Friday, June 26, 2009
The grading somehow seems to suck the creative energy out of me. I know everyone hates to grade, yet I think I have a greater aversion to it than most people. Maybe that's just my myopic perspective. I don't mind "editing" student's papers, showing them how to do better, even correcting grammar, even when I want to just tell the student that they need to retake basic English. That part is not directly creative, but it helps the students make something better, which is part of the creativity of editing. Assigning a value, however, feels destructive and makes the whole process simply dreadful. The grade itself becomes the main reason I procrastinate on grading, then become depressed by my procrastination, then procrastinate more, and on and on and on.
The two big posts, the ones about my dad, that drew in more readers than have read both of my books put together, or even who have read my blog in the past two years, also took quite a bit out of me. I wasn't lying on the sofa fetal or sitting exhausted at the computer or anything of that sort. I just didn't want to venture into my head, into that place, even to respond to the wonderful comments.
That's not true, I did want to venture into my head and to respond to comments; but I couldn't quite work up the strength to do so. It was like this: when I was a kid, I would try to swim down to the bottom of the deep end of the pool, or see how far I could swim under water. I would hold my breath for as long as I could, and swim as fast as I could. When I finally came up, my lungs on fire and my ears bursting, I would have to sit on the side of the pool for a minute to catch my breath. I'd have to sit a little longer, too, because my body and my mind needed a few minutes longer to rebuild the energy plus a little more, to psyche myself up, for the next attempt. That was what I was feeling this week. So, I couldn't dive back into that deep end just yet.
In the comments on the "Guilty Daddy-Issues" post, two ideas kept coming up that have been very useful. The first was that this is the human condition to hold two opposing emotions about a person. The second was the impossibility of being whole. While I was writing that post, or when I was at the end of writing that post, I kept thinking about what I had learned in my medieval literature class back as an undergraduate about the Mallory Arthurian tales. That was in 1988 or maybe 1989 -- a long time ago -- and I think some of my memories are also mixed up with the film Excalibur and with other things that I've picked up along the way. In any case, I remember this concept of "wholeness" that ran through the parts of the stories that we read, and that the crisis in Camelot had to do with the "unwholesomeness" of kingdom. The quest for the grail was an effort to restore the wholeness of the kingdom, and many knights died in the process.
The other story that I thought of while reading the comments was Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev. I had that novel for years on my shelf during and after high school, and I never got around to reading it. It disappeared somewhere along the line, then my analyst suggested that I read it. Would you believe that the next day I was in the library and on their "books for sale" shelf I found a copy of that book for $1? So, I bought it and read it.
There was no reason for me to like the book. First of all, it was written by a man and the main character is a man. I'm a bit prejudiced in my choice of recreational reading, and I tend to be prejudiced toward female authors with female characters. Of course, I get quite frustrated at times because, in browsing books, I begin to wonder if anyone can imagine a life for a woman that doesn't center around taking care of someone, marrying someone, or un-marrying someone. "Don't women have adventures?" I demand of the bookshelves. I end up reading a lot of detective fiction because female detectives tend to have lives more like the one I imagine myself having, minus the guns and the life of danger and the bad guy going to jail in the end.
Back to Lev. This is a book by a man, about a man. Not just any man, either, but a religious man. Not just religious, but an Orthodox Jew. Not just an Orthodox Jew, but an Orthodox Jew who has no desire to go outside of his own community. Lev and I had nothing in common. Yet, by the end of the book I was in tears because his story sliced right into the very place that I wrote about in the "Guilty" post.
For those of you who don't know, the story is about a young boy with an intense drive for drawing and painting. He cannot stop himself from portraying the world as he sees it. While he loves and respects his parents, and they love him, they do not understand his need to be an artist. They have devoted their lives to humanitarian work, and find his art frivolous, a waste of time, and borderline blasphemous. Through the intercession of the leader of their community, Lev is permitted to take lessons from a professional artist. In his education, he learns a visual language that helps him to express his passion with greater precision; yet, much of that language is antithetical to his own upbringing and people.
At the end of the novel, Lev creates his masterpiece. He paints his mother as crucified between himself, her son, the artist and his father, her husband, the activist. The entire novel has been about his own struggle, being torn between his love for his parents and community and his love and need for art. At the end, however, he begins to understand how his mother has been torn between her love and duty toward her husband and the same toward her son. The image of the crucifix is not a static image of suffering, but an active image of being torn between two opposing forces. Of course, for a Jew, using a crucifix to express this concept was heretical and a betrayal of his own heritage, and he must leave his family and community.
That masterpiece that he created gave me a powerful image. Not so much the painting, but that Lev stepped away from his own pain to create an image of profound sympathy for his mother and profound understanding of the dynamic in his family. He stepped outside of that dynamic to describe the whole, and he took the risk of using images that ultimately undermined his parents' understanding of the sympathy. He portrayed a truth, and he accepted the consequences for telling that truth, which was the knowledge that he had hurt his parents just as profoundly as he had shown sympathy and that he must live exiled from his community.
The power of that ending for me came with Lev's acceptance of this fundamental struggle between himself and the people who loved him most, but who also caused him the most pain through their rejection of something central to his being; and his acceptance of the struggle between his love for those same people and the ways that he wounded them. There was no resolution, no way to reconcile the two. All he could do was create this masterpiece of sympathy and understanding. His creation was an act of love, even if the people for whom he was expressing it could in no way accept it.
This is to say, that point of crucifixion, or perhaps more accurately that point of being drawn and quartered, of being pulled in opposite directions, of having to hold the point of tension in your own being, that is not only the human condition, but the source of creativity. If you can express that point honestly, it may also be the point of great art. It is not the point of peace.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Remember that frantic series of posts back in April and May over the infernal, internal fellowship and the coordinator with control issues? Yeah, that one. At the end of the whole ordeal, I had agreed to show up and shut up for the remainder of the meetings in the fall semester. Assuming that was the end of the story, I went about my business and tried never to think of the matter. In my best Scarlett O'Hara accent, I told myself, "I won't think about that today. I'll think about that in the fall. After all, the fall is another semester!" I was doing a pretty good job of it, too.
Last week, the dean sent me an e-mail. "We need to meet about your concerns with the fellowship," she wrote. "How about Friday at 3:00 pm."
"Oh, fuck," I said, "What now?" I wrote, "Friday at 3 will be just fine." Then, the fretting, and worrying, and rehearsing, and contacting of the union representative commenced. Plans for drinks with Vuboq afterwards were made. A migraine attempted to take up residence in my head. I ate Skittles for dinner.
On Friday, I appeared at the dean's office. Now, our dean has generally be very fair and good to me. She doesn't take a lot of crap, and she could fall into the category of women who use "strong language." So, I had reason to hope that she was a bit sympathetic to my side. Still, I sat outside of her office sweating like a racehorse.
"How are you doing?" she asked, escorting me into her office.
"To be honest," I told her, "a bit scared."
"Why?" she asked. "I'm not a scary person." Well, actually, she is. She is formidable, and that can be intimidating, but that ain't a bad thing.
"Well," I said, "the last time I was brought into a meeting, late on a Friday afternoon, about my concerns with the fellowship, it turned out to be a meeting about the fellowship's concerns with me."
She asked me to tell her about it, so I did. She said that she had not heard about it until that insufferable coordinator sent out an e-mail to ensure that my schedule would accommodate the fellowship meetings. I'm not sure that the dean was telling the whole truth on that, but I didn't really care if she was being circumspect. I was just grateful that I wasn't being blindsided and gaslighted. "She doesn't hate me!" I thought. "She wants to hear me!"
"God, you're pathetic," my monster told me.
"Go to hell," I told it.
"You promise?" it said.
The dean and I chatted about the fellowship for a while, getting down to my expectations and the failure of the fellowship to meet my needs.
"Do you want to stay with the fellowship," she asked.
"I agreed to shut up and show up," I said.
"But do you want to stay?" she repeated.
I desperately wanted to say, "hell no! Get me out of there! It's a huge waste of my time!"
"Don't," said another monster. "If you do, you walk into a trap. Or you will look bad."
"Here's what I'm afraid of," I said, "when I tried to treat this like a bad fit, to remove myself because I was perceived as hostile and a threat, I was told there would be consequences if I quit. So, I agreed to stay and to not say anything."
"Oooh!" groaned both monsters. "You idiot! You showed her your hand!"
"Well, I won't hold it against you," she said.
"I was worried that this could hurt my employment here," I told her.
"You just get worse," said the monsters.
"You two shut the hell up," said my gut. "Run!" it told me. "Take it and run!"
"It will not affect your employment," she said. "If this isn't working out for you, if it is not meeting your needs, there is really no reason for you to stay in it."
"Take it!" yelled my gut. "Quit the damn thing! Quit now! Do a Snoopy Dance of joy!"
"No affect on my employment?" I asked.
"Not at all," she said. "It would be a waste of your time to stay, and I'm sure you have better things to do." We went back and forth for a minute, my monsters saying, "it's a trap!" while my gut said, "you're free!"
Then, she asked about this summer NEH seminar. "That should turn out much better than this fellowship," she said, indicating the infernal internal thing.
I handed her a press release that the institute sent participants to give to whatever relevant poobahs might want to advertise our participation. It began, "Scholar receives national recognition." My gut gloated.
The dean was impressed. Then she saw the stack of books I had with me. "Are those the books for this?" she asked.
"Some of them," I said. I showed her the reading list, and she was impressed and interested.
"This is what professors should be doing in the summer," she said. "I envy that you can focus more on your subject in the summers."
A few minutes later I left, still feeling a bit naughty, but immensely relieved that I seemed to have clearance from on high to separate myself from this infernal internal fellowship.
I headed back to my car, on the way to drinks and yummy eggplant and sweet potato fries with Vuboq, whose invitation ensured that I had not wasted make-up and hair for a one hour meeting. Of course, compulsively, I began to replay the conversation. After the intial "free, free, free from the fellowship," a few things struck me. First, that the dean seems to see me as a serious scholar, and that she doesn't seem to accord that recognition to everyone. Second, that I have earned a reputation for being "negative." My gut says, "yeah, you are negative. You always have been. Big deal. Accept it. Don't let another damn person tell you that, however you are, you're wrong."
Finally, some of the way that she phrased things reminded me of the way that the coordinator phrased things, and they led me to believe that -- well, let's put it this way, when I say that I expected the fellowship to be conducted at a graduate level (at minimum), I've been told that "there are so many levels" in our fellowship, and that "not everyone" approaches the fellowship from that scholarly level.
My gloating gut wants to say, "see, they think you are smart!" My monsters say, "see, they think you are a snob. You aren't that smart." To which my gut says, "so, it's wrong to expect people with at least a master's degree to engage at that level of analysis, regardless of their subject specialty?" The monsters say, "see? Snob!" Then a third monster says, "oh, you are making too much of nothing." My gut says, "yeah, you are right. Don't zapruder the exchange. You are free!"
May this be the last post ever on this subject!
Then, the monsters say, "oh, karma will get you somehow."
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Next thing I know, three blogs with large readerships have linked to it. First, Historiann, then Shakesville, then Salon's Broadsheet. Holy Cow! I've had more hits in the past week than the whole year and a half prior. Thank you.
The first two links weren't so frightening, because they are sympathetic audiences. The last, well, there are a lot of concern trolls and men who see it their mission to remind women just how wrong and hypocritical feminism is, in the process acting as object lessons in the continued need for feminism; and they like to hang out in the comments at Broadsheet. Fortunately, I seem to be too tiny for them to bother, they would rather attack the writers at Salon with their clueless bats. Thank you to all of the supportive commenters who found something of value in the post.
Anyway, between the posting and the linking, I kept wanting to write. That post had a focus on misogyny in regard to female sexuality as it appeared and is perpetuated in my specific family. I wanted to write about the ways that the misogyny crippled me, made me unable to protect myself when I went out in the world. I wanted to write about the ways that being unable to protect myself made me vulnerable to some horribly exploitative men. I wanted to write about the ways that, as in writing the post, I keep trying to get that scene, that relationship, to end right only to end up more angry and disappointed and hurt. I wanted to write about how I'm just learning that there is no right. I wanted to also write about the homophobia inherent in that sort of misogyny. I wanted to write about a lot of things, and they all wanted to come out at the same time.
And, of course, I had to grade.
Something else wanted to get out, too, and it has made itself clear even as I write this particular post, so this is what this post will be about, now.
As the last post was linked, especially when it was linked by Salon, my guilt grew with every SiteMeter hit. I didn't regret what I wrote, because it was honest. It was what happened; and clearly it resounded because in it, there was truth. Truth about the incident, truth about me, truth about my father, and the larger truth about the intimate ways in which hatred of women is perpetuated. I wrote from that place where personal and political met over my body.
Still, I felt guilt. Justified or not, never underestimate the power of guilt. I also felt a responsibility to tell the whole story, if a whole story is at all possible, or at least give a better picture of the truth, something more accurately honest.
In that post, the clear villain is my dad. He seems like a monster; and if that were a full account of his personality, then he would be a monster. I could write other posts, like the one on homophobia, or the ways that he would go berserk and beat me or threaten to beat me, or even the ways that his desire to protect me actually made me vulnerable to exploitation because he would never teach me how to protect myself. All of these would give a grotesque picture of my father. They would not be wrong. They would not be lies, just as the last post was not a lie. They are true; but they aren't the whole messy truth.
If you met my father, you would never guess these ugly things about him. You'd think he was a bit old fashioned, but you also might be struck by the ways that he is not old fashioned or the ways in which he has worked to be part of the modern world. You might also be struck by how friendly he is. Not friendly in that schmoozing politician way, but genuinely friendly and kind. He will be interested in you, ask you about yourself, demonstrate curiosity and generosity. You'd like him.
You wouldn't be seeing a facade. He actually is very generous, to the point that you worry someone will take advantage of him. I feel there have been points in my life in which I have taken advantage of him, or failed to show deserved levels of gratitude toward the ways that he did provide me with real protection or a safety net. He held off my mother's rages against me when I decided to work for a year after high school, rather than go to college. Although I didn't ask for it, he got me the interview for the job that gave me that choice in the first place. He let me live at home through college and beyond, when I was unemployed or marginally employed and aimless. He helped me make the jump from That Place to the Middle of Nowhere (which was a good move), when I didn't even have the money to make a move to a better life. He lets me pay him back when I can, and told me that I didn't need to pay him back at all. He has given me tons of advice on cars, on homes, on professional behavior, on the millions of little things on which dads give advice.
When I think of the good things about my dad, I see several different scenes. I see him listening to music. He loves all sorts of folk-types of music. Not hippie-folk, but polka, klezmer, bagpipe -- you name it, especially if it has horns. He loves horns. I see him repair horns, hammering out dents, cleaning out valves, refinishing the polish, buffing them, testing their sound. He can take a piece of junk and turn it into something beautiful to see and hear. I see him listen to music. He disappears into the sound the way I did at rock concerts in high school. I will always remember him playing "Amazing Grace" by Black Watch and weeping. He can be terribly sentimental that way.
I remember him at both of my grandfathers' funerals, crying louder than anyone there. I remember him wailing when his father's casket closed. I remember him saying about my mother's father that my mother's father had shown him that a man can love another man as a friend. I remember that he was more upset at that funeral than my mother was. I see him more concerned for the welfare of my mother's mother than my mother is.
I see him building my dollhouse for me, back when I was a kid and wanted one so badly. I see him take joy in creating this thing for me and making me happy. I remember him also making model airplanes when I was a child, painting one pink for me to hang from my ceiling (the pink was my request -- I was a girly-girl, which was more complicated than you might think). I see him populating my brothers' ceilings with whole squadrons of planes.
I could go on and on with little, almost insignificant snapshots of the ways that he wanted us, loved us, and wanted to protect us from everything bad in the world; and I am shocked that these stories don't come out of me with the passion, the intensity, and the cohesion that the bad ones do. They are just as true as the bad ones, and they make me feel like I've betrayed him by remembering the bad ones at all.
I try to explain the bad stories, the ones that left behind the worst pain. I want to understand and forgive him for them. He is not an inherently, actively evil person; but he grew up the favorite child in an extended family, in the south, in the 1950s. How could he not have those appalling ideas about women? He was a product of his time. He is a person simultaneously good and bad. He is complicated and those bad stories are a facet of the full person. Were he anyone but my father, this would be easy to understand and internalize. The hollow sound of rationalization would not ring so loudly.
Yet, he is my father. We are part of this perverse intimacy between parents and children that can make sympathy nearly impossible. He did perpetuate misogyny, and he had a daughter who felt it. There is that undeniable fact that the events in those bad stories fundamentally distorted me, which caused me to make unwise choices out in the world, which compounded the same misery that those bad stories produced in the first place. There is the undeniable fact that my brothers, and now my nephews, learned the same misogyny. I cannot disavow the bad stories, and I cannot disavow the good ones.
Our family was always one of extremes. The combustible alchemy of my parents' marriage produced moments of intense love and equally intense hate, of abuse and salvation, of explosive emotion and deafening silence, all with nothing in the middle. Love was never simple, never pure, never without limits, often without respect, and never without intense pain.
Thus, with my dad, there is this monstrous father and this loving one. To tell only one side or the other is to betray one of us or the other. I have no idea how to reconcile any two parts of any of this -- the monstrous father and the loving father, the ungrateful daughter and the wounded daughter, the person of the father and the person of the daughter, him and me. I have no idea how to reconcile these parts and remain honest. I have no idea how to be whole.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
The summer that I turned 20, my father said that women were like shoes. "You have your fancy dress shoes that you wear out on special occasions," he proclaimed, "and you have your sneakers that you kick around the house in."
Technically, he was not saying this to me. Mr. Fred, our neighbor, had come over with his son "Little" Fred, and they were milling about the living room with my two brothers. If I'm remembering correctly, the day was Father's Day, and the two dads were teasing the older two boys, asking if they had any reason to celebrate the day.
"No way," said my brother.
"Thank god, no," said Little Fred.
"Yeah," said Mr. Fred, "you gotta be careful."
Now, the conversation could have turned toward safe sex, and the man's shared responsibility in birth control; or it could have just dropped. Instead, it went on to advice about women, and how women will "trap you," all with an implied pride that their sons were out "getting some."
At that point, my father issued his proclamation about women as shoes. All of the other men laughed and heartily agreed, adding that they liked the sneakers better because the dress shoes were too "high maintenance." One even bragged, "I have nothing but sneakers." Notice the plural. They all congratulated one another on being such hound dogs.
I was in the living room with them, stretching my calves out on the edge of the fireplace hearth, getting ready to go for a run. My mother was in the kitchen, which wasn't really entirely separate from the living room. So, it wasn't as if they were in the locker room metaphorically measuring dicks -- not that that scenario would make their statements any better. They were in the presence of women, women with whom three of them lived, throughout these exchanges.
I protested. "You can't be serious," I said. They all agreed that they were. "That ridiculous," I said.
"But it's a reality," my dad said.
"Well, what about your wives?" I asked, being as how my mom was standing right there.
"Sometimes you find a woman who can be both sneakers and dress shoes," Mr. Fred and my dad agreed.
I looked to my mom to see how she reacted, if she was going to say anything. She just shrugged, but not in the "this is too stupid to dignify with a response" way. She shrugged in a world weary way, one that said, "I've given up fighting this shit and just take it."
"What about me, then?" I asked. "What if some guy treated me like the sneakers?" I knew what they meant by "sneakers." I had seen the way my brother acted towards the women he fucked and cast off, without telling them, of course. They would call and call and call. If he decided that he was bored enough to talk to them, he would barely veil his contempt, telling them that they were just "fish," or worse.
When I refused to go out on a date with a boy who had asked, or wouldn't go on a second date with a guy, or spurned some boy's near-stalker attention, I was told that I was being cruel and a bitch. That word was used, "a bitch." The same was not being said to my brother. When I asked my dad to talk to my brother about his behavior, to explain to my brother that some girls fall in love and that he should avoid those girls if he just wanted some no-frills sex, my dad said, "That's not your brother's problem. If the girls are stupid enough to think he loves or respects them because he has sex with them, then they deserve what they get."
Despite that, I honestly expected my dad to stand up for me. I actually believed that he might see the flaws in his logic if I brought it home to me, to some guy treating me like a blow-up doll, or shoes. I forgot that this was the same man who, when I was 14 and having a very dark depressive episode, told me that I needed to "get up off the couch, go have fun, and let guys play with my tits." Maybe he said "boobs" instead of "tits;" but that was not the point. Aside from experiencing eight types of squick, I felt as if he was telling me that the way out of depression was to make my body available to boys. That my body was not mine, but theirs. On top of that, it wasn't as if I was a boy-crazy teenager or had a boyfriend or even wanted a boyfriend. What he said was wrong.
I also forgot that this was the man who told me that girls who were raped on dates were asking for it. In fact, that was how I first learned what rape was. One of my parents was sitting on a jury for a statutory rape case when I was 11 or12. I wanted to know what that meant. They told me that a young girl would seduce a man, then regret it the next morning and have the man arrested for rape.
I forgot that this was the man who, when I got angry at my brothers for cheering a rapist on during a rape scene in a movie, told me that it was no big deal. It was a very big deal to me, since I had nearly been raped on a date just a few months earlier. I never told my parents about it. I was sure they would not be sympathetic. My mother might be, but she wouldn't be open with her sympathy for the same reason that her shrug conveyed he acceptance of a life with men who held her in contempt for being female.
That last point, the overall contempt for my mother and I for being female, I thought I could change. I thought it was something that could be changed because I think I actually bought the line about all of their appalling sexist behavior really being in jest. I thought that I could do something to make that change by turning this stupid shoe analogy back on my father by invoking his sympathy for me.
"What about me, then," I asked. "What if some guy treated me like the sneakers?"
"I'd feel sorry for you," he said, "but I'd understand him."
In that moment, I knew that my father did not respect me. After 2 decades of similar incidents, I finally realized that by simple fact of 2 X chromosomes, I was never going to be a full person to him. My brothers would go through the world as men, while I was supposed to go through the world for men. Men were full people, and I was not. What's more, I was supposed to embrace that role, and any rejection of it was a problem with me, not with the world.
Several years later, my brother told our ditto-head cousin that the reason I was so "into" feminism was because a boyfriend in college had treated me badly. "In college?" I said. "Oh, it began way before that, and he was part of the process." My family still thinks I will get over feminism, especially if I start dating a guy, preferably a conservative guy with traditional notions of gender.
It's a crushing experience, having to love your oppressor, knowing that he doesn't mean to be cruel, knowing that he loves you, but he just cannot accept you as a full person. But you grow up, and the damage becomes yours to fix, and you fix it however you can. You can be in their presence and give the shrug that says "this is too stupid to acknowledge" when they display their misogyny.
Then, you get nephews. Sweet, interesting, little boys who could grow up to be sweet, interesting grown men. Could. They think that you are kinda cool too, because they are little boys and have no real frame of reference. Then, you see their fathers (your brothers) and their grandfather, praising them for grabbing women's breast, teaching them to say the most disgusting sexists words, and telling them that if they whine or cry (as small children do) that they are being "girls" and being a "girl" is bad. You see that, and you see these sweet little boys are being taught to hate you.
You know that this same process is going on in a million houses with a million little boys, too young to know the difference. They will grow up and marry women who give the shrug of capitulation to sexism and raise more misogynists. That is how misogyny is taught and learned; and it is an ugly, soul-killing sight.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
These, taken with my "cheapest one in the store" digital camera, do not begin to do justice to the sense of impending Armageddon marching across the sky, especially after the wind began to rattle the windows and send the gargoyles knocking about. Only bolts of lightening were missing.
Monday, June 08, 2009
That first line, "now I quietly wait for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting and modern," and later, the landscape that is "less funny not just darker, not just gray"-- the combinations of those words seemed so startling and authentic, and yet also familiar. The rest of the poem is equally painful, equally accurate.
The day after that episode aired, I surfed through Google to track down their source, discovering that Meditations in an Emergency was, in fact, an actual volume of poetry containing the rest of this poem and that a poet named Frank O'Hara actually existed (Mad Men does strive for some accuracy).
The most interesting thing that turned up about Frank O'Hara, aside from his fascination with seemingly everything artistic and creative, was that he tried to write a poem a day. He would go out on his lunch hour from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and write a poem. "How amazing," I thought. Not so much that he wrote a poem a day, but that he went out looking for that poem, and the looking seemed to be the point.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
I have to go in and say "this cannot happen" because it shouldn't, and I shouldn't be held responsible because it is. Hell, I'm cracking because it is. I can't concentrate and my nerves are shot, poking through in all of the wrong places, making me depressed.
When I say something is making me "depressed," it is the equivalent of someone else saying that their stress-induced eczema is flaring up, or migraines have returned, or something of that sort. Then, I want to drink to escape my own self. Drinking is not the smartest reaction, feeding depression with a depressant. Drinking is my early-warning system that something is very awry.
Today, I imagined breaking open my own body and walking out of it, leaving behind the shell. My thoughts have become all jumbled, and I wandered around the apartment trying to remember what I was looking for only to realize that I wanted the exit. The shadows creep out of the corners. The air feels stale and unbreatheable, suffocating. I can't read, or watch t.v., or write, or find any little place in which to escape for an hour or so of relief. A flush of dark liquid washes through me. All of the colors and light seem not quite adjusted, not quite clear. I can't do anything, and in not being able to do anything, I can do even less. This is not good.
In other words, my health is becoming impaired and it is interfering with my ability to do my job well.
I have to go in and say "this cannot happen, and here are the reasons why" -- but the reasons can't be my health. They won't be. I'll come up with a good, well-reasoned argument. I'm too tired to let other people's poor planning become my problem. I have to defend my borders. I was a good little teacher this year. I have earned a moment of respite, a moment to hope for some releif, for sanity's sake!
That is all.
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
In late April, the fine arts department had an exhibition of Robert Houston's photographs from Resurrection City, the tent city set up as part of the Poor People's Campaign of 1968. The Poor People's Campaign was and effort to make the Civil Right Movement one about class, including Latinos, Native Americans, and Appalachian whites as well as the impoverished African Americans who had already been the core of the Movement. By 1968, many Civil Rights activists believed that their struggles had benefited the black middle class, while the majority of African Americans continued to live in abject poverty both in the country and in the cities. With Martin Luther King, Jr., and Marian Edelman heading the program, activists began mobilizing poor people regardless of race.
In school buses, by foot, on mule drawn wagons, between 2,000 and 5,000 began converging on Washington, D.C., on May 14, 1968 with plans to lobby Congress and various government agencies for an economic bill of rights. They proposed spending $30 billion on programs to provide full employment, a guaranteed annual income, increased construction of low-income housing, and rebuilding inner cities. Three billion dollars was a mere fraction of the $140 billion being spent on the war in Vietnam where the bulk of the fighting -- and dying -- was done by men from destitute rural regions and inner cities.
Arriving at the Mall, the marchers raised "Resurrection City." Temporary housing -- tents, really -- that could be constructed in under an hour popped up near the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial, in the approximate location of the Korean War Memorial today. Planners had obtained a permit for use of the area, and the permit excluded the D.C. and park police forces. The residents of the city would police themselves. They elected Ralph Abernethy as mayor, and set up infrastructure for a functioning town -- although Houston admitted that some of the facilities, such as water and sewage, were pilfered from public facilities or were probably not specifically covered by the permit.
For the next forty-two days, Resurrection City remained intact; but, of course, the project was doomed. The focus on a disproportionate distribution of wealth and the implicit (and often explicit) criticism of the war alienated white liberals and gave more proof to conservatives that the movement was "un-American" and infested with communists. Seven thousand people protested the campaign, legislators ignored their pleas, and even nature seemed aligned against the residents of Resurrection City.
Of those forty-two days, twenty-eight brought downpours that flooded the makeshift streets, often raising water levels above the platform floors of the city's tents.
Rumors began circulating that the government had seeded the clouds to rain out the protest.
Wet, frustrated by the lack of response from government legislators, demoralized by John F. Kennedy's assassination so close on the heels of King's, residents of Resurrection City began to drift away. By June 24th, only a few hundred remained.
On June 24th, the government acted. One thousand police officers entered the grounds. Wielding tear gas, accompanied by snarling dogs, and followed by a team of bulldozers, the officers forced approximately 300 remaining residents out of the city. One hundred and seventy five were arrested, including the mayor Abernethy. Within a week, no trace of Resurrection City remained.
Little still remains of the experiences of the people who committed themselves in this campaign. The city did not generate the sort of records that would constitute the evidence for an institutional history. The newspapers were hostile to the whole endeavor. We have the memories of the participants. We also have these photographs, taken by Robert Houston, who understood the need to record the conditions of the people who participated and of Resurrection City itself.
These are some of the images included in the exhibit:
This one fascinated me first because of the white doll. I had just taught about the experiments involving white dolls in the Brown case, and an older (older than me) woman in our class told me the difficult time she had as a child in finding dolls that looked like her during this same period. We had a nice discussion on the function of dolls in the lives of little girls, and how this affects their sense of self.
"How can I?" I thought. I always think that when such calls for action are issued. "I teach history. I couldn't make an impact on collection policy when I was an archivist," I thought, "heck! I couldn't make a living as an archivist in order to get to a place where someone might allow me to have an impact. I'm not a journalist nor a photographer nor an activist; but shouldn't there be something I could contribute?"
I am a teacher. I am a teacher and I can force my students to do this sort of recording and collecting through my own assignments. I could make them go out and take pictures of things and write essays about what those things tell them, and future generations, about African American life and history. I could even make these pictures and essays public on a blog (with their permission, of course). They could actively create this record of history. They could become the record-makers and thus, the history-makers.
Thus, the blog assignment came into being, to be piloted in these crushing summer classes. The students have two posts to create. The first has to do with existing historic sites, places, artifacts, museum exhibits, and so forth. This part of the assignment adds another layer to the mission of the project. By recording these existing records or monuments to African American history, they are creating a record of the ways that the history is being commemorated right now in 2009. This part came to me both out of the need to make the assignment directly relevant to the courses that don't cover the 21st century, and after I came across an entry in Susan B. Anthony Slept Here that described a "permanent" exhibit on women in the American History museum, which no longer exists. The second post requires them to photograph (or record) something about African American life today, including evidence of African or Afro-Caribbean immigration.
For both posts, they must write an essay explaining what the image depicts, where the item in the image is located, when they took the image, the dates associated with the item in the image (for instance, when was this monument erected, or that marker place and by whom), why they chose this image, and what they think it tells us and the future about African American history and life today. This way, not only do they have agency in determining what image should be included in this record, but they also have agency in interpreting its meaning.
Since this is the first semester of the project, we are in a sort of experimental state. I have to see what they come up with in order to figure out how the assignment should be tweaked, refined and clarified for the fall. I know that I'm going to have to incorporate some readings about public history, there is a good one about "popular history-making" that will be the first, and my old standby from Lies Across America that puts them in a critical state of mind. In any case, I'll let you know how it develops!
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Many is the day that I just cannot face another screen for another second. I become nauseated. My thoughts feel sluggish as they work their way between my brain and my fingers. I feel the outlines of a headache working their way through the nervous tissue in my skull. Just bringing up the log-in page of my work e-mail causes my stomach to churn and something like a stone to sink to the bottom of my guts. I just cannot face another shining, flickering, mesmerizing surface for another second longer. They drain the life out of me.
This feeling usually sets in during the afternoon, usually after a long morning of writing, internet surfing, and online grading. Friday, I had this feeling and decided to knock-off and go work-out. Since the weather vacillated between the threat of rain and torrents of rain, I went to the gym. As I worked up a good jog on the treadmill, I expected the screen fatigue to go away. Instead, the nausea lingered.
Of course it lingered, I realized. Not a foot from my face, a screen blocked my vision. The treadmills have little television screens attached so that you can watch and run at the same time. You can even change channels, attach your earphones to the speakers and turn on the closed captioning all from the treadmill console. I had the t.v. off, but in my line of sight, just above the treadmill's screen, a row of televisions suspended from the ceiling offer up the exiting fare of daytime soap operas, talk shows, and music videos. I was surrounded by screens!
I'm not an unwitting victim in this. I fully participate. I spend, at the very least, five hours or more online at a time. I keep the t.v. on for several hours a day, not so much watching as maintaining a background noise to preoccupy the restless parts of my brain that interfere with boring and mundane tasks like house work or bill paying. The t.v. keeps my brain from wandering into the dark shadowy places that can knock me into a dangerous funk that has an indeterminable end.
For this reason, a lack of screen unmoors me. I feel disconnected, much like being a child first learning to swim. You cling desperately to the side of the pool, then you take a few strokes out, feeling excited and thrilled, but you always kick and thrash your way back because you are uncertain about your ability to stay far from the land. The lack of support unnerves you, leaves you out of full control and cut off from solidity.
Despite the unmoored feeling of screenlessness, when I am unscreened, I like to stay that way for a while. The lack of connection, the lack of a screen, cures the nausea. I feel as if oxygen enters my bones and veins, cleaning out sediment and brushing away dust. My cells plump, and I feel as clean as if I had stepped out of a shower. I can breathe with the full expansion of my lungs; and I don't want to ruin that with a computer or a television or even a quick peek at the e-mail with my phone.
Inevitably I return. I fixate on the computer, then turn on the television to distract my stray thoughts. Now, however, I think I will go unmoor myself.
Monday, June 01, 2009
Since I will be in Baltimore later in the summer, I've decided to put some focus on the women early in Douglass's life. These include his mother, Harriet Bailey; his grandmother, Betsey Bailey; his first wife, Anna Murray; and two mistresses, Lucretia Anthony Auld and Sophia Keithly Auld. There will be others in there, for sure, since he didn't grow up in a vacuum nor a purely homosocial world; but these are the core.
You know how you become so familiar with a particular text that you sort of stop going back to it after a while? (Or is that just me?) Well, several years have passed since I last read the Narrative with any great attention to detail. So, I picked it up again, with an eye toward culling the things he says about these women, looking for clues to the women themselves and for the ways that he interprets their lives.
He starts at the beginning of his life, acknowledging the absence of information given to him about his birth and parentage. In this autobiography, both of his parents are a mystery to him. His mother because he had so little contact with her before she died, and his father because he never knew the identity of that father, only that he might have been his white master.
To reconstruct his mother, Harriet's life, I must determine where she was and when. She had several children before and after Douglass, and perhaps died from puerperal fever after the birth of her last, Harriet -- the one who provided Ruth Cox Adams with her alias during her years as a fugitive. I would be remiss if I didn't try to document where she lived, where she worked, when she worked, and the sort of romantic or sexual relationships in which she may have been involved.
In this first chapter of the Narrative, Douglass writes of his aunt, Hester (sometimes Esther in other records). Hester was involved with a black man, Ned. Aaron Anthony, master of Douglass's family, seemed to have designs on her himself. As Douglass opens this scene, he has already described Anthony as particularly brutal in beating the female slaves. When Anthony discovers Hester with Ned, he gives her a savage beating in the kitchen where the child Douglass -- maybe 7 or 8 years old -- lives. This incident, told within a page after the introduction then dispatch of his mother, and so soon after the introduction of the idea that this vicious and jealous master was his father, underscores the sexual danger in which all women -- including Harriet Bailey -- lived as slaves in general, and under this master in particular.
Now, this is where I start to feel like a big ole perv as a historian. In order to determine either the voluntary liaisons -- such as those between Hester and Ned -- or the involuntary assaults -- as existed between Hester and Aaron Anthony -- that could have produced children, I have to discover where Harriet was in the nine months before the birth of her children. This is tricky on all counts given that any date involved here will essentially be an educated guess rather than a certainty. Douglass was born in 1818. He suspected that he had been born in February. If someone were going to make an estimate as to his paternity, they would have to determine who could have had access to his mother, either by permission or not, in 1817.
Sure, all of this guessing is unscientific; but no less so than just assuming that Aaron Anthony was the father-rapist.
This is where we touch on one of the unexpected fascinating aspects to the Narrative, in which we get a glimpse into a complicated set of both business and personal relationships among the different classes of whites in Talbot County. Anthony was overseer at a larger plantation owned by Edward Lloyd, but had his own slaves and own property being overseen elsewhere. Perry Stewart was the overseer and tenant on Anthony's Holme Hill farm. Stewart hired Harriet Bailey on that farm, and Betsey Bailey, Harriet's mother, lived in a cabin a distance away from Stewart's house on the farm. Douglass relates being born and living with his grandmother there until he was 7 or 8. Harriet arrived on the farm to work for Stewart in 1817, and she stayed there until 1821. Her last child was born around 1822.
To make a finer point: Harriet arrived on the farm in 1817 and gave birth to Douglass there in 1818. I'm going to have to carry myself over to Annapolis this week or next (jury duty this week) to see if I can ferret out some more specific dates.
Dickson Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass, a meticulously researched biography of Douglass's life in the years covered by the Narrative, assumes that Anthony was Douglass's father and that Douglass was conceived during Anthony's visits to the farm. "But what about Stewart?" I wondered. "I can't be the first person to suspect him. I mean, in casting about for fathers, wouldn't you look at a few more suspects, especially if one was more frequently in the vicinity of the mother, whether she liked it or not?"
Meanwhile -- this being a Sunday afternoon when I'm getting into all of this -- I took a quick look through the biographies on my bookshelf. Most biographers haven't paid that much attention to Harriet. She's Douglass's mother, maybe she could read, maybe she looked like an Egyptian prince, maybe she was Anthony's mistress, maybe a lot of things. Not a lot of investigation outside of the Preston book. Even then, everyone takes Douglass's account at face value.
Of course, this part of his life is not particularly central to any of the biographies other than Preston's. William McFeely is the only biographer who considers Stewart as a possible father for Douglass, then he does so only in passing, referring to Stewart as "Mr. Stewart" only. (This is a common feature of that particular biography: lots of provocative conjecture, but not a whole lot to back it up. Not that the ideas aren't interesting, but he doesn't have a whole lot of that educated guess process engaged to explore the ideas.)
Now, of course, Douglass himself doesn't mention Stewart as a possible father either. In the Narrative, he only writes, "The whisper that my master was my father may or may not be true," before he dismisses its importance entirely for the larger point that he was a slave regardless of the race of his father and that the law encouraged the rape of enslaved women. In the Narrative, then, he seems to reject his father -- whoever the father was -- because there was no tie of affection, because his father rejected him, and because the rumored candidate would have conceived Douglass through rape. Historians have placed the focus on Anthony (I'll have to check about later clues about Douglass on Anthony) because the Master as Father is more symbolic of the system of sexual exploitation at large. In fact, Preston's sections on Anthony deal more with Anthony as a white father-figure than as a biological father.
My story, however, is not about Douglass and his father. My story is about Harriet Bailey and the conditions under which she lived, conditions that placed her life in danger, conditions that caused her pregnancy, conditions that severed ties of affection with her children or black men, conditions that may have taken her life; and, also, how we can ascertain those conditions from what little we know about her and other women like her.
For Harriet's story, Douglass's father was not a symbol. He was a real man, one whom she may have cared for, one whom she may have despised, or one whom she may have tolerated because she had no other choice. This seemingly simple an too easily dismissed or explained question, "who was Douglass's father?" opens a host of questions about the material life of his mother. Where did she work, what did she do, who might she have loved, what violence did she endure? How much did the reality of her life differ from what Douglass remembered? What exactly did Douglass remember? How did he interpret those memories and to what purpose? What might her life tell us about the lives of women on that plantation, in that county, on the Eastern Shore, in Maryland, about the lives of other African American women in Douglass's life? What, for instance, might her life and the life of Ruth Cox Adams (the other Harriet Bailey) taken together -- too young women in slavery within 12 miles of one another -- tell us about those very same questions? How about the way that enslaved women were used in the abolitionist propaganda --their bodies as symbols more than lives -- and how did that fit with the actual African American women involved in the movement?
This is just some of that pre-writing writing to get at the questions and holes in my research. Right now, my most immediate tasks will be to collect Douglass's accounts of his mother, to go over to Annapolis to get at the Anthony documents, and maybe to get over to the courthouse in Easton to find out if there are any clues to anything over there. Oh, and to see if anyone else has gone down the Stewart-as-father path before me.