You’ll see that this posted is dated January 21, but when I started writing it was still the 20th, in the last few minutes of Dr. King’s birthday; so bear with me here.
Actually, here’s James Baldwin; let him talk about it. I feel like this country’s racial history gets so sanitized in the mainstream telling of it, and knowing accounts like Baldwin’s in No Name in the Street and elsewhere feels like a good way out of that trap, from this distance.
…Martin had been quite moving that day. Marlon (carrying a cattle prod, for the purpose of revealing the depravity of the South) and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and some others of us had been called away to do a Voice of America show for Ed Murrow, and so we watched and listened to Martin on television. All of us were very silent in that room, listening to Martin, feeling the passion of the people flowing up to him and transforming him, transforming us. Martin finished with one hand raised: “Free at last, free last, praise God Almighty, I’m free at last!” That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony. The people quietly dispersed at nightfall, as had been agreed. Sidney Poitier took us out to dinner that night, in a very, very quiet Washington. The people had come to their capitol, had made themselves known, and were gone: no one could any longer doubt that their suffering was real. …I was in Hollywood when, something like two weeks later, my phone rang, and a nearly hysterical, white, female CORE worker told me that a Sunday school in Birmingham had been bombed, and that four young black girls had been blown into eternity. That was the first answer we received to our petition.
The Dial Press, 1972
And here is Anna Deavere Smith’s reading of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail,’ set to violin and piano, in one long tangled, urgent breath. Code to embed is not working, so a link will have to do.
Here are four stories I read in 2013 - in 2013 because it’s the quiet end of December when we shrug off/look back upon the old year, and four because I like to be specific. I don’t know if 2013 was a good year or not, on the whole. I mean, I don’t know if it was a good year for me personally - I remember that I cried a lot but I don’t exactly remember why? And whether the balance tipped toward good for all of us together as one this year is definitely impossible to determine and probably too dumb to even consider, and I’m already sorry that I started thinking about it.
I wish we had fewer rituals for these dregs-of-winter months. Different rituals. I wish we ritualized the food and the time with family for their own sakes’, unattached to anything nostalgic or religious. Also I wish we didn’t stigmatize those who don’t or can’t participate in these rituals in accepted ways. Participation is not perfectly fun and easy even in good circumstances. December contains my birthday, on the same day as my mother’s birthday, right in line with Christmas, and then the new year shows up before I can even put my pants on properly. December is heavy. And I would call my circumstances good.
Anyway, I won’t draw conclusions about any of these stories; they don’t share a common theme, and they don’t sum up the year or make it make sense. But some of them remind me of where I was when I first read them and how I felt then, or now remember feeling. And I think they’re all worth reading again.
"Sell Out," Simon Rich, in four parts (1, 2, 3, 4), January 29. God it’s funny. It’s a story about an early 20th century Jewish immigrant to New York living a hard immigrant life, working in a pickle factory:
One day at work I fall into brine and they close the lid above me by mistake. Much time passes; it feels like long sleep. When the lid is finally opened, everybody is dressed strange, in colorful, shiny clothes. I do not recognize them. They tell me they are “conceptual artists” and are “reclaiming the abandoned pickle factory for a performance space.” I realize something bad has happened in Brooklyn.
I read this at work at the beginning of the year. I had two jobs then, and two completely different jobs now, which is an outcome I would not have predicted back in January. Anyway, the job where I read this was the one where I scanned government documents (state park brochures, state prison records, state government phone directories, etcetera) from the 1920s-1990s and sometimes even the 1910s, “for archival purposes” (it says on my resume). I was able to scan with one hand and browse the ‘Net with the other. I browsed so much. The repetition and the quiet room made for a lot of empty brain space which I readily filled with Internet. This Rich piece was especially good for that. I laughed a lot and I felt jealous that I am not that funny.
"Texts From a Jack-O-Lantern," Mallory Ortberg, October 30. Well, all of the Texts From stories are wonderful, it almost feels like cheating to include one here. This one in particular is responsible for at least one of the times I cried in the past year. I first read it while waiting for a bus home. I read it again later while eating Dots (the candy) and avoiding my Halloween costume (it was Halloween and I’m not that good at Halloween), which is when I cried a little (I accidentally typed “a lot” at first, but I honestly just cried a little). I tried to explain it to my boyfriend later on (“it’s this piece where this jack-o-lantern is texting its owner, and the jack-o-lantern is really innocent and sweet, and it’s just funny, but sad”) but you can’t explain these things.
"Mandela and the Question of Violence," Ta-Nehisi Coates, December 11. I was reading an obituary for Nelson Mandela at work (different job than the other one, similar possibilities for Internet-reading) and it mentioned that the U.S. government did not remove Mandela from its terrorist watch list until 2008. 2008. I read this aloud to my coworker, pretty incredulous, and he was like, “oh wow, yeah.” Wow, I agreed. And then he was like, “you know, Mandela did amazing things. But I really regret that he used violent tactics, you know? It’s a shame.” “Oh yeah, sure,” I said carefully. “I also regret that apartheid was… umm… violent.” Violence bad. Bad violence. Uh-huh. Let Ta-Nehisi Coates tell it:
Mandela and the ANC were “terrorists.” The Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956, the Northern Alliance opposing the Taliban, the Libyans opposing Gaddafi were “freedom fighters.” Thomas Friedman hopes for an “Arab Mandela” one moment, while the next telling those same Arabs to “suck on this.” The point here is not that nonviolence is bunk, but that it is is bunk when invoked by those who rule by the gun.
In the shadow of our conversation, one sees a constant, indefatigable specter which has dogged us from birth. For the most of American history, very few of our institutions believed that black people were entitled to the rights of other Americans. Included in this is the right of self-defense. Nonviolence worked because it conceded that right in the pursuit of other rights. But one should never lose sight of the precise reasons why America preaches nonviolence to some people while urging other people to arms.
Rape Joke, Patricia Lockwood, July 25. I don’t have a lot of commentary for this one. It’s a poem. It needs a content warning (rape, rape culture). It has 199 comments, which is extraordinary for The Awl these days and especially for a poem on The Awl, but don’t read a lot of them. I don’t remember where I was when I read it, but I remember how I felt. Just don’t read the comments at all, actually. It’s a powerful poem, that’s all.
It’s the end of December, that’s all.
Photo credit: Yeshiva University Museum/flickr
At The Hairpin (yes I’m linking to them twice in a row, whatever) they’re sending off the year with a series honoring their women of the year ("the women of our year"), and the first entry is Erykah Badu. Well ok. I’m going to read that if I come across it, you know? Here’s a nice quote:
For different needs, I called upon a hundred different saints. Annie Lennox, Saint of Transformation. Linda Perhacs, Saint of Winter Melancholy and Lentil-Eating. Florence, Saint of Howling Ambition. Beyoncé, Saint of Stomping While Smiling. The Raincoats, Saints of Whispered Rage. But we don’t always know what we need, and so I kept searching for the one woman who could tell me all things.
I should note here that I knew of Erykah Badu, of course—I heard her in the background pretty regularly, because my boyfriend loves her. Too doo-be-doo for me, I shrugged. I thought he was trying to trick me into jazz.
Let’s pair that with a quote from the Badu Interview (it rhymes) in Origin Magazine which ran back in January.
I do the same thing every day. I get up. Drink a lot of water. Have a wheatgrass shot. Drink some green juice. Eat as healthy as I can. I’m not trying to win an award for being the best vegetarian, just want to be healthy. Take a salt bath. Do things that my parents were never able to do. I’m blessed to do anything I want so I decide to take the best care of my body and my family in the same way. Holistically. Vitally.
Well as for me, I’ve been eating Russell Stover candle cream caramels or some mess since breakfast, so baptize me, Badu; I need to be purified. Merry Badu.
Over at The Hairpin, an international roundtable on Roe v. Wade, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. Let’s get academic for a second (the authors are PhD candidates). Let’s talk about how access to abortion is differentiated. No, let’s say stratified; let’s say relentlessly raced and classed. Because, says Risa Katzen, “today, even pro-choice narratives often gloss over the facts about who, exactly, did most of the suffering and dying when abortions were illegal.” I’m hearing you:
Before Roe, poor women and women of color confronted other infringements on their reproductive freedom. For black women in particular, the quest to control their own reproductive destiny was more tied to challenging state policies of forced sterilization than to ensuring abortion access. In the Jim Crow South, limiting the fertility of black women worked to shore up white supremacy: the most famous example of this phenomenon is probably civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who went to a Mississippi hospital in 1961 to have a tumor removed and came out with a hysterectomy. But Hamer wasn’t alone. In 1960, roughly 60 percent of black women living in Sunflower County, Miss., had been sterilized at some point in their lives. Only the concerted effort of civil rights activists, exemplified by Hamer herself, ensured that this practice would be stamped out for good.
Actually this is not academic at all, this is real life.
Photo credit: Dutch National Archives/flickr
Last night I had a nightmare. Today I am thankful that I woke up. And Lord it’s a beautiful today here at my parents house in the mountains, so I am thankful for that, too. And also, for acts of resistance:
All beings were given original instructions, instructions in how to live as a relative with all relations, how to live for the continuance of life itself. Daily, our other relatives, those seen and unseen, continue to fulfill their roles and responsibilities for life to exist. With the exception of some Indigenous communities most “humans” have strayed from our roles and responsibilities. Because of that, it is no surprise we find ourselves in such a state of unbalance.
On this day I give wopila, thanks, to all those who continue in the 500 year old resistance to colonization.
Thanks: to Matt Remle, to Indigenous peoples, to large-minded writers, to every strong-spined person and community who shows us how to be in the world. Or at least, how to try to be, you know?
Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian refugee, is known for her feminist novel The Golden Notebook. However, she claims that she doesn’t want to be remembered for her feminist views expressed in the book. Lessing justified this by saying that she ”thinks [that] all the time we are being manipulated by great social currents. We are not often aware of it.” Since gender is a social construct, it effects all aspects of life. Therefore, Lessing argues that her novel should not be considered feminist, more so as a reflection or contradiction of the societal views and norms.
Five spice candlelight pie witchy moonness up the wind it’s November
(get more Chiharu Shiota)
Mandala is a word which means circle in Sanskrit. Mandala is a circle which holds the universe. Mandala is a journal of art and literature published each spring by the University of Georgia’s Institute for African American Studies.
Mandala is a long conversation with your seatmate on an airplane, a conversation which is actually really wonderful and provoking and not forced at all. Mandala is a heart map. Mandala is not limited-edition. Mandala awoke in the morning and found that they were no longer on the endangered species list. Mandala awoke in the morning and found themselves transformed into a well-adjusted bear. Mandala awoke in the morning and found themselves circling near the ceiling.
Mandala is a point of departure.
Now, each issue of Mandala is usually organized by theme, but this year after some thought we have decided to depart from that, too. Just this once. As the gatekeepers of Mandala, we would like to ensure that the gate is wide and approachable, which in the past has meant welcoming work from all kinds - students, professionals, schoolchildren, and more, from Athens and points beyond. It has also meant being a platform for explorations of race, gender, and culture, and particularly for those whose work may be neglected by traditional media outlets. It still means those things.
But this year, it also means no theme. It’s Mandala Journal, Issue X. Send us your work, and don’t worry about whether or not it may be pigeonholed, squeezed to fit into any thematic box - we welcome it all.
Mandala is a widening circle.
and does not bring poetry with her so much as finds it
may we all be so lucky
So, PBS is producing a series featuring Tretheway on poetry in daily life. You may not need reminding that poetry does not exist on a plane above our lives or on any separate plane at all, but I like such reminders, find them comforting; and I’ll take all the comfort I can get.
I saw in the school we visited, Marcus Garvey Academy, and in the InsideOut poetry program there, the happy outline of my own elementary school and my early engagement with poetry in the classroom. I saw again how poetry can help bring back what’s lost to us, figuratively, and how the study of poetry — the pleasurable engagement with language and the skills that come with it — can help prepare us for the concrete work we must do to as citizens to promote a just and thriving nation.
And PBS correspondent Jeffery Brown, producer of the series, shares this wonderful thing:
It was 12-year-old Quintin Pope, who stayed with me long after the visit. He told us about his poetry coming from his “deep, deep thoughts” and I was startled at first, in part because I hadn’t even asked a question, and yet he had a desire, a need to tell us.
"What kind of deep thoughts?" I asked.
"Like I would say, ‘my poem is a baby going from life to death.’ Everybody gets a life and everybody, well, everybody will have to go to sleep one day."
Quintin Pope! Keep doing what you’re doing, Quintin.
(h/t The Georgia Review)
Kara Walker on fact, fiction, and her (in)famous work titled “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Thighs Of One Young Negress And Her Heart”:
Overhead projectors are a didactic tool, they’re schoolroom tools. They’re about - in my thinking, they’re about conveying facts. The work that I do is about projecting fictions into those facts.