Read It Again

 

Of late, I find I am easily overwhelmed when either witnessing or experiencing what appears and feels to me to be some aspect of beauty, goodness, kindness, and love, am brought to quick tears by all of it. I’ve avoided listening to a beloved piece of music because of an unwillingness to undergo what would be its effect. Such had been the same with the reading of a novel I was required to write about. I put off reading the work. How could I bear the book? I read it once long ago. Its beauty was a revelation then, a natural poetry in nearly every passage. How could I read it again now? Its words would make me weep, yet the paper was due. I read; I wept. Such is the beauty of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I could not write about the novel without considering something Hurston herself had to say about looking at works of art. In editor Cheryl A. Wall’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Casebook, Hurston is quoted as having written that “‘we each have our own standards of art, and thus we are all interested parties and so unfit to pass judgments upon the art concepts of others.” This advice is not always followed; for proof, look no further than what some of Hurston’s contemporaries had to say about her novel. The esteemed Alain Locke, seen as the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, thought it an “oversimplification” of the life Hurston sought to depict. Richard Wright considered it “minstrelsy.” Ralph Ellison called it “calculated burlesque.” These responses bring to mind a question posed in “Postcolonial Fiction and the Outsider Within,” an essay by Brooke Lenz in which she asks “…to what extent any given literary analysis reflects the standpoint of the critic, rather than the character or author.”

So, what is one to make of Their Eyes Were Watching God other than how it makes one think and feel? Is it possible to suss out Hurston’s intent in writing the novel – assuming she had one? For all the reams of information proffered by scholars, it may be best to read what Hurston writes about it. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she tells the reader that she wrote the book “under internal pressure in seven weeks” following a romance with a younger man that had ended, and that – in the book – she had “tried to embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for him.” She accomplishes much more than that. To me, it seems that Hurston, in her mid-forties at the time and conducting ethnographic research in Haiti, decided to use a good part of her life-experiences to create the story the reader encounters. Hurston seems to revel in Black culture at its roots, in Black independence (that of individuals and of communities), and in the joys and vagaries of human existence — of being alive.

One of the most striking features of Zora Neale Hurston’s work is her use of a culture’s root — its language. This, no doubt, can be attributed to her skill as a writer, her ear as an anthropologist, and to her being the daughter of a man described as “a preacher/poet.” Hurston, immersed in the southern culture from which she sprang, is able to bring that culture to life in ways that would escape a lesser artist. Take, for example, how she uses the characters portraying the citizens of Eatonville, her real-life hometown fictionalized. The residents of the town appear in much the same way as the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, offering vital information to listeners. Though one reads Hurston, she is able to make readers hear. I remember visiting family in the Alabama countryside and seeing and hearing men born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sitting on the porch of a small, wood-framed store in a sleepy southern town on a summer’s afternoon. Because of that experience, I can read the words Hurston puts into the mouths of her characters and hear the drawls, the cadences, the emphasis on certain words, and the imagery of their lives. Thus, it is easily relatable when Sherley Anne Williams, in her essay, “Encountering Zora Neale Hurston,” writes that “In the speech of her characters I heard my own country voice…”

As Neal A. Lester notes in his Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Hurston’s novel exalts an African tradition of storytelling over what Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer calls “‘being hypnotized by literacy…’” Lester adds that the language of the book’s characters “is something that Hurston aesthetically raises to high art.” Hurston delights in the language of the commoner, as evidenced by her prodigious use of black idioms. A good woman can’t be gotten “wid no fish sandwich.” Janie Mae Crawford, the heroine at the center of Hurston’s novel, has a certain rank in the community and “must look on herself as the bell-cow.” One can’t invite guests “just dry long so;” one must be prepared to feed them well. Cheap or pointless talk is “gum-grease.” To be in a committed relationship with someone is to be in the “go-long.” Hurston reminds or teaches the reader that “going straight by walking crooked” is sometimes the best way to reach a destination.

Having grown up in an independent black community, the first incorporated black township in the United States, it is likely more than chance that Hurston chose to do anthropological field work in Haiti, what was then the only independent Black nation in the western hemisphere. In her novel, Huston writes with a great love of black freedom and strength in all its forms. Robert E. Hemenway, in Zora Neale Hurston, his literary biography of the writer, tells the reader that Hurston’s “sense of racial pride had contributed much to Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In her own words, Hurston is “on fire about my people.”

Although Hurston’s novel is viewed by many as an early work of black feminism, in her depiction of the character, Joe Starks, I see Hurston also pointedly painting a portrait of a strong black man. For all that character’s foibles, Hurston obviously is interested in having the reader see Joe in his fullness. Joe is agent rather than victim, and his agency uplifts others. The reader meets him wearing a “hat set at an angle that didn’t belong” in the area through which he is travelling when he meets Janie. Joe has “a bow-down command in his face, and every step he took made the thing more tangible.” He is “a whirlwind among breezes.” He is a natural-born monarch with “a throne in the seat of his pants.” He has “books in his jaws.” Eatonville “bowed down to him…because he was all these things…” The theme of the strong black man is reprised in the character of Tea Cake, “the son of Evening Sun” who, like Joe before him, commands the attention of his community. For the migrant field hands drawn to the Florida Everglades for seasonal work, “Tea Cake’s house was a magnet, the unauthorized center of the “‘job.’”

That Hurston wrote her novel while studying in Haiti makes it easy to surmise that she was struck not by the differences but by the similarities of cultures and communities, and that she utilized those similarities in her writing. What southern blacks knew as hoodoo, Haitians knew as Vodou. In “Vodou Imagery, African American Tradition, and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” essayist Daphne Lamothe writes that Hurston’s novel has allusions to Vodou “so embedded into the foundation of the narrative that they are virtually invisible…” This is true only if one does not know what to look for. If, as Lamothe suggests, it is true that there are allusions to “similarities between Janie…and the Vodou Goddess Ezili,” one can then read additional meaning into Tea Cake’s insistence that Janie dress in blue.

As stated earlier, Hurston seems to have used a good part of her life-experiences when writing her novel, which is why – as also stated before – the work is suffused with a natural poetry, a poetry evident even in the novel’s now-famous opening line: “Ships at a distance has every man’s wish on board.” Even the poet Sterling Brown, while criticizing the novel, had to admit that it is “chock-full of earthy and touching poetry.” In her introduction to Hemenway’s book, writer Alice Walker notes that Their Eyes Were Watching God “is regarded as one of the most poetic works of fiction by a black writer in the first half of the twentieth century.” Hemenway himself believes that “Janie’s poetic self-realization is inseparable from Zora’s concomitant awareness.” Robert Bone, in his essay “Ships at a Distance,” writes that “If the first half of the novel deals with the prose of Janie’s life, the latter half deals with its poetry.” How did Hurston come by this sensibility? What life-experience imparted this? Hemenway says of her that “she enjoyed Keats but recognized the poetry in her father’s sermons.” Lester points out that traditional southern black church services “become art in process, patterns of movement and language always expected but quite unpredictable.”

It is the poetry that comes from the novel’s most arresting character that is most notable, that of the book’s omniscient narrator, Hurston herself. She forces the reader to pause and savor lines. One learns there are “dinners that chasten all women sometimes.” At a moonrise, “its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.” Tea Cake, the one true-love of Janie’s life, “looked like the love thoughts of women…He was a glance from God.” At one point, still feeling his presence after he has left a room, Janie “got up and opened the window and let Tea Cake leap forth and mount to the sky on a wind.” At the approach of a hurricane, “dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man.” The storm leads to flooding, and “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.” Surveying the destruction wrought by wind and water, Tea Cake “saw the hand of horror on everything,” saw that “the mother of malice had trifled with men.”

It is Hurston’s life-experiences, no doubt, that gives truth to the fact that just as notable as her poetic sensibilities is the wisdom she exudes throughout the book as the all-knowing teller of the tale. Though, as mentioned before, she was in her mid-forties when writing the novel, one suspects Hurston had always been wise beyond her years. In the essay, “A Personality Sketch,” the writer Fanny Hurst — a sometime employer, sometime patron, sometime companion of Hurston — thought she possessed “a vulnerable philosophy at variance with much of her splendor, and splendor she had.” It is Hurston-the-wise, not the ever-evolving Janie, who teaches the reader that humans are singing, glittering beings who were covered in mud by jealous angels. Hurston understands that doubt is “the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers.” It is Hurston who knows that no amount of determination should keep one “turning round in one place.” She makes the reader contemplate the truth that “it’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you.”  Perhaps most cogently, Hurston tells the reader that jealous angels are the least of one’s celestial worries:

 “All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”

It is with this passage that Hurston shows the reader that she, mud-covered or not, has more than just glimpsed the machinations behind the human condition.

Now, following my second reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God, I find I am drawn to the same things that endeared the novel to me originally: its poetry; its loving and true-to-life depiction of a people in their place and time; its knowingness; its overall beauty. I find it both interesting and ironic that, of the many critics of the novel at its publication, it is a white critic, Lucille Thompkins, who is most closely aligned with my own view of what Hurston has given the world. As Lovalerie King writes in The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston, “Thompkins saw in the novel a universal tale: ‘It is about Negroes…but really it is about everyone, or at least everyone who isn’t so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory.’” I’ll let Thompkins have the last word.

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Odes

During the past few months, I’ve been introduced to the works of writers who explore what it means to be an immigrant. Some of the characters in these novels leave their home countries by choice; others are fleeing for their lives. One of the writers was the Punjabi poet, novelist, and essayist Amrita Pritam. I’ve only read her poem, “Ode to Waris Shah,” and an excerpt from her autobiography about the incident that gave rise to the poem: the Partition, the creation of Pakistan by the dismemberment of India in 1947. Of that year, Pritam writes that “…accounts of marauding invaders in all mythologies and chronicles put together will not, I believe, compare with the blood curling horrors of this historic year.”

What immediately sprang to mind was something I first heard as a child while watching a TV sitcom, something I later learned was a reference to the Roman lyric poet Horace. In book three of his Odes, he writes that “Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’ / We, their sons, are more worthless than they.” Given the magnitude of the violence and destruction attendant to India’s partition, it is no wonder Pritam sees no hyperbole in her belief that there is no historical comparison, that the widespread slaughter proved her generation to be “more worthless” than all those before. In the midst of all of that, how could she believe otherwise?

Consider, for example, this passage from Kanwaljit Kaur’s “Communal Violence in Princely States during Partition” in which she writes that, on August 15th in the east Punjab state of Patiala, “…500 rioters including police and troops in uniform attacked Mohalla Kucha Rangrazan and killed 1000 Muslims.” Kaur writes that, in Patiala, “the Muslims who constituted 1/3 of its population was virtually wiped out or expelled.” The state’s maharajah’s efforts to curtail the violence were hampered by the reports of what Muslims were doing to Hindus and Sikhs elsewhere. Kaur sums up the extent and effect of the carnage when she writes that the “…people in princely states were butchered mercilessly on a massive scale. The violent Communal riots, murders and heinous crimes brought the people’s morale to the lowest ebb.”

At this low point, Pritam does what poets do: turn to poetry. In another line given from her autobiography, she writes of the Partition’s horrors that they “…would take a lifetime to retell.” She understands a poet attempting to tell the tale must do so in only a few lines. In turning to her art, Pritam invokes the spirit of one of its most illustrious practitioners, the 18th century Punjabi poet Waris Shah, and addresses her words to him as a plea for his indulgence. “Too Waris Shah I turn today!”, she begins. The man who wrote not just of love but of great love must give aid in the age of great hate. Speaking of a woman of whom Shah wrote, Pritam reminds him that “When one daughter of the Punjab did cry / You filled pages with songs of lamentation,” and informs him that “Today a hundred daughters cry.”

From that point on, Pritam’s “Ode to Waris Shah” is – itself – a lament. Nearly every line of the poem recounts a tragedy of the Partition, but it is not the great ones that stand out, not the lines that tell the reader that “Corpses are strewn on the pasture / Blood runs in the Chenab.” It is the seemingly small things that loom large:

Song was crushed in every throat:

Every spinning wheel’s thread was snapped:

Friends parted from one another

The hum of spinning wheels fell silent.

So at a lost is Pritam by what is happening that she feels compelled to implore the great poet to “Open your grave / Write a new page / In the book of love.”

I am yet reminded of those lines from Horace when reading the words of a woman escaping with her children from certain death. “If they find you in the house, they will burn it so you come outside. Then they catch you and chop you with the machete.” This woman had to flee from an area where there had been “…widespread rape, dismemberment of victims, [and] the kidnapping of small children.” This is not a tale from 1947, but one appearing on the front page of The Washington Post newspaper only three weeks ago. It is just one tale from the people now fleeing across Lake Albert from the Congo to Uganda to escape the slaughter of the Hema by the Lendu. Just yesterday, the Post’s front page featured a photograph of Central American migrants who — fleeing violence — are seeking asylum at our southern border. I think of Horace once again because of the rest of what he had to say. After having described his generation as being “more worthless” than the one before, he follows that by concluding “so in our turn / we shall give the world / a progeny yet more corrupt.”

I find it doubtful that any generation of our species has been, is, or will be either more or less “worthless” than any other. I suppose one would have to read much more of Amrita Pritam’s work to determine whether she found any hope in the aftermath of the Partition. It would be understandable if, instead, she — like Horace – concluded that the human condition is destined to worsen with each successive generation, but her “Ode to Waris Shah” reminds us of places to turn for hope.

 

Juliet’s Query

 

Recently, someone asked the reason for my name. I thought I knew but decided to make sure.  As I thought about calling my mother and asking her how it was chosen, the telephone rang. Serendipitously, it was my mother, calling to check on me. I think she worries a bit more than usual, now that – after almost forty years of marriage – I am a widower. I told her I was okay, that I had been just about to call, and why.

“How did I choose your name?” she asked herself. “Let me think. How did I choose your name?”

After a moment, I asked if it had been because of the Hollywood movie star Gregory Peck, which I always had assumed. It was not strange for me to have done so. As a child watching a music show on television once, I had been amazed by the host announcing a singer named Julius La Rosa, the first and middle names of one of my younger brothers.

“Gregory Peck,” my mother said in contemplation. “No, I don’t think so, but I honestly can’t remember. It might come to me if I think about it. You know,” she said, laughing, “you’re going to have to excuse your 90-year-old mother’s memory.”

My mother and father had to choose names for four boys, three girls, and, then, two more boys. I was third up. For me, my name has never been anything other than something that serves its fundamental purpose without embarrassment. After all, it turns out that Gregory was Mr. Peck’s middle name; his given name was Eldred. But, who knows? I probably would not have cared one way or the other about that one, either. I mean, The Bard is right, is he not, about his whole rose-by-any-other-name thing? That is why I considered, during the Black Power era, changing my name as many were doing. I didn’t, which is just as well. I probably would have done the same thing others did: give up their given names for Arabic names in the mistaken belief that they were West African names, thereby dropping the names from Christians slave masters, only to pick up those from Muslim slave masters.

Today, on this Easter Sunday, I remember that Christians, apparently, love the name. There were sixteen popes who selected it; also, there are ten saints with the name. I discovered this at some point in my youth, after learning that names not only have meanings but are supposed to have meanings. I began to search for the origin and meaning of mine and read, initially, that the name is of Germanic origin. I later found that a consensus considered this incorrect, that the name is really of Greek origin and passed into Roman culture; I suspect that from the latter is how it made its way to those Germans known as the Angles and the Saxons. Regardless, the meaning, the same across cultures, has an ironic resonance today: woke.

Woke, or awake are just two of the synonyms commonly associated with the name’s meaning. Others include watchful, alert, and guardian. The one most often used is vigilant, which, most likely, is why the name became so popular among Christians; in a letter Peter the Apostle wrote to followers, he exhorted them to be vigilant.

As I write, I am reflecting on the fact that I have known others with the name, but not many. This seems as though it should be improbable, since it is not an uncommon name, but I remember my wife once saying that the only other Gregory she had known before me was a boy in her elementary school class.

My mother, who still cooks and cleans and does laundry; who – at her ninetieth birthday party — was on the dance floor in three-inch, red heels; and whose memory still surprises me, has yet to recall the reason for my name. My father died two decades ago. The reason for my name is and, likely, shall remain a mystery.

 

 

Pre-panther

 

The excitement generated by the release of the Marvel Comics-based movie, Black Panther, brings to mind the man whose work of science fiction became the first by a black writer to make its initial appearance before the public as a novel. With the 1931 publication of his Black No More, George S. Schuyler becomes someone who presents an alternative to the sameness of accepted American literature. Before Schuyler, not only is there no black writer of science fiction whose novel had not begun in serialized form, there is also no black author who had written a satiric novel, and no black writer who demonstrates a mastery over what is called the “Master Discourse” in the manner which Schuyler succeeds.

Black writers certainly had produced works having non-traditional settings before Schuyler, but most of these works fall under the term “speculative fiction,” which includes the genres of fantasy and horror as well as science fiction.  Writer Jess Nevins, who sometimes writes articles focusing on science, technology, science fiction, futurism, and fantasy, gives a reader a history of how blacks have contributed to speculative fiction in a piece titled “The Black Fantastic: Highlights of Pre-World War II African and African-American Speculative Fiction.” Nevins points out that an early practitioner of the fantasy genre of black speculative fiction, that which deals with futuristic themes and alternate histories, is Martin Delaney who, in 1859 “in response to the slave insurrection panics of 1856 and the Dred Scott decision of 1857,” wrote Blake, a novel which “describes the heroic black revolutionary Henry Blake in his attempt to rouse black Americans into a slave revolt and establish a new black country in Cuba.” Blake certainly may be considered a work of alternate history, but it is not science fiction.

The same may be said of the stories collected in Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 The Conjure Woman. These tales, based on black Americans’ understanding of the traditional spiritual beliefs of West and Central African peoples, fall in the horror category (in much the same way as Roman Catholicism serves the purposes of horror for a writer like Dan Brown in his The Da Vinci Code). Schuyler’s fictional character, on the other hand, is a man of science who uses technology to accomplish his goal: to transform any paying black customer who wants to appear white.

To see an early example of a work of science fiction by a black writer prior to George Schuyler’s Black No More, a reader can look back nearly three decades before his book to 1902’s Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins, whom Nevins calls “the most prolific African-American woman writer of her time,” and “one of African-American literature’s foremothers.” Hopkins’s work meets the definition of science fiction in that she imagines a modern civilization of “the direct descendants of the Ethiopia of 6000 B.C.E. and the possessor of advanced crystal-based technology, including suspended animation for the most beautiful in the city and technology-based telepathy.” Hopkins’s novel, however, began in serialized form. This leaves Schuyler as the earliest black writer of science fiction whose work – as said before – debuted as a published novel.

Oh, what a novel it is! While science and technology serve as needed components of its plot, it is satire that is essential to its purpose: to skewer the nation’s then-prevailing notions on race as it relates to identity by holding up a mirror to those who held those notions, albeit a distorting, funhouse mirror. And, who better than Schuyler to show how grotesque one’s image appears when seen on such a reflective surface? If forced to give a one-word description of the man, the word is iconoclast; iconoclasm is a necessary tool of the satirist. Michael W. Peplow, in his book, George S. Schuyler, quotes historian John Henrik Clarke on Schuyler. Clarke says he “used to tell people that George got up in the morning, waited to see which way the world was turning, and then struck out in the opposite direction.” In Black No More, this tendency serves Schuyler well. One can’t help but see how the satire does not simply bite, but chomps; the book’s title alone should suffice to demonstrate this.

Of course, presenting satire from a black American’s perspective was not something to which Schuyler could lay proprietary claim; Peplow, in a footnote to his article, “George Schuyler, Satirist: Rhetorical Devices in Black No More,” makes this plain by quoting W.E.B. Du Bois from the March 1931 issue of The Crisis. Du Bois writes that “American Negroes have written satire before, usually in small skits in columnists’ paragraphs.” Indeed, they had. In that same passage, Peplow goes on to note that “Elements of satire had appeared in the poetry, short stories, dramas, and columns of writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, W.E.B. Du Bois, Wallace Thurman, and Rudolph Fisher,” but he categorically states that “Black No More was the first book length satire to be written by a black author in the United States.”

The evidence for Schuyler’s novel demonstrating his mastery over the Master Discourse may lie more in one’s perception than in anything tangible. A term coming from the field of psychoanalysis, the Master Discourse is based upon early 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and, when viewed as an external rather than internal (self-conflicted) process, may be seen as an interaction between two or more individuals. When applied to culture, it is not difficult to see how it relates to the dominator-dominated dynamic that plays out in American society between wealthy, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males and everyone else. The Master Discourse, however, is but one of four postulated discourses, the other three being the “University,” the “Hysteric,” and the “Analyst.”

It is the Analyst Discourse which is significant here in that it is defined as an intentional subversion of the Master Discourse. As an example of how Schuyler does this, consider that by the end of Black No More, the stampede to become white is subverted by a new-found suspicion of and disdain for whiteness, even among the naturally white. This absurd turn of events is crystalized for a reader when Schuyler writes “…it was a common thing to see a sweet young miss stop before a show window and dab her face with charcoal.”

It is doubtful that those who shared the basic values and assumptions of the Master Discourse had ever encountered anything even remotely similar to the sensibilities of Black No More. Many American novels were published in 1931. William Faulkner’s reputation was made that year with the publication of Sanctuary. Fannie Hurst, the sometime-patron, sometime-companion of Zora Neale Hurston, gave us Back Street. There was Upton Sinclair’s Roman Holliday and Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth. Schuyler’s was not even the only science fiction novel published that year, but of all the novelists, no matter their genres, Schuyler was the only black. That alone constituted a challenge to the status quo, yet that challenge did not end there. It rightfully can be said his upending of the commonly accepted thinking of the dominant culture is further demonstrated by his showing a distinct sameness between black and white Americans. As pointed out by Jane Kuenz in “American Racial Discourse, 1900-1930: Schuyler’s ‘Black No More,’” “Schuyler’s depiction of the U.S., black and white, is uniformly bleak: a world in which everyone is subject to and motivated by the same ruthless social and economic forces and out of which select winners emerge by dint of their own corresponding ruthlessness.”

A reader familiar only with the then-accepted literature would see something new in Schuyler, something wholly different from the earnestness of writers like Anna Julia Cooper or Du Bois or Alain Locke. That any black should be able to write as cogently and elegantly as these and others would undoubtedly subvert the thinking of some of those ensconced in the ivory towers of the era; that Schuyler writes so ferociously must surely have been a revelation. Perhaps it will be revealed to modern readers who also enjoy watching the movie-screen exploits of comic book heroes.

Shall I…

eyeball

(I often am at a lost as to what I will write each month, not knowing what it will be until I come up with it. No doubt, that would have been the case again this month were it not for something I did in December, something I never had done before. That month, I wrote what I planned to post for February. Why? Only fate and irony have the answer to that. After re-reading it, I’ve decided to publish it as is).

Not long after I met my wife, I found among her books a little, palm-of the-hand sized, hardback volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I had no idea the book contained only a few of them, that he had written 154. At that point, I had read only a few of his plays and had seen a few on stage and screen, but my only encounter with his sonnets was having heard — more than a few times — that famous opening line of Sonnet 18. Now, here it was before me for the first time, in its entirety, and I had a chance to read beyond a line that had become something often recited as a joke.

I did not know at the time that there is a specific rhythm and rhyme in what he wrote and did not pay attention to it at first. My own stabs at poetry have no set order to it that I would be able to point out. When I read poets, I either like what they write or don’t. I like a poem for its own reasons and, whatever those reasons are, they are not based on any critical analysis.

Around the same time I discovered the sonnets, I joined six other aspiring poets (Gideon Ferebee, Gregory Ford, Essex Hemphill, Oliver Jackson, Andre Ramseur, and Garth Tate) to form what became Station-to-Station Performance Poets and Writers’ Collective. Eventually joined by others, we soon found ourselves performing poetry all over the city in nightclubs and coffeehouses, on the stages of theaters and street festivals, even in government offices – including the mayor’s. Jokingly one day, my not-yet wife asked why I had not written a poem for her. Jokingly, I wrote one. Having read her book of The Bard’s sonnets but still not knowing what a sonnet was, I titled the poem “Sonnet One.” It was a hit with her.

It was later that I learned a sonnet has a certain meter and rhyming scheme, and I began to see possibilities. Instead of being subject to the whims of inspiration alone, there was an actual blueprint based upon which a work could be built, so I tried my hand at building what I thought might sound like a romantic, Shakespearian-ish sonnet. I titled it “Sonnet 118”, still unaware Shakespeare had written 154, thinking at the time that – maybe — I would write a hundred, seventeen more. Ha! In the thirty-plus years since, there have been only five others, four of which I previously inflicted upon you poor readers in February 2014.

Anyway, we are nearing that time when some are prone to romantic notions, given that the 14th day of this month has become a hyped-up, Hallmark holiday. There is little care about saints when there is sex and/or chocolate to be had. So, in keeping with the spirit of that approaching day, I share with you Sonnet One (a misnomer) and Sonnet 118 (which very well may be a misnomer).

Sonnet One

Is it poetry you want,

ethereal sounds conjuring forgotten visions,

like: the wind blowing clouds but spoken out loud,

words that soar like birds,

smooth words, slick words sliding into place?

Why sit with pen in hand awhile when there is poetry in your smile,

when there is poetry in the warmth of your embrace?

Is it poetry you want,

chant of the Magi echoing the Music of the Sky,

like: the tides at their times but flowing in rhyme,

psalms that soothe like balms,

fine lines, glib verse gleaming bright as gold?

Why sit with pen in hand awhile when there is poetry in your smile,

when you are poetry for my eyes to just behold?

 

Sonnet 118

In daydreams, you and I lie in moonglow.

We are entwined; we are slowly moving.

It is just a trick of the mind – I know —

a sly, little jest once again proving

a thought, sometimes, is a mischievous friend,

conjuring scenes of that which cannot be.

I bid it, “Be still!”, it wants to pretend.

Reverie — sweeter than reality —

rushes forth, keeping common sense at bay;

such visions do not easily abate.

But, hope hovers near at the end of day,

and truth does not have very long to wait.

Fantasy becomes factual delight

when you, my love, lie in my arms tonight.

 

Word

 

“I know words, I have the best words.” Then-candidate Donald Trump, December 30, 2015, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

2017 ended with a plethora of news programs about our first year with Donald Trump as our President. One such program looked back to May 4th and a piece by conservative columnist George F. Will, who had written, “It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either.” In a later interview, Will said of Trump:

           “The question is whether or not the way he talks and the judgments he makes about matters of fact, history for example, suggests that he really is not capable of sequential thought, which is rather alarming in a president…but there comes a point at which this manages to be ludicrous without being at all funny when you have a president who …finds it impossible to put into simple, declarative sentences what he’s talking about.”

In that same interview, Will was asked to listen to and comment on an assessment of Trump made by Dr. Lance Dodes, a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard University’s medical school. According to Dodes, “Lying in the way that [Trump] does it, repeated, dangerous lying…is a sign of serious mental disturbance.” Declaring himself unqualified to validate Dodes’s diagnosis, Will declined. He had developed a disdain for what he described as a “gross abuse of psychiatry” when Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for the presidency, was being diagnosed from afar. Instead, Will said he is “just going by the evidence that the President continues to put in front of us in torrential amounts.”

The still-debated question is how did Trump become the President, a man who never had run for office, a New York real estate magnate and reality television star with a penchant for crudeness, lewdness, and disinformation and with no history of government service as either a civilian or a member of the military. There have been numerous attempts to ascribe his success to any number of factors (misogyny, racism, economic anxiety, simply having a hated Hillary Clinton as an opponent). Any number of those factors may very well have contributed. Still, if observers like Will and Dodes are right, how could it have happened? 2018 should be a time for those still pondering that question to consider the possibility that what they believe about Trump’s win and year-long tenure may be wrong, or that they may not have things quite right. For those who say Trump is crazy, there are those who say, “Crazy like a fox.” And, for those who say he is stupid, there are those who say he is far from that.

A bold prediction made in an article (“Understanding Trump”) months before the 2016 election by a man named George Lakoff comes to mind. Lakoff said Trump would become President with 47% of the popular vote; Trump won with 46.4%. This feat of prognostication would be no less impressive even if accomplished by a professional pollster, pundit, or political operative, but imagine it being pulled off by Lakoff, a cognitive linguist with a focus on conceptual metaphor. That Lakoff could see what the political experts could not should give those others pause – for a moment, at least – then galvanize them to discover what obstructed their view.

For nearly four decades now, Lakoff, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied and attempted to alert others to the prevalence and significance of conceptual metaphors in everyday life. Conceptual metaphors are defined as ideas that are linked to others for a greater understanding of something. For example, such sayings as “Let me put in my two cents’ worth,” “He’s rich in ideas,” “That book is a treasure trove of ideas,” and “He has a wealth of ideas,” are commonly used phrases based on the conceptual metaphor (or abstraction) that ideas are money. Metaphors permeate and shape “…our everyday way of thinking, speaking and acting.” Lakoff looked at Trump’s use of this system of discourse and predicted the percentage of Trump’s win.

In a book (Thinking Points, A Progressive’s Handbook) written a decade before the article he wrote in 2016, Lakoff warned about the rise of authoritarianism in this country, noting that conservatives were in control of the terms of political debate. With Donald Trump now occupying the White House, and with his cabinet and judicial picks potentially touching nearly every aspect of people’s lives, looking at how he used language and conceptual metaphors is not only important, it is an imperative, particularly if there is any hope of making the problem of his election an aberration never to be repeated. Not only should the political class take another, closer look at Trump’s use of language, but also the ways in which his use was not matched by his opponents; in the case of Clinton, her campaign was warned about her deficiencies directly by Lakoff.

Given that some political observers have said they expect a record number of women to run for office in 2018, it is worth noting – as does Kathleen Ahrens in her book, Politics, Gender and Conceptual Metaphors – that research suggests conversation rituals are used differently; women aim to engage, men aim to win. The book notes further that gendered metaphors were used as a cudgel against Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008. The man who won the nomination that year, Barack Obama, had his own use of metaphor and skill at persuasion examined by Jonathan Charteris-Black in his book, Politicians and Rhetoric: The Persuasive Power of Metaphor. An important feature of that book is the author’s reminder that, in non-authoritarian societies, we are fortunate to be governed by words – which we can accept or reject – and not by whips.

We are faced with what should be an impossible situation. A man many believe to be too inarticulate and crazy ever to become President now occupies the Oval Office. How can this dichotomy exist? How can George Will and Dr. Dodes be right about Trump and, yet, he is President? Perhaps we should look for answers beyond those provided by the common consensus. Perhaps Lakoff and others in his field are on to something, that additional answers are to be found in the nexus of linguistics, cognitive science, and politics. Lakoff believes this might help a society avoid falling victim to demagoguery.

A thorough look at how conceptual metaphor was used – and not used – during the 2016 presidential campaign would aid progressives of all genders who seek political office avoid the mistakes made by those who have failed. As for that seeming master of the game now in the White House, we may have to consider the possibility that his sensational success may not be evidence of genuine genius; he may be an idiot savant.

A Voice

     Yesterday, while walking across UDC’s Dennard Plaza to get to a writing class in the College of Arts and Sciences building, I stopped to answer a call from my sister, a retired school teacher. She had just read something she said I had to read later for a good laugh, an article about the hilarious answers students have given to test questions. She read a few to me. They were really funny, some intentionally so, others given in complete innocence. One made me consider the ubiquity of irony. To the question, “Imagine that you lived at the same time as Abraham Lincoln. What would you say to him or ask him?”, the student wrote, “I’d tell him not to go to a play ever.” The irony was that the professor whose class I was on my way to when I stopped and listened to that story has been bringing Ford’s Theater to UDC and is doing so again in four days.

     The theaters in and around Washington, DC partner with local high schools and universities to provide and promote education in the theater arts (Woolly Mammoth with Howard University, Arena Stage with Georgetown University, etc.). Dr. La Tanya Rogers, a professor of English at UDC who is the former national vice president of the Black Theater Network, is the university’s go-to person for Ford’s Theater. She has been working with that theater’s arts education coordinator, Jennie Eng, to foster students’ interests and develop their creativity and skills. A couple of months ago, the two held an open workshop on campus to do just that.

     I did not attend. I thought I had escaped that exercise, but a few weeks ago, Dr. Rogers made the writing of a monologue an assignment for the students in her class. Only later did we learn Ms. Eng would be returning to campus and attending our class to listen to the monologues being read and to give feedback. That turned out to be an emotional experience for some students who had poured so much of themselves into their work. Some found it difficult to continue reading through their tears. My classmates had written impressive pieces, quite moving, and had left me wondering if mine was any good. I had gone in a different direction, had not placed myself in the work, and Ms. Eng had said early on that such work minus the self cannot be good.

     At the end of that class, we learned Ms. Eng would be returning this month to see students deliver their completed monologues in the school’s black box theater. I’ve already drafted a classmate to read mine in my stead, and have secured an understudy just in case. To the question, “Why won’t he deliver his own monologue?”, this student has no hilarious answer. See for yourself:

Eliza Speaks

     “Momma been prayin’ a lot, Pastor Anderson, prayin’ more than she always do. I can hear her when she think me and Lizzie are ’sleep, askin’ the Lord to save her two girls, save us and Daddy, but she don’t never say nothin’ ’bout savin’ her, too, so I always make sure to ask Him to save all ‘a us – if it’s not too much to ask. The Good Book says it’s not.

     “Lord knows we need His help. We need that and the other kind ‘a help her and Daddy been askin’ for, too. If the Lord got his hand in that – and why wouldn’t he – then I wish everything wouldn’t keep goin’ back and forth the way it’s been. One day we saved, the next day we ain’t. Momma say the same thing you say, Pastor, that we got to have faith, but she say that now we got to have faith in God and the gov’ment, too. She say the law is on our side, just like that last judge said it is, and that them Missouri Supreme Court judges is ’spose to set things straight. But I can tell the back-and-forth been botherin’ her, too, just like Daddy.

     “All Lizzie know is things ain’t right yet, thing’s ain’t finished, but Momma and Daddy keep on tellin’ her they will be. But you know Lizzie still a girl, Pastor, just seven, so they don’t see no need to worry her ’bout this. Momma talks to me about some of it, though, and Daddy do too, sometimes. I guess they finally gettin’ to see I ain’t a girl no more. Momma told me I was born in the year of 1838, so that mean I’m almost fifteen. She like tellin’ me ’bout how I came into this world, ’bout how her and Daddy was on the river Mississippi on a steamboat named Gipsy, and ’bout how I refused to wait ’til that boat docked. That was back when they was still with Dr. Emerson, back before he died and the Widow Emerson went back to live on her daddy’s plantation while she hired Momma and Daddy out and collected their wages. Momma say when they was on that boat goin’ down the Mississippi they was passin’ by a free state on one side and a free territory on the other. ‘Which mean you was born free, Eliza,’ she always like to say. What I wanna know, Pastor, is why — if I was born free and they was already livin’ in the free land – then why they got to keep tryin’ to convince judges that we ’spose to be free? Now, every night, I hear Momma tryin’ to convince God of that, too. She be remindin’ him that even the Hebrew children got free.

     “Momma do more than ask God to do somp’n, though. She said you was the one who told her ’bout how some slaves was going to court to get free ’cause slavery ’spose to be ’gainst the law in the free territory. She the one who got Daddy goin’. I remember when she first started talkin’ to him ’bout it. Daddy already had tried to do right and buy us from the Widow Emerson, but the Widow said no, so Momma said they had to do what white folk would do: sue. Daddy watn’t so sure ’bout the idea at first, said he didn’t see the gov’ment doin’ but so much for us in the first place and it could be just a waste ‘a time and might cause trouble just to ask. I knew Momma didn’t like hearin’ that ’cause she called him by his whole name, ‘Etheldred’, instead of just ‘Dred’ like she always do. She said, ‘Just how much trouble you think these girls and me is worth, Etheldred? How much trouble you think you worth?’ ‘Just let me think on it, Harriet,’ he would say. Watn’t too much of that or too long after that when her and Daddy started talkin’ to the lawyers ’bout going to court. But everything been back and forth, Pastor. One time we slaves, the next time we free. Now, ’cause the Widow is suin’ this time, we got to wait and see what them Missouri Supreme Court judges decide we are. Momma said if they go against us, there is nine more judges in Washington who get the last say-so. I wonder if they ever read that part of the Good Book in Matthew, 7th chapter, 2nd verse where it says, ‘For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged…’ They must ’a had, don’t you think so, Pastor? What good Christian man who can read ain’t read that? And Momma did say to have faith — same as you say.

     “But, you know what I don’t understand, Pastor? Last Sunday after church, folk was comin’ up to just Daddy, like Momma ain’t even had nothin’ to with it, and was tellin’ him how they was all prayin’ for him and prayin’ that those who got to decide things won’t just see what’s right but will do what’s right. Some said they thank God for men like him. I don’t think that was right to leave Momma out of it like that, but she didn’t say a word. She just smiled.”