Thank you so much. I am so enjoying your great piece on touching hair and just wanted to add a tiny little footnote that might amuse you: I am a 43 y.o. white woman. I grew up in Seattle where I was bused for voluntary desegration but my middle school bus was racially integrated. I'll never forget the day when a black boy pulled my long, straight hair out and passed it round as "white girl hair." It was funny. It hurt. I got it. I never touch anyone without asking. But I get why people are curious. Thanks for a sharp, strong essay.
I spare you the twists and turns of my cogitations, for no conclusion was found on the road to Headingly, and I ask you to suppose that I soon found out my mistake about the turning and retraced my steps to Fernham.
--Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)
Hello kitty kitty kitty¦ Are you an orphan? Are you Sudanese? Chadian? Are you a sub-Saharan African suffering from mild mental retardation? Are you an African woman suffering from the African male? Would you like an Oxfam biscuit? Organic antiretrovirals? Have you been raped? You might not know it, but you are an orphan, a refugee. Can we fly 103 of you to France to be loved? We can breastfeed you. We can make you a Darfur orphan. Even if you are not. If you are black and under 10 years old, please come talk to us.
Come kitty kitty.
Isn’t that fantastic? Especially in light of this Haitian story, in which some of the children reportedly still have parents(!). I love “You might not know it, but you are an orphan.” As with the longer piece on Africa, he cuts right to the core of blind sentimentality, the 21st-century Mrs. Jellybys, so sure that they are offering the best help for those whom they are so sure are desperately in need of it. You can read the whole piece here.
Or, as a commenter in the Times writes:
Don't play poker with a guy named Doc. Don't eat in a restaurant named Mom's. Don't go hiking without a compass near the North Korean Border. Don't travel to Iran to participate in anti-government demonstrations. Don't take a busload of kids across the border without their parents' permission. That's what my Daddy taught me.
In this story King stays up working on an overdue sermon, and when he looks into the refrigerator for a late-night snack he finds ''bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England . . . a half-eaten Mexican tortilla . . . German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice . . . macaroni, spaghetti and ravioli favored by Italians.'' Struck by how something as basic and elemental as food can represent the interconnectivity of life, King basks in this revelation only to be brought to earth by his loving wife.
My husband and I had the privilege of hearing Johnson read this story at a conference in Seattle a few years back. It was fantastic.
''Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it's unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this.''--Edwige Danticat (via Tayari)
It’s easy to forget about Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is so hard to think about—even before this latest castatrophe—that, unless there is a hurricane or a new novel by Danticat, it’s easier to focus elsewhere.
Comedy: American Style, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s fourth and final novel, recounts the tragic tale of a family’s destruction—the story of a mother who denies her clan its heritage. Originally published in 1933, this intense narrative stands the test of time and continues to raise compelling, disturbing, and still contemporary themes of color prejudice and racial self-hatred. Several of today’s bestselling novelists echo subject matter first visited in Fauset’s commanding work, which overflows with rich, vivid, and complex characters who explore questions of color, passing, and black identity.I can’t wait to read it.
Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s introduction places this literary classic in both the new modernist and transatlantic contexts and will be embraced by those interested in earlytwentieth-century women writers, novels about passing, the Harlem Renaissance, the black/white divide, and diaspora studies. Selected essays and poems penned by Fauset are also included, among them “Yarrow Revisited” and “Oriflamme,” which help highlight the full canon of her extraordinary contribution to literature and provide contextual background to the novel.
Yesterday’s find was the strong speculation that the woman Orwell bragged about having sex with in a public park was likely Smith.
Here is today’s: Smith was a libelously autobiographical writer. Novel on Yellow Paper begins “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends” and she did, indeed lose many friendships over her thinly veiled accounts of marital spats and her confusing frankness (and anti-Semitism) toward her Jewish friends. One such friendship sundered was that with Betty Miller, author of Farewell Leicester Square (another of my discoveries this summer). Smith spent the weekend with the Millers and then commemorated it in a short story portraying the Millers as burdened by the sense of English anti-Semitism, Miller herself as a suppressed wife, and Miller’s son Jonathan (the Jonathan Miller) as a brat.
Betty was not pleased.
I don’t doubt it.
Though you may not have noticed it, I did: I was unfair to Fauset last week by leading with my criticism of her energetic and ambitious first novel.
Actually, and in spite of its many flaws, I was very moved by the book and I think it’s an amazing novel to revive during the age of Obama.
The plot is unwieldy but full of wonderfully cinematic scenes. If you are a screenwriter in search of material, I recommend mining There is Confusion.
The Marshall family, the four children of Joel Marshall, are the book’s heart. Joel Marshall is a very successful caterer, a self-made man, living in a large prosperous house in Manhattan—at first, in the 50s and, later, in Harlem. Rich as he is, he regrets that his success came in mere catering and hopes for more—for greatness, for ambition, for real intellectual and political achievement, for his children.
Of his four children, only Joanna shares those ambitions and both she and her father are somewhat surprised to find that her talent lies in singing and dancing: once again, the family’s dreams of a new Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth are checked by both their talents and the lack of opportunity.
Joanna is one of three young people whose maturation the book details. Her story contrasts with those of Maggie Ellersley, the daughter of a laundress who hopes that marriage to a rich man will raise her from poverty and Peter Bye, the scion of freedmen from Philadelphia, who must overcome his father’s anger and laziness to become the man—and the physician--Joanna deserves to marry.
Part of the book’s failure is also what makes it so continually interesting: Fauset spends a lot of time explaining her world. She has her earnest young people engage in long, DuBois-ian conversations about talent and how best to spend it. They walk the streets of New York, experiencing both freedom and discrimination. Fauset explains the differences between the social mobility of New York—both within the black community and in a tentatively integrating bohemia—and the intense social hierarchies of elite black Philadelphia, where the daughters of freedmen work hard not to aim too high, but simply to remain eligible brides for the appropriate sons.
I had hoped to find a new novel of the Harlem Renaissance to teach this fall, tiring as I have of Larsen. I am really excited about this one, about which I cannot stop thinking
When I finished Short Girls, I returned to Fauset and, somehow, really got involved in the story and finished it with great pleasure. Still, it cannot be said that this, Fauset’s first novel, is flawless: it’s overplotted, it’s got too many characters; it’s too talky in parts.
I kept thinking about the difference it would have made if Fauset had an MFA. I don’t think MFAs can create talent, but they do seem to help writers prune their manuscripts, think about their audience, focus their purpose. This is a somewhat disheartening conclusion, and I want my literature great more than competent, but, over and over again while reading Fauset, I would think, oh! If some fellow reader, if some instructor, could have helped her smooth that over, edit that out, how much better this book would be.
Amazing the difference that those 80 years have made.
UPDATED to say: What I wanted to add here is that Fauset herself knows this: there is an incredibly affecting scene late in the book. The protagonist has finally gotten her dream job, dancing in a Broadway show. It's an integrated cast and the exposure brings her, for the first time, into a bohemian group of friends, many of them white. She wonders at their accomplishments: how can they have done so much when she's been dancing all this while. Then she thinks back over all the time she's spent overcoming obstacles put in her way by racism: finding the dancing teacher who would teach black students; getting him to agree to a special class when white students refused an integrated one; finding 10 other black dancers to join her, etc. She things ruefully about all she would have done had she not had to beat down her own path.
That citizenship ceremony is the heart of the book and it’s where the separate lives of the Luong sisters reconnect. This book, like Sima’s Undergarments for Women, has a plot structure that is designed to soothe and please: things are a mess at the beginning and you have, from the start, some sense that, somehow, things will improve. The party that we know will bring the sisters together happens a little more than halfway through the book: I loved that I couldn’t predict the aftermath of the book, but that, from the start, I had eager hope for what I knew would be interesting. That is a deeply satisfying kind of story to me these days.
Van Luong is the good sister, an immigration lawyer, but her husband has left her; Linny, the bad girl, is reconsidering her affair with a married man. Since they’re both in their late-twenties, a lot of the plot’s conflict revolves around figuring out a way to find a life partner, but that is not the only thing. I love how Nguyen promotes their search for satisfying careers to equal importance. Linny’s job, designing recipes for “You Did It Dinners,” one of those catering places that helps working mommies assemble casseroles is a wonderful job for a slacker girl: she’s gifted at cooking, but, lord, is this how she’s going to spend her life? Making up non-threatening burrito-bake recipes for other women to assemble? And when Van’s husband blames her for losing a hopeless immigration case, her utter collapse of confidence, too, seems like just the kind of folding of confidence I saw again and again among my ambitious friends at the first big career setback: the decision that, oh well, I really didn’t want to do public service/litigation/inner city teaching, I’ll just settle here.
The novel is mercifully free of faux-exotic details—and mocks those white friends who want them—but there is a deeply realized sense of the Vietnamese community of Michigan, its development, how it revolves around the family that got rich first, how the Luongs, by buying a house a few neighborhoods away, lost touch with its center, how it looks now (in 2003) that some of the children of 1975 have children of their own.
Van is an appealing but hard to know character: there is something deeply private about her; even up to the end, she seems a little unknowable in her studiousness. That meant that it took me a while to feel at home with her—even as I was in the novel’s world from the very first page—a fantastic scene of the young abandoned wife, worrying that she’ll forget the alarm’s code because it’s their wedding date. But, as the novel unfolded, I learned how much stock I was to take in little clues—that Van would never tell us, that Nguyen will never tell us—directly why she became an immigration lawyer, but that, in her poring over post-9/11 rule changes we could infer her deep ethical commitment to working for immigrant rights.
At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.
Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.
This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.
In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.
We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”
My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.
That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.
For me, the memory of Michael Jackson is all bound up with second grade and a girl in my class then who was murdered, Cynthia Hinds. Cynthia loved the Jackson Five.
I have been thinking about her and recently, I found the essay I wrote about her death back in 2003 when her murderer was sentenced. Cynthia was one of the victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Murderer. The Green River Murders were a series of serial killings of prostitutes along a lonely strip of highway south of the Sea-Tac Airport.
In 2003, I wrote:
Cynthia Hinds and I were in the second grade together at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle. We were not friends. She envied my ability to read with ease; I envied her beauty. Looking back at our class picture, I can see that she was a wide-eyed, buck-toothed girl who had yet to grow into her looks, but to me, at seven, she was the prettiest girl in the class. Beautiful. She had cinnamon skin, huge brown eyes, and long wavy hair that she wore in a ponytail on the side of her head, tied with thick, fuzzy red yarn. Hers is still the hair I think of as the prettiest I have ever seen. …There is a lot to say here—about my nerdiness and aspiration, about her love for the Jackson Five and my sense that I wouldn’t know what to say to them (let alone remember Marlon, Randy, and Tito’s names or tell them apart). (Funny to imagine being more comfortable with Lincoln than with Jermaine Jackson, but with Lincoln, I felt more confident: I had a lot of questions to ask him and I knew a lot more about him, having read the D’Aulaire biography dozens and dozens of times.) Lowell was a very integrated elementary school: no one race dominated and we thought and talked a lot about race all the time.
She was good at dancing. Everyday, we did Soul Train. I ran between the two swaying lines of classmates, trying to get it over with; Cynthia thrived on the attention. She loved the Jackson Five. One day, Ms. Pogue asked us to write a little composition, finishing the sentence: “If I could invite anyone to dinner, I would invite…” While I wrote an essay on Abraham Lincoln, Cynthia was getting Ms. Pogue’s help with the spelling of Michael and Jermaine.
I also remember that Cynthia pinned me to the wall every day for a little over a week and kicked me in the butt. No matter which exit I used, she found me, gave me one kick, and walked away. Eventually, the teachers got control, and I was freed.
Even after elementary school, I remembered her—how pretty she was and her animus to me and all the confusing feelings connected with that, with knowing that I was smarter than she was, knowing (duh!) that just by my being white, things (what things I couldn’t have said) were easier for me than for her. So I was shocked to see her picture on the front page of the Seattle Times as a murder victim in 1982. There I was, in high school honors classes and this girl who had been such a part of my second grade life was dead.
I think back to that intimidating Soul Train line in second grade and remember loving Michael Jackson in spite of my fear of dancing in public. I think we all loved Michael Jackson. I still do.
That flatness has faded. I am excited again. I read on Jezebel that Obama’s letter to his daughters in Parade magazine was unbelievably adorable; Girls Write Now’s Twitter feed confessed to tearing up. On the strength of that, I decided to read it. But it didn’t come up on my iPhone before the train drifted out of range. I read it aloud to my 6 y.o. daughter as part of her bedtime reading, tears streaming down my face. She thought it was nice, but beloved children are used to hearing our outsized hopes for them and their future. It’s the grown-ups, parents or not, who understand the odds against those dreams coming true and the faith it takes to commit yourself to working toward dreams in spite of those odds.
The next day, I asked her to write a letter to the President. She came up with a sweet, noir note that makes Jersey City sound like Dodge:
"Dear Presudint Obama I am vere happy that you are going to be ourI find this both odd and dear: not a letter for the ages, not really about a top pressing issue for the nation or even for our lives here. Still, I’ll stick it in an envelope with our fervent prayers for some of the promises of this election to be fulfilled.
Presudint love Olivia age 6
In a town wer crims are arownd evre cornr ples make those crims stop."
That is, in conventional spelling:
Dear President Obama, I am very happy that you are going to be our President….In a town where crimes are around every corner, please make theose crimes stop.”
I have been thinking since November about what this Obama victory means. Those thoughts are on two tracks: one is about race and identity, one is about competence and ideas. As for competence and ideas, I am moved and humbled and also angered to feel the tremendous relief of knowing that Obama’s election brings some grown-ups back to Washington. On the one hand, he calls us to be more engaged in our country. On the other, I can relax in the assurance that my President is not actively seeking ways to begin wars, to circumvent the Constitution, to ignore the entrenched problems of poverty.
As for race and identity, I am so relieved to move a new generation into the White House. It’s moving and meaningful to me, as the working mother of two little girls, to think that my concerns are not far at all from their concerns. For all that is incredible, outsized, and amazing about the Obamas, I have more in common with them than with any other First Family in U.S. history. Selfishly, this makes me hopeful that issues that matter to me will also naturally occur to him to work on. But I have not failed to notice race, of course. And that matters more than I can say with any great intelligence or insight.
I do however, think about two crucial facts of my elementary school days and how different they will be from now on: Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. Both celebrations, central to my schooling forever, were always accompanied by some grouchy, skeptical racist mumbling from somewhere in the back of the room. Now, think how that curriculum can change to shut up the doubters. Even in the most conservative corner of the most conservative state, the narrative has a happy and victorious chapter. This is not the whole story, by any means, but it’s a useful piece, especially for those children under ten: to be able to say, “….and then, 40 years after 1968, Barack Obama was elected President.”
I keep thinking about the shoebox diorama I lovingly made in my 4th grade class. Toilet paper rolls for tree trunks, moss growing on the north side of the tree, Harriet Tubman running sure-footedly through the forest. What is Mrs. Goings thinking this week? What would Harriet Tubman make of this? I was raised on hope. I’m a sentimental West Coast girl. I can’t say this moment surprises me, but it moves me deeply and I do think it changes the world for the good in profound ways.
What will my daughters’ dioramas look like?
I knew from the combination of humor and passionate ethics on her blog that I would love her novel; her reading at the Girls Write Now benefit only confirmed that feeling. It was just a matter of getting to the book…
There is so much to love about this novel. Ariadne, the protagonist with the burdensome, ambitious name, is a young Spelman grad, drifting through her twenties. She doesn’t really know herself if her job teaching literacy for a community organization is a testament to her commitment to social justice or a symptom of her lack of ambition. She has a nice boyfriend, a locksmith and this character, Dwayne, is one of the book’s real pleasures: a lovely, lovely, settled young man, utterly confident of himself and his place in the world in all kinds of ways that unsettle Aria.
Tayari is really genius in writing about class: the scene in which Aria sits and watches as the pregnant teen from her literacy class does calligraphy to address envelopes for her roommates wedding invitations is so rich. A regular middle-class girl, newly graduated from college but without family money to draw on, Aria looks in wonderment at both women and sees clearly how strange each is to the other, and, most distressingly, how far she is from either. This seems utterly right to me: so often, we skate along assuming equality and suddenly someone mentions their sailboat, or that they’ve reached the time of the month when it’s down to Ramen and tuna, and we’re brought up short—or, worse, see that we’ve brought someone else up short. Again and again in The Untelling, Tayari captures those economic complexities and brilliantly articulates the specific prism of the young, gifted black women who’ve gone to Spelman and remained in Atlanta, expecting their Morehouse man, expecting a lot of themselves, and caught in a richly conflicted relationship to all the various neighborhoods of their city—this one too bourgie, that one too ghetto, this one uneasily gentrifying, that one stubbornly down at the heels.
I don’t want to spoil the book for you because I think you should read it yourself. I know it’s a few years old now, but seek it out. I gobbled it. It’s an important book, a lovely book, with a real plot, rich characters, and a deeply satisfying ending.