In my years as a proponent of literacy and creative self-expression through writing and the arts, I’ve learned a lot and been inspired by a world of energizing, insightful, and creative students, teachers, administrators, and collaborating artists. Some organizations I have worked and/or volunteered with include Working In the Schools (or WITS), Literacy Chicago, and InsideOut Literary Arts Project (based in Detroit). I look forward to introducing you to the work of these groups in future posts.
Coincidentally, some years ago I visited Houston, Texas with InsideOut Literary Arts Project and met the fine people who lead another organization also known as WITS. The WITS in Houston stands for Writers in the Schools, and you can read more about them by visiting their site here.
If you read my post about sardines you may be curious about WITS, the literacy organization I have volunteered with for two years. Two weeks ago was my last of the 2015-2016 school year to read one-on-one with the four kindergartners who have brightened my Tuesday mornings since September. Even though it’s time to let this school year go, a part of me is going to miss my little reading buddies. I’m not permitted to post their names or photographs on my personal blog but I wish that I could. Instead, I will introduce you to WITS, and Laura Tilsner, who works as a Program Coordinator, there. This year Laura coordinated the program at Dulles Elementary School, where I got to read with students from Kindergarten Room 107.
The Chicago-based WITS is an organization with a mission “to promote literacy and a love of learning in Chicago Public School elementary students through a volunteer-powered, outcomes-based portfolio of programs. WITS endeavors to bridge the achievement and opportunity gap for underserved students through building connections with positive adult role models.” (to read WITS’s non-abbreviated mission statement, visit their website by clicking here).
A few of the great outcomes for students in WITS programs include:
*developing confidence and positive attitudes toward reading, reading behaviors, AND classroom participation;
*building improved knowledge of book and print concepts; and
*having improved ability to participate in imaginative play and interacting with texts.
Realizing that the school year was fast drawing to a close, I asked Laura Tilsner if she would mind being featured here on folklore & literacy and she obliged by speedily responding to my questions and allowing me to take her photo with my phone.
1. I see you transporting storage containers of books, leading our charges from their classrooms and back, and reading with some of the students, but what exactly are your responsibilities as Program Coordinator?
“As a program coordinator, I run and facilitate programs on site. This includes coordinating students and volunteers, providing a space with materials for the program, while also working together with teachers and the school itself.”
2.How did you come to work in the field of literacy and why? “I have always been passionate about working with children and have been working in the non-profit sector since my sophomore year of college. I was also one of those students who struggled with reading in elementary school and required constant attention and assistance. WITS’s mission aligns with my passion to help young students in any aspect of their life. This reading program emphasizes my passion even more.”
3.What is most important to you about the work that you do? “The most important thing about my work is that students are having fun while being encouraged to do their best in a safe, fun, and educational environment. I get to be a part of a bigger picture in helping the youth of Chicago succeed. That is ultimately the best thing I could do.”
4.Name a book that you love. “Oh my goodness. Hands down my favorite book will always be Tuesday’s with Morrie. It is a heartfelt story and I just loved everything about it.”
5. Is there an idea that you dislike, or a paradigm you would like to see change? “This is a big question. If anything to change, it is how people would view the world. Though I cannot change individual minds and thought processes, it would be for everyone to follow the idea of the golden rule: treat everyone as you would want to be treated. We are no better than anyone else out there. We are all equal in my mind.” Thank you, Laura!
this post is about sardines and I’m going to dedicate it to my friend Deloris because its all her fault. Here I am: supposed to be working on my post about The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden, or my post about recent visits to museums and instead I’m writing about…. sardines.
Since September of 2014 Deloris and I have been volunteers with Working in the Schools (WITS) kindergarten program which means that every Tuesday morning during the school year Deloris drives over to collect me and we go to Dulles Elementary School to read one-on-one with four kindergarteners, each. It’s very rewarding, fun, occasionally germy. By this time of year the kids have worn certain storybooks thin – Pete the Cat – by James Dean, for instance – and have come a long way from listening while we read to them. Now they want to do some chatting. They want to know if I have baby sister at home like they do? They want to make sure their new shoes don’t go unnoticed. They want to take over some of the reading of the books.
The child who listened while you did all of the reading back in September is ready to loudly and proudly get through a couple of sentences with confident gusto before being met with some big and unfamiliar words. Rather than break up that good reading flow to accommodate the imposter word, some students just start riffing, improvising. It’s fun to witness, and, [to me] suggests some positive developmental processes going on:
You don’t have to be a jazz-lover to love witnessing this happen. Instead of focusing on correcting the student, I like to affirm their story-making instinct by exploring their ideas, first. Afterall, isn’t reading a collaboration between writer and reader?
But to return to…. sardines.
Last week I jumped in Deloris’s car while juggling two warm, eggy, buttery homemade popovers in a sheet of paper towel.
“Want one?” I asked.
“No thanks,” she barely glanced at my food. “I had some fruit and sardines for breakfast.”
“Hm.” was all I could manage. My mouth was full and I was wondering about sardines as breakfast food.
“They’re supposed to be a good source of Omega-3s.” she offered.
“Oh! Mmmhmm. Did you eat them with bread or straight out of the tin?”
“Out of the tin. I ate them with crackers.”
So the very next morning I reached way into the back of my kitchen cupboard behind a can of cannellini beans, two boxes of pasta, some stale panko breadcrumbs, and a jar of capers to locate a package of sardines that I bought several months ago. The expiration date wasn’t until 2017. I turned the package over to read the following boast:
“….sardines provide more calcium and phosphorus than milk, more iron than spinach, more potassium than coconut water and bananas and as much protein as steak. One can….contains 313mg EPA and 688mg DHA Omega 3 and is an ample source of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and selenium.” (Learn about EPA and DHA by clicking here.)
All of those health benefits made me want to eat some right away! My lip curled involuntarily as I peeled back the lid of the tin and and gazed upon the little dead oily fishes inside. I tried to remember the last time I ate some.
It must have been a summer in the 1970s when my grandmother purchased a large forest-green tent that my dad and uncles pitched in her backyard one weekend. At night the adults took their plates of barbecue, their drinks, their decks of cards, their signifying skills and a radio out into the tent while me and my sisters were banished to the upstairs bedroom in the back of the house. My sisters fell hard to sleep but I lay there fuming in the dark, sure that I had been unfairly excluded from what I imagined was going to be a late night slumber party in the backyard.
After a while I got up and padded furtively down the stairs and into the kitchen where my grandmother was running water from the faucet into a tea kettle.
“What’s the matter?” she inquired but I couldn’t answer her with words because she wasn’t the bad guy: it had been my mother who seemed happy to send us to bed without even bothering to tuck us in.
“Can’t sleep?” asked my grandmother. I shook my head no. Maybe if I stood by the back screen door like a puppy she would know that I wanted to go out.
“Are you hungry?” I wasn’t but I could pretend to have an appetite if it meant having a legitimate excuse not to return to bed.
My grandmother disappeared through a doorway where a small chain that I couldn’t reach turned on the single light bulb that lit-up the pantry to reveal its mustard-colored shelves and cabinets covered with yellowed floral contact paper.
Meanwhile I tried to peer through the screen door into the nighttime backyard to see what the adults were doing. Were they using curse words? Were they eating buttered-pecan ice cream? Were they slow-dancing?
(At that time I was growing increasingly nosy and cunning, investigating the differences between what adults and kids did for “play.”)
“Would you like a sardine sandwich?” asked my grandmother. I nodded my head even though I didn’t know the first thing about sardines.
Today’s sardines aren’t as memorable but I love the little tear that whets the corner of my eye as I chew, remembering how I sat at the table with my grandmother so long ago. How she planted the sandwich on a plate in front of me without cutting it in half – which somehow made it seem less childlike to me; how she prepared a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar for each of us; how she sat and chatted with me as if my conversation was interesting and important.
And I can’t quite remember what happened afterward; only that my hankering to be a part of the tent-party dissipated; that I returned to bed willingly, contentedly.
Do you have any sardine stories? Or do you remember any special one-on-one time you had with an adult when you were a child?
Out of curiosity I searched for books with the word sardine in the title.
Here are two written with children in mind:
Sandra Cisneros’s writing is honest and poetic, and lacks the self-consciousness of someone aspiring to be erudite. I mention this because I think for someone who is multi-lingual, who has read a lot, and lived and traveled around the world; who graduated from a prestigious writing program, and has been lauded with the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship among other awards and honors it seems she could have easily gone in another direction – speaking a lot of academese, for instance – but instead she remains grounded, centered in her own voice and its tributaries as well as the aspiration to appeal to people from all walks of life and possibly people who don’t read many books.
A House of My Own refreshed me from how we are often encouraged to think about writers and writing, where the focus is on stamina and discipline and the mechanics of the writing life. Or content-wise its about revealing the heinous; and the struggle to crack the code of whatever is deep and dark and repressed. Or whatever the currents are in identity politics so the content of the writing is only approached through the lens of key words and phrases such as “the immigrant experience” or the “LGBT culture,” etc., or more awful things about “what it means to be black” (-sigh!)
Very little is said about the dreamer side of being a writer, the spiritual aspect, the celebratory, the love of words and readings and ways to discover meaning and make meaning. We see the hyper-intellectual or code-breaking aspect of writing discussed in ways that exclude huge amounts of people from participating in the joys, revelations, and complexities associated with the life of the mind. I remember how exciting it was for me when I first read writings by bell hooks in the 1990s because (-despite the clunk-and-drag of the language she often used-) she always expressed exuberance about the time she enjoyed alone, thinking and dreaming.
With A House of My Own Sandra Cisneros inspiringly celebrates houses and homes – the houses of spirit, the houses of of friendship, the houses of refuge, houses of work, houses of language – people and places which have nourished her life, her feelings, her perspectives and informed her creativity up to this point in time.
Subtitled Stories From My Life, A House of My Own comprises 40+ writings spanning 30 years of stories of Sandra Cisneros’s life, some of which were first commissioned as lectures, essays, introductions to her own or other artists works, or appreciations and stories she wrote just-because. Also included are:
Rather than talk about the whole book I am going to kind of ramble and roll about the 41st selection, titled “A Borrowed House,” which I’m saying is my favorite even though I have been reading this wonderful book since early March and just about every other selection I say to myself Oh! I love this one!
In “A Borrowed House” Cisneros talks about her favorite childhood book, The Little House. En route to telling us what The Little House is about, Cisneros also tells of how library books were borrowed from libraries before their holdings were catalogued in computer databases and identified with bar codes – not so long ago. I myself have special memories of the school librarian at Louis Pasteur Elementary school in Detroit in the 1970s.
Her name was Miss Robinson and she loved the color purple. She dressed in purple skirts and sweaters, and wrote with purple felt pens. Stepping into the school library we always felt welcome to browse books or ask for help finding what we wanted. It was a peaceful, book-filled, inspiring, organized, purple-accentuated environment where Miss Robinson also showed us how the Dewey Decimal System worked, but I digress.
And so does, Cisneros. She digresses wonderfully. While reading “A Borrowed House” I wanted to laugh and cry sometimes. You know how something poignant rubs awake memories of things you forgot you cared about? A lump swells your throat then collides with the laugh that’s rising from your belly at the same time?
Well Cisneros talks about the Chicago Public Library not extensively, just a couple of paragraphs and then one paragraph about how she and one of her [six] brothers, Kiki, hatched a scheme to save up their allowance for a few weeks in order to buy the library’s copy of The Little House. They, like many children, didn’t know there were bookstores where people could purchase books of their own. “We meant to tell the librarian we’d lost it and pay for it, so it wasn’t technically a theft. But the idea of lying to a librarian was infinitely more difficult than stealing a book, and we gave up on the plan before carrying it out.”
Then Cisneros outlines the story of The Little House, and explains who she was, and what life felt like for her as a little girl who discovered this book and how the book had a mooring or safe haven quality to it; a raft that floated into her life at just the right moment before she even knew a book could be a friend.
Coming of age on the tail-end of the “children should be seen and not heard” era in the 1970s, I remember that my job was to listen to adults who told me what to do and then obey them. No one wanted to know what kids thought, and it was wisest to keep questions to a minimum. Still, there was always stuff going on in my mind. Books were the friends who let me know other people had dreams and imaginings, and things in their lives that puzzled and hurt.
I loved the part of “A Borrowed House” where I learned that little Sandra Cisneros felt kinship with The Little House because it sometimes was “sad, afraid, and run-down.” Reminding me that so much of children’s lives isn’t really theirs; its what the adults in their lives assign. Kids just roll with it, adjusting and adapting as best they can. Their little feelings snapping back and forth like this and that.
When I was a little girl and groceries got low in our house (I think grocery-shopping trips must have coincided with my dad’s pay schedule), my mother would fry an egg and put it between two pieces of bread smeared with mayonnaise and that was the sandwich I took to school in my lunch bag. But at school this healthy option was met with teasing: the kids said it smelled like a fart and then they scooted away from me at the lunch table, making gross, funny sounds every time I took a bite.
Kids have these things they deal with but sometimes adults forget or don’t care or file it under “character-building,” not thinking that kids, too, have their days when their eyeglasses get tossed and crushed on the playground and everything they do is wrong and their hair looks stupid and nobody wants to be their friend and they just want to come home and throw back a stiff shot of chocolate milk and VENTILATE!
Anyway, Cisneros goes on to remember and describe various addresses that were once synonymous with “home” and “house” for her immediate, extended, and ancestral families. Then comes the paragraph where her father finally decides to purchase a house for their family of nine:
“In January of 1966 the pipes in our old brownstone froze, burst, and forced us to haul water up four flights of stairs in glass milk gallons. When Father saw our icy coat sleeves, shoes, and mittens, he realized it was time.”
Later in life when her father is ill, and close to dying, he confesses to Sandra his sad regret that he had not fulfilled a desire to leave each of his seven children a house. I have to admit I choked-up with anguish over this testament to parental aspirations that are sometimes hard to fulfill.
We may hold a range of narratives and character traits – from the lovely to the dastardly – that we attribute to our parents without ever suspecting that also inside of them there just may reside the heartache of some significant expression or gesture of love that they could not manifest for us. We may not contemplate our folks that way: that to the end of their lives there was something they’d hoped to give but couldn’t.
“Necessity. That’s what he gave us.” Cisneros responds. “Necessity taught us to value what we worked for, to recognize others who, like us, didn’t have much, to be generous to others because we hadn’t had much. When you haven’t had much you never forget what that feels like. Compassion. That’s what Father gave us.”
Elsewhere in A House of My Own, I get a fuller sense of other gifts that Cisneros received from her father but I also was moved by this way of looking at valuables we receive from people in our lives that don’t come wrapped in pretty paper. We also tend to want to give gifts that are kind and smell like sugar-and-butter cookies to make people feel good and celebratory….But what if someone is receiving another sort of “gift” from me that I wouldn’t consciously want to give? That’s how funny and strange real life really is, I suppose.
With “A Borrowed House” Sandra Cisneros muses on history and geography woven with elements from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space -to express what it means for her as a dreamer, as a writer, to have a house of her own “a sanctuary all my own to share with animals and trees, not one to satisfy the needs of others as my previous homes have done, but a house as solid as The Little House, a fortress for the creative self.”
While reading A House of My Own I was strongly reminded of myself as a younger woman determined to make a life of following my own lights. Maybe you are someone who aspires to create beauty and value in the world without marrying and having children. Maybe you, too, aspire to a house of your own, but you’re afraid of seeming selfish, or you wonder if enjoying your solitude may backfire into loneliness.
Personally, I am placing A House of My Own alongside Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and a favorite bell hooks’s book because these are voices of women writers who have said to me: Yes! You may love love and enjoy companionship but absolutely celebrate the life of your mind and the journey of your spirit. The expression of your truth is important so don’t be afraid to clear sacred space in your life to nourish and nurture that.
Note from Leslie: Clicking on colored text will allow you to discover more about that item!
One of my early memories is of receiving books in the mail beginning the year prior to entering kindergarten. I’m not sure if there were pre-school programs back in those days. My family—-including parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and older cousins were my pre-school because that’s just how it was done with us: home was my first school and family were my first teachers. They schooled me to say “please,” “thank you,” “yes ma’am”, and “no sir;” how to sing the alphabet song, and how to spell my name. They showed me how to make my bed, how to tie my shoes, and how to chew food with my mouth closed.
The front door of our home had a thick metal chute that was just low enough for me to play imaginary spy games by myself. I loved it because it was something I could open and shut with my hands, a small window I could peek through to see storyboard slivers of outdoor life: squirrels scampering and seasonal colors changing; and parts of adult bodies ascending or descending the steps to our porch.
“Leslie, you have to move so I can open the door.” my mother had to say often. Back then I was all about the business of locating small and sometimes secret places where I could curl, fold, sit, flatten and hide my body. Sometimes I mashed myself in the little corner behind the opened door while Mommy welcomed visitors inside. I hoped that whomever had just rung the doorbell would be amazed to find my impish body within trip-and-fall distance.
“Did you see me looking at you through there?” I pointed to the mail chute. If the visitor looked aghast and said “No!” I was immensely satisfied. Maybe there was a bit of “Felix the Cat” as an influence—-he was one of my favorite cartoon characters, with his magic bag of tricks.
Other days I played with the mail chute just to hear the hinges squeak and the portal’s harsh clamp shut as I yanked my fingers out of the way. Crayons, small toys, and pieces of sugary yellow and orange candy-corn could be shoved through there for one of my parents or someone else to find or step on accidentally.
“What is all this shit doing here?” my father probably murmured, giving me a warning glance. There were places where crayons, small toys, and pieces of candy belonged but on the ground between the front door and screen door wasn’t one of those places. Daddy’s use of the word “shit” didn’t belong hanging in the air between us, either. We eyeballed each other. You don’t tell on me and I won’t tell on you.
A small slosh of envelopes and maybe a Better Homes & Garden magazine fell through the mail chute with a papery rustle and thud. Had I always been sensitive to sound or was it because the only record album in the house that belonged to me was “Peter and the Wolf”? From the beginning I was mesmerized by the kettledrums and oboe sounds of hunters and ducks in the forest and Sean Connery’s narration transporting me to an imagined (and scary) world that I saw through my ears.
A small collection of envelopes and possibly an issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine fell through the mail chute with a whoosh of outdoor air. My mouth was full of peanut butter, jelly, and bread as my mother left the kitchen to collect the mail. Then I heard her singing my name.
“Something came in the mail for you, today!”
I couldn’t imagine what. I liked good things to eat, toys, tulips, and bugs, but I had never seen any of these things pressed flat into an envelope, before. Some unchewed sandwich lodged itself in my throat as I made a beeline for the front door, where my mother handed me a brown cardboard package. I coughed.
I thought she just wanted me to hold it. “Do you see where it says your name?” This neat box with unfathomable script on it said my name? Where?
But then I saw it: L – E – S – L – I – E on a white label. “Can you read your name?” my mother encouraged. I could feel her attention as I peered at my name, so visually different from my parents’ careful printing on a piece of unlined white paper or my own chicken-scratch imitations. Keeping a piece of paper still while gripping a pencil or a crayon to draw marks that were so specific required all of my concentration and
tongue pressed into teeth and
into the wet membrane texture of inner cheek
enough concentration to vacuum
my lips together
“Come here.” Mommy beckoned me to sit beside her on the bottom three steps which led to our upstairs where my sister was napping in her crib. Daddy was at his work at the Huber Avenue Foundry. No radio or television blared. Just me and Mommy breathing in the tiny vestibule. “Show me your name.” I pointed to the starchy letters in courier script. Then my mother explained to me how the other letters and numbers on the label helped the mailman know whose house the mail should be delivered to.
I don’t remember understanding everything so much as I remember my mother’s index finger pointing to various places on the surface of the package. Her smell of Jergen’s lotion and breakfast cereal, her sounds of teaching and scolding, made me feel safe. In those early years her tenderness was so fresh.
So all of this lettering meant something, had an identifying purpose. I stashed the knowledge with other worded expressions of import that I knew, such as bed time prayers and the “Jesus Wept” or “God is Good” I uttered with eyes squeezed shut before biting down on my fried chicken drumstick. Rice and gravy.
“Do you want me to help you open it?” Mommy asked. I nodded my head. I may have forgotten that opening the package was the objective. I was still marveling at the postman’s important work. Who else knew there was a little brown girl named Leslie who lived at my house?
As Mommy pried apart the corners of cardboard that had been glued together she explained that mail was personal. “Daddy doesn’t open mail that says my name and I only open mail that says his name if he asks me to. We have to respect each other’s things.”
When she was finished showing me how much she respected what was mine by not tearing the box open all wild and willy-nilly with her hands and teeth like the tasmanian devil we saw that what lay inside was a book.
While I don’t remember the title of that first book I do know that by that same time in the following year I was the owner of 12 books – having received one book in the mail each month in a package with my name typed importantly on the label. Like most children I recall loving being read the same stories over and over and over again, especially if they rhymed. And no other moments in time matched the sequestered bubble of having my mother all to myself while reading a book.
My fondest early reads included Hans Augusto and Margret Rey’s Curious George books, and anything by Dr. Seuss. Come Over to My House was a huge favorite from that groundbreaking personal library of 12 books, but I was an adult before I learned that Theo LeSieg and Dr. Seuss were the same person!
When I was in the first grade, my mother rightly anticipated that my early primer would not include children and families of color. She gave me Golden Legacy Illustrated History books to supplement my school reading. After that I turned my nose up at Dick & Jane. In Mark Mancini’s “15 Fun Facts About Dick and Jane” for Mental Floss I was surprised to learn that the Dick & Jane books introduced an African-American family in 1964.
Earlier this week I was immersed in sharing poetry, movement, and collaborative creative expression with second graders at Carstens Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. As I began to write about it on the train ride home, I was reminded of Marilyn Nelson’s book, How I Discovered Poetry.
While her volumes of poetry are usually found in the children’s and young adult (YA) sections of libraries and bookstores, I came to Marilyn Nelson’s poetry as an adult and have counted her amongst my favorite poets since my encounter with her book, CARVER A Life in Poems.
Here I post a revised (and illustrated) review of How I Discovered Poetry that I wrote back in 2014 and posted to goodreads.com:
When I read that Marilyn Nelson had a new book coming out called How I Discovered Poetry, I said to myself: hurray!
I was thinking she might deliver a prose narrative that uncovered the background magic of why her poems touch me so much. I had high expectations but when I saw the little volume with its sparse, undramatic illustrations (by Hadley Hooper) and realized the book consisted of 50 unrhymed sonnets, the sides of my mouth did sag a little bit. Marilyn! That’s not what I wanted from you! (I may as well have whined). Just for that I’m putting your book to the side while I read something else! (What a brat, right?) Well, by the time I finished sulking it was nearly time for me to return the book to the public library—there would be no renewing it since another patron was awaiting this copy. I sat on the side of the bed and began to thumb through.
Underneath the title of each poem was a location and a year, such as “Mather AFB, California, 1957” or “Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas, 1954.” The first poem was situated in “Cleveland, Ohio 1950” and the final poem in “Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959.” I counted at least nine different locations. There were also three photographs from the family album which had been shrunk in size for the book, so I had to squint extra hard to guess at what people’s—especially young Marilyn’s, and her sister, Jennifer’s—eyes and facial expressions might tell. At the back of the book was the ‘author’s note’ in which Marilyn Nelson explained that her father was one of the first African American career officers in the United States Air Force. I realized her family had spent the 1950s moving around the country, picking up their life and laying it down over and over again. When I laughed aloud while reading the following poem, I decided to return to the first page and re-open my heart to reading:
(Cleveland, Ohio, 1950)
Why did Lot have to take his wife and flea
from the bad city, like that angel said?
Poor Lot: imagine having a pet flea.
I’d keep mine on a dog. But maybe fleas
were bigger in the olden Bible days.
Maybe a flea was bigger than a dog,
more like sheep or a goat. Maybe they had
flea farms back then, with herds of giant fleas.
Jennifer squirms beside me on the pew,
sucking her thumb, nestled against Mama.
Maybe Lot and his wife rode saddled fleas!
Or drove a coach pulled by a team of fleas!
I giggle soundlessly, but Mama swats
my leg, holding a finger to her lips.
Ever so gently, reading poem after poem, I remember what its like being a kid; what language sounded like and where I heard it and what I thought it meant. It seems that as we become avid, mature readers and start to have more experience in the world we forget the mystery of first encounters with expressions like, “fingers crossed”, “knock on wood”, or, “walking on eggshells.” A laugh like a snort came out of my nose when I realized Marilyn thought she was hearing the words Kemo “Sape” for Kemo Sabe while watching episodes of “The Lone Ranger.” And like Marilyn and her sister, I, too, wanted to cry on the front lawn when their parents broke their word: saying they would only be gone “for five minutes.”
But this book is about so much more than endearing malapropisms and taking the world literally. It’s about fighting-words, and having one’s hair grow wild during two weeks at summer camp. Its about tip-toeing to the mirror at night, testing your grin because “Some TV Negroes have shine-in-the-dark/white eyes and teeth and are afraid of ghosts.” It’s about a world of firsts and only’s; about Creek-Seminole Native Americans, whites, and blacks all living in the United States of America during the Cold War years. It’s about being a sensitive and bookish Negro girl whose family traverses the impressive landscape by car, saying hello and waving goodbye to friends in people and pets and toys and regional folkways. “The sky seems to be bigger in the West. I’m growing bigger inside to take it in.” It is about the powerful imprints made by our every-day-use of language, as well as witnessing the visual poetry of a dawn and realizing “There’s more beauty on Earth than I can bear.”
The book takes it’s title from the poem that follows. I found it to be so layered with appearing-then-disappearing, wavering mirage-like meanings that I’m still thinking about it.
“How I Discovered Poetry” (Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959)
It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all-except-for-me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished,
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.
The farther away I get from my first impressions of this story the more it becomes other things. Is this what happened when Jean Paul Civeyrac began with Doris Lessing’s novella, “Victoria and the Staveneys” as the starting point for his film “My Friend Victoria,” which ended up being particularly different?
I read at least three reviews of the film which praised the director’s “faithfulness” to Lessing’s story but I got the distinct impression that not a single one of those reviewers sat down to read the story page for page.
Lessing’s story at least tells us that Victoria was smart in school and that her teachers expected her to receive scholarships and go on to university.
“At school she was diligent and often praised.”
“At school they suggested she could easily be a nurse, she could manage the exams. She was clever, they said………The teachers were proud of her: not so many children at that school were likely to be anything much—-on the streets, more probably.”
“A good little girl, a star pupil, doing her homework—-that was why they had made a fuss of her: she had liked to learn and do her lessons.”
Despite being a young child, Victoria has the adult responsibility of caring for her aunt, as well as paying their household bills on time. Victoria’s responsibility grows as her aunt’s health declines, leading Victoria to miss so much school that upon returning after her aunt’s death, she is now not only behind but her life experiences and responsibilities have set her apart from other children her age.
Lessing’s story also tells us how Thomas “aged eleven, fell in love with a black singer and thereafter went to every black concert or dance group that came to London. The secret torments of teenage lust were all directed towards one black charmer after another. He said often that he thought white skins were insipid, and he wished he had been born black.” This isn’t explored in any meaningful way by either Lessing or Civeryrac.
In Lessing’s story I was disturbed by her description of Victoria’s son, Dickson:
“Dickson was black, black as boot polish or piano keys. Somewhere long ago in his family tree genes had been nurtured to cope with the suns of tropical Africa. He sweated easily. Sometimes sweat flew off him as freely as off an over-hot dog’s tongue. He roared and fought; at the minder’s he was a problem, making trouble, causing tears.”
It is as if Dickson’s troublesomeness has something to do with the darkness of his skin and the profusion of his sweat—-both attributed to an African heritage. Might he be acting-out because he feels less visible and loved than his fairer-skinned sister? Is Lessing’s description some sort of code to indicate the undesirability of a French person who doesn’t have white French blood coursing through their veins or what? In the film Civeyrac opts not to show Dickson being bad; he does, however, show the child’s awareness that he is being excluded by the Savinets, and lacks an advocate in Victoria.
For my money neither Doris Lessing nor Jean Paul Civeyrac lavished any love on Victoria, and I wanted that for her. How is it someone could be orphaned and left to her own resources as many times as Victoria and no one ever inquire about her feelings and well-being? She is someone whom others talk about, but who never gets to speak for herself.
It is true that every person may not be particularly dynamic, ambitious, and effervescent. Not everyone feels or thinks deeply about themselves or others, or life. And its true that neither the novella nor the film treats any of its characters in a layered way. Maybe I wasn’t going to be a fan of this story; maybe I am not the intended audience. It isn’t just Victoria who lacks depth: the Savinets/ Staveneys don’t have any, either. Could I have been looking for a story that emphasizes character in a film that is not about character, but about nuances and silences?
Meanwhile my reading of Lessing’s story feels rather “clinical,” like a case history, something written from a distance and not intended to be a container of flesh and emotional content. In my mind I envision Lessing writing with an “outsider’s” curiosity; scribbling on the surface and not getting deep inside as guided by her own emotions. All of the characters are drawn from a distance, not just the black ones.
As an American black woman who has been a little black girl and a young black woman I came to both the film and the novella with a set of sensitivities that could not have been anticipated by Doris Lessing or Jean Paul Civeyrac. Does that mean that their portrayals are wrong?
Interestingly, my thoughts about “My Friend Victoria” and “Victoria and the Staveneys” continue to be prickly, difficult, and raw, whereas I had thought writing about the two would bring smoothness and clarity of thought. (Wrong again!)
Now I am thinking about how what we receive from our encounters with each other and with culture has a lot to do with what we bring with us; how our experiences inform our perceptions; how we impose our yearnings on what artists deliver.
What I stand to gain from “uncomfortable readings” is not only greater compassion, but a more flexible tolerance for myself and others. This doesn’t mean that I am giving anybody a pass or denying my initial responses. In my ideal world I still want storytellers to aspire to making their characters more human than stereotypical.
That said, I also have to accept that there are many styles of telling stories and many ways stories will be received. There will be people for whom “My Friend Victoria” resonates.
When something makes me uncomfortable I reach for a way to “draw a conclusion” about it to make it compartmental, neat, manageable. But maybe being open to exploring and understanding means living with the raw power of NOT sealing up the mess of discomfort. And maybe I can speak to others out of that uncomfortableness, and not just the arrogance of thinking I understand something when I don’t.
********* Click here if you’re interested in viewing (en francais) a video of Jean Paul Civeyrac discussing “My Friend Victoria.”
I am having difficulty thinking about the film “My Friend Victoria” and the Doris Lessing novella “Victoria and the Staveneys,” from which the film was adapted. Hours of writing, reading, pondering, and frowning and I am no closer to a clear composition of my impressions than I was a month ago when I first saw Jean Paul Civeyrac’s cinematic adaptation at the movie theater. After that, I hunted down the Doris Lessing novella which is one of four included in her collection entitled The Grandmothers.
Writing this piece has been giving me the flux! Reading Nicholas Elliott’s “Film Comment” interview with Civeyrac complicated things further. Honestly, I can’t tell if this is a blog post that
(a) just doesn’t want to be written; or
(b) is something I’ve got lost in and, somehow, can’t find my way back [from]? or
(c) is still revealing its shape and direction to me
Do the desires and hang-ups I have about portrayals of black girls and women in film prevent me from experiencing a work the way a director intends? Or is it possible that filmmakers and writers tell stories that are about people with whom they have no affinity? Or, are characters in stories mere devices used to talk about situations and things, having nothing to do with the people themselves? These are the types of questions I am asking myself now and wondering if I am only twisting myself up in knots looking for meaning where there is none.
The film first came to my attention via a photograph and description in a program guide for the Gene Siskel Film Center:
“The Doris Lessing story “Victoria and the Staveneys” is relocated from London to Paris, where the life of Victoria, a young African French woman, is altered by a brief encounter with an affluent white family. The fairytale dreams of the dazzled working-class orphan become the obsession of the beautiful but adrift adult Victoria, whose ambitions are seemingly fulfilled by bearing a child who will bond her to the family forever. In French with English subtitles.”
Not quite knowing what to expect, I wanted to see just how the affluent white family’s lifestyle “dazzles” Victoria, the working-class orphan. Would there be material opulence as well as an overall sense of joie de vivre to contrast with a life of limited options and spiritual leanness? What events and thought processes would influence Victoria’s decisions? It’s true that I was also drawn to the film because the main character, Victoria, is black and female, and I hoped to see her story unfold in a complicated, sensitive, and illuminating way.
What I saw was a thin visual tale of a young black French schoolgirl, Victoria (played by Keylia Achie Beguie), who develops a crush on the Savinet family one day when Victoria’s aunt is unexpectedly taken to the hospital, and the Savinet’s eldest son, Edouard, is charged with collecting Victoria from school and looking after her for the evening, even though their families are not known to each other. (How random is that?)
The father does not occupy this home and the mother—-an actor of some reputation—-is scheduled to perform in the theatre on this evening. The younger son, Thomas, is spending the night at a friend’s. I guess me coming from a different time period and culture makes it hard to wrap my head around Lessing’s assertion that Victoria can only be rescued from school by the Staveney’s (“Savinet” in the film; “Staveney” in the novella) eldest son, Edward/Edouard—-and winds up spending the night in their home. Lessing writes that he is “a tall fair boy of about twelve” whose mother leaves him in charge of a child not known to their family. In the movie theater I watched this scene tensely because their families were not known to each other and the dynamic of a little black girl alone with an older white boy made me uneasy.
The Savinet home appears spacious and warm, and the parents’ liberal attitudes are the reason why the sons attend school with children of working-class family’s such as Victoria’s. The young Victoria is awed—-I guessed this from her show of widened eyes—-by their home and gravitates toward the ease and protection of Edouard’s presence.
While the dwelling that Victoria shares with her aunt turns out to be much smaller than the Savinet’s, I didn’t necessarily assume the home to be an inferior one. However, recognizing the aunt’s chronic illness and seeing Victoria playing alone with a homemade dollhouse did succeed in transmitting to me some feelings of somberness.
Despite the lovely cinematography and moody quietude of the film, I came away with the uncomfortable yearning for Victoria (played by Guslagie Malanga) to have more depth. I felt threatened by the portrayal of this young black French woman as an aimless person who idealizes a singular encounter with an affluent white family for several years until she finally manages to have an affair with the youngest son, Thomas (Pierre Andrau). Their uninspired fling results in Victoria’s pregnancy and the birth of a daughter, Marie, but she decides she doesn’t want Thomas to know and lets him go off to university without knowing that he is going to become a father.
Victoria eventually falls in love and marries a black man, Sam (Tony Harrisson), a musician, and they have a son. One day, while walking with Marie (Maylina Diagne), Victoria recognizes Thomas and his [current black] girlfriend walking not too far up ahead. Suddenly the fact that Thomas doesn’t know he has a six year old child strikes Victoria as being wrong and she determines to tell him. When she does, he is pleased, and so is his mother who exclaims “I always wanted a black grandchild.” (Later, Thomas’s father will describe Marie as his “little creme caramel, my little chocolate eclair.”)
In Lessing’s story, Sam Bisley, the man Victoria falls in love with and marries, comes across as a cardboard figure: a stereotype of an unreliable musician interested in exploiting Victoria. Ironically, the film version of Sam shows him as a man who truly cares about Victoria and wants to provide a good home for her and Marie.
Only Thomas’ older brother Edouard is put off by this development, suspecting that Victoria is only after money. Even though Thomas believes Victoria, a paternity test is taken, after which the white family begins at once to incorporate little Marie into their family life while excluding Dickson, Marie’s brother/Victoria’s son with Sam. So you see the biracial daughter enjoying being the center of attention with her white family, enjoying treats and outings without her mother and brother.
I wonder if the audience for this film is white French people? I wasn’t comfortable with the implication that the presence of a black figure represents a problem —-and yet, that same black figure —-a person!—- isn’t shown to embody direction, personality, or a complex of emotions.
“She is nearly a stranger to herself, she doesn’t really know what she is in the universe. That comes from a combination of a version of the script that moved away from Lessing and became more melodramatic, and [Malanga] Guslagie herself, who created this character and allowed me to conceive the mise en scène.” – Civeyrac from “Film Comment”
The film “My Friend Victoria” is narrated by Fanny, the daughter of Phyllis, the social worker who takes Victoria in after her aunt dies. After reading Doris Lessing’s story “Victoria and The Staveneys” from which his film was adapted I’ve decided that director Civeyrac did the story a disservice with this device. I found Fanny to be an unsatisfactory “friend” and storyteller. To my mind Phyllis would have been the better storyteller for the earlier sections of the film because she is a black French woman whose grandparents immigrated to London (Paris in the film) after the second world war. In this way the viewer could learn a bit about some of the historical origins of many of France’s black nationals. Phyllis is a mother and a social worker. She is witness to Victoria’s care of her aunt, and, because something in Victoria reminds her of herself, I feel Civeyrac missed an opportunity to show similarities and contrasts by paralleling their two stories up to a certain point.
Or, maybe the narrator should have been someone from the Savinet family, so that all of this business about Marie’s absorption into their world might be more acutely understood by the viewer. Doris Lessing’s story is written from a third person point of view and “Fanny” is known as “Bessie” and she is studying to be a nurse, not a writer.
The “Film Comment” interview reveals that the director wanted Victoria to seem “mysterious” and “opaque,” floating and drifting. I sometimes think the use of the word “mysterious” is just code for dismissing the dynamic personality traits, life experiences, and personal choices that shape a person. Black characters are often seen as mysterious and magical rather than thoughtful, self-examining, and self-determining. I objected to this, personally, but if Civeyrac was trying to say something about foreigners living in France, then to me he is also suggesting that maybe they aren’t gifting society with anything of value, they aren’t making any contribution. If Victoria is the “representation of the stranger” I wonder would it have been more meaningful to emphasize the life of the Savinet (Staveney) family and how the absorption of “the stranger” into their lives brings their attitudes about race and class and foreigners to the surface?
I wanted access to Victoria’s background and inner world. I wanted to know what happened to her mother and how she felt about having being orphaned twice. Some vagueness and mystery in a character can be intriguing, allowing the viewer or reader to be imaginative and pose questions….yet, this felt to me as if the director didn’t believe he needed to know Victoria well in order to show her story. Victoria appeared to be someone drifting along in life, taking a long line of jobs because she didn’t do well in school. I was uncomfortable with her aimlessness because of my insecurities with portrayals of black females who live unexamined and dreamless lives.
“In France, it’s clear that though we say an individual with black skin is French, there is a general subconscious that holds that the individual is not French. Meaning that we still do not accept that a black person is French. It’s theoretically accepted but not truly.”
-Civeyrac from “Film Comment”
Later on in the interview Civeyrac confesses “an ambition to show suffering and to include a critical dimension with a great deal of charm, nearly without seeming to, through beautiful sequences or amusing moments. I like that way of working.” And while I appreciate that aspiration, I don’t think he succeeded with that in “My Friend Victoria.” Then again, I am not a black French woman, so why am I so invested in Victoria representing a figure whom I understand and can relate to?
Here’s hoping that your holiday season has been festive, restive, warm, and meaningful! As 2015 draws to a close, I’ve been imagining what I want folklore & literacy to be in the coming year. There is some unfinished business that I’d like to tie up as well.
Thank you, Didi! at Brown Girl Reading who has been folklore & literacy’s cheerleader from the start and included me in her selection of 15 blogs to receive this Blogger Recognition Award [way back in August.]
I started folklore & literacy because I wanted to begin developing a portfolio of writing online. It took a lot of “hemming and hawing” for me because I was still operating from the old model in which aspiring writers send unsolicited pieces to journals and what-have-you, then wait three to six months to receive a rejection letter! This can be a slow and dulling process, and I had (and still have!) long “laundry-lists” of things I would like explore and write about.
I’m afraid I can’t offer much advice to new bloggers because I still consider myself a new blogger—folklore & literacy is just a year and a month old! Even after having read books and articles about the dos and don’ts of blogging, I launched folklore & literacy with lurches and coughs and spits, and still have plenty of kinks to work out. But I like having this experimental platform that allows me to work on making ideas “camera-ready” to share with others.
For my own choice of 15 blogs to pass the Blogger Recognition Award to, I decided to spend some time checking out blogs that weren’t necessarily on my radar (—well, not a lot, but a little!) and that was fun. Hopefully, folks reading this post may discover something new that they like on my list. Warning: there is work involved in “accepting” this award!—aka the reason why it has taken me nearly five months to “earn” mine -lol! (drumroll please!):
This particular Blogger Recognition Award was created by Eve at Edge of Night. Thanks, Eve, for making sure that bloggers receive a fist bump pf encouragement from time to time!
Here is how it works:
• Select 15 other blogs you want to give the award to.
• Do some digging if you must! Find those blogs. You cannot nominate yourself or the person who has nominated you.
• Write a post to show off your award! Give a brief story of how your blog got started, and give a piece or two of advice to new bloggers.
• Thank whoever nominated you, and provide a link to their blog.
• List who you’ve nominated in the post.
• Make sure to also attach the award itself! (You can do this by right-clicking, saving, and uploading the image above).
• Comment on each blog and let them know you’ve nominated them.
• Provide a link to the award post you created.
• Provide a link to the original post on Edge Of Night. That way, anyone can find the original guidelines and post if needed, and we can keep it from mutating and becoming confusing!”
Listen people: I’ve been quite fortunate to receive lovely, thoughtful gifts this season, so after viewing the “30 Americans” art exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, it was hard to justify purchasing a heavy stack of books on the subject of African Americans and art. I took photos instead. (Photographing these titles means that they are of interest…and I will likely purchase and/or borrow them from the library at a later date!)
You can see a one-minute video about Radical Presence, the exhibit, here.
Art exhibition books document concepts and artworks, curatorial processes and points of view at work behind art exhibits. Sometimes called “coffee table books,” they feature photographs of the works of artists who have been selected to represent themes and specific ideas and points of inquiry. It’s hard not to spend upwards of $40.00 for these deluxe reference guides. These historical documents are often of exceptional quality with color photographs, printed on good paper and meticulously researched and well-put-together. Art exhibition books remain to tell the tale long after a particular exhibition has closed.
Two more titles that aren’t “coffee table books” looked intriguing:
I have enjoyed many an hour in galleries, museums, and—quite frankly, folk’s homes and work spaces—looking at visual art, artifacts, photographs, maps, and what-have-you, “reading” what these things have to say to me.
Do you do that?
Its kind of like being on the soul’s treasure hunt, looking for visual resonances, dissonances, and clues about this life we’re living. Without using words, visual art beckons and questions, remembers and reveals. It is one location where people who speak different languages can read the same imagery and experience both common and uncommon interpretations. Sometimes I’ve got to take a vacation from the blah blah blah of words—believe it or not!—by gazing at things in the natural world like bodies of water, trees, and sky; or visiting an art gallery or museum. I absolutely require time spent in spaces that nourish my imaginative and visionary power.
Several months ago I saw an exhibit called “The Essential Self: Meditations on the Politics of Identity” which showed at Detroit Artists Market, June 12, 2015 thru July 18, 2015. The show featured the work of eight Detroit-area-based artists working in a variety of media including painting, drawing, photography, fiber art, assemblage, and sculpture. Artists of African-American, Asian, Mexican, Polish, and Middle Eastern descent were represented, and while much of the work contains elements of cultural specificity, the word meditation in the title promised a gateway to reflecting on who the self is when not burdened-down by historical broken records, cliches, and stereotypes; or suffocating in airless categorical boxes. Viewing these artworks gave me an opportunity to remember myself as a soulful human being and not some sociological specimen created solely by racism, sexism, inequalities, and misperceptions.
detail of work by Vito Valdez and Carole Harris (photos by Leslie Reese)
Curated by Stephanie James—Curator and Collection Educator for the Mott-Warsh Collection—“The Essential Self: Meditations on the Politics of Identity,” suggests provocative questions about self and selves; as well as the role of abstraction and realism in self and group portraiture. The works invited me to meditate on: the loved self and the maligned self; the private self and the public self; the animated self and the self-at-rest; the evolving self and the static self.
I knew that I wanted to write about this exhibit but hesitated several times because of my lack of art history training and concern about being able to place these artists’ work in context with the contemporary art “scene.” I contacted Curator Stephanie James, sharing with her some of my apprehensions and attitudes. She was gracious enough to respond, providing questions for my consideration such as:
“Was the nature of the work such that you could enter into the dialog the artist was having with himself/herself?” and
“Were the experiences and thoughts about the issues they took up relatable to you?”
Though Ms. James said that she would be happy knowing that visitors found the group of artworks visually pleasing, her questions invited a “regular viewer” like myself to respond to the work more richly.
The opening pieces of the exhibition were the large-scale works of Tylonn J. Sawyer’s “Black Masquerade” series. It was easy to feel an attraction to these oil-on-canvas works because I recognized the likenesses of cultural icons James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, there was a sinister element, maybe coming from the uniformity of body type, dress, and a gradual dawning that although each canvas was inhabited by multiple figures, they were all wearing masks of the aforementioned icons. The images disturbed me. And, strangely, they made me remember times when people said to me “You look like Diana Ross!” or “You look like Whoopi Goldberg!”— and I didn’t feel seen. Kind of like when people say that all black people or all asians or all blondes look alike and don’t respect or perceive that within groups there are unique individuals.
“Black Masquerade” is a cult work series depicting a dark surreal view of black unity. As a point of departure from portraiture and highlighting the individual, these works aim to show the confluence of collective identity and anonymity.” – excerpt from Tylonn J. Sawyer’s artist statement.
Nestled almost subversively between two of Sawyer’s large scale pieces were the smaller serigraph, chine colle, and colored pencil works of JenClare Gawaran. I wondered if this placement was intentional because, I think that in the popular imagination black people are associated with expressions that are large and loud, while Asians are associated with subtlety. Each of Gawaran’s pieces feature likenesses of Gawaran (self-portraits), placed in sly and humorous relationship to each other. In this way her work shows dualities, personal conflicts, and the tensions between her personal world and the social expectations others have for her as an Asian American woman.
“With this new series I wanted to focus on duality and inner conflict. Our identity is composed of many different facets. I’ve found myself weighing mine against each other. Sometimes it results in guilt, sometimes in contentment and always in a deeper realization of what has shaped me into the person I am now.” – excerpt from JenClare Gawaran’s artist statement.
Sharing the wall with works by Gawaran and Sawyer was Miroslawa Sztuczka ‘s five-paneled series, “The Prayer,” which ponders: why do people feel comfortable withholding love from transsexuals, despite Jesus’ Biblical commandment in John 13:34-35?
When I viewed this piece before reading Sztuczka’s artist statement, what I saw was painted surfaces that had been rubbed, and “scarred.” I could identify words from the childhood prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep…” that had been scratched upon, and this suggested a “troubling” or betrayal of some sort. Red thread appeared as zig-zag stitching in one panel, parallel lines, crossroads, or the sign of the cross in others. The individual panels reminded me of novels that are told in stories where each story is complete in itself yet deepened by the presence of its kindred stories.
“The series is a dialogue between the term “Transsexual” and the Christian commandment that requires mankind to love one another. Through these paintings, I examine the freedom to identify as one chooses and acceptance in a broad sense.” – excerpt from Miroslawa Sztuczka’s artist statement.
Opposite this wall, I viewed Salwan George’s series “Finding Freedom,” which uses photography to document and explore the lives of people who have fled their war-torn homes in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq. As I looked at George’s images of people engaged in worship and breaking bread together, I considered how we human beings always struggle to retain spiritual beliefs, cultural customs, and language in new, and often, hostile environments. We have valuable aspects of our identit[ies] that we deeply cherish and don’t want to relinquish, nor be forced to defend.
“My project explores the lives of Middle Eastern families who have fled their countries in recent years in search of safety, with hopes of re-building their live in the United States….I began photographing the community in May 2014, documenting the lives, worship and struggles of a people facing new challenges and opportunities,” – excerpt from Salwan George’s artist statement.
I’m sure that many city-dwellers have witnessed thousands of individuals on the streets over the years: people who lack homes, safe havens, employment; not to mention mental and emotional care and support. Subconsciously we may have noted that these folks seem to be in competition for space with urban street birds, a.k.a. rock pigeons.
Through graphite drawings with titles like “Cooped Up,” “Pigeonhole,” and “Aviophobia,”, artist Rashaun Rucker—also a formally trained journalist—illustrates imaginative cross-sections between the lives of black men and rock pigeons. These images from Rucker’s “Fly Away” series immediately took me to thoughts of my grandmother’s warnings to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that she didn’t want to see us standing around on street corners for lack of something constructive to do with ourselves.
“These images I’ve created speak to black men and why we often don’t fly (achieve) even though we have the ability to go far beyond our circumstances. It paints a picture of how the somewhat negative environment becomes a comfortable condition and not simply a momentary station in life.” – excerpt from Rashaun Rucker’s artist statement.
Think of some synonyms for the word “pigeonhole” and you will be right in-the-pocket with the questions Rashaun Rucker’s work poses to ideas of the self.
Carole Harris’ “Reverence” is from a series of fiber pieces called “Mapping Time and Place.” I have admired Harris’ fiberart stories, quilts, and wearable fashions in the past for their textural energy and precision, but “Reverance” is a departure from those works. Instead of featuring the fresh and brand-new, this work displays the vitality of what’s been lived, discarded, adopted, re-purposed and revised. Its vibrant colors, uneven layerings, topical stitching, unfinished edges, and frayed and faded fabric felt familiar. It resembles an historical self, or an aging self: a physical body and body of life that are no longer new and have been through a lot.
“The evidence of nicks, scratches, and scars that mark the surface tell part of the story. It is only when the layers of the surface map are peeled or torn away that the true history is revealed.” – excerpt from Carole Harris’ artist statement.
Finally, sculptural, painted, and assemblage works by Vito Jesus Valdez and Mary Laredo (Herbeck) were shown collaboratively, as a kind of conversational meditation between two artists of Mexican heritage—one man, one woman, one alive, the other transitioned to the next realm. These pieces illustrate our selves in collaboration and communion with others—the living as well as the ancestral. I was reminded that while we are mostly concerned with the breathing bodies we currently inhabit, we will one day be selves constructed from the emotions, memories, works, and deeds we leave with the living. We aren’t only who we determine ourselves to be but we are also made of the imprints which others make on our lives and minds.
I remember shortly after my mother passed, I cried while telling a friend that I couldn’t fathom not being able to talk to my mother again. “But you can always talk to her!” my friend responded.
Whether playing with similar content or color palettes, I feel that Vito Valdez has continued to converse with Mary Laredo (1955-2010)—both personally and artistically— even though she no longer inhabits the world the way she once did.
“I offer an intimate portrait suite. Stories are shared with objects and vessels that hold a history of fateful encounters, memory crossing rivers and borders. The objects no longer come from the self, but combined and arranged, they possess properties of loss and coalesce in a void of silence. The portraits provide a shared living document.” – excerpt from Vito Valdez’s artist statement.
“As a second generation Mexican-American I was exposed to the art and culture of Mexico at an impressionable age…. I do not classify my work as ethnic, yet the aesthetic sensibilities of my earliest influences continue to inspire and often inform my work.” – excerpt from Mary Laredo (Herbeck)’s artist statement.
This show felt carefully-balanced to me—-I appreciated that the curator selected works in a variety of mediums by artists at various stages of their careers, and exploring different concerns, so that range in perspective was also represented. The works made a strong impression on me, both visually and meditatively.
Although not a part of “The Essential Self: Meditations on the Politics of Identity,” this 3:51 minute video of Chicago-based poet Jamila Woods performing her piece “Pigeon Man” reminded me of Rashaun Rucker’s work.