It is very nearly impossible…to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.
It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep. They suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas
what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be … both from Nobody Knows My Name
Dear Friends and readers,
As the Oscar Academy awards are given out tonight I thought I’d dedicate most of his week’s blog to a movie I saw this week: Salesman was duly awarded but I doubt I am not Your Negro will be noticed to the extent it should be — for someone having to live in the United States (as I must — for where could I go, since Jim’s death I have no second place I could belong to, return to –Teresa May has rescinded right of abode to spouses and widows of British citizens and yesterday a woman living and married for 37 years in the UK with grown children there was snatched up and deported) it is an important film: I am not your Negro, words by James Baldwin, produced and directed by Raoul Peck, mostly spoken by Baldwin in TV interviews, one of them on the late night Dick Cavett show, with Samuel L. Jackson supplying the narration and voice-over of those passages written or spoken by Baldwin which there is no film or audio for.
For quite a number of years I assigned texts by Baldwin in my classes. “Stranger in a Village” was once often found in textbooks for freshman composition: Baldwin comes to a village where all are white, where the environment is all snow, and he stands out as this terrifying object. It is a parable of growing up in America as a black man. I assigned his Notes of a Native Son; Nobody Knows My Name [More Notes of a Native Son]; The Price of the Ticket. I never did one of his novels or his memoir but rather his essays because I wanted to be sure his ideas got across. Mostly these are semi-literary criticism (the very great “Everybody’s Protest Novel”), sociological, and autobiographical. In reading his is an eloquent noble voice. So I was particularly eager to see which strings of quotations, which narratives were chosen.
This film gives us his life story, through an astute weaving together of film clips, it takes us through a history of black people in the US from the time they were forcibly brought here in huge numbers, enslaved and treated abhorrently so the whites here and in Europe could grow rich from their free labors and exploit their bodies, through the civil war (not much time on that) to where in “reconstruction” they were re-enslaved on new terms, through the early civil rights era, with film clips of the 1990s (the savage beating of Rodney King by a group of police officers) and now the common knowledge (though videos and cameras from cell phones and ipads) that every week in the US black people are murdered in the streets, in a mass incarceration system. The focus of Baldwin’s narrative are the murders of Medgar Evers (president of the NAACP), Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all, the latter two to talk to. None of them lived until 40. These three men, their lives, why they were killed with impunity, is partly what he is telling us about in what seem to be mainly three live films: one where he, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were interviewed on TV; one of him interviewed by Dick Cavett, and one of him giving a speech to at Oxford University in England. He is also seen talking in front of a fireplace before a group of fellow black people. We see photographs of the murdered men, clips of King speaking, leading marches. All three are seen dead.
The thesis is basically for black people their position has changed very little since reconstruction. Yes a middle and tiny upper middle class has emerged; individuals with gifts, especially in music have lived fulfilled decent lives — Baldwin knew and we see clips and photos of Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte. The black man is given no place in American society; bitterly Baldwin says once he was not needed to pick cotton, he became superfluous and it’s astonishing, there are any black men left. Surely this is a nightmare vision, my reader might say, an exaggeration. Only somewhat. Baldwin is angry: how is it Bobby Kennedy has no trouble being Attorney General and has the gall to say as if this were progress to be thankful for that 40 years from now we could have a black president. We did, and we see clip of Barack and Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue hand-in-hand after he won the presidency. But it seems this was a blip in history and Obama was able to do very little to improve the general condition and status of all black people. Baldwin left the US to go live in Paris in order to protect his life, so that he should not have to fear murder each day as he goes forth on the streets; Ta Nehisi-Coates now lives in Paris for the same reason (he is also protecting his son).
So many photos of lynchings, so many clips of police in the streets beating black people up — some from Fergusson. The photos of so many young children, boys murdered. No police held accountable. How education is denied them; how the real estate and banking industries have prevented them as people from accumulating any money in most individual families.
One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.
The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… has to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — again from Nobody Knows My Name
The one caveat I have is it’s the story of black men and not black women. So Baldwin himself is guilty of exclusion, of (in effect) othering. Black women appear only as sisters, mothers, wives of murdered men. They have had an analogous history: used and abused horrifically sexually as slaves, kept as cleaning women, laundresses, cooks, housekeepers. Because their men were prevented from heading their families, many became perforce independent, and educated householders. They have held high office: we have had a black attorney general (under Obama two, Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch): Truman integrated the military and we have had high ranking military officers, generals (Colin Powell) on down. Black women probably are by percentage doing remarkably well vis-a-vis white women who are not driven in the same way to provide for themselves and their families. But it has been and continues to be a very hard life for most: high mortality in pregnancy, huge percentage desperately poor.
I also regret that nowhere enough was given of his subtle readings of the texts and art and music of black culture. He is no false flatterer and delivers stinging criticisms of Richard Wright’s fiction, of the reasons for the respect given Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was apparently close to man black artists, among these Lorraine Hansbury, who died so young from cancer. She is the one black woman given individual treatment in the film. You can see her play in YouTube form on the Net.
It’s important to see this film in this era of Donald Trump’s attempt at a (thus far) semi-dictatorship. It is now unsafe to be black, Muslim or hispanic on the streets of the USA. You need not do anything and you can be stopped and frisked, and harassed and humiliated into answering back or doing just anything to justify the officer killing, imprisoning, accusing you of a felony. Then you lose your right to vote. If you don’t have papers to prove you have the right to be here and have been here for two years you are in trouble. You are at risk in schools if you are gay; if you are a disabled person far less understanding will be encouraged by school policies.
It’s been a very hard week. As I am a powerless individual in an as yet republic with a few understood human and civil rights — I have the vote, I can blog, I can speak, I have taught undergraduates. This past week I went to a rally in Northern Virginia in Senator Warner’s office: #resistTuesday where goals are being sought through pressure on Warner and his activities. I am now contributing regularly to ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause beyond my membership in WETA (small amount each month), DemocracyNow.org (ditto). But I have to watch the most vulnerable in our society at risk (literally, snatched up in the streets, in churches, meeting places, airports), under attack and know I and my daughters are targets in attempts to deny us our rights to form a society and together make life better for us all (through social security, medicare, public education, arts and science facilities). There is an on-going attempt to destroy a whole way of life, destroy the press, suppress truth. Each day I get upset when I read the latest news of who has been appointed to head an important agency (with the aim of destroying it). This morning the Sierra Club an ancient forest in Alaska is about to be cut down; Trump rescinded an order to protect an area in Alaska where there is much left of the natural world, with many animals, plants. I joined the Sierra Club.
Here are the first 100 lies Trump has managed to promulgate across US life
This is what we are in danger of from him: Timothy Snyder, NYRB: how the Reichstag fire was set and used.
A new attempt to let loose predators to fleece and cheat at will. No more protections anywhere — every effort is being made by the republicans to prevent all consumer protection and allow corporations and businesses to fleece the individual at will. Money for opportunity and self-improvement only at high rates of interest. I feel sick with new grief, anxiety and pity for people — wanton unnecessary cruelty for none of these people have hurt anyone. The super-rich will be more super-rich.
As to what’s called social media: while enjoying friendships and sharing online, one must remember on places like face-book there is a great deal of falsity, of showing off an acceptable social identity to make others admire you, to fit in, to reinforce conformity. Photos of people as successful surrounded by adoring families and friends, sometimes absurdly idealized, with money and ordeals left out. Pay attention to ordinary every day life insofar as it gets through. Pictures of our now hot February.
The center of my life used to be, its staff, was Jim; I have fought a hard fight to make a new life and have realized this is out of the question for a 70 year old woman. I cannot re-make myself and have learned how alone a widow in our society is made. In order to remain calm because this fourth year of being mostly alone is making me worn, so I must focus my mind on that some stable secure center of existence. I would like to reach people like myself but I’ve found travel deeply anxiety-producing and unless I have a companion, I suffer a great deal. The longer and further away the trip, the worse. Sometimes when I am there the experience is ambiguous; alone at night in a hotel is hard on me. Tiring. This is what people need one site I trust tells me: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. Others might make a slightly different list, but the important concept is that meaning stems from addressing real human needs. Where it’s tenuous for me as yet is affection, understanding, participation. So for me what can I hold onto: books, writing, movies, study. In these I find some peace. In sharing them with others — reading online with others, talking, friendships, art I can find understanding, participation, friendship. How other widows fare I pay attention to also as I find many analogously like myself.
I went to As You Like It (see Marshall Bradshaw’s far too favorable review) at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Saturday. It was not a successful production: the director seemed determine to ignore the bitter and hard meaning of many of the words, the whole difficult framework in which the characters have to live, that the time in the forest is an interlude. Thus its kindness, generosity, love and forgiveness lose their heft and context. The actors did not know what to do with the enormous amount of wit; at times the play felt like Love’s Labor’s Lost without understanding. But some of the actors played their roles very well: especially the Touchstone, Jacques, and Rosalind.
It was such a relief to hear sentiments of trust, friendliness, cooperation in public after outside the building having to endure the continually spouted spite and threats of the US gov’t attempting to torment the majority of US citizens with fear. And it was lively, without pretension, with wit, music that was contemporary and effective dancing.
By contrast, my first attempt to go to the Shakespeare Theater Company the Sunday before landed me in front of Charles III: ludicrously reverential, so tame. The comedy was we were supposed to laugh at “Harry” as having unacceptable (black) girlfriends and being given the most juvenile advice by a street vendor. It was about Charles taking power he didn’t have in a good cause (on behalf of immigrants) but the slightest real knowledge of British politics would tell you he couldn’t begin to get away with it, of culture he wouldn’t care about was he was said to. It was for a naive complacent American audience. Embarrassing. I left after the first act.
My books for this week included many on the picturesque, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Kenneth Johnston’s Hidden Wordsworth. I’m watching Donald Wilson’s 1978 Anna Karenina, brilliantly well done, moving, adult (about 10 parts). I’m studying ekphrastic poetry by women. Adrienne Rich’s Matilde in Normandy, Love in a Museum. Marianne Moore’s Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns. I spent an hour this afternoon reading her very great Transcendental Etudes. I was moved and comforted as I drank wine.
My pussycats are well. Nowadays Ian does not hide in the morning though he goes off to have his quiet private time: on his cat tree high in the front room where he can see what’s going on. The assistant to my IT guy came this Thursday to update my garmin (a GPS) for me and Ian didn’t run away! He growled as the young man walked up the sidewalk, but then quieted down. Around 2 each day Ian comes into my room to sit on my lap and for the rest of the day be with and around me.