Up the Junction is one of my favourite Ken Loach films I think. It opens with all the jubilation of youth, of girls out on the town, meeting some boys, music and booze and happy chatter and dancing and that moment when you meet someone you really fancy for the first time. Those glorious moments. Sylvie (Carol White), Rube (Geraldine Sherman) and Eileen (Vickery Turner). From pub to pool to late-night drive — one of those nights you remember. These three friends for life.
Dave (Tony Selby once again, who was killed in the last Wednesday Play, Three Clear Sundays) takes Eileen up to the ruins where his old house used to be, cleared out with the rest of the slums and his family moved down south to Roehampton. Dave takes Eileen by the hand and climbs the pile of rubble. (But what strange magic prevents you from taking screen shots of movies these days? These glimpses are most unsatisfactory, I can’t believe no one else on the internet has obsessed about these scenes.)
Their kisses are framed against an empty window, and the crane behind them is for the demolition of the old ‘slums’ to build new council housing, not one of today’s huge cranes for massive developments. I suppose those must also sometimes be caught in a frame with working class teenage shenanigans, if there are any working class teens left in Battersea. It strikes me, though, quite forcibly, the contrast of these experiences of demolition and building between our generation and theirs.
I don’t know why but this was one of the most evocative series of scenes of the whole movie for me…
Forget it, I do know why. Houses lost and torn down and lives uprooted, and in the midst of this life and tragedy engendered anew? The symbolism is not lost on me. They kiss in the ruins, and it is followed by scenes of the final demolition: fireplaces and walls still covered with flowered paper stark against brick. A kid watching, face smeared with dirt.
Look at this haunting picture of a last remaining wall. Flowers lingering on the wallpaper, the outlines of rooms that once held families pried open to harsh gazes.
There is a narrative thread, but it is almost submerged within the brilliant samplings of conversations and the camera panning across faces. You are the perfect eavesdropper on multiple lives, from the kids dancing in the club at the opening, to the ladies chatting as they wash up the dishes. Again there is diversity (though these women of colour rarely get to speak). Amongst the women there exists a very different conviviality from what you see amongst the men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes talking over manual work, from dishes to factories. Laughing. This is based on a novel by Nell Dunn — she and Ken Loach helped turn it into a screen play. She was not from Battersea herself, but lived here a while, worked in a factory a while. Perhaps that is why it still has a taste of nostalgia to it I think, a taste of idealisation, but perhaps it was just the amount that had to be sanitised for television.
It does have a great cover:
But to get back to the girls. Their conversations in amongst the snippets of conversations of multiple others all detailing the intimate details of their lives as they work making foil-wrapped chocolate santas and pistols, disjointed views of the process and the huge blocks of chocolate, the various (fascinating) machines with their whirring and clatter, the cups of tea, the chatter and the siles and always in the background the music of the 60s.
I love how these girls are embedded in this place, chatting to everyone, the laughter and bawdy talk between generations, jokes about baths. Joyce about to be married when she turns 16.
A packet of fags dropped in the chocolate. Dancing the twist to the latest. This is life at its best, no? At least until the boss comes. At least until you get the chatty money-collector who’s tired of ‘the coloureds’. He is talking and talking, god he won’t shut up.
I’ve been out with plenty of floozies in my time, but I’ll never mention my wife to ’em…
But I love the scenes as he drives through Clapham, the brick rows of houses and women in the doorways. The glasses and kerchiefs and passersby.
It is hard to imagine this long-ago London, when Battersea power station was a power station and not an obscenely expensive setting for luxury flats surrounded by glass and steel.
Hard to imagine some of these stories. Story after story of loves and relationships and babies and abortions and death. Heartbreak. new beginnings. Violent endings. Jokes.
Hard to imagine an abortion from a smiling sinister middle-aged women in the parlour, at a cost of four pounds. Hard to sit through a doctor talking about deaths and botched attempts and reeling off statistics. Rube walking through the woods in strange disjunction. Horrible clinical talk interspersed with testimony. I find this montage of voice and experience so powerful. The way that these moments rise up before us like icebergs and we crash into them.
And then, if we survive, they are behind us.
Back to the raucous and loud everyday, snogging and laughing and dancing down the pub. Though it’s not really all the same. But this is not a style of film that can really dig down into the ways we are broken and what we have to do to hold ourselves together.
Still I loved the women portrayed here. I love this form, with stories, so many stories, glimpses of more stories all set in surroundings that shape and are shaped by them. Surroundings now mostly lost. The three women at its centre just three among hundreds, thousands. Jokes and laughing and snippets of faces seen once and never again. Some of the lovely factory women who get a few more of their own stories, even a new love. Everyday life, poring over used clothes in a basket.
Everyday death, everyday commentary on the meaning of death. More jokes. Battersea Power station smoking as background for discussions of cremation.
It ends with Sugar and Spice and for me the song brought nostalgia for a time I never lived through, despite the fact that it is a kind of life I never wanted, that I fled from. But I loved watching them happy and walking down the London road. I wished them all the best.
I loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.
We need more of that, especially now.
At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.
Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)
I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.
Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.
Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)
See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.
Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.
certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)
There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…
Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)
But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.
On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:
Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)
I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:
In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later. (23)
Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)
There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.
The way women themselves do this:
Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)
Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping
Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:
Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)
Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:
Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)
One of my favourite stories.
On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:
“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)
Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:
At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)
Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.
Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:
People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)
Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:
Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)
The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:
As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)
The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.
Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)
Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:
“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)
I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…
A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally
seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)
From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).
The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:
twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)
Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses. In this case, Crossroads found help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.
They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.
The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.
They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.
The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.
I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:
the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)
There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.
But this made me laugh out loud:
When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)
All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:
what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)
collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)
She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:
What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)
I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others. Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?
Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.
[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
I end these series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm on a positive note (also see posts one, two and three). She bases her book based on the ‘root assumption … that the public realm has social value.’ (229) I will wrap up with her look at the aesthetics of city spaces, as well as the positive aspects they bring to our lives and to our societies as a whole.
First, aesthetic pleasures:
By aesthetic pleasure, I am referring to the experience of enjoyment occasioned by certain (mostly) visual qualities of the built environment. (78)
It is interesting that Lofland’s own analysis of the city’s cuilt environment and spaces doesn’t really intersect with those of Alexander, Cullen, or Sitte with whom they share much in common, but it is a good list.
…the pleasure that arises from glimpsing a small piece of the built environment, a glimpse that suggests that an interesting, exotic, weird, enticing, possibly enchanting social world exists just outside one’s range of vision. (80)
There is research suggesting a fairly strong preference for urban places that are “familiar”…for some individuals at least, the opposite of the quality of familiarity — unexpectedness– seems also to appeal… the issue becomes not one or the other, but how much of one, how much of the other… (81)
Also note the fact that a very fat cat named Tidly used to live in London Paddington’s lady’s loo!
Whimsy: Fanciful, frivolous, eccentric street furniture or sculpture — she uses Prince Albert Memorial as an example, I confess I am slightly unsure of its suitedness.
Historical Layering/ Physical Juxtaposition: Again London is a prime example, ancient buildings alongside modern.
To move on to the value of the public realm itself beyond the aesthetic. Lofland looks at the wealth of literature (cites Fischer 1982, Wellman and Wortley 1990, Berger 1977) on the value of the parochial realm, of ‘community’, neighbourhood, kin and friend networks, organisations, which all testify to
our certainty that the parochial realm gives us a degree of physical and emotional safety; enlarges, while still containing, the world of our growing young; provides us with affirmation of our personal worth; and “mediates” our linkages to the powerful nation-state. (229)
She notes in addition the feminist critique of the dangers of the city for women, but cites Elizabeth Wilson (1991: 7,10) on what the city provides in addition:
The city offers women freedom . . . Surely it is possible to be both pro-cities and pro-women, to hold in balance an awareness of both the pleasures and the dangers that the city offers women, and to judge that in the end, urban life, however fraught with difficulty, has emancipated women more than rural life or suburban domesticity. (230)
Lofland also argues that city generates cosmopolitanism, that it
produces — by its very nature — a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility … (231)
The idea of cosmopolitanism, has, of course, been much studied since 1998 and the best of it getting at this kind of dynamic rather than simply the mobilities and diversity of privilege. Lofland loves lists almost as much as I do I think, and makes what she calls an ‘Inventory of Utility’ (231) or 6 uses or functions of the public realm — another very useful list:
An environment for learning
Respites and refreshments — places to sit and rest, drink, enjoy
A Communications Center — places to meet, talk
The “Practice” of Politics — builds on Sennet’s arguments around public space and how they build citizenship
The Enactment of Social Arrangements and Social Conflict — public dramas and spectacles
The Creation of Cosmopolitans: ‘claim that city living — by itself — generated tolerance and civility, that city living — by itself — created cosmopolitans … one of the linchpins in the argument that cities are good places to live.’ (237)
She then digs deeper into this idea of cosmopolitanism and what facilitates it, looking at both the negative and positive tolerances that are generated in city life. To start with what studies seem to show are the negative tolerances and the ways that they are generated:
People share a larger bounded space but not the smaller pieces of it (238) — Robert Park’s descriptions of urban mosaic where people remain almost invisible to each other
People physically share smaller spaces within the larger space but segregate themselves from one another symbolically. (238) Visible in preindustrial city, where classes for example shared space but did not interact
I need to think more about those. This is not just indifference, but self-segregation, even if at a small scale …. I don’t think this has to be part of how people react to the public realm, but rather reflects the divisions in the larger society, particularly the US. On to what generates positive tolerances:
Diverse people are not segregated into homogeneous enclaves and are forced to settle whatever conflicts arise among them without recourse to centrally imposed instruments of order. (239)
People have mastered the complexity of the urban environment sufficiently to move through it with a high degree of psychic safety. (239) … the mastery of shorthand methods for accurately interpreting who people are and what they are up to allows urbanites to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner … and thus allows them to confront the heterogeneity of the city with a minimum of distrust and fear.
The levels of community closest to the actor (the home, the immediate neighborhood) are secure and nonthreatening. (240) People have to be able to withdraw to safety.
People are able to control the character and quality of their contact with diverse others. This can’t be forced.
People possess certain demographic characteristics. those characteristics themselves generating a capacity for tolerance. (240) The literature talks about these demographics being highly educated, high status, single, childless… this seems wrong to me, very wrong, I mean look at the conviviality of working class neighborhoods. But researchers tend not to come from those neighborhoods, and they aren’t all convivial I suppose. Dearborn in the 50s for example. Anyway.
An interesting list. More interesting is the way that cosmpolitanism as a positive force emerges not from those relationships more privileged by most social scientists, but from fleeting public ones:
The learning of tolerance, the creation of cosmopolitanism may require the existence of and repeated experience with “nonintimate,” “noncommunal,” relationships. Limited, segmental, episodic, distanced links between self and other may constitute the social situations that both allow and teach civility and urbanity in the face of significant differences. And this assertion brings us to the matter of the public realm. (242)
Also interesting is the list of potential ideal conditions for the creation of cosmopolitanism, what Lofland calls a ‘highly regulated urban anarchism’
City should be small and compactly settled, pedestrian or mass-transit oriented, people share public realm in pursuit of everyday activity
Degree of segregation of people and activities minimized
Differences between people must be seen by them as ‘meaningful’ — they must be encountering people with whom they disagree, disapprove, or fear mild fear .. the city must have a hard edge as opposed to DIsneyland city
This hard edge cannot be felt to make public space feel so dangerous, people do not venture into it (243)
I like the emphasis that it cannot be a fully safe space, that it has to be full of strangers and challenging to people’s prejudices, that it has to minimize segregation and homogeneity…
All in all, I found this an immensely useful and thought-provoking work that I hope to think through further…
[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)
This huge hardback book The Gorgeous Nothings is rather breathtaking — despite the fact that really it consists of scribbles from Emily Dickinson. I had earlier flipped through it a bit confused — my mum had got it from the library so I had no fore-warning of just what it contained.
This is what a flip-through will show you, envelop poems on the one side, a careful and spatially exact transcription on the other:
Poems written on envelopes carefully undone and opened out, poems that spill out to fit the space allotted, even when it is tiny.
Scraps of paper covered with words.
They are profoundly moving.
This was one of my favourites, and is also subject to a lovely essay at the end by Marta Werner:
wheels of birds, afternoon and the west the gorgeous nothings
If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled. Although its brevity and immediacy place it outside the reach of conventional classifications, it bears a striking affinity to the genre David Porter names “small, rickety infinitudes.”
Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light. (199)
The pinpricks are from where Dickinson pinned her scraps of paper together. I think of her now overflowing with scraps of paper.
A view of the book with Pluto the guinea pig who poses with books (and there are reviews sometimes), one of my new favourite tumblr blogs.
There is little that can describe the cumulative effect of these scraps of paper, these scratches of writing that you become better at puzzling through, though too often relying on the typed transcriptions. They range from pointed, sarcastic responses to daily life to collections of words that seem to mean little to deeply moving fragments so evocative of beauty.
Not until reading this did I realise just how much the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems had been shifted, regularised upon the page by her editors. These fragments show space and irregular rhythms, the process of playing with words.
It was good to carve out the time to read two books on Ella Baker, I don’t think I do this enough really. Moye focused much on her role as an organizer than Barbara Ransby did, and quoted her directly a little more often, which I really liked.
[Y]ou didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders. (2)
It’s nice to see the whole of that quote, not just the last line. I loved this one as well:
The problem in the South is not radical thought. The problem is not even conservative thought. The problem in the South is not enough thought. (5)
Ella Baker was born in 1903, the year that W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. I like how Moye connects those two things. There are more stories of her family here, her grandmother conceived out of rape, the politics of the plantation and her battle to marry the man she wanted. Baker told these stories as:
a certain kind of commitment or resentment. It is not the kind of thing we would advocate at this point, but it shows that the drive for full dignity as human beings goes very deep in the struggle. (12)
Moye in many ways emphasises what Ransby also emphasised — Baker’s closeness to women’s organising as she grew up, being able to see just how well women could run meetings, set policy, manage finances. (20)
There is more on Harlem, too, from Baker herself once more:
the hotbed of–let’s call it radical thinking. You had every spectrum of radical thinking. . . . the ignorant ones, like me, we had lots of opportunity to hear and to evaluate whether or not this was the kind of thing you wanted to get into. Boy, it was good, stimulating! (31)
Moye emphasises she was reading Marx, discussing it in these radical circles, but that she could separate these ideas on social and economic organisation from the party itself, to which she never was committed. She worked very closely, of course, with George Schuyler on cooperatives (the YNCL goal – ‘to gain economic power through consumer cooperation’ (34)), and this book made me want to map out all of these connections because I keep finding new ones the more I read. I didn’t know that Schuyler had spent 1920s working for The Messenger, socialist magazine run by A. Philip Randolph, moved on to Pittsburgh Courier and the Negro National News.
Baker also formed the 135th St Library’s first Negro History Club with librarian Ernestine Rose. In 1933 she joined the branch’s Adult Education Committee, where she sponsored speakers and programs. In 1934 she was hired part time to coordinate community outreach programs. I hadn’t realised how connected she was to the library, quite how pivotal they were.
She was friends with Lester Granger, and he is the one who helped her get on the WPA’s Worker Education Project. She was always looking for work. That was brought home harder here I think, or perhaps I just noticed more the very precarious position she seemed to live through most of her life, looking for ways to work in the movement. On the WPA, Baker describes their connections they made:
We’d go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild… (40)
They did union halls as well.
Moving to the NAACP years — there is more here on the many conflicts with director Walter White, his clashes with former director of branches William Pickens — the only other NAACP person from national office who had visited branches in South. Baker had a bruising schedule:
In 1942, between February and early July addressed 178 different groups, visited 38 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia (51)
She encouraged branches to organise around problems they had identified, helped them develop campaigns as bottom up not top down. Saw her role when forced into accepting the position as Director of Branches:
To increase the extent to which the present membership participates in national and local activities…. To extend the membership base so as to have local branches include a larger proportion fo people in any given community….To transform the local branches from being centers of sporadic activity to becoming centers of sustained and dynamic community leadership. (59-60)
She held a leadership conference in NY December of 1944, then others in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in first half of 1945. Look at this amazing picture:
The 1946 conference in Atlanta called ‘Give Light and the People Will find a Way’, was attended by representatives for Montgomery branch (a branch which Ella had ‘nurtured’ as field secretary), E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks (62). More connections.
In 1946 she worked with CORE and FOR to plan the Journey of Reconciliation — the integrated ride through the South that she and Pauli Murray were prevented from going on as they were women. This became the blueprint for the later Freedom Rides. (67) More connections.
At the same time (how she had time, I do not know) Baker was also doing a lot of work with the NY branch of NAACP, particularly with the branch’s education committee, and serving as an advisor to youth council.
There is a little more information on ‘In Friendship’, the organisation she helped found and run to support the movement in the South, which in addition to fundraising:
also provided technical assistance to southern civil rights campaigns, organized conferences that brought together activists from throughout the region, and embarked on public relations campaigns that publicized conditions in the South to the rest of the country. (80)
Moye explores a little further the relationships between Ella Baker and both Septima Clark and Myles Horton, notes that she had participated in dozens of workshops at Highlander — I thought it must be so. She also worked with the Bradens from SCEF from early on:
In Friendship raised $2,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and another $4,000 to send ML King to Africa and India to study Ghana’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy. I find this quite extraordinary, partly in that I hadn’t heard it before, partly in the importance placed on education and building international solidarity.
The In Friendship trio (Baker, Rustin, Levinson) were continuing to look for what came next after the Montgomery movement — this is Baker on the SCLC:
We began to talk about the need for developing in the South a mass force that would . . . become a counterbalance, let’s call it, to the NAACP. (89)
There is more on how frustrated she was at the lack of momentum after Montgomery. Looking back it doesn’t feel that way until you take more note of the time between the boycott and those first sit-ins. There was a tentative step, though, towards the voter registration campaigns that would follow in the Crusade for Citizenship — only meant to be a one day action (!). SCLC had done none of the planning when they brought Baker on, yet she still pulled off some success. She continued to organise in support of mass movement and building a strong grassroots base, with a focus on MIA and the United Christian Movement (UCM) in Shreveport.
Moye writes that Baker pushed SCLC to partner with Highlander, stating that:
Bringing Clark from Highlander to SCLC may have been Baker’s greatest contribution to the organization. (102)
While I don’t know if this is true, amazing as Clark was, this becomes an even more curious omission for me in Ransby’s work.
There are more connections made here between Baker and some of the key figures and events — things that give me hope. The 4 students who lead the Greensboro sit in were part of NAACP youth group started by Randolph Bakewell — at the suggestion of field secretary Ella Baker. Bob Moses? His family had been members of one of the Harlem cooperatives that Baker organized in the 1930s, he and his brothers had delivered their milk (119). These are such wonderful examples of the effects that ripple outwards from positive action and that only come to fruition over a long period of time.
A few more quotes on Ella Baker’s leadership style, the kind of leadership that created so many leaders. This is from an (unnamed) SNCC member:
Usually she preferred to answer [a question] with another question and then another, forcing us to refine our thinking and to struggle toward an answer for ourselves. (123)
From Mary King:
At a very important period in my life, Miss Baker tempered my natural tenacity and determination with flexibility and made me suspicious of dogmatism… She taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned in life: There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way. She helped me see that the profound changes we were seeking in the social order could not be won without multiple strategies. She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire. “Ask questions, Mary,” she would say. (124)
Baker’s philosophy and SNCC’s slogan? Now so widely used I never knew where it came from: ‘Let the People Decide’ (126)
Always she worked to support the capacity of groups to make their own strategic decisions. When CORE called off the freedom rides and SNCC decided to continue them under the leadership of Diane Nash, Baker wrote them a three-page analysis of what she believed had been done wrong so far and needed to be improved on — media strategy for example (128).
A final aside on the importance of women to this movement despite the ways they were often sidelined as Baker’s biography and Danielle McGuire’s work make clear among others. Womanpower Unlimited — a group formed by local women in Jackson to collect money, clothing etc for the freedom riders, then further developed into conducting voter registration, education and peace activism (133). More ripples, more connections.
Baker became openly socialist at the end of her life, I’ll end on this 1969 address to Spelman College, which I love.
In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. (166)
[Moye, J. Todd (2013) Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]
I love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:
The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)
I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.
My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.
Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:
Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)
Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:
Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)
Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951. There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.
But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:
he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)
In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.
Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.
They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.
Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.
I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:
As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)
But look at this picture
A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:
When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)
Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.
Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:
They all knew this boycott had changed things.
Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)
Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.
There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.
1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.
Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.
In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)
Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:
That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)
Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they
knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)
She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.
On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.
McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)
All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)
There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but the FBI’s role. (225)
Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.
McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it
‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)
And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:
The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)
[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]
Part 2 on Ella Baker’s biography by Barbara Ransby (part 1 is here) — and the more exciting part really, because in the SCLC and SNCC and SCEF Baker was able to do more of what she wanted to do. I’m reading J. Todd Moye’s biography of Ella Baker as well just now, and it cleared up one point of my confusion — the way that everyone respectfully called her Miss Baker even though she was married. That is what felt right to me earlier because I must have read it elsewhere, but I questioned myself and wrote something different. so I’m going to have to go back and take out the references to Mrs Baker.
Anyway, in 1957, Ella Baker traveled south with Bayard Rustin as a representative of In Friendship to become part of the founding of the SCLC. There she saw the Women’s Political Council in action, who had helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and she applauded the formation of MIA, Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle outside the structures of NAACP.
While Rustin and Levinson both became part of King’s inner circle, Miss Baker was left out. She later said:
After all, who was I? I was female, I was old. I didn’t have any PhD.” (173)
And she questioned everything, especially King.
She describes the boycott, and the hope and excitement it raised among movement folks, as:
unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. . . . This meant you had a momentum that had not been seen, even in the work of the NAACP. And it was something that suggested the potential for widespread action throughout the South. (162)
SCLC was founded to provide an institutional framework to connect and strengthen struggle beyond Montgomery. It also made a strategic decision to stay away from a too-left politics — interesting that ‘Christian’ was at least partially included in the name to help distance it from any association with communism. It emphasized in these stages that it was only demanding the same rights as everyone else.
Once it was decided that the new coalition would be an extension of the church, a patriarchal ethos took over. (175) Women like Rosa Parks and Joanne Gibson Robinson were pushed out of leadership positions, Daisy Bates remained the only woman with a nominal seat on the board, but no power. In 1958, Miss Baker was drafted as full time staff into SCLC — as with the NAACP she was not properly asked, more put into a position where her refusal would hurt the cause. Still, she accepted, and moved down to Atlanta. She knew what she was in for, though:
Baker was well aware that the SCLC ministers were not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing. That would be to go too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church. Baker observed that “the role of women in the southern the church. . . was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things.”
Ministers ‘most comfortable talking to women about “how well they cooked, and how beautiful they looked.”‘ (184)
She remained active in Parents in Action, NAACP, SCLC, In Friendship — for her it was always about building movement rather than organization. In this she was very similar to a number of local NAACP officers who were willing to work with anyone on the ground towards change. All of her work was concretely connected to people’s lives and needs. For example, Baker’s reconnaissance trip in Mississippi for In Friendship after the SCLC’s founding:
Baker soon realized that In Friendship would be hard pressed to make a real distinction between families who were victims of political reprisals and those who were victims of economic violence, pure and simple, since such violence saturated the social and political landscape of the rural South. (176)
I wanted to hear more about her views on economic violence. She often disagreed with those she worked closely with, able to hold to her own beliefs while continuing to work with others. For example here is Miss Baker on nonviolence, contrasting herself with Rustin:
He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment. Not historically or even now can I claim that because that’s not my way of functioning. (193)
This was clear in her rather famous 1959 speech in Pilgrim Chruch, Monroe calling for self-defense. Further in the biography, Ransby writes:
Ella Baker’s ability to sustain long-term friendships with other activists when particular circumstances put them in adversarial positions was one of her most important gifts. (284)
She also disagreed with many in the NAACP — for example, the kinds of attitudes expressed by Roy Wilkins:
“We must clean up and educate and organize our own people, not because they must be perfect in order to be accorded their rights, but they cannot be first-class citizens in truth until they appreciate the responsibilities of that station.” Baker’s view was quite different. Poor people would not have to be made deserving of their citizenship or their economic claims; such rights were fundamental. (226)
She could be quite critical of class judgments:
There’s always a problem in the minority group that’s escalating up the ladder in this culture . . . it’s a problem of their not understanding the possibility of being divorced from those who are not in their social classification.
I believe firmly in the right of the people who were under the heel to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get [out] from under their oppression. (195)
More from Miss Baker on exactly why the middle classes could not be depended upon to bring about real change:
those who are well-heeled don’t want to get un-well-heeled….If they are acceptable to the Establishment and they’re wielding power which serves their interest, they can assume too readily that that also serves the interest of everybody. (305-306)
Along these same lines, she was also fierce proponent of decentralization, local control over campaigns and power and responsibility in people’s own hands. Ransby writes:
Her main contribution to the civil rights movement during her years with SCLC was not the building of a solid regional coalition, which was what King had hired her to do, but rather the strengthening of several semi-independent local struggles, which were more connected to one another and to itinerant organizers like Baker than they were to the official SCLC leadership in Atlanta. (209)
On leadership, here is Ransby quoting Baker:
Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the larger number of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program.
to follow on from that, one of her most famous lines I think:
Strong people don’t need strong leaders. (188)
This, of course, put her into conflict with King and the men who dominated the movement at this time.
What I love most are the moments you get to see Ella Baker relaxing with the other women who formed the backbone of this movement, like on this visit to Azalea Johnson in Monroe (and always the reminder just how brave they all were):
The three women sat at Azalea Johnson’s kitchen table, Dorothy remembered, drinking Jim Beam bourbon, discussing the political situation in the South and remembering Raymond. Even more memorable than the conversation was the image of black men sitting in the front room and on the front porch with loaded pistols at their sides… (215)
Baker kept her maiden name after her marriage, kept her rpivate life private, and did all she did while also helping raise her niece, as well as taking over the guardianship of Brenda Travis, who had lied about her age to join SNCC sit-in. She was detained, sent to Colored Girls Industrial School after another protest, did not have support of strong family. Baker managed all of these roles in ways that I find rather jaw-dropping, but it was accomplished through the strong community that she created around herself.
Ella Baker’s legacy can perhaps best be seen through SNCC — I appreciated this insight from Ransby:
Since Baker never wrote an organizing manual or an ideological treatise, her theory was literally inscribed in her daily work–her practice. Some of the most powerful political lessons that she taught were through example, which represented an articulation of her unwritten theory in a conscious set of actions and practices. (271)
Also as an organiser, it is clear that almost a lifetime of experience and huge amounts of work and thought lay behind that first conference at Shaw to support the founding of SNCC, the orchestration of talks and workshops, and the creation of plenty of time and space for private brainstorms, the meeting of small groups and etc. I feel like no one really gets how much creative work and hard grind lies in that until they part of something similar. Creating such spaces is hard, but she was instrumental to SNCC in other ways, ensuring that problems of justice were never narrowed to a simple issue of race and that the leading roles of women, and youth and the poor in the struggle be respected:
She was instrumental in SNCC’s rejection of bourgeois respectability as a defensive political strategy, a rejection that opened the organization up to historically marginalized sectors of the black community. When SNCC broke with the largely middle-class, male-centered leadership of existing civil rights organizations, it stripped away the class-based and gender-biased notions of who should and could give leadership to the movement and the black community. (259)
She also insisted on movement as being about relationships, connections, not mobilisation and dues and top-down battles on the lines of the NAACP.
The shift from transitory, high-profile events like the sit-ins and freedom rides to protracted day-to-day grassroots organizing in local communities was a significant turning point. Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships…In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. this was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.
This is the community organising model in a nutshell. Bottom up. Respectful. I like the acknowledgement that such respect isn’t always easy to embody either, and how she pushed SNCC through dialogue:
She urged SNCC organizers to suppress their own egos and personal and organizational ambitions as much as possible and to approach local communities with deference and humility. She stressed the need to resist organizational chauvinism or any attempts to make proprietary claims on political campaigns that might emerge from their efforts. Finally, she rejected the notion that the black middle class had special claims on leadership of the black community. …. she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not to the top, for their inspiration, insights, and constituency…. people who would demonstrate to the first-hand the willingness, ability, and determination of oppressed people to resist and overcome their oppression while speaking for themselves… (274)
Thus SNCC attempted to organise the whole community, not just the middle classes. When they first went into a community, they started by talking to clergy and any others who had claims on being representatives of community, but they knocked on everyone’s doors.
Bob Moses said “We did for the people of Mississippi what Ella Baker did for us.” … he meant … absorb the wisdom of indigenous leaders, to build respectfully on the preexisting strength within the communities where they organized, and to provide whatever was lacking–funds, time, youthful energy, and certain skills. (303)
Ransby gives a wonderful quote from SNCC organiser Jane Stembridge:
The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial but temporary role in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community, so that the leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn’t matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who is there. (280)
And of course Baker’s own motto:
I was never working for an organization. I always tried to work for a cause. And that cause was bigger than any organization. (281)
She remained pragmatic though, supporting the influx of white privileged students in order to highlight what was happening in the South, to expose the relentless violence, to get some coverage and maybe help the broader community to care. Ransby quotes her as saying:
If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something. (322)
Ransby talks a little about the development of the Freedom Schools, education was always one of the methods closest to Baker’s heart. SNCC established over 50 alternative classrooms for political organizing and popular education, run by Charlie Cobb, Robert Moses, and Staughton Lynd among others.
This highlighted for me one of the strange absences here, as Ransby tries to differentiate them from SCLC’s Citizenship schools by highlighting that Freedom Schools went way beyond teaching literacy for voting tests. In Septima Clark’s vision coming out of Highlander, this was never to have been the only role of Citizenship schools, but maybe it’s an indication of how routinized these had become under the SCLC?
Myles Horton and Highlander are interesting absences here — not that they don’t appear at all. As an aside, Ransby notes Baker as attending a conference there on one occasion, and later that she worked to defend Highlander from closure. In another brief mention Ransby connects SNCC to Horton, and notes Baker starting up a new fundraising group called Operation Freedom in 1961 with Horton, the Bradens and others to again funnel money to activists for emergencies. I was disappointed, though, not to learn more about Baker’s friendship with Rosa Parks, Myles Horton or Septima Clark. So I found it interesting that Baker’s theories are compared to Paolo Freire’s, a worthy comparison but interesting in the absence of Myles Horton and others from Highlander.
There is a brief note on education and the connection to Tanzania — but that remained undeveloped as well. Rightly so as it was a bit of a tangent perhaps
Moses also shared Baker’s confidence and faith in young people. After leaving SNCC in the mid-1960s and living for several years in Tanzania, he became a radical teacher, in Ella Baker’s style and tradition, focused on creative methods of teaching and learning as a strategy for empowerment and social change. (252)
A last absence was more about the concerted attack on the NAACP in the south after Brown v Board, the number of people who lost their jobs by refusing to renounce NAACP membership — and the number of people who did renounce it. The number of branches that shut down all together, and all of them people that Ella knew, had visited, had encouraged to form branches and become members in the first place. That must have had a huge impact on her. Huge. But it isn’t really visible.
I wanted a little more on the Southern Conference Education Fund run by Anne and Carl Braden, and founded by Jim Dombrowski who had helped found Highlander with Myles Horton way back in 1932. In 1963 Baker began working for SCEF, doing much the same as she had always done — whatever she thought was most needed to support local organising. The difference seemed to be that SCEF supported that. But I tracked down what seems to be the solitary book written on SCEF, which I am looking forward to reading and finding more.
To end here (though I will write more on Moye’s take on Baker), a final quote from Ella Baker that emphasises the longevity of the freedom struggle, the ways that things just haven’t changed fast enough, and the work that all those she has inspired should be continuing in, particularly in support of Black Lives Matter:
Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. (335)
Hilton Als… damn, White Girls was splendid and queer and pummeled me with pain and experience I can never know because of who I am. Though I am hell of well read, our daily-lived references of poets and words moved past each other almost never touching. Just like our preoccupations. Our ways of being in the world, especially the ways we are with others in the world…I have never ever been a we in the way he describes. I hated Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, and he loved her. I finally understood a little better how I feel about Michael Jackson. Things like that…well, they cracked me open a little more, the kind of gift you don’t even know to ask for, could never demand if you did know because you can feel the cost to its author. The kind of gift you are always grateful for. Even though it hurt just a little to read. At the same time, somehow, I can see why these words, many of them at least, would appeal to the readers of The New Yorker. They were the ones that pushed me further outside maybe, made me feel a bit of voyeur staring in at that cocktail party I never had the credentials to enter. Though maybe too they give me a little more appreciation for that literary streamlining of all that is ‘worthy’, swimming against the tide of my south west/west-coast poor white girl bias against anything held up to me as the place to find Culture with a capital C.
Maybe. It’s just another world, isn’t it, one among so many all scrambled up within us and outside of us. We tend to give ones like this a little more power though, I think. I resent that. But it’s nice to find something like this there though.
Just a few quotes — though the power of this book lies in nothing that can be quoted, just to warn you. That goes way beyond some insights into writers or society…
O’Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism. It is a Catholic tenet that Hod judges by actions, but virtually all her white woman characters judge by appearances. O’Conner greatly adired Faulkner. “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” she remarked of Southern writers’ relationship to the Master…What she describes is far more evil: the nice lady on the bus who calls you “nigger” by offering your child a penny; or the old woman who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the “pickaninnies” of her antebellum youth. These are the women who wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does. And why would any black person want to belong to the world that these women and their men have created? (121)
Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stones. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes–fear that can lead to becoming a dead nigger, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. Nigger is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a coloured man.
And according to these pictures, I shouldn’t be here talking to you right now at all: I’m a little on the nigger side, meant to be seen and not heard, my tongue hanged and, with it, my mind. (135)
I loved too the piece on Malcolm X’s mother Louise Little.
The Autobiography plays out the violence of their feelings toward the coloured immigrant. Once Malcolm has identified his mother as an immigrant in his book, it is impossible not to see her at a remove. That is the true nature of difference: something stupidly defined so as to be controlled. (156)
But is it?
More on difference in thinking about Eminem, and his mother…
That Mathers should be open to a musical culture not his own is interesting. For some artists–white as well as black–there is the sense that delving into “otherness” allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily. (173)
The other within the other within the other…so much difference we shall never come to the bottom of it, never control it. Should not want to. Yet seems like this desire to contain and control, and the violence that arises from it, is one of the dynamics that is best at breaking us. Too often it kills us dead.
One last note, a smile and a surprise that Baudelaire should have succeeded in liberating someone…André Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue.
Talley’s immersion in French gave him a model to identity with: Baudelaire, on who work he wrote his master’s thesis, at Brown University in the early seventies. And it was while he was at Brown, liberated by the Baudelairean image of the flâneur, that Talley began to exercise fully his penchant for extravagant personal dress. (197)
I really don’t like Baudelaire, and kind of hate this canon of white men flâneuring about the city because they can, but I am trying to be less judgmental because all of us need different things, and this is helping.
It ends with a sprawling, heartbreaking exploration of the world of Richard Pryor that kept me from sleeping. I have another small note, to find and read Henry Duman’s ‘Ark of Bones’, poet murdered in Harlem’s train station.
This of course, does not even touch what this book meant to me as I read it, but I don’t really know how to do that. Except that it highlights to me again that some cannot choose whether or not people stare with hate and fear at their difference. But us straight white girls? We can often choose. How important, then, that we join our own differences with those of others and face down the hatred together, come what may.
[Als, Hilton (2013) White Girls. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.]
A few excerpts from ‘Who See Me’, an early poem of June Jordan’s, written for a book of portraits in 1969. Heartbreaking in its capture of confronting hate in the eyes others when you momentarily cease to be invisible — or only partially invisible. Confronting the violence of this seeing/not-seeing, this hate that comes from nothing you’ve said or done.
A white stare splits the air
by blindness on the subway
in department stores
The Elevator (that unswerving ride
where man the brother
by his side)
A white stare splits obliterates
the nerve-wrung wrist from work
the breaking ankle or
the turning glory
of a spine
Is that how we looks to you
a partial nothing clearly real?
the jail is white where I am born
but black will bail me out
We have lived as careful
as a church and prayer
that white terrain
impossible for black America to thrive
that hostile soil to mazelike toil
backbreaking people into pain
we grew by work by waiting
to be seen
black face black body and black mind
homicide of daily insult daily death
the pistol slur the throbbing redneck war
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.