Thank you, Blanche

“Blanche on the Lam” by Barbara Neely.

If you, like many of my friends, believe that summer reading = murder mysteries, please add Barbara Neely’s amazing Blanche White series to your queue. (You may have already discovered these wonderful books and I’m late to the party!) What a premise: that an ignored, heavy-set servant in a grey uniform and small, white apron sees, hears, reasons, and, ultimately, brilliantly solves mysteries/saves the day—all the while inwardly noting how racism plays out in her dealings with her white employers.

Propitiously, this has been the perfect week to consider the role of servant as I, having finished Blanche on the Lam,  have also been preparing to give a talk at my Quaker meeting on George Fox’s Christology. (Here’s another form of summer escapism: Get all wonky and in-the-weeds-obsessed by something you know nothing about and are therefore required to look up every other word!) The founder of Quakerism, in 1647 Fox declared:  Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.

What did the word Christ mean for George Fox? I’ve spent this week asking this question. And have learned that, apparently, in one of many ways he differed from his contemporaries, Fox believed, as did both Peter and Stephen, that Christ  meant “servant.” *  ( When Fox used the word Christ he also meant “Prophet.” And “Light.” And “The Word”/Logos— as in the Preface to the gospel of John; what a stunning piece of writing! And . . . )

Not sure how this bit o’pedantry will land on my (mostly white) listeners this Sunday. (Not matter what our race or class, “servant” is a loaded word to twenty-first-century ears, isn’t it? But surely this version of Christ—another loaded word—meant something quite different for Fox’s seventeeth-century listeners.) Thanks to Blanche/Barbara Neely, however, I’ve been gifted with much to think about and consider!

*Benson, Lewis, (1974) George Fox’s Teaching About Christ, Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 39, Article, 3, p. 34.

 

 

In Plain Sight

“Dead End.” Street sign seen through my window during Nor’easter # 2 (of 3, so far.) March 8, 2018

New England weather such as it right now, I’m reading more. Needing to replenish my books-to-read queue, between storms I stopped by The Book Rack, a funky, used-bookstore in Arlington, MA. Perusing its chock-a-block “Classics” section, I spotted a paperback edition of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and, vaguely remembering something about its feminist pedigree, gladly paid a whopping $3.00 for Chopin’s “masterpiece”—as declared by its faded, blue, time-worn cover.

The Awakening was first published in 1899, shocking Victorian readers with its frank acknowledgement of female sexuality. So there’s that. Kate Chopin, born in 1851, is a stunningly beautiful writer. So there’s that. The Awakening details how wealthy, New Orleans-based Creole families vacation pre-air conditioning. So there’s that.

There this, too:

Madame Lebrun was busily engaged at the sewing machine. A little black girl sat on the floor, and with her hands worked the treadle of the machine. [Madame Lebrun] does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health . . . The sewing machine made a resounding clatter in the room; it was a ponderous, bygone make. In the lulls, Robert and his mother exchanged bits of desultory conversation.  (p. 38, AVON BOOKS, 1972.)

What are we to make of this? Is that sarcastic remark regarding Madame Lebrun’s delicate health meant to elicit sympathy for the little black girl producing such resounding clatter? Maybe. A child performing a function most contemporaries of Madame Lebrun—who owns the resort where these Creole families vacation—would have performed themselves? Perhaps. So is Chapin slyly asking us to consider that child?

I wish I knew. Definitively. Because I so long to believe that this ground-breaking novelist saw her sewing room scene with woke eyes. But that Chopin supplies that little, black girl with the plainest of adjectives—I mean, c’mon! The sewing machine got fancier labels—but no name tells us something, I think. And that one family’s nanny is simply the quadroon says the same thing, too, I’m afraid.

But here’s the thing. Once I understood that a (probably very hot and thirsty and exhausted) little girl was in that sewing room, too, she participated in every paragraph I read. That nameless child started when, suddenly, Robert, a young man in his twenties, loudly whistled out the opened window to his brother, three stories below. Silently she took in Robert’s and his mother’s conversation—and, perhaps, gauged whatever they discussed in terms of more hardship for herself? She may have even noticed what Robert’s mother did not: that at the mention of Mrs. Pontellier—whose sexual awakening is what this book’s all about—the besotted young man blushed, maybe. Got flustered, maybe. (Chopin merely had him suddenly leave.)

I see you, little black girl. I see you, quadroon.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About Optics 2

Women’s March, Cambridge (MA) Common, January, 2018

Not a visual person and all too willing to lose myself in whatever movie I’m watching, at one point in my life having a daughter-as-set-designer changed how I see a film. Sitting in a movie theater I remind myself: “Someone’s daughter made a zillion decisions about what I see right now.” (Yes. I always think daughter. That’s what I do.) “So I better pay attention.” And I do.

So, recently, finding myself completely swept up in “The Post,” I coached myself again. And, oh my! Because what I saw was “The Female Gaze.” Written by Liz Hannah, this movie has women’s fingerprints all over it! Watch the trailer; pay attention to where the camera is, where Meryl Streep is positioned, what colors she wears, the pictures of her family in the background as she argues with Tom Hanks. The camera LOVES her!  But, more important, wants us to walk in her pointed-toe pumps as she enters smoke-filled rooms filled with men. Did I love, love, love that the movie’s climax is announced by a women reporter? You betcha!

Sure, it’s a Hollywood movie; sure it’s cornball Capra-esque. Isn’t that why we go to movies? To experience multi-sense entertainment that will provide what we crave: romance, shoot-em-up, fantasy, or in the case of “The Post,” a period piece—oh, to hear Walter Cronkite’s voice again!—celebrating what’s best about this currently bedraggled and riven country.

That’s what I needed. That’s what I got—and, thank you, Liz Hannah—the unexpected joy to see what can happen when a gifted, young woman writes a screenplay!

“I’m Sorry”

 

My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”

In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.

“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.

“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”

Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”

Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?

“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”

And I would mean every word.

*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962

 

 

 

Upstream

“Umbro” (Shadow), Union Square, Somerville, MA, August, 2017

There was a time in my life when I told myself,”If I/we can just through this [insert Crisis of The Week here], I/we will be just fine.” This went on for years. Slowly it came to me: there’s always a crisis. Stop saying “If I can just . . . ” and start looking at why this keeps happening. Figure out how to protect yourself from constant fear and anxiety. Figure out what’s going on, upstream, to keep this constant flow coming, coming, coming? (And so, Dear Reader, I did.)

Nevertheless, it took Naomi Klein’s amazing No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics And Winning the World We Need to recognize that the scenario I once knew so painfully is everyone’s, now.

Here’s the bit that did it for me:

Experiencing Trump’s tsunami of Oval Office decrees—seven executive orders in his first eleven full days, plus eleven presidential memoranda issued in that same period—has felt a little like standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines. Opponents might swat back a ball or two, but we’re all still getting hit in the face over and over again. Even the widespread belief among many (or is it hope) that Trump will not last his full term contributes to the collective vertigo: nothing about the current situation is stable or static, which is a very difficult position from which to strategize or organize. (p. 135)

Precisely.

So how do we find our collective footing when we’re all getting hit in the face? (As I write this we are, again, on the edge of nuclear war with North Korea. Dear God! And I marvel that my computer allows me to write those terrifying words without shuddering—and turning itself off.) Naomi Klein offers us a handbook.

Let’s get started.

 

Thank you, Brother West

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY; June, 2017

“I am here because somebody loved me,” Cornel West declared at last week’s Harvard Divinity School convocation. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person hearing his words who didn’t immediately conjure up sopping-wet, helping hands reaching out to someone in need in Houston. Many of us, I’m guessing, silently acknowledged life’s ever-present disasters*—and yet here we all were, safe and dry and ALIVE because, despite their inadequacies, the someones in our own lives had gotten us through.

Talk about inadequate! My words to describe how Brother West‘s declaration moved me will only hint at what I want to say! But here goes:

I felt not just the love of West’s parents and the congregants of Sacramento’s Shiloh Baptist Church and all the loving people in his life—like his teachers; he spoke their names with reverence— that brought him to that (fancy) HDS podium last week, I felt eons of Love. I felt its enormous, glorious Power. I felt every single compassionate and loving act that every single member of our species had ever bestowed, shared, offered to another! Talk about welling up!

In the coming days and weeks, may you, may we find whatever ways available to us to connect with that Power. (We’re going to need it.)

 

*Some of them, like Hurricane Harvey, man-made. (Which makes them that much more devastating, right?)