Who’s Looking?

[Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, June, 2017]

Easily overwhelmed, I’ve learned the best way for me to experience an art exhibit is to slowly and reverently—yet randomly—stroll through a gallery and let everything on display silently surround my senses until That One Work hits me between the eyes. And on Sunday, at the Speed Art Museum’s “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” that’s exactly what happened. When I saw this one. This Carrie Mae Weems photograph that so slyly references Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” And yet, oh dear lord, declares so much more!

For here, literally in black and white, is witness! Showing up. Using one’s body to powerfully speak Truth. Here is a woman of color owning everything in that photograph. Everything. Those plantation columns; how those overhanging trees frame her body, every blade of grass, the soft, hot breeze, the curve made by her antebellum dress, how her hair is dressed, what aperture to use, the light; The Light. Hers. Carrie Mae Weems. All of it. Hers.

Yes.

 

 

“I can’t believe I’m still . . . “

[Jean Lafitte National Park, Lafitte, Louisiana]

That arc of history may be long and slowly bending towards justice—but it’s not exactly cruisin’ down I-95, is it! Sometimes that arc moves so slowly its movement is almost imperceptible. Sometimes it pauses, curves back on itself. Sometimes, like a twisty, bendy strangler fig vine, that arc moves backwards. And it feels as though we’re living in one of those retrograde times right now.

But here’s what privilege looks like: For most of my life I’ve expected linear. I’ve expected that arc to move steadily forward. So have been mystified and pissed that, jeez, here we are again? Like so many others, “I can’t believe I’m still . . . “  I mean, didn’t we already do this? Didn’t we settle all these trenchant issues once and for all? It’s so unfair!

So, yeah, I’ve been inwardly whining. Like a three-year-old. And need to take a good, hard look at my expectations surrounding social justice.  To admit that some of my stuff is ego, plain and simple and deadly. (I protested. I marched = I fixed it! Riiiight.) Some of this is about my belief that I have a “right to comfort.” On a really bad day, my resistance to accepting that, yup, Things Suck, Get Crackin’ is about not being twenty-two, anymore. I wonder if  I actually have the strength and energy and fortitude to show up, resist, interrupt. But, mostly, this is about, at the deepest, most profoundly fundamental level, my cluelessness. Again.  Why wouldn’t I, white and privileged, expect that arc to inch forward bit by bit. Slowly, yes. And not a crystal stair, certainly; I was never that clueless. (But close.)

So it is with both humility and fervent hope that I say: I still believe that arc moves toward justice. But it’s going to be much harder and take way longer than I ever before understood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

What I’d Do Different Now

[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]

Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.

These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?

Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?

 

 

“Something Close to Love”

What I love about this picture: it perfectly illustrates its accompanying excerpt from WellingUp.net. Check it out! (Keywords: Prison, Light, Green/Exercise Yard)

What else I want to say this picture: Those rusted bars only hint at the horrors of incarceration. But my intention for using this dangerously-close-to-prettifying photograph is to illustrate a prison conversion story—I am not trying to educate the general public re prison conditions. So, reluctantly, I chose what I chose out of thousands of gritty, heart-breaking, online choices.

(But, must say, I will be writing to my prison pen-pals with renewed care and tenderness from now on.)

 

 

 

Lawn Ornament

[Pineapple Fence, New Orleans, January, 2017]

“It’s come to this,” I thought, putting up a “In this house we believe . . . ” sign in my front yard Saturday. “I’m living at a time and a place where I must declare that ‘Kindness is Everything’!” But then I remembered how Bathtub Madonnas once adorned the tiny front yards of this neighborhood. And thought, well, didn’t my former neighbors* feel moved to declare the same thing?

And then a way-more disturbing recollection came to mind: how slave-dealing New England ship captains would display a fresh pineapple on their front fence to signal that they were open for business—or that recent sales in the West Indies had gone well; Party Time! C’mon over! (Which is why we’ve come to believe that Pineapple = “Welcome!” Not quite.)

So, maybe affirming that Black Lives Matter or that Love is Love, as precious or as smug or self-righteous as that might seem, is a good idea!

* Italian or Portuguese, now deceased or condo-zed, i.e. forced to move because their building had been converted to condos—or, possibly, because they no longer could afford their rent.