A letter to my student

A student wrote me:

Dr. Matthew,

As a hopeful future educator, DeVos' hearing downright broke me.
Her basic lack of knowledge about our school system and it's prevailing 
issues is yet another example of the shitshow replacing Obama's 
administration. 

It's at times like these, when I feel the most despair, 
that I truly miss your classroom where you offer hope and resilience 
to this kind of nightmare. 

Hope you're doing well. 

And I wrote her back:

It’s a dark and sad time, XXXX.

I woke up yesterday so sad and angry that America chose such a horrible human to follow such a devoted public servant.

My plan is to continue do small things in my corner of the world.  I’ve been collecting toiletries for women in the shelter I pass on the way to school.  I’m trying to make sure that when I participate in social media conversations I offer solutions and suggestions more than complaints and that I try to show how the world works for those who are trying to make their lives work without the benefits I get to take for granted.  I pray everyday that there is more compassion and respect in the world.  I try to read books that remind me that the human spirit is stronger than we all know.

The hardest thing is to feel helpless, like there is nothing I can do, but I try not to think about it that way too much. My goal is to find one public issue that I think is the most important and to learn all I can, then share what I know, and support it with whatever resources I have.

You and your classmates really helped me understand my own feelings about the election.  So thank you for being so open. Your outrage and disappointment give me hope. If you all care, then I know we will all find a way to thrive.

If you can, take courage in the fact that you are not alone in your outrage.  And remember that there are mechanisms already in place–organizations and groups of people–who have been here before, who have seen far worse, and who are ALREADY at work.

Protect your spirit.

Yous,
Tricia

CFP: “Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature, 1790-1830”

abolition lit art

I’m so excited to be working with Manu Chander on a special journal issue.

Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature, 1790-1830

Essay length:                             7,000—8,000 words
Abstracts due:                           31 March 2017
Essays due:                                1 November 2017

The conversation about literature that circulated in response to Britain’s debates about the slave trade has moved beyond considering Equiano’s Interesting Narrative as the representative text of British abolitionist discourse.  Debbie Lee and Peter Kitson’s eight-volume Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (1999) was followed by projects that not only upended considerations of the Romantic canon as a whole but also made clear how deeply ingrained questions of national identity and race were to the major figures of the period. Lee’s Slavery and the Romantic Imagination (2002), Paul Youngquist’s Race, Romanticism and the Atlantic (2013) and Evan Gottleib’s Global Romanticism (2014) along with others have prompted questions of alterity, national identity, and genre that underpin Romantic-era literature.

As part of the current critical discourse that takes up questions of alterity and globalism in the wake of newly discovered abolitionist texts and lines of inquiry, we seek essays for a special journal issue that invites contributors to engage collectively with “abolitionist forms”–literary genres and formal innovation, as well as cultural formations (societies, organizations, coteries, etc.), and diverse, non-verbal means of communicating about slavery and emancipation (material goods, visual texts).

Although we are open to essays that take up issues and ideas related to the texts, figures, and movements associated with the period, we are particularly interested in essays that take up the following questions,

  • Can we speak of abolition as genre—as a way of producing/marketing literature, a series of expectations, a discrete set of purposes, styles, forms that cross traditional generic boundaries?
  • In what ways did abolition inspire or require new forms of literary communication, or revisions of traditional generic categories?
  • Where do form and content intersect in abolitionist texts?
  • How did the cultural limits placed on white women writers shape their complicated investment in the abolitionist movement?
  • How did abolition contribute to the formation of social groups in which historically marginalized subjects were given voice?
  • To what extent can we speak of abolition in the singular and what are the limits of history that can be exposed/transcended by theory/literature?
  • How does the use of new technology to uncover/recover under examined sources and the proliferation of online archives shape discourses around raced bodies, particularly for novices?

Editors
Manu Samriti Chander is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. His research interests include British Romanticism, colonialism and postcolonialism, and aesthetic theory. He is the author of Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century, forthcoming from Bucknell University Press, and the editor of Egbert Martin: Scriptology (Caribbean Press, 2014). He currently is developing a second book project, Art Fights: Aesthetic Controversy and the Lessons of Modernity, which pursues a cultural trajectory from poetic works of Wordsworth and Keats, to the novels of Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov, and the films of D.W. Griffith and Stanley Kubrick.

Patricia A. Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University. She focuses on the history of the novel, Romantic era-fiction and abolitionist literature, and diversity in higher education. She is writing a book about representations of the body and the discourse of disease and illness in Romantic-era fiction. She is the co-editor with Miriam Wallace of a special issue for Romantic Pedagogy Commons (“Novel Prospects: Teaching Romantic-Era Fiction”) and has published essays and reviews in Women’s Writing, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and the Keats-Shelley Journal. She is the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and has published essays and books reviews on diversity in higher education in PMLA, The ADE Bulletin, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The New Inquiry and The Atlantic.

Written/Unwritten Essays, Interviews, Appendices

It’s hard to explain how honored I am that people from across the country trusted me with their stories and ideas.  They have been so patient and supportive, and I’m unbelievably proud to have gathered their stories here.

Pre-order at UNC Press • Discount Code: 01DAH40

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Foundations

Responding to the Calling: The Spirituality of Mentorship and Community in Academia
Houston Baker, Jr with Ayanna Jackson-Fowler

Building a Canon, Creating Dialogue
Cheryl Wall with Rashida Harrison

Navigations

Difference without Grievance: Asian Americans as the Almost Minority
Leslie Bow

In Search of Our Fathers’ Workshops
Lisa Sánchez González

Identities

Tenure in the Contact Zone: Spanish is Our Language Too
Angie Chambram

‘Colored’ is the New Queer: Queer Faculty of Color in the Academy
Andreana Clay

 Manifestos

Performative Testimony and the Practice of Dismissal
Jane Chin Davidson and Deepa S. Reddy

Talking Tenure: “Don’t be safe. Because there is no safety there anyway”
Sarita See

Hierarchies

Still Eating in the Kitchen: The Marginalization of African American Faculty in Majority-White Academic Governance
Carmen V. Harris

Musings of a Lowly Adjunct
Wilson Santos

Activism(s)

Balancing the Passion for Activism with the Demands of Tenure: One Professional’s Story from Three Perspectives
April L. Few-Demo, Fred P. Piercy, and Andrew J. Stremmel

 “Cast your net wide”: Reflections on Community Engagement When Black Lives Matter
Patricia A. Matthew

Appendices

Talking Tenure Newsletter
Maria Coter, Paul Faber, Roxana Galusca, Anneeth Kaur Hundle, Rachel Quinn, Kirisitina Sailiata Jamie Small, Andrea Smith, Matthew Stiffler, and Lee Ann Wang

 University of Southern California Analysis of Data on Tenure
Jane Junn

Making Labor Visible
Kim F. Hall

Forthcoming

In case you missed the news, the anthology is coming out Fall 2016 and it has a new and improved title:

Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.

It works, right?  Some of those hidden truths are depressing but other truths offer hope and promise. Pre-order via UNC Press.

Buy before June 30th and receive a 40% discount (code 01DAH40).

We also have a Facebook page.  I hope you’ll join us over there for diversity news, ideas, and strategies.

Afro-Pedagogy: Reading Abolition, Then and Now

I’m trying to take the best parts of my Jane Austen Seminar from last fall into this new school year.

I loved that class.

It saved me from slipping into a dangerous ennui that was mucking up the vibe in my classes. I took advantage of the structure and the topic, and it worked beautifully. It wasn’t perfect (that was never the goal), but it was pretty damn good.

Given the nature of a seminar (a small group of highly motivated students) and the subject (the Jane Austen canon is perfect for a semester course), I was able to ask students to do four things before the semester started:

  • Imagine their own assignments based on what they wanted to learn about Austen and the skills they wanted to work on over the course of the semester
  • Think about the kind of readings they wanted to do with the texts (mostly theory or mostly context essays)
  • Develop course policies (because I am tired of keeping track of the comings and goings of grown-ass people)
  • Daydream about the kind of “culminating” project they wanted to complete at the end of the semester.

My only rule was that they had to come up with the kind of work I could defend should somebody who thought the could have an opinion about my teaching ask us what we were doing while we ate cookies and talked about Austen on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We spent the first day of class brainstorming about the semester, and I asked them to submit work proposals and then met with them individually to make sure they had what they needed from me to work independently.

The students really surprised me.* They came up with ambitious projects (all of which required more research than I would have asked of them), they challenged themselves (I will love forever the incredibly shy student who said she wanted to work on speaking and public and designed two presentations on Austen in adaptation, including discussion questions that she distributed to the class before her presentation so they could have a productive conversation when she was done), and they were more creative than I could ever have imagined (for his final project, the musician in the course played music Austen’s characters would have heard on a keyboard he dragged to class while giving us a lecture on how music composition shifted in Austen’s time). One student wanted to learn how to write book reviews, and he did. It was pretty remarkable to see the transition, a process he reflected on in essays and conferences with me during the semester. Another student wanted to write about Austen the readers of her blog while another put herself in charge of being our guide to the customs of Austen’s readers. We had a student auditing the course who would write these pithy responses to our class discussions, and students shared resources they found on Blackboard.

*The class voted unanimously that i could talk about our work.

It was the best teaching experience of my 15+ years in higher education. I actually looked forward to reading student writing. I wanted to mark and comment on their work.

Let’s all just sit with that for a minute.

In lieu of a syllabus, I sent the class regular memos. There were students who wanted traditional instruction and more direction, and, of course, I was happy to provide that. Everyone got “grades” but more than that I wrote them letters about their work. Sometimes they wrote back. Students who were transferring in from community colleges were especially good about seeing me for help understanding the kind of analytical writing expected of them.

They kept me on my toes, challenging notions about Austen I hadn’t reconsidered in a long time, and asking for more time if they felt I was rushing them through a novel. Best of all, they supported one another in and out of class. They cheered one another on, gave advice and feedback for those who were writing in public, and took on extra-curricular projects together. When things got too stressful, we took a break so everyone could catch up on the readings. And they did.

***************************************

abolition lit art

I can’t replicate everything about that seminar, but for a class I’m teaching next semester called “Writing in the Major” I plan to take a similar approach by helping students design a series of assignments that feel interesting and meaningful to them. I don’t really know what the course is actually supposed to do, “Writing in the Major” means, but I’m using it as an opportunity to let students experiment with how to use the reading we do in class to focus on a modern political question. The class will focus on British abolitionist literature—primarily poems, novels, and essays published between 1789-1830—but I’m asking students to think of a policy or practice that has been abolished or one that they would like to see abolished and to start thinking of how writers shape and reflect those movements.

We’re forever telling students that being an English major means they can “do anything” and that literary study develops their “critical thinking skills” (I said this in a class a year or so ago and every single student groaned and/or rolled their eyes), so I want this class to be an experiment in what that means in real time.

My working theory is that the reason we so often hear politicians and other rhetorical beings claiming King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is because movements tend to follow similar patterns, and I’m going to work with my students to help them recognize those patterns. They want so much to “relate” to what we’re reading and this class seems like a good place to let them do that in some sustained and nuanced way. What I hope some of them will do is find literature that reflects and/or contributes to a modern political movement and then discuss their readings in a series of writing assignments we’ll develop together.

More than wanting them to complete a concrete set of tasks, I’d like them to think about the kind of reading and writing they might want to do beyond the classroom. I’m even toying with not requiring them to read everything on the reading calendar but to see the readings as an introduction to the kinds of writing that shapes a social movement. Maybe a student will read the poetry on the syllabus and then do a comparative study of poems written by GLBT writers seeking equal rights in the twenty-first century. Or a student will read about sugar in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and learn about what modern commodities we take for granted rely on slave labor. White women in the early nineteenth century co-opted the issue of slavery for their own political goals (I’m looking at you Wollstonecraft), and I suspect that my students will notice this pattern in modern political movements.

I’m lucky to work closely with faculty who can help me point students down most any path they want to follow. I suspect I’ll be asking my academic twitter community for help.

I’m not sure how this will work, but I’m trusting that my students will be curious enough to work out what they want to do with me as guide and coach. And I’m trusting that whatever my reputation for being “hard” and “intimidating,” students who have worked with me know I’m open to all reasonable revisions to the syllabus. They’ll ask me enough questions to work out the details. I’ll also have the option of traditional assignments, but I really want students to leave class with a reading list for the future.

Like most tenured faculty, my classes tend to be a mix of students who have taken other classes with me and those who probably just took my classes because they are required and/or fit in with their schedule. I know from experience that some of them will jump at the chance to play with what we’re doing in this class while others will feel anxious with the “weight of too much liberty.”

I’ve taught graduate seminars and as a sophomore survey on British abolitionist literature (and published on the topic), so I’m conversant enough in it to let the class experiment with how to use the texts I’ve selected for us. I want us to be all over the place and want to create a space where students are rewarded for reading outside of the classroom and connecting that to the larger questions we’ll consider over the course of the semester.

We’ll write quite a bit, but I don’t know how much grading I’ll do. Instead, I think I’ll consult with students on writing projects and then let them submit work when they feel it’s ready for me to grade. What I found in the Austen seminar and in the Intro to Theory course I teach is that my English majors respond best to short writing assignments that require them to focus tightly on an argument. Longer essays just invite plot summaries and vague prose. Most students hate those longer essays and will never write in that form again, so I’d rather help students figure out how writing fits into their lives and then work with them to do that writing critically, with great care.

Productive chaos in the classroom is my very favorite thing (that and eating excellent cookies with my students), so I’d like to develop an atmosphere while still leaving room for students who actually want and need structure. My Austen seminar made clear how much I can trust students to seek out the most from their course work with a lighter guiding hand, leaving me more time to work with students who need more attention and who are trying to find their way into literary analysis.

In my Romanticism course, I make my students slog through A Defence of Poetry. They kind of hate it, but we linger over this moment:

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.

With this class, we’ll try to figure out how those who trade in language changed the world in their time and ours.

 

Suriname, Part the Second: Language

Still there’s no getting away from the basic feeling of complete idiocy. You are aware of being spoken to as though you were a three-year old, even though you have all the pride of an adult. — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Taki-Taki is the language of Paramaribo and other parts of Dutch Guiana, called by its own speakers tàkitáki or neretjgo Negro language, in Dutch Neger-Engelsch, and in German Neger-Englisch. It and the closely related language of the Saramacca Bush-Negroes’ are creolized languages developed out of the jargonized English used by the slaves of English and Portuguese land-holders who settled Dutch Guiana in the middle of the seventeenth century. Taki-Taki is spoken in several dialects, of which the chief is the Town-Negro speech of Paramaribo. “The Linguistic Structure of Taki-Taki” by Robert A. Hall Jr.

At some point in graduate school, after consuming more theory than was good for me, I announced to my mother that she had a colonized tongue. She’s accustomed to my pronouncements about her nationality, identity, and race. Apparently, when we lived on Okinowa and I was in elementary school I would, from time to time, pull her away from whatever she was doing, drag her over to a group of kids and exclaim, “See I told you she was black!” When she completed the courses necessary to become an American citizen but wasn’t sure whether or not to give up her Dutch citizenship, I was pro-Holland. Then there was the time I came home and told my parents that I had learned in school that I was Caucasian. A teacher had explained to me that because my mother was Dutch, I was Caucasian. Among most Americans the instant image of a Dutch person is a blue-eyed blonde-haired tall person in wooden shoes living in or near a windmill. My mother is none of those things, though there is a picture of her and my father in full on Dutch garb, wooden shoes and all, hanging on the wall of the living room.

In graduate school a Dutch woman said snidely to me that my mother was not Dutch because she’s Black, and I was so shocked by the unvarnished racism that it left me speechless. It was at a time when The Netherlands still enjoyed a reputation for being progressive, so I was unprepared for this white woman’s cool dismissal of the country’s colonial legacy. My mother is a citizen of The Netherlands who was born in Paramaribo. So she is Dutch and Black at the same time. And she sounds Dutch. It’s her first language. When people meet her and hear her accent for the first time, the Blackness crowds out the Dutchness and so they automatically assume she is from “de Iiislands” and say this to her. It drives her batty and she wishes people would just ask where she’s from rather than foist some bad and wrong accent on her.

The story about me and language is that my first language is Dutch. About a month after I was born, my farther was sent to Vietnam, and my mother took me to live in Holland with her sister. We lived in the attic, and she worked at a post office, leaving me with her sister or her brother-in-law. My accent is such that if I greet Dutch and Surinamese people in Dutch they are surprised to find I’m actually American. I don’t mean to suggest that I am fluent in Dutch. I’m not. If someone walked up to me and started speaking Dutch, I wouldn’t understand what she was saying. If, however, you leave me alone long enough with Dutch speakers it comes back.

That doesn’t happen too much. All of my cousins on my mother’s side speak English and many of them speak other languages as well, and so when I’m with them I don’t even have to try to speak Dutch. This is why I have the language ability of a three-year old. I can say hello (dag), good morning (Goedemorgen), and how are you (hoe gaat het?). I can tell you I love you, and I can sing you a song about a dialogue between a mother and a child about visiting and eating cookies. It’s all anyone requires of me. My limited dialogue is met with coos and chuckles. It seems that in my American mid-40s I’m an adorable Dutch three-year old.

While I was in Suriname, most people tried to speak English around me, but Dutch is their language, and they were home, and there were with one another, and so the English wasn’t always there. It goes too far to say that my Dutch came back to me, but it was an odd out-of-body-linguistic experience to feel it return to the surface without my bidding. And when it reemerged it showed up with the creolized language of taki-taki—this playful, hyper expressive mix of Dutch, English, and the “language of the Saramaka bush Negroes.” My mother was forbidden to speak it as a child. My grandmother wanted her to be successful and believed that perfectly spoken Dutch was what she needed in order to do so. She was allowed to speak it to my mother and her siblings, but they were not allowed to speak it in return. I love it, and while I was in Suriname I spent a lot of time trying to pick it out of the Dutch that flew back and forth.

I think it’s hard to concentrate on learning a language. It’s not about being a diligent or good student. It has to just flow around you and make itself at home on your tongue. It has to come up unbidden. I don’t think it’s just about learning language as a child, though I know that helps quite a bit. In my case, my mother spoke English at home almost all the time. When I lived at home, I would only hear it when she spoke it to her sisters. When I was young this was a rare occurrence, but as calling plans made it easier to call Holland, the phone calls became a regular part of her weekly life. So it’s been seeping in for years, I guess.

My third evening in Suriname, when a man I didn’t know dropped by my cousin’s house to drop off some keys (we had managed to lock ourselves INSIDE the house), we all realized that the taki-taki was right next to the Dutch in my mouth. Instead of responding “hoe gaat het?” to his “goedenavond,” I said, “Fa Waka?”

“Hoe gaat het?” is the proper Dutch for how are you? You can hear it everywhere in Dutch-speaking countries around the world. “Fa Waka” is taki-taki for “How you walking?” Or, I suspect “how you walkin’?” More than words it’s a physical affect, and what shocked and tickled my family was not just that I said it without thinking but that I said it with the accompanying body language, throwing my shoulders back just a bit and putting my hands and arms out. It signaled a kind of belonging I have sometimes reached for in the United States among certain black folks, a code switching not from the marginalized (read “black”) to the mainstream (read “white”) but in the opposite direction to signal to folks who look like me that I really don’t mean to “sound white” or “siddity,” that I’m not an oreo or a wanna be.

In the way that grown folks do with three-year olds I was asked to show everyone my “Fa Waka” except I couldn’t. It came up in that moment in response to that man. He walked with a bit of a swagger, was stylish in all white Ralph Lauren, and was in a hurry. When I said, “Fa Waka?” I really wanted to know how he was walking. Like so many creolized languages that borrow from multiple traditions, takt-taki was better at getting to the heart of that moment than Dutch.

By the time I left, I could understand the Dutch I was hearing at moments when no one paid attention to me (otherwise I would get self-conscious and draw a blank). When a mother’s cousin asked me in Dutch to tell him how old I had been the last time I was in Suriname, I shocked everyone and myself by answering that I’d last been there when I was 12 years old. I stopped noticing whether or not my mother was speaking to me in English or Dutch, and I grew frustrated when I couldn’t speak Dutch to the women working the counter at the best bakery I’ve ever been to in my entire life. The words “one more, please” were very important at Fernandes Bakkerij.

One day I walked into a convenience store by myself and asked the man behind the counter if he carried the brand of bottled water I’ve been drinking since my arrival. It was the very hottest part of the day, when all you can do is sit and try not to get a headache. I was parched, but everyone else was ahead of me to get to the next shop, and I didn’t want to call anyone back to help me. A man who looked to be Javanese was behind the counter and without thinking I asked to buy a bottle of Para Springs water. I didn’t ask the question in English, and I didn’t point and gesture. I asked in the language of Paramaribo. The thing is I don’t know if I was speaking Dutch or Taki-Taki. Whatever I was speaking, he understood the question.

A few days later I learned a word I never expected to stumble upon in such a personal way: plantage.

Remembering Ruby Agatha

(Today is my grandmother’s birthday. I originally posted this on a now defunct blog http://twomatts.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/remebering-ruby-agatha/)

This past Saturday was my grandmother’s birthday, so it was fitting that I was in New York enjoying The Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra with guest soloist soprano Kristina Henry. My friend Sarah, who plays viola, invited me to attend, and since I have a soft spot for artistic events that feature my friends, I decided to battle the Bridge and Tunnel crowd on a Saturday night and head out to Park Slope.

I’m so glad I did.

kristinahenry
Kristina Henry

The concert took place in the St. Saviour High School’s gymnasium. St. Saviour was founded in 1917 as a college prep school for women. Somehow that seemed ideal for the feel of the evening, that and the first snow fall of the season. The school fits so easily into the row of Brownstones that I missed it at first. Now if you think a concert in a high school gym sounds hokey, it wasn’t. The venue leant a coziness to the evening. And when Ms. Henry joined the orchestra of more 70 members to perform two of Verdi’s most challenging arias (“Caro Nome” from Rigoletto and “Ah fors e lui” from La Traviata), the gymnasium felt like a concert hall, but here everyone had orchestra seats.

I was skimming the lyrics when Ms. Henry burst (that’s the word for it) into song, so, for a moment, I heard her before I looked up and saw this beautiful black woman wooing the audience. I confess that for a millisecond I felt surprise when I saw Ms. Henry, but then I chuckled at my own assumptions, especially my assumptions. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to look up and see a black woman singing Verdi. As I said to my father when I told him about the concert, in my imagination ALL sopranos are black. Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves: all sopranos. All black.

Before anyone accuses of me of being a black radical, let me explain. The reason I’m more likely to think of Denyce Graves than Beverly Sills when I think of sopranos has everything to do with my grandmother, Ruby Agatha. She was born in 1911 in British Guyana. I’m not sure when she moved to New York, but I do know she graduated from George Washington High School, lived in the building where Fats Waller played the piano, and married my grandfather–the only man on the planet who meets my definition of perfection. She was a soprano. In my imagination she was THE soprano and a genuine diva. At her funeral, people remembered her for many things, but everyone seemed to talk about how she trilled her r’s and her amazing collection of hats. She told me once that she gave four recitals in her life, never mentioning that one of them was at Carnegie Recital Hall, on Easter Sunday in 1950. Tickets were $1.20 and 1.80 including tax. She sang Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Verdi and concluded the program with a series of folk songs.

My grandmother fit every image you have a diva—stylish, imposing, larger-than-life, and stunningly beautiful. She was a kind but not cuddly grandmother, and I always knew that she adored me. One day in church when she heard me singing harmony (I’m an alto), she beamed at me,and I felt I’d arrived. It is a fond memory because, unlike my other cousins, I didn’t grow up seeing her all the time. As an Air Force brat I was overseas more than I was in the states, so trips to New York to see my father’s family were infrequent, but when I did visit I knew I would go to church and sing, have a little culinary trip with my grandfather (he introduced me to Nathan’s hot dogs), and hang out with my cousins, all but one of whom were older and so much cooler than I could ever hope to be.

So when I think of sopranos, I think of my grandmother. When I went to see Kathleen Battle perform a Christmas concert, I thought of my grandmother. In grad school, I splurged on a ticket to see Denyce Graves sing Carmen at Tanglewood. A children’s choir performed with her; they were sitting too high to actually see her, but one little girl, a little black girl in pigtails, couldn’t help herself and kept leaning over to get a better view. I understood the impulse. And I thought of Ruby. I saw Denyce Graves again. That time I was with Will’s mother Jane, who made me grin with surprise when it turned out she knew all the words to the African freedom songs the audience was asked to sing with Graves and the orchestra. My grandmother would have scolded me for being surprised. After all, if she learned to sing in Italian and performed folk songs, there is no reason why Jane shouldn’t know African freedom songs.

I’m sure my grandmother would have loved Ms. Henry, who took to the small platform set up for her in a ruby red dress, swaying her hips, laughing during her runs, and flirting with the audience, at one point giving a red rose to a man in the front row. Her voice coach was sitting behind me, and he called “Brava Diva” when she finished, proudly telling me on his way out that she was only 26 and was going to be great.

This is not to the say that the evening’s performance was perfect. An unfortunate series of moments for the horn section in the third movement of Beethoven’s “The Eroica” caused me to blurt out, “oh dear,” which, in turn, prompted an unfortunate series of giggles in yours truly. My lack of control was not helped at all when Sarah’s husband poked me in the side and then started laughing. I thought of my grandmother then too. She was not, as far as I know, prone to giggles, but I think she would have forgiven me mine–especially since I wasn’t laughing at the soprano.

Ruby Agatha Pryme Matthew
Ruby Agatha Pryme Matthew

“The Skies Belong to Us” #3

I can’t decide if The Skies Belongs to Us is like a good layer cake or a good lasagna.

It’s possible that I’m thinking about food metaphors because the school year has started (cries) and my mind is on teaching students how to organize compelling essays. Or maybe it’s because I read a good portion of Skies while eating the last pieces of my birthday cake (cries and weeps). Comparing it to cake might make it seem as if the book shouldn’t be taken seriously, that it’s more like dessert than something substantive. That isn’t the case. For all of the zaniness of the different hijacking plots, this is a book that invites us to think of how national crises manifest themselves in a country’s citizens—especially those citizens whose feelings of disenfranchisement chip away at their sense of moral duty. Still, I’m leaning towards cake over lasagna.

Dom wrote in her last post: “my incredulity has been tempered by compassion, and a bit of sadness.”
She’s is thinking about Holder (she refers to him by his first name):

On page 122, there’s an excerpt of the note that Roger had started to write to the captain of the plane, but which he gave up on when he couldn’t keep his thoughts straight. It’s completely incomprehensible; a word salad from someone who is clearly not in their right mind. Reading it broke my heart a little. Here was a man who had witnessed (and committed) unspeakable horrors, and yet, because of a mistake he made while trying to deal with that, he was sent back into the regular world with no help or support whatsoever.

I felt this way at a different moment. The mention of the other black guy on Holder’s flight made me sad and uncomfortable. As the crew and passengers try to figure out who among them is a threat, he is considered a suspect—for no other reason than a shared racial marker. He must have been as frightened and frustrated as the other passengers, and yet he had another burden to shoulder.

But back to the cake/lasagna that is this book.

Writing 101 teaches the structure of a good essay: the hook, the argument, the evidence, more evidence, some analysis, conclusions. You can see this in good writing everywhere. An op-ed, long non-fiction piece, or blog post begins with some anecdote that’s meant to stand in for the piece’s larger issue or theme. I do this in my literary criticism, start with some salient (or salacious) part of the text and then hang my argument on it. It’s a great model; think of it as the comfort food of writing. I thought Koerner was doing this and had sort of eased into the lasagna of his book: personal/historical/political,personal, historical/political, personal/historical/political. For roughly the first half of the book the personal focused primarily on the hijackers, either the motivation behind their attacks and/or what happened around the hijacking (NB: when parachuting out of a plane carrying your loot, don’t wear cowboy boots).

I liked that structure and the rhythm of it. It made the history feel more intimate and kept the focus on the people. I think it might be how Koerner avoids slipping into preaching (I’m fascinated by the absence of moralizing in the book thus far). But when we get to the Holder-Kerkow hijacking, Koerner starts mixing it up, adding layers within layers, and then it’s like an amazing novel, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Or, actually, I kind of know what’s going to happen next but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I love that. As someone who grew up reading detective novels and who spends her time reading canonical British fiction, I’m pretty good at anticipating what’s going to happen next and, in some cases, how events will unfold. It means I’m usually reading for something else (patterns, rhetoric, ideology), and get distracted by what I want to say or write about what I’m reading.

That’s not the case here. At first I couldn’t put the book down because I was so surprised by its content; now I can’t put it down (even for my mandatory reading for school: Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, the Romantic poets) because it’s crafted so well. Like a really amazing cake. A good lasagna is wonderful, but it’s actually really easy to make one. It’s almost fool proof. Oh sure, you can overcook the noodles, or not season the filling properly, or use store-bought mozzarella and bore yourself to death, but it’s basic and easy to learn. Cake, especially a layered cake takes skill.

Take my birthday cake for example: lemon cake with lemon curd and vanilla cream icing (it’s called Brooklyn Sunshine and you can get it from Heavenly Crumbs, but you have to order it a few days ahead). Perfectly layered with icing that didn’t leave an aftertaste or that slimy post-icing feeling in your mouth. Just when you were enjoying the cake, a bit of lemon curd would get in there and the icing is pretty and thick enough to let you know you’re eating cake for a special reason but not so thick as to overpower the cake the way the icing on those dry monstrosities that Magnolia Bakery calls cupcakes does. For me, the heart of this book is the national crisis, and Holder and Kerchow are the icing. I’m not quite sure why, so this analogy could fall apart at any moment, but I suspect it’s because they’re the shiny, compelling decoration that pulled me into the cake.

“The Skies Belong to Us” Post #1

For two people who don’t live in the same city, Dominique and I have done a lot together over the last eight years or so.   It goes too far to say we’re like sisters, but we are a lot alike.  In fact, when I showed up in Toronto in May to be part of her wedding, her father, after spending ten minutes watching us together, noted just how alike we are–not just mischievous, but mischievous in the exact same way (she refers to me as “smart ass” quite a bit).  We don’t have the same taste in television shows (mine is good and hers is, well, let’s just say it’s something other than good), but we like so many of the same books.  So many.  We recommend them to one another, agree that they’re great, and then go our separate reading ways.  But after we survived the death march of 2013 (otherwise known as 10 hours in three-inch heels and formal gowns) we agreed on two things: we need to take a trip together and we should read a book together…at the same time.

We’re reading The Skies Belong to Us.  It’s my choice because three smart folks recommended it and because it’s non-fiction and that’s what I want to read these days.  From the book’s website:

THE STORY
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at the heart of The Skies Belong to Us pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

It’s a fascinating story, and already I feel like I’m in the hands of a good storyteller and someone who has done his homework.  Given how many other things I should be reading right now, it’s nice to know that this vacation away from my other reading has an excellent guide.

Random first thoughts:
Koerner wants to attribute Cathy Kerkow’s attraction to the Black Panthers to the break up of her family saying her rebelliousness is “rooted in in the trauma of her family’s dissolution several years before.”  But I’ve started Skies right after watching “Orange is the New Black”–another story of a talented, privileged white girl who needs to sow her rebellious oats by visiting the world of the dangerous and/or the marginalized.  For Piper Chapman it’s lesbian drug dealers and for Kerkow it’s the Black Panthers.   So this grates a bit.  In general I’m not a fan of the this-is-why-people-do-bad-things approach to understanding a character (I’m looking at you “Mad Men”), but I certainly understand the impulse.  Further, this is not fiction, and the point of the book is to tell us who Kerkow and Roger Holder are and how they hooked up.  It just seems too easy.  Her choices might just be that…choices.  It makes me wonder how this story would read if told by a different author: a woman (black, white, or of any hue), a black man, a historian.

My father was in Vietnam in 1968, the first year of my life (he was sent over a month after I was born and came back a year later).  We never talk about it, and I don’t watch war movies, so it’s jarring to read what he must have seen over there while my mother and I were living in my aunt’s attic in Amsterdam.  I’ve always seen Vietnam as more of a metaphor than a lived historical event, so it’s hard to read about it, particularly when I remember stories my mom told me about how my dad’s absence affected her.  And, unlike movies where I can cover my eyes if I don’t like what’s on the screen, I have to read all of Koerner’s vivid descriptions. They’re harrowing. I don’t know how anyone recovers from those horrors, and Koerner puts those dots together so carefully that it’s easy to understand Holder’s choices.

I got the Prefontaine reference without looking it up–but only because I dated an economics professor in grad school who was a marathon runner.  He had a poster of him in his home office.

Dom, I’m curious to know how the references to American politics read to you.  The name Thomas Dodd might as well have been written in bold for me.  I didn’t know his story (I looked it up), but his son is Chris Dodd, who also went on to be a senator for the state of Connecticut and is now president of the Motion Picture Association of America. That last bit doesn’t really matter, but since I’m sure this book will be made into a movie (or maybe not because I’m not sure how mainstream America will feel about this interracial couple; how far has “Scandal” taken us?*) and it points out some eerie coincidences in the first few chapters, I’m going to note it.

The idea that America didn’t have a law about hijacking planes cracks me up.  Like no one thought to put up on of those “Please Don’t Take This Plane” signs.   I guess you can’t think of everything.

For the most part, I really like the writing.  It only bugs me when Koerner writes about Kerkow’s “abundant charms.”  It feels like he’s reaching and trying to be a “writer” when it’s clear he’s already a very good one.

That’s it for now…Dom will blog her thoughts at some point.

*As a black woman in America, I feel I have to go on record and say I have no problems with black men dating white women. Or black women dating white men (I’ve done it). Or people dating other people. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I don’t politicize or historicize that.
 

Tyvek

Tyvek /tˈvɛk/ is a brand of flashspun, high-density polyethyelene fibers, a synthetic material; the name is a registered trademark  of DuPont. The material is very strong; it is difficult to tear but can easily be cut with scissors or a knife. Water vapor can pass through Tyvek (highly breathable), but not liquid water, so the material lends itself to a variety of applications: envelopes, car covers, air and water intrusion barriers (housewrap) under house siding, labels, wristbands, mycology, and graphics.  (from wikipedia)

 

I live on a mixed block in Bed-Stuy.  It’s not a picturesque brownstone block.  The buildings here are either brand new with no personality or dilapidated without being charming.  My neighbors are Pratt students, yuppies who haven’t yet had their puppies, young guys with dreads who think they have a band, large Chassidic families, and an alarmingly jolly Texan who I’ve come to like a bit because he’s kind enough to knock and remind me when I’ve left my keys in my door.  There’s a playground next door to me and it’s shared by everyone—the school kids (mostly black) during their recess, Chassidic kids and their moms (and on Saturday night their dads), moms of color with their own kids in strollers, black families who BBQ for special occasions, and guys playing chess.   There’s a guy on my block who plays Soca music loudly during the day and then, in odd moments, vintage Amy Grant.  On his porch he has a huge cardboard cut out of some island destination.  A man on the street told me once that he drinks all the time.  My building super sounds like an extra from the Borat film. He hoses down our walkway everyday in the summer and keeps it clear whenever there is snow and wonders aloud why a woman my age, especially one with plants on her balcony, is single: “You don’t, you don’t, you don’t have anyone?  A man?  But the flowers up there.  Everyone talks how pretty they are.” Sometimes the Chassidic women smile shyly at me.

The Southern girl in me says hi to all of my elderly neighbors (the urban feminist does her best to avoid the invasive gaze of men), and they all say hi back.  Except for my neighbor across the street.  I say hi, she looks through me, or away from me, or around me.  On days when I’m off to campus she is always on her porch, and I can’t help myself from at least mumbling good morning.  The building she lives in, a two-story, single-family dwelling I think it’s called, is falling apart.  From the street you can see rotted wood planks under the eaves of a roof that needs replacing.  There are gaps between the boards.  The one window at the front of the house is covered by a large bush.  Her stoop is painted that same orange you see on construction cones and gates.  She sweeps it everyday.

As far as I can tell, she doesn’t do the stoop visiting that the other folks in my neighborhood seem to enjoy.

For the first two years I lived here, she lived next door to an empty lot.  I don’t know what was there before, but when I got here it was covered in grass, weeds, and bushes. You could see an old tire or three.   For a little while there was an abandoned car.   A wooden gate appeared one morning (and was instantly covered in graffiti).  From my balcony I could see people, men, going in from time to time and looking around. Some sort of small bulldozer came in one day and picked at the ground, gave up and went home.

They cleared the ground in earnest one weekend, and the side of my neighbor’s building was covered in Tyvek. I hadn’t noticed how far back her building went until they put the Tyvek up.  I also hadn’t noticed the chimney.  It’s a big building, and it’s all hers.  You never see anyone else go in or come out.  I know because I’m out here on my balcony all the time.  First thing in the morning, over lunch, late in the afternoon, and in the evenings playing on-line scrabble against my dad.

When I lived in Clinton Hill, just on the edge of Bed-Stuy, I fell in love with the brown lady brownstone owners.  I would see them here and there cleaning their front porches in the morning.  They are women of a certain age—maybe late 50s (it’s hard to tell with black folks)—and they remind me of my Dutch aunts who scrub their stoops every single day, without fail.  The brown lady brownstone owners have flowers and potted plants near the door. And the doors are all gorgeous and gleaming.  Right after my landlord told me I could no longer afford his building, I chatted for a bit with a woman sanding the front door of her brownstone. It seems she is remodeling it herself.

The building in the lot across the street, next door to my neighbor is going up fast.  The men arrive in two small waves—Hispanic men first, sometimes in a large van, and then white men in trucks.  They start early and this week they’ve started laying the brick layer by layer over the Tyvek.  They stand in a row and layer.  You can’t see them from street level, but I’m one floor up, so I can see it all happening.  So can the Chassidic children.  There’s a little guy who sits on his balcony and watches them for long stretches of time.  Sometimes his mother lets him peek in the gate.  Men in full orthodox gear stop by everyday to check the progress.

My neighbor has started sweeping more than her stoop.  She sweeps in front of the gate—on the sidewalk, in the street, around the construction gate.  She’s methodical about it and sweeps around the men as they show up for work.

Last night I heard her voice for the first time in two years: she was yelling at some Chassidic kids who were pushing their toys on her sidewalk.  “Get away. Go away. Get. the. fuck away.”