Toni Morrison, Our Greatest US American Writer

I think it might annoy her that I cannot fully explain the profound effect that each of her books has had on me. How to explain that Beloved resonated so strongly that I experienced a form of PTSD, reading and digesting it by chapters or partial chapters so that it took months to read it all. I knew those ghosts so intimately that I wondered how it could be that she was “singing my life with her words.” Could it really be only a coincidence that my childhood address was 124? I admit that I’ve never seen the movie and never will because I have no interest in anyone else’s interpretation of this awakening.

Through her and a host of other (mostly) Black women writers, I came to a more nuanced, often cuttingly sharp understanding of our connectedness through our shared histories and humanity. She read and spoke my heart when she posited that we are always interesting; that love is complex and sacred; that we must write and speak our own stories.

This is my favorite Toni Morrison book, (if one can even choose among her painfully exquisite offerings to the world) and when I met her at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988, she challenged me about “why” in a way that no one previously had interrogated me about anything I thought or felt. She quietly confronted me, right in front of the group of students who were invited to meet her, requiring that I shine a ruthless eye on my thoughts and feelings and not settle for the easy or false enlightenment, nor write before I better understood how my perceptions were influenced by personal and US history. She noted that for an intelligent woman and aspiring writer to do less was moral cowardice. She forced me to reckon with what courage- from the heart-really means. It hurt. I grew.

I wish that I had a photo of that encounter, and perhaps there is one somewhere in the bowels of my college’s photo archives. I would love to see her piercing eyes sending the strength of her words straight into my soul. I’d love to see my body’s presentation of the shock and awe that I remember feeling. I wonder if the lens captured any of the depth of those relatively short minutes of a brief, deeply meaningful encounter that continues to inform and inspire me. Having been raised in the art of bodily self control, I’d bet that only my widened eyes conveyed any of what felt like an hours long police interrogation under bright lights. Perhaps an auric reader might have seen my soul shift to a new level of maturity. Maybe the other people present noticed that I staggered away in shock, but I doubt it, because Toni Morrison skewered me without leaving a mark or any trace of blood. She entered through my skull and went straight to the heart, like an expert charcutier, cutting away the fat and dross, leaving my generally loquacious inner voice with not a blessed word to say, but a whole lot of reckoning to do. It was years later that I understood that by being provocative, she was also asking to be challenged, not just venerated.

She was indeed a gift, a blessing, a razor sharp sword: the voice of the Ancestors reuniting us with our natural selves, providing the medicines for our long healing.

Thank you, Ms. Morrison for the love. May you rest in the peace and power that you so richly deserve.

Farewell, Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg’s music marked a very special period in my life and has connected me to lifelong friends. I was saddened to learn of his death at the relatively young age of 66.
I’d been introduced to his story and music with Juluka during my first year of graduate philosophy at Rutgers by my classmate and friend, Sarah.
Later, when I transferred to anthropology at UVA, my very first outing in Charlottesville was to a Johnny Clegg concert. Sarah was visiting, and we were thrilled to be able to catch them at small venue like Trax. I was new to the area and anthropology, missing my NY/NJ life, and ready for good music and the good vibes Savuka invoked among fans.
My expectations went awry as this happy outing was where I was also embroiled in my first and only barroom fight. As Johnny and Savuka sang about racial harmony and peace, I found myself fighting off a humongous, belligerently drunk blond woman who tried to push us out of our front row spaces.
In one of the more surreal moments of my adult life, I watched as the band’s eyes grew larger and two bouncers moved toward us. After a series of flirtatious moves with a member of Savuka, I also watched helplessly as my friend’s hopes of hanging out with the band went down in flames. It was a memorable night for us and for years afterwards, I harbored a hope of running into Mr. Clegg and explaining to him why my face seemed familiar.
Living in married graduate student housing and later renting a house in the Fifeville section, I played hostess to an assortment of wonderful students and locals and dancing to Savuka was pretty much a daily ritual. Dances learned from Donna Graham at Chihamba were adapted to Johnny Clegg songs. Friends courted loved ones to Dela and African Dreams, we invoked Third World Child , One Human One Vote, Warsaw 1943, and other political numbers as we waged our own battles against racial, class, and gender discrimination. The music was part of the fabric of our lives and we considered Johnny to have been “a white boy anthropologist who made good: a man who tried to live his values in difficult times, insisting on recognizing the humanity of all people and being willing to face being banned for his antiracist work. Honorable.
Asking forgiveness for my poor Zulu, with a sad heart and gratitude for the music I say:
Ukuhlonipha abafileyo; Ukuphumula emandleni.
Respect to the Dead;
Rest in Power

In Remembrance

I was fortunate enough to have had my father in my life for a little more than fifty years. My Dad was the kind of father who would get down on the floor to play with his kids. He did Cossack dances around the house, sang sad and silly songs, told really funny and really corny jokes, brought us bubble gum at the end of his work week, and played rag time piano. He struggled with us (certainly me) through math classes, taught us all to play poker, box, and skip rope. He taught my sister and me to waltz, and retained Victorian-like, romantic ideas and attitudes of courtliness and honor.

My Pop was fiercely clannish in the best sense, hard working, athletic, and tenacious. He dreamed of having a Kennedyesque compound, with all of his family and other loved ones close, sharing, helping, and protecting each other. When I was very small, before he could afford a car during the hours the bus didn’t run, he walked back and forth between Jersey City and his job in Bayonne (5 miles each way.) Providing for, and keeping his family together was central to his being.

He seldom attended church but held strong beliefs about honoring parents and holding God in awe. He taught me to always fight fairly and never throw the first punch, a stance that cost me dearly during the street fights of my childhood. He was mostly self-taught and retained a positivist belief in self and home improvement, remaining active until he was about ninety.

I was completely devoted to him as a child and thought he was the most brilliant man alive with his adherence to scientific method and home-made chemistry lab. He taught me to believe that I was smart and could learn/teach myself anything into which I was willing to put time and energy. As a teen, we struggled because of my difficulties with algebra and developing interest in boys, but he was always protective: a reasonable and considerate father, and I always knew that he loved me even when I thought he didn’t understand me.

We played piano duets, watched science fiction movies, played simple games of chess, discussed politics and art and music and science and architecture. He taught me how to order at a restaurant if I was alone- a seemingly small thing-but for a shy girl, a gift that allowed me to travel independently. I was taught how to use tools and treat them with respect, to change a tire, and some basic plumbing. He often called me “pixilated”, recognizing that I was dancing to a song unheard by others, and he did his best to prepare me for the practical world he knew would invade my artistic, sometimes dreamy world. He was a bit less successful in this than in other endeavors, but his love continues to shore me up as I dance gingerly through an often harsh reality.

He was a good man and it is my sincere pleasure to wish all of the good fathers and fathers-to- be a wonderful and Happy Father’s Day today.

Student Debt

When considering student debt, people seem not to understand that the average person starting graduate school is a nearly 40 year old woman. There are far fewer grants for grad school than scholarships for undergrads, so most people take out loans. In fact, even in colleges now, “student aid packages” are predominantly based on loans unlike any others. They cannot be claimed in bankruptcy proceedings and the current administration has almost completely eliminated debt forgiveness proceedings for teachers and other public servants who were eligible for debt release after ten years of service and payments.

Given the age of most graduate students, many are likely to have children and are often single parents trying to return to the workforce or improve their earning power, but those earnings are often unlikely to allow them to pay off those relatively high interest debts and support families through their education. Heaven forbid that they also incur medical loans or try to purchase a house rather than pay continually increasing rents!

Historically, debt forgiveness is not a slippery slope into anything other than boosting the economy, in spite of the histrionics I see in comments regarding Elizabeth Warren’s recently stated platform. (And no, I’m not crazy about her or anyone else right now, but her platform isn’t far fetched and is in fact, in line with many of the world’s wealthy, “developed” nations)

So the REAL questions should be:

Why are education costs in the US such that only the wealthy can afford to be educated?

Second to that is why do Americans allow their hard earned tax dollars to be used to forgive the debts of banks and multinationals, but fight to maintain their own positions as indentured workers?

Why do so many Americans fight against union benefits that help every worker rather than fighting for their own ability to bargain?

And why does a country that’s falling behind in education undervalue liberal arts? We had one of the best educational systems in the world when those subjects were part of the general curriculum, including at the best technology colleges, such as MIT. It’s pretty simple: if I can read, write, and have a decent grasp of critical thinking, math and science, I can pretty much learn everything else (given an aptitude and willingness to work) and communicate with others across disciplines.

Sadly, I have some ideas about the above “whys” but I can only hope that I’m wrong because if I’m right, it means that too many Americans are stupid, mean spirited, and ignorant about how the systems under which they spend their lives actually work, or their real positions within society.

As working people we have more in common with one another than we do with the 2% richest or even the legislators who are supposed to represent our interests but too often use their political terms to enrich themselves at our expense. We don’t have to like each other or agree on everything, but we sure as heck need to stop fighting each other in ways that keep us all down.

Stop acting like crabs in a barrel, people. Raise each other up: in that way, everybody benefits.

You Don’t Speak For My Clan Mothers

Although published in 2017, I just came upon “‘Anthropology is a white colonialist project’ can’t be the end of the conversation” by Ghassan Hage, and found myself once again interrogating the anger that welled up from the core of my “Native Anthropologist” being.

I find the ending to this otherwise interesting and useful article entirely problematic. Identifying anthro as a tribe, while common, also serves as a way to justify exclusionary behaviors and perpetuate rights of inheritance/inclusion to those who “err” but “respect their elders.” No, I don’t have to accept all of those horrid, racist, misogynist dead guys as my Ancestors. They did not bring me to this discipline, nor do they sustain me. They are not sources of inquiry for me, and most serve only as object lessons for what not to do in anthropology or life.

In my mind this “tribal” fall back position seems akin to the recent eulogizing of a soft spoken leader who also contributed to the deaths of thousands from AIDS, waged a racist campaign, and promoted international wars, both secret and direct. Maybe he was nice to the very narrowly restricted group of people who knew him, but his policies brought suffering and death to many, and it is his professional being I am here to judge. So too, I see no reason to buy into the toleration of problematic figures in anthropology.

I do believe that anthropology (and even governments) can be decolonized, but not by falling back on worn out tropes and pre-emptive forgiveness, and not by continuing to tip toe around that which is unforgivable.

The bottom line is that unlike our lineal/blood families, we are not born to this “tribe”, we choose it. And that makes all the difference.

https://mediadiversified.org/2017/09/04/anthropology-is-a-white-colonialist-project-cant-be-the-end-of-the-conversation/

It Is Always The Day After

We need to be organized, put differences on hold, or at least not let relatively petty quarrels divide us. The scary people may hate each other, but they still vote as a block. They show up, if only to beat us. There’s no sitting this out, no “I’m not political” or “They’re all the same, why bother.” We not only have a common enemy, we have common interests, desires, and visions. They’re not identical-that’s ok. They’re enough for us to organize behind and win. Then we can hash out our differences. This is an intersectional cause: leave your ego at the door and work it out.

Dine/Apache burden basket

Is this the system of my choice? Hell no! But I’m here; X marks the spot, and I spent many years preparing for “The Revolution” while watching the disintegration of an increasingly hypocritical and corrupt system. I saw early on that most people don’t want revolution/change: they just want to be on top or better off within the familiar. They want to survive; they want to hold onto the illusion of the myth of The American Dream.

Disappointment can’t make you turn away, it requires us to use every tool available to us until “revolution” evolves.

We have to do better. These are the times that try our souls: united we stand, divided we fall hard, lose our remaining rights and become virtual, if not actual slaves to people you might mock, despise for their vulgarity and biases, but who will continue to kick your/our collective asses.

Work, work, work…

Roy Wagner 1938-2018

Hi Linda Porter Gracie

I hope you were able to see what Edy Marie Gonzalez wrote in response to your query on my Facebook page about Roy Wagner. It was lovely and true.

Roy was one of those larger than life characters, but not in the usual way. There was no bombast and neither his brilliance nor his kindness nor his absolute craziness hit you in the face. He loved Coyote medicine, but never cruelty.

The first time I remember talking with him was at some UVA presentation. I’d just arrived, fresh out of Philosophy, and suitably arrogant towards my new, seemingly theory-poor discipline. I questioned the speaker (Roy) on a nuanced point regarding category boundaries, as the other first term grad students looked at me in shock. I expected to be rebuffed by The Great Man and was ready to argue. Instead he seemed interested and asked where he might learn more about the subject. I was awed by the humility of his true intellectualism. He was curious and patient in ways that too few academics are.

When he discovered that I knew about Santeria and had spent two years with a brujo, we became best friends. He helped me transition into anthropology (with the Roy Wagner twist) and was, for a time, my dissertation advisor and remained on my committee, asking the final and most Roy-like question at the end: “And how would you explain all of this in terms of quantum physics?” I’ve no doubt that it made for one of the most unique dissertation defenses of anthropology in UVA history.

He was also Pontius Pilate in the on-going, ever changing production of Jesus Christ Superstar that my friends and I (Joseph Hellweg, Indra Davis, Sarah Boone, Raymond Cruz et. al) practiced at my King St. house for semesters on end. Roy did not have a great singing voice, but he regally embodied the part, displaying his usual good humor and a flare for drama and what can only be categorized as Vogueing.

Roy was among the most talkative people I’ve ever met and there were no trivial conversations. When you entered his office, hung out at Edie Turner’s house, or spoke on the phone, you had to be prepared to devote time to enter what I called Roy World. It was a place of vast imagination, a library’s worth of knowledge, anecdotes galore, recognizably Chicagoan anthropology, a plasticity similar to that that Bob Zimmerman applauded in me back at Sarah Lawrence, but with a more extensive range of knowledge in many areas. It was a place of stimulation and joy and exhaustion, fortified for him by vast quantities of unbelievably strong coffee.

I returned from my first field trip among healers and independent coffee growers in Puerto Rico with a pound of the best coffee on the island for him. Roy was delighted and immediately poured the entire bag into his small (4 cup?) coffee maker, for one intense batch that he delightedly consumed within the hour.

Roy was soft spoken and intense. He loved music, wit, and animals. He was kind but never condescending to children, unfailingly gallant, fun, and could be bitingly sharp, but only with his peers. He was protective of students and underdogs and he talked to everyone as an equal. My husband- an outsider to the academy- has fond memories of schmoozing with Roy, who of course made it his business to casually ensure that Raymond was included and comfortable.

He was a wonderful story teller and mischievous teller of truths. He could render what must have been painful aspects of his life into gently humorous yet still touching stories.

Roy was special. He would send me chapters of a book he was working on but he almost never wanted to discuss the actual typewritten pages, but rather, the concepts and sets of a priori beliefs from which they were constructed. He loved that I’d been a Wittgensteinian philosopher and could follow and add to his journeys into language games and meanings.

He was playful, delightful, and easily delighted, and thus always had an aura of youthfulness. We danced & sang together, watched tv, had meals, and did all the superficially mundane things that friends do (we once went to the mall!) but that’s not where the heart of our bond was centered.

It’s impossible to say who Roy was, and is, to me. He was among the few who made being the first African American and first older student in grad anthro at UVA doable. His book, The Invention of Culture is still read, with good reason. At heart, Roy was the embodiment of intelligence. Ever curious, mind as sharp as a razor, willing to appear foolish in pursuit of ideas. He was Diogenes-like in his quest for the truth of understanding.

I trusted Roy and Roy could be trusted. I can’t say that of many people. He was always himself: always and in all ways. Roy will always have a place in my heart and I’ll be very interested in hearing about his adventures if we again meet up in some form or fashion. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, as I said before, I like to think that Roy and Edie are regaling the other Ancestors with great stories and questions and that there’s an endless supply of good coffee for Roy. Form may change, but The Journey never ends.