of Harriet Tubman. (hat tip to Susan Griffin*)

I was thinking about her as I woke up today. I often see her referred to as "the Moses of her people". Well, if Moses had returned to Egypt 19 times over ten years to rescue more of his people, if he had grown up beaten (disabled from one blow) and starved instead of as a foster brother to the Pharaoh, if he had received no divine assistance when being pursued by those who would kill him -- then yeah, she'd be like Moses. The truth is, her personal courage and intelligence exceeds that of most other American heroes.

Why don't we hear as much about her as Malcolm X or W.E.B. Dubois? Here's a question for you: How much more attention would she get if she'd been a man?




We know what happened to the people that Moses led from slavery. Thanks to his actions, the world has known the likes of Sigmund Freud, Paula Abdul, Albert Einstein, Stan Lee, Carole King, Jonas Salk, Nadine Gordimer, George Gershwin, k.d. lang, Louis Brandeis, Katharine Graham, Karl Marx, Anne Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Levi Strauss, Frida Kahlo, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Dworkin, the motion picture, comedy and garment industries, and, oh yeah, Jesus.

Who are the descendants of those Harriet Tubman saved? Why don't we know their names, too?

(Harriet Tubman, far left, standing with a group of slaves whose escape she assisted)

She carried scars. She was put to work at around five or six. When she was 12, she began work in the fields. At around this time, she blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. The overseer threw a two-pound weight at the field hand, but it struck Harriet on her head, leaving her with a condition like narcolepsy.

But she never lost a person in her rescue journeys. She was endlessly inventive. You should know all about her, go read about her. She worked as a spy for the Union during the Civil War, as well as a cook and a nurse. In later years, she fought for women's rights, and founded a home for the aged and infirm which still stands today. But she was denied a military pension, despite having led African-American soldiers on raids along the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1863.

White people tend to believe that slaves were kept in bondage, in part, by fear of beatings and reprisal. We are also told that ending slavery was the reason why the North fought the Civil War, and that blacks were rescued by whites. None of these things are literally true, and it serves to maintain the myth of white supremacy, of African-Americans as helpless.

When physical violence was used on plantations, the African-Americans there were more likely to run away, to destroy profit, to use all the means at their disposal to make life wretched for the whites who abused them. Of course. It has been argued, convincingly I find, that the purpose of beatings and overt acts of violence was not to "keep the slaves in line" but rather to reinforce the numbness of the whites -- to add on layers of brutality to their psyches, so they would remain in their role as slaveowners despite the obvious, daily humanity of the people they owned.

That's the way oppression works. Create a lie to cover the real reason for subjugation, and repeat it in every cultural manner available, including the use of force, to keep both sides separated.

A woman dares run for President? Woman-hating comes out from under whatever wraps it might have (barely) worn. We know what Hillary Clinton has endured for a couple of decades. We know how tough she is, and what scars she carries. She's flawed, no doubt about it, and damaged from what she's gone through. She's no FDR. But neither is Barack Obama. He's not Harriet Tubman. And while he's just as assuredly flawed, we don't know the extent of his damage yet. If elected, he WILL disappoint us. If he weren't being compared to Bush, I think we'd be able to be more realistic about him.

Those of us old enough to remember the Nixon era can remember the shock we all felt when we discovered he kept an "enemies list". It was unheard of, then. Of course politicians opposed one another, and different factions worked to undo each other's goals. But Nixon labeled those who disagreed with him "enemies" and sought to use any means available to destroy their lives. It was a window into a secret world. It could have been a great lesson, a chance to admit American use of power (the role of overseers, for example) and change.

Real change means naming the problem and insisting on either reform of those who abuse humanity or removing them from a position where they can do harm. We're approaching another such reckoning day here in this country. I hear people's fears that our Congress will not enforce change. They want a President who will lead the way to cleaning house. They point to Clinton as a moderate, an insider who will not go far enough. I can't argue. But I see no evidence at all that Obama will, either. He's already turned belly up on the issue of gay rights.

What else is new. He's moderate as well, not a thoroughbred liberal.

I think it's important to remember the typical human response to bullying, to punishment, and to torture: We do whatever is asked of us until we feel free from threat, but we do not actually change or grow. This week Canada has informed us they will not be using any information obtained by our CIA, since it is tainted from being obtained by torture and is therefore worthless.

Molly Ivins, and others, in 2000 warned the country that Dubya was vindictive -- that if he did not get his way, he (and his crew) set about punishing those who disagreed with him, in illegal and unparalleled fashion. He's had our government in a reign of terror since. We now have a Congress infected with this fear. Two of its Senators (well, three if you count McCain, but I don't) are now running for President. None of them have pushed for impeachment. None of them have actually bucked the status quo. Cleaning house is going to take longer than the made-for-TV version.

We'll have to wait for our Harriet Tubman.

Happy International Women's Day.


*I LIKE TO THINK OF HARRIET TUBMAN

(copyright Susan Griffin, from her book Like the Iris of an Eye, published by Harper and Row, New York)

I like to think of Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman who carried a revolver,
who had a scar on her head from a rock thrown
by a slave-master (because she
talked back), and who
had a ransom on her head
of thousands of dollars and who
was never caught, and who
had no use for the law
when the law was wrong,
who defied the law. I like
to think of her.
I like to think of her especially
when I think of the problem
of feeding children.

The legal answer
to the problem of feeding children
is ten free lunches every month,
being equal, in the child's real life,
to eating lunch every other day.
Monday but not Tuesday.
I like to think of the President
eating lunch on Monday, but not
Tuesday.
And when I think of the President
and the law, and the problem of
feeding children, I like to
think of Harriet Tubman
and her revolver.

And then sometimes
I think of the President
and other men,
men who practice the law,
who revere the law,
who make the law,
who enforce the law
who live behind
and operate through
and feed themselves
at the expense of
starving children
because of the law.

Men who sit in paneled offices
and think about vacations
and tell women
whose care it is
to feed children
not to be hysterical
not to be hysterical as in the word
hysterikos, the Greek for
womb suffering,
not to suffer in their
wombs,
not to care,
not to bother the men
because they want to think
of other things
and do not want
to take women seriously.
I want them to think about Harriet Tubman,
and remember,
remember she was beaten by a white man
and she lived
and she lived to redress her grievances,
and she lived in swamps
and wore the clothes of a man
bringing hundreds of fugitives from
slavery, and was never caught,
and led an army,
and won a battle,
and defied the laws
because the laws were wrong, I want men
to take us seriously.
I am tired of wanting them to think
about right and wrong.
I want them to fear.
I want them to feel fear now I want them
to know
that there is always a time
there is always a time to make right
what is wrong,
there is always a time
for retribution
and that time
is beginning.


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Thursday, March 6, 2008

I'VE POSTED AT MAOIST ORANGE CAKE

(Newly discovered photo of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, July 1888 in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts -- Helen is eight and Anne has been her teacher for about a year)

Just to let you all know, I've posted today at the other blog I sometimes write for, Maoist Orange Cake. Go here to read.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

MARA SMITH: BRINGING ANCIENT ARTS ALIVE -- UPDATED

(Tree sculpture by Mara Smith, Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas)

Over 3000 years ago, in Sumer (Mesopotamia), human beings developed the first form of writing by pressing marks into wet clay to keep track of goods. Numbers led to letters, and written language helped create what we called civilization.

The Sumerians used clay for tablets because it was easy to come by. They were extremely adept at working wet clay, and adorned their walls with sculpture, friezes carved into the brick before firing. This ancient art all but died out last century. There are now a handful of artists in the United States who can do this kind of sculpture, who are bringing it back to prominence. One of them is Mara Smith of Seattle, internationally known for her brick carving. She's my oldest friend, and I'm honored to say I knew her when.

[NOTE: An additional "musing" has been added by Mara, at the end of this post. Also, I have a prior post about Mara at this blog, a section of Ginny Bates, my novel, where fictional Ginny meets real-life Mara in Seattle, found at Meeting Mara.]

(Mara Smith carving her current work-in-progress, Cloud County Historical Society’s Whole Wall Project, Concordia, Kansas)

In the article Brick Sculpture Scores, Elizabeth Keating says "Brick sculptors fashion green brick into as many different images as there are techniques for sculpting. They work with handmade and machine-made brick to create a sculpture. They work beneath (intaglio) or above the surface. They add color and dimension with glazes and textures. They introduce other materials, such as brass and gold, to accentuate the natural beauty of brick and draw attention to its flexibility. They are limited by one thing only--imagination."

(Gecko, now at the Reptile House of Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois, by Mara Smith and Kris King)

To create a sculpture, the artist must go to where the brick is made. The green (unfired) brick is kept wet, laid out on the ground or stacked in a frame with space left for where the mortar will go. For days, weeks, sometimes months, Mara will transfer what's in her mind to a three-dimensional reality in the wet clay, using whatever tool seems best. When it is done, all of the bricks are removed one by one, numbered on the back, fired, and the image is reconstructed -- hopefully without loss of bricks. It is cleaned and fitted again, then disassembled and shipped to wherever it will live as earth made into art. Mara follows it, and with a mason, she puts it together a final time, gluing it into a whole with mortar.

(Llama, pig, cow and horse details from larger panel by Mara Smith on the Oregon State University Veterinary Building, Corvallis, Oregon)












It's hard work, dirty, physically demanding, with much exposure to the elements. It's also glorious. Here's what Mara wrote me about it:

"When my knife first touched the raw clay it was as though I had always done it. Seems to always be intertwined with some heavy moving and a lot of history.

"The clay is the book where I have found my own history....the story of an end of a civilization and beginning of another. I don't always like to read it..sometimes I'm sure I will not ever again. Yet, it is the study I am bound to. I often consider it like archeology, done with tiny knives and a shovel. Up close, I have smelled the eons of shale of millions of years and the fossils of roses clutched yet in the clay. I walked ancient and gigantic tracks (once with you) and left mine in the shallow seabed of this ancient plain."


(Heron fishing by Mara Smith)

At the time I first met Mara, I knew her as a potter and a painter -- extremely good at both. Since I was 19 years old, I've had her work hanging in my house wherever I've lived. But in 1977, the same year and season I moved away from Denton, the town where we both lived, Mara was chosen to create the brick murals adorning the outside of a fabulous new hotel in Dallas, the Anatole. This catapulted her into fame, and the career she's followed since. Here's her story of how it happened:

"The search committee, which included Hubert Capps & Mark Olson? (reps of Acme Brick/ Denton) sought artists for a brick sculpture commission. Before this,TWU students had experimented with a few sculpture pieces fired at the Denton Acme plant in the past...(the firemen threw out the samples at the brick company because they thought they were just chewed up pieces that caught in their machinery).

"So, Acme asked my ceramics professor, John Brough Miller, if he might be interested in applying for the project. He indicated he had a job and suggested I go down to put in a proposal. I was in the middle of my MFA studies at the time. Of course, keep in mind Dallas is conservative etc. he said.


(Woman surveying vista, by Mara Smith, Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas)

"I went down to the Dallas World Trade Center to view their hotel model and asked them the name of the seven various restaurants to be included. Most of them had exotic names like Xanadu. Another commission included very long 50' Indian batik banners to hang inside the atrium. The ambiance was turning cross cultural ie. mythological! I drew up several ideas I matted behind a bricked clear plastic window. I could interchange the sketches in the arched matt for an elegant presentation.

"On 7/7/1977 I went down to the Dallas World Trade Center to make my presentation. Surprisingly, a couple former students (well known sculptors in their own right) had teamed up to do a presentation also. I was able to overhear their talk. I consequently based my own fee on some close adaptation.

"At some point in the meeting, Trammell Crow let it be known his wife had dreamed a name for the Hotel the night before...The Anatole...meaning of the east. Another name they had earlier mulled over was The Metropole. At once, hearing that word Anatole, was enough to make me feel confident I had the project. Anatolia is the ancient Amazon Kingdom of Turkey...a point seemingly beyond anyone's attention but mine....even though I recall trying to humorously interject several comments to that effect.

"But that word Anatole keyed me and my world of interest in mythology to the project. My view point, of course.The genre was set and I, the anachronist artist, knew I had the project. Indeed, I did. Not even a need for bamboozle. The project was simply the tangent where two world views intersected as the architectural wonder called the Anatole Hotel.

"Now Trammell Crow himself was reputed to have a very mystical bent... although in those days his articulating how that might be translated into art was enough to give us all a brain fog. He was an avid collector of world and Asian art, much of which would be showcased in the atria of the hotel. I was blissfully unaware that Trammell was considered the largest landowner in the US. I was simply thrilled to be a working artist.

"At the same time I had applied and got a teaching position (jewelry) with the Dallas Arts Magnet School. Once I was notified I had the brick commission, I let the school system know I was going with that direction. I never looked back.

"The boxy brick citadel of the Anatole Hotel is beset of seven stories of glass pyramid aligned on a North/South axis. The head of our art departmentt laughed at the design of the hotel....something Capt Nemo might keep his sub in. It was a very unusual architectural feature for Dallas at the time. I loved it...the ancient world was blooming fresh in my own time!"


(Desert spirit sculpture by Mara Smith, Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas)

Mara has been a featured artist in Home & Garden TV's Master Artist series. She appears in Placemakers: Creating Public Art That Tells You Where You Are by Ronald Lee Fleming and in the Seattle Arts Commission's Field Guide to Seattle's Public Art, among other publications. She is considered a pioneer of modern brick sculpture by the Brick Industry Association and has carved over 25,000 square feet of brick in her 30 year career.

(Haida frog carving by Mara Smith)

I asked Mara to tell me how she came to art as a life's work. She replied:

"My father enthralled my childhood with tales about his mother Annie Belle. In fact, I was named for her. For me, she was a Texas legend like Pecos Bill and Slew-foot Sue. She wrote verse and did illustrations (I never saw any of the pictures); she was also a crack shot)..a composition book of her poems I have still have and cherish.

"My father would draw model T cars and fish on paper sacks for me when I was little...I would doodle on them and try to copy some of the fish. I impressed myself learning to draw a horse when I was about five. My mother thought it would be a great idea to have an artist in the family (don't know what inspired her on that one, maybe my father's tales about his mother)... I guess I thought artist was a position in the family like aunt or sister. Neither parent had any implication of the consequences of conceiving a child on All Hallow's Eve (which ties in here as the greater impetus).

"My father, Parker, was the youngest scion of many generations of frontier doctors. Annie Belle had met and married the future Dr. C.O. Smith in Sutherland,Texas just east of San Antonio. The town itself was named for Dr. Sutherland (tales of the Alamo). Supposedly,we're related. Two of Pop's brothers, Weston and Olive Sinclair were named after close doctor friends. However, Dr. C.O. suffered an untimely demise on 7/4/1918 leaving Annie Belle a widow with a young son. By the time I entered the picture, our family had surfaced in the side eddies of society where those left behind have to endure. Shortly after the Great War, Texas was still a lot of frontier in any sense of the word. It was there I entered the wheel of time.

"Somehow my youth was an encouragement for my father to enliven me with tales of his frontier folks and travels in the West. He had a knack for making poverty seem like a hunting party.

"And he had a penchant for self medication while encouraging me to read science books on trees, plants, snakes, animals, and diseases...for him it resulted in home brew, for me a lifelong interest in natural herbs and medicines and somehow the shamanistic ambiance inherent in their study. Did I forget to mention my father and grandfather were freemasons?

"I got all this mystical stuff blended up in me before I knew how or when. I'm overlain with a fine patina of Southern Baptist which finally wore off in the long rain of feminism. It got all translated as art...which for me is somehow shamanism. It's what I do...sometimes it's bead work or jewelry, sometimes bamboo, sometimes/a lot of times brick.


(Ganesha shaped in glass by Mara Smith, converted to garden water fountain)

"My favorite art always seem to be dug out of some ruin somewhere..a tile, a sculpture, a gigantic urn, a fresco of intense colors of people and beasts and lords of the heavens, an eccentric flint of the smoking god, women leaping the backs of bulls, all very Sirius. My own works are primitive next to the magnificent imagery yet encased in the layers of our earth. I am some kind of aborigine here and everyday I swear a coke bottle is falling out of the sky to wonder over!"

(City gate for Newcastle, Washington, carved by Mara Smith)

Mara's art can be found in the following locations:
Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois
Seoul, Korea (Dragonhill Hotel atrium)
Van Nuys, California (Milken Community Center)
Lexington, Kentucky (Meade County Bank)
Reading, Pennsylvania (Meridian Bank & Trust)
Lynnwood, Washington (Civic Justice Center)
Mesa, Arizona (Arizona Historical Society Museum)
San Mateo, California (Nordstrom Mall entry)
Wymore, Nebraska (St. Peter's Lutheran Church)
Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State University Veterinary Building)
Mansfield, Texas (Independent School District administration building)
Stephenville, Texas (Tarleton State University student center)
Spokane, Washington (Veteran's Memorial, Greenwood Cemetery)
Mutual Materials, Parkland Branch (commercial entry)
Newcastle, Washington (city gateway)
Tukwila, Washington (city gateway)
Coos Bay, Oregon (bank)
Bend, Oregon (city hall)
Shelton, Washington (clock tower)
Buffalo Grove, Illinois (shopping mall entry)
Bellingham, Washington (fire station entry)
Kalispell, Montana (private residence)
Ocala, Florida (horse farm gate)
Redding, California (private residence)
Bellevue, Washington (outdoor kitchen)
Issaquah, Washington (Street of Dreams)
Eastern Washington (deer preserve outdoor barbecue)
Wenatchee, Washington (apple orchard wall)
Benton, Washington (private fireplace)
Bainbridge Island, Washington (development entry)
Mill Creek, Washington (Swan Lake development)

Currently she's about to head back to Concordia, Kansas for a project for the Cloud County Historical Society (article about it is here, photos are below). To contact Mara, write her care of Architectural Murals in Brick, 339 N.W. 82nd, Seattle, WA 98117 or call 206-789-2838.

(Current work-in-progress, side view of Cloud County Historical Society’s Whole Wall Project, Concordia, Kansas)

(Mouse tucked into the end of a brick, Cloud County Historical Society’s Whole Wall Project, Concordia, Kansas)

UPDATE -- "Aboriginal" Mara dropped me a note this morning with additional musing on art:

"I transitioned from pottery to brick on the day I received my first brick commission for the Anatole Hotel. It's the same medium, just bigger tools and more tonnage. It's easy for me to use the brick as a grid system...I can take a one page sketch and blow it up in my head...no, by folding the sketch up in parts and fencing off the areas to carve into their sections, I can easily sort out the sculpture.

"Brick is modular. Broken pieces are easy to replace. The art can be any size from a single brick to miles of brick, if any would spring for the commission. It can be shipped nationwide on regular trucking, no special sized hauler needed. Carving in brick suits itself to any style from pure geometric abstraction, to folk art, historical or thematic representations, to even simply crude or children's expressions.

"Brick is good value...it will last hundreds of years. In fact, long after we are all dust, civilizations in the future are most likely to recover information about our days and times from pieces of clay, brick, tiles, stone, or glass. Seeing the ancient monuments carved in brick were a large inspiration for me. Brick ornamentation is one of the oldest forms of sculpture on the planet. I had no clue carving brick was available as an artform when I applied for the Anatole commission. I had seen the carved gates of Babylon in history books...that I could carve in the same medium was not even in the realm of imagination until that day....

"Maybe a dozen people carve brick full time in the United States, maybe a few dozen more on some part time basis. This has been the same for nearly thirty years since I began carving brick. Few, if any of brick sculptors today are less than 50 years old...maybe a good dozen brick plants, to be generous, facilitate the art in the US today.

"Of all the art I like the least is art theory sold as art. Second to that is really bad tourist crafts sold as art...but at least,it was some poor smuck trying to make a living....

"My advice for young artists: study every art technique you can and yes, I know, computers are a great medium. I love them. But long after the virtual works poof back into their various photons, art actually created will continue forever. Study comparative anatomy, botany, chemistry, geology, literature, writing techniques, and the ever necessary business and budgets of money. One needs money to buy enough supplies to keep being creative! Best of all, remember art is a rarity, yet the necessary glue and polish that keeps the human condition civilized. It takes an artist's courage to live on imagination and leap year after year into the unknown."


(Mara Smith, left, and Catharine Magel, artists of the Concordia, Kansas brick carving project currently under way)

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

AS I READ MY EMILY DICKINSON...

(Authenticated Emily Dickinson circa 1846 and newly discovered Emily Dickinson circa early 1850s -- click on image to enlarge)

As I stated in a post two days ago, the newly online website Common-Place, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society in association with the Florida State University Department of History, has a treasure trove of previously published articles now available for the self-directed reader of history. I want to draw your attention to another pair of items there, both concerning Emily Dickinson.

The first fascinating read is the first-hand account of how Philip Gura, an American Studies professor and collector of early photography, found and won on eBay for $481!) the second known adult photograph of Emily Dickinson, one taken at the height of her creative arc. In How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on eBay, Mr. Gura takes us through the process of suspicious discovery, acquisition, and slow authentication of this astonishing photograph.


Both the previously known version and the new photo shown above are also featured in my prior Emily Dickinson post on this blog. My post also has other highly informative links to Emily's life and work.

As a genealogist as well as armchair historian, I've been deeply interested in old photographs for decades and have taken more than one course in how to best utilize them. There are now excellent online resources available to help you date photographs, identify photographers, preserve and conserve early images, and differentiate between type of early photos, including daguerrotypes, calotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards, stereographs, and wet-plate prints. With regard to my own family, I was able to prove a date of migration for one branch of my family using backgrounds employed by local area commercial photographers from another branch of the family.

(A nursery door at the Evergreens. Courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum: the Homestead and the Evergreens. Amherst, Massachusetts)

A second Dickinson-related article is by art historian Katharine Martinez, titled The Dickinsons of Amherst Collect -- Pictures and their meanings in a Victorian home. Her opening paragraphs explain:

"Entering the Evergreens, the home of Austin and Susan Dickinson, the brother and sister-in-law of Emily Dickinson, is akin to experiencing an archaeological site. Members of the Dickinson family lived in the house continuously between 1857, when it was built, and 1943, when Austin and Susan's daughter Martha died. Elements from the 1850s are still there today, along with other household objects and artwork chosen and arranged in subsequent years—creating, in effect, layers linked by networks of meanings and associations.

"The Evergreens was home to a family whose members expressed themselves, their ideas, values, and feelings through furnishings, artwork, and household objects. Looking at photographs of nineteenth-century interiors and visiting historic houses like the Evergreens challenges us to explore the relationship between objects and their owners. While much has been written about how people interact with their material world and about how domestic objects were 'expressions of sensibility,' I am particularly interested in understanding just how nineteenth-century Americans interacted with and assigned meaning to the growing body of images available for their consumption. Austin and Susan Dickinson's home is an ideal place for this sort of inquiry."

In his wonderful sci-fi novel Time and Again, Jack Finney posits a theory of time travel playing on the notion that time is not linear but, rather, all time is occurring simultaneously. If this is so, it should be possible to slip from one time to another. Finney's book achieves this via self-hypnosis on the part of extremely imaginative individuals who immerse themselves so completely in the artifacts and mind-set of another era that they are able to escape the "persistent illusion" of our own experience and acquire the illusion of a past time. As someone with an imagination on steroids, and a fascination for the past, I'm drawn like a tractor-beam to this possibility. If I show up missing, you might look for a message scrawled by me on the papers left in Emily Dickinson's attic bedroom.

(Drawing of Emily Dickinson as a child)

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THE POPULACE'S SWELL AND RESPONSE


When I lived in San Francisco, I worked for a urologist in Chinatown whose specialization was what he called "electile dysfunction". Most of his reports involved takng a painful personal history from a patient, injecting the guy's penis with a dose of papaverine and slipping a little tissue paper sleeve over his penis to see if he would get hard enough to tear the paper. After what sounded like a brief, cold discussion, the unfortunate man would be sent home, if he was lucky, with a monster woody and the reminder if it was still there after four hours to go to the emergency room. Since many of his patients arrived via public transportation, I felt their anguish on being signed out.

I also felt for the women who might have to ride pressed up against them on BART or Muni.

This doctor's dictation was sprinkled throughout with glib talk of elections. I always think of him on vote day. Here's hoping we all have a good election.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

PORTRAYING AMERICAN SLAVERY

(Broadside, dated Charleston, 24 November 1860. Courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library)

The newly online website Common-Place, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society in association with the Florida State University Department of History, has a treasure trove of previously published articles now available for the self-directed reader of history. I'll be recommending several gems in posts to come. I'm beginning with a series of articles published in July 2001, entitled Representing Slavery: A Roundtable Discussion.

I especially recommend the essay by A.J. Verdelle, The Truth of the Picnic: Writing about American slavery. Her bio here states "A. J. Verdelle is the author of The Good Negress (Chapel Hill, 1995), for which she was awarded a Whiting Writer's Award, a Bunting Fellowship at Harvard University, a PEN/Faulkner Finalist's Award, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for distinguished prose fiction."

In her stunningly relevant essay, Verdelle states "Slavery and its aftermath are human drama still unsettled. Administrators, timekeepers, civil servants, guardians of the state try to revise our understanding of the period and its outcomes. An effort to convince us that the drama is over rages. Some of us insist, and rightly so, that we are now in this drama's second act, we have not moved beyond the raised curtain, we are still in shock at what we have finally seen."

Also in the Representing Slavery roundtable discussion are the following essays:

Confronting Slavery Face-to-Face: A twenty-first century interpreter's perspective on eighteenth-century slavery", by Karen Sutton, a historical interpreter in the African-American Programs & History Department, Division of Historic Presentations, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Birth of a Genre: Slavery on film, by David W. Blight, who teaches history and black studies at Amherst College. He is the author of Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge, 1989), and Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass., 2001). He has been a consultant to several documentary films, including the PBS series Africans in America (1998).

Seeing Slavery: How paintings make words look different, by Alex Bontemps, who teaches African American history at Dartmouth College. His book, The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South (Ithaca, N.Y., 2001), was recently published by Cornell University Press.

Hearing Slavery: Recovering the role of sound in African American slave culture, by Shane White and Graham White. Shane White is an associate professor and Graham White an honorary associate in the history department at the University of Sydney. Together they have written Stylin': African American Expressive Culture From Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (Ithaca: 1998) and have half completed The Sounds of Slavery, which will be a book and a twenty-four-track CD.

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EARLY MONDAY MORNING


Sally Field called me tonight to urge me to vote for Hillary on Tuesday. An hour later, MoveOn.org called to request my vote for Barack. Both calls went to my voice mail because I was watching Extreme House Makeover, with yet another National Guard soldier stuck in Iraq so long his family is in serious trouble. He was a big guy, looked to me like he might be part Native; they had one son around ten who was charmingly feminine and a younger son with autism. Ty got him back from Iraq for a week, and his wife was toughing it out until she realized at the end of the week she'd have to say goodbye to him all over again. The soldier kept it together until he saw the mantelpiece, something he had rescued from an 1850s farmhouse which had stood on the piece of historic Virginia land he'd managed to buy before he got called up. He put his hand on the gorgeous old wood of that mantle and bawled, I mean seriously let go.

Toby Keith showed up to give the guy a Ford pick-up and sing a concert for a roomful of National Guard troops and their families. Everybody was fighting tears, including me. Here's the thing: They all said, over and over, how proud they were to fulfill their duty, that they were fighting over there so we could be free here. I know they believe there's a connection between our liberty and the disaster in Iraq: They fucking have to. It would be just too fucking much for them to realize how grievously Bush lied to them, has used them as nothing more than toilet paper to further his fortune and his wretched ego.

Even after we get them home safe, how are they going to face having been used in such a manner? I think Bush may have single-handedly broken the U.S. military. The only people who will volunteer now are those who are in such denial they won't make intelligent soldiers, those who are criminals/right-wing hate trainees, or poor people with no other alternative -- and desperation doesn't usually make good soldiers, either.

Whoever gets elected, are they really going to have the ability to stand up to the corporations and roll back tax cuts for the rich, pour that money into disability pensions and health care and social services for the growing masses of our walking wounded? Will a Democratic take-over of Congress make things enough better?

Here's something I noticed on David Letterman Friday night, the show where Hillary made two or three pre-taped appearances that were funny and proved her to be a good sport: During Dave's monologue, he made a long series of jokes about McCain, took some swipes at Bloomberg and Nader, whacked at Hillary a few times, but not a single joke about Barack. I realized I've not heard him, ever, make a joke about Barack. There was a segment a while back where Barack did a Top Ten list, but Dave doesn't have a shtick he does about Barack. I don't think this means he's a Barack supporter; in fact, I think the hands-off attitude is a bad sign. He was hands-off about Bush, too, eight years ago.

Here's something else I've noticed: A lot of feminists my age are drawing a parallel between the current white-boy bashing of Hillary over Barack and the period after the Civil War when blacks gained rights (temporarily, let's not forget, they got sold down the river really quickly) but all the women who worked so hard for abolition had to wait another sixty years for the right to vote. I see a deep anger settling in with the resignation that we still cannot get a woman elected President. I remember when women left all the various movements at the end of the sixties to say "us now, us first". I won't stand by and let us repeat the mistake of forging a wave that doesn't include all those underrepresented -- but I honestly won't mind it if we return to "us first". All the meanings of "us".

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

GINNY BATES: PAN SCRAPINGS


Sometimes I prime the pump for working on a chapter in Ginny Bates, my novel-in-progress, by writing scraps or vignettes that I pile up at the end of the manuscript, not sure where to insert them yet (if at all). Today I'll share with you a few of these crunchy little morsels. Great with cream gravy.


Sometime during the 1990s

When Ginny got home from her dentist appointment, she heard Allie's raised voice from the study saying "Doris Day is NOT a dyke, Myra! I'll give you Kim Novak, okay, and Joan Baez sleeping with Janis Ian, but Doris Day has been married to four different men, some of them for a long time!"

Myra said "Cover."

"She had a son! People do not have children for cover!"

"Joan Crawford did."

"Joan Crawford adopted her kids. And she didn't do it to prove she was straight, she did it to try and prove she was human."


When Gillam and Carly are around 12, circa 2003

Allie was at the espresso machine, making iced coffees for those who wanted them. Chris was tossing a salad of just-picked cherry tomatoes, bibb lettuce, steamed baby carrots, little rounds of fresh mozzarella, big garlicy croutons of day-old bread, and one of Ginny's herb vinagrettes. Myra was slicing previously-baked yams which she was then going to drizzle with spicy peanut sauce to grill outside, along with the tuna and turkey burgers. As the smell of the cutting board filled her nostrils, she remarked "Always reminds me of Ginny." Chris looked at her, and Myra said "Baked yams. Mostly -- although sometimes she tastes like raw cashews."

Chris's cheeks went red, but after a couple of moments, she said quietly "Sima's like fresh oysters."

They both turned and took at Allie, who was keeping her back toward them. Chris grinned and Myra shrugged, going back to her slicing. But then they heard Allie say, very softly, "Lemony."

Everybody burst out laughing just as Ginny came in from the deck where Edwina was poking at coals in the barbecue. Ginny said "The grill's ready", then asked "What's so funny?"

Myra set down her knife so she didn't slice off a finger and said "I'll tell you later." She dressed the yam slices and handed them to Ginny, who already had the platter of fish and meat. Sima walked by them in her swimsuit, heading for the pool. Ginny followed her, saying "They may be up to something."

"They generally are" replied Sima, opening the door for Ginny. After they were outside, Chris asked Myra "Do you tell her everything?"

Myra rinsed her knife and said "No." They all cracked up again.

As Myra began washing her hands at the sink, Carly came zooming down the stairs and said to them "You haven't seen me!", then dashed outside to the carport. In a minute, they heard a flush upstairs and Gillam clomped downstairs. He went straight to the trash can, tied the bag shut and hoisted it over one shoulder, then picked up the recycling box precariously in his other hand and walked to the carport door.

Myra turned around to look at Allie and Chris, eyebrows raised. They all stood expectantly, ears turned toward the carport. Myra heard Gillam set down the recycling with a clank, and apparently lift the lid on their big grey rolling bin. There was an almost simultaneous "Yaaahhh!" from Carly and then a high-pitched, blood-curdling scream from Gillam. Everybody in the kitchen was leaning on the counter, helpless with laughter, when Edwina poked her head into the house from the deck and said "You all hear that?"

"It's the boys" called Allie, and when Carly came back through, they all high-fived him. His face was red from excitement.

"Were you down in the can itself?" asked Chris.

"Yeah. Gotta scrub my hands, but man, you shoulda seen his face!" crowed Carly. Gillam appeared behind him.

"You will pay" he said in an ominous tone, but he was grinning from ear to ear.

"I didn't know you could still hit notes that far up the scale" said Myra. He punched her shoulder and trailed Carly out to the deck, where Carly was re-enacting his prank.


During a Feminist Fund meeting, circa 2006

"You know, I'd like to sometimes print our brochures with Spanish first, English second -- I mean, why should primarily Spanish-speakers always have to turn to the back to get something directed at them?" said Myra.

After a pause, Ginny said "Okay. Good idea."

"And I know we've gotten it translated into Mandarin and Tagalog, but I think we're missing the segment who speaks Cantonese, aren't we?" continued Myra.

"I don't know" said Sima. "Is the written language distinct from the spoken?"

Ginny made another note. "We'll find out."

Myra continued in an argumentative tone -- Ginny wondered what was bugging her now -- "Used to be, folk music didn't shy away from being in something other than English. And a few dykes did that in women's music, without dumbing it down for us. But seems like nobody dares to write in Spanish any more.

Chris suddenly burst into song:

Hay una mujer desaparecida
Hay una mujer desaparecida
And the junta
And the junta has all her clothes
She is sneezing and FREEZING..."


Myra howled with laughter. Ginny and Sima had frozen looks on their faces, even after Alveisa and Allie began chortling. Myra reached across the table and grabbed Chris's hand, as if she was holding on to keep from falling over. When she could speak again, she said "Oh god, that reminds me of Albatross. Remember how hysterical their cartoons were?"

Chris was grinning from ear to ear. "Holly Nearandfar, yeah, and Phyllis Shitfly -- "

"And Betty Frypan -- " Myra was losing it again.

"My all time favorite" said Chris, "was that one with the picture of the uptight white ladies, like from a Virginia Slims commercial -- there were two of them, identical, talking to each other, and the one on the left says 'Do you smoke after you have an orgasm?' and the one on the right says 'I don't know, I never looked'." Myra began pounding the table, and Chris leaned back in her chair, laughing wildly.


When Gillam is around 15

After dinner, the Chris and Sima sat at the table with Ginny and Myra, drinking tea and talking. The kids went upstairs. After a bit, Gillam came back down in his swim trunks, heading for the pool. As he passed through the kitchen, they could hear him singing under his breath:

My anaconda don't want none
Unless you've got buns, hon
You can do side bends or sit-ups,
But please don't lose that butt


Ginny stared at Myra in disbelief and said "Did he just sing what I think he did?"

"Don't ask me" said Myra, "I'm famous for misinterpreting lyrics."

Chris chuckled and said "The first time Myra heard 'View from Gay Head' she thought Alix was singing 'Where there's no peanuts between us friends'."

But Ginny had heard that story before. She was grinning with an expression that made Myra say "What are you thinking about?"

Ginny took Myra's hand and turned to Sima and Chris. "One time when we were all at the beach, and Gillam was around 8 or 9, we were sitting at the campfire singing and Myra began this folk song from her childhood, 'Old Joe Clark'. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first time Gillam had heard it, but it was the first time he understood it, when she got to the stanza

I don't give a damn for old Joe Clark
And I'll tell you the reason why
He blows his nose in old cornbread
And calls it chicken pie


Gillam's face showed sick comprehension, and he just turned and puked, right there on the sand. Well, he was sitting next to Myra, so she of course turns the other direction and pukes too. And then, when she tries to dig a hole and get rid of her mess, she vomits again. Allie and David were in helpless hysterics. I got up to help her out, and she fled for the house, Gillam behind her."

Chris and Sima were laughing hard. Myra looked queasy, but said "I remember that evening, turned out well in the end. Me and Gillam read Mistress Masham's Repose together until we fell asleep."

Chris, chortling, said "That reminds me of when he was a little younger, and you'd all just gotten back from Galveston. He always came back with a strong Texas twang, remember?, soaked up whatever accent he was around, and it would last a week or so. So, he was playing with his Legos in the living room, singing to himself, and the tune was familiar -- Guantanamera -- but the words were oh so wrong. I finally realized he was singing

One ton of 'maters
Ah'm eating one ton of 'maters
"

All four of the women began shrieking in hilarity and turned to look through the glass wall at Gillam. He had reached the end of a lap and stood up in the shallow end to catch his breath. He saw them focus on him simultaneously, laughing like maniacs. He mouthed at them irritably "What?!!", then heaved himself backwards and began swimming to the other end.


Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild

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REDEMPTION CAFE AU LAIT

(Image from Stella Marrs)

Pete Seeger as a teenager toured the American South with his father, a musicologist. Charles Seeger's original intention was to bring classical and "advanced" music to the backwaters of the U.S. What he, and Pete, discovered was that every region of this country already had advanced, intensely rich musical traditions. They became instead the indoctrinated, and Pete went on to mine the traditional folk music of black and white rural Protestant culture for decades. He brought that value system, woven into every line and bar, to more than one generation of young people, creating a mythos and world view that still is the bedrock of what we call progressive ideology.

One of the themes is salvation and redemption. The forces against us may be overwhelming, but we shall not be moved. We shall overcome. We will ascend to the mountaintop, and we will find a way to all live together.



Though the cities start to crumble
And the towers fall around us
The sun is slowly fading
And it's colder than the sea
It is written "From the desert
To the mountain they shall lead us
By the hand and by the heart
They will comfort you and me
In their innocence and trusting
They will teach us to be free"


But who is the "they" in these lyrics?

Boomers were the generation who said "Don't trust anyone over 30". We WERE the Youth Generation. The sad fact is, we've not given up on that image of ourselves -- what we see when we look in the mirror is not reality. And while we still view one another as "young at heart", if we're being charitable, we do not extend that generosity to the generations who have come up after us. We do not respect or trust our descendents, so we cannot turn to "the children" for salvation. Not OUR children.

But the endemic racism of white America has another group of children we look to for innocent understanding and forgiveness: Black people. Our culture pays lip service, at least, to the full humanity of blacks, but does not grant them maturity. Part of the reason we are so uncomfortable with the idea of leadership from blacks (and women) is because their second-class citizenship is commensurate with that of children -- they may be good-hearted but you don't give them the keys to the car, right?

Yet to blacks, in particular, white America has allowed a second role, covert and profound: prophet. We expect them to be our conscience (as long as we control where that conscience focuses). Playing our Magical Negro, they are Whoopi Goldberg as maid, Queen Latifah as babysitter, Will Smith as caddy, who while cleaning up after us and our children also impart wisdom and, eventually, spiritual salvation. We revere Dr. King, now that he's dead, because he talked to us about his "dream" that included us. We didn't love him so much when he was alive, of course, leading marches and demanding real change, but he makes an acceptable prophet now.

Deep down, we want to be forgiven. We want redemption. But we want the Supernanny version, someone who comes to our house a few times, figures out how to get the kids to behave while we maybe shed a tear or two, slap a schedule up on the wall, but the basic rule of adults over children and father über alles doesn't get challenged. At the end of the hour, Mary Poppins can safely move on. A check-in a short time later shows the magic fix still in place. Nobody's returning after a year or two to a scene where the 10-year-old girl has threatened to tell her teacher about how daddy is fucking her at night and he's taken a double-aught to them all, saving the last shell for himself.

So, while we're primed to the notion of a Black Savior, someone who, if the subject of reparations came up, could be counted on to make an earnest joke of it, offending no one, still -- it has to be someone who isn't totally Black. Not the descendent of slaves, for example. We don't trust they can really forgive us, not when we've barely acknowledged four hundred years of atrocity and the shit that is still going on. I mean, our inability to deal with our racism stems in large part from our hopelessness, because we believe what happened here is not actually forgiveable, is it? And we certainly don't want to put power in the hands of blacks who are clearly the descendents of house niggers, folks who know how we operate but have chosen (after emancipation) to stay separate from us.

What we want is a Black Savior who is descended from the Mother Continent, who is part us, who talks only of hope and change but not retribution or confession. Redemption Cafe au Lait.

Let me state here, adamantly, I do NOT believe this is who Barack Obama is. I don't believe this is how most African-Americans see him, or some insightful white folks. But when you have his most ardent supporters unable to come up with a single policy or achievement of his, just that starry-eyed "He stands for change and unity", well, we're dealing with a cultural myth. I think it is likely that Obama's strategists, and the man himself, has been smart enough to play into it, to know what could be exploited. It's what politicians do, and he's no different from anyone else in that regard.

He DOES have excellent policy, a good record, and a firm stand on relevant issues. The problem is, I don't think most of the white folks who are attaching themselves to his wagon are being swayed by his concrete leadership.

(Here's a link to the issues page of his website, and for those of you already decided to be his supporter, there's a wealth of information on how to do it intelligently at Jack and Jill's How to Canvass for Obama Toolkit.)

I voted for Bill Clinton, twice. I was fortunate enough to have a friend in Arkansas, a strong liberal, who educated me about his moderate playing-for-approval tendencies in advance. Plus I know bubba-speak (the real thing, not the evil Bush version) when I hear it. Thus, I wasn't swept away by his talk of hope. He was definitely the best of the alternatives, and I'd vote the same way again, given the same alternatives, in a heartbeat. Yet it was charisma that won his elections. He was an intensely popular President, with approval ratings in the 80-90% even during the impeachment era. I'd like to remind all you white liberal boys of this, especially those of you so infected with Clinton Derangement Syndrome that Hillary makes your vision go red: Silver-tongued rhetoric of hope and redemption handed Bill the keys to the White House.

I'll be voting for Obama, it looks like. I think he will lead us out of the desert (by which I mean Baghdad) and he'll appoint a new Supreme Court Justice who is not in the tradition of Roger Taney. That alone will be radical good. And when he turns out to be primarily a politician, with flawed process and corruption within some of those his inner circle, I'll weigh that against his character and, likely, go on being his supporter as the rest of you start looking for the next quick-fix. The same holds equally true for Hillary Clinton, and I'll vote for her just as gladly.

Here's a couple of things I keep in mind.

First: The era of the 60's and 70's, against which Ronnie Raygun and the Christian Right lashed back, produced the revolutionary ideas that gender and race, like class, were not biological realities. Instead, they are cultural constructs. As such, they are open to utter revision. The Panthers proclaimed "Black is beautiful." The Redstockings announced "Biology is not destiny." And all sorts of groups began winnowing out identity with the goal of transformation, not just of themselves but of the entire culture.

The response was to attack identity politics (if it wasn't your identity being promoted) and, eventually, an economic onslaught designed to make it so hard to survive economically that most people's attention would be occupied with earning a living, not social change. Make some bucks off any popular theory or art of change, commercialize it, and render it ineffective. It worked well for over 20 years.

But Bush, the eternal fuck-up, and Cheney, the sociopath, went too far. Now people are casting about for a new way to make sense of it all without having to actually Change. Not change the way masculinity is revered, not change the hidden reality of white supremacy, not change the lockbox of religion.

The writing is on the wall, however. Peak Oil is upon us, the polar caps are melting, and no matter how much porn you flood onto the internet, no matter how many immigration laws you pass, no matter how diligently you attack strong women on websites or coopt black men into the world of drugs and woman-hating rap -- being white and being male are not going to remain at the top of the pyramid. You can either walk down of your own accord or get tossed eventually. Partial credit will not be awarded.

Moses led his people out of Egypt. But they had to wander the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. Why the delay? Because Moses, and everyone in his generation who had been enslaved, had to die first. Their conditioning, which they had through no fault of their own, must not be allowed to pollute and alter the Promised Land.

So, the next time you feel a visceral reaction to that deep voice talking of change, with the swell of music behind it, ask yourself: What change are you assuming he means? Then consider all the change that scares you down to your bones, and (if you've got the eggs), consider embarking on your own path to redemption: One where you don't get forgiven before you've done your work.

And the work involved is not ours to design. Pete Seeger suffered almost 20 years of blacklisting and severe economic hardship because he refused to testify before HUAC. He resigned from The Weavers, who had had the number one record in the country, because they decided to do a cigarette commercial. He found a way to have a good life in the desert, all the same. And his most famous song of all ends with "When will we ever learn?"


(lyrics above are from Rhymes and Reasons by John Denver; memoir from Pete Seeger is from the recent PBS American Experience documentary about his life, The Power of Song; thanks to Doc and Diamante for the editing)

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