Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
By Sherie M. Randolph
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 328 pp., $30.00 hardcover
Reviewed by Benita Roth
In Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph, an associate professor of history and Afroamerican studies at the University of Michigan, has done an important service for anyone who cares about fashioning a complete and complex record of post-World War II feminist activism. Flo Kennedy was a vivid television presence in the 1970s, and remembering her image, I looked her up on YouTube. I expected to find a lot, but came up with very little: a clip of her profanely leading the chorus of one of her signature protest songs, set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a precious, audio-only sound-bite from her speech at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.
This kind of paltry digital legacy confirms the need for biographies of important and heretofore understudied feminist figures such as Kennedy. It takes nothing away from Kennedy’s seriousness of political purpose to say that she was a media-savvy gadfly, someone who understood how to inspire would-be activists and how to garner attention from the halls of established power. As Randolph shows, Kennedy was a relentlessly political person, a constant organizer who was nonetheless better at catalyzing organizations than sustaining them.
Randolph begins her biography with an examination of Kennedy’s origins, focusing on the family dynamics that led to her radical politics. Born in 1916 to a lower-middle-class black family in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy early on received messages about confronting white racism from her family, whom she described as “political in the sense that we never took any shit.” In 1925 Kennedy’s mother, Zella, took her three daughters to Los Angeles to visit family, leaving behind her husband, and decided to stay, joining the many blacks seeking a freer life in southern California. In Los Angeles, Kennedy, then nine years old, experienced a reprieve from harsh winters and harsh racism.
After two years, Kennedy’s father came to reclaim the family—possibly because Zella was ill—and they returned to Kansas City. The Depression foreclosed on black women’s few options for employment, and both Zella and Flo worked as domestics for a time. Randolph notes that Zella taught her daughters to reject the silences required by the black community’s “politics of respectability,” and to own their sexuality. In Kansas City, Kennedy got to know NAACP officers and, in 1942, at the age of 26, she and her sister Grayce staged a two-woman sit-in at a whites-only bus stop café. During a struggle with angry whites, Kennedy was yanked off a stool so hard that she suffered a spinal dislocation, the effects of which would be with her for the rest of her life.
In 1943, Kennedy took a vacation to visit her sister in New York City and stayed, attracted by the opportunities the city offered. She attended Columbia University’s Program of Undergraduate Studies (later the School of General Studies, a program aimed at working students), where she was often the only black woman in her classes. The gender issues raised by her courses inspired her. She explicitly rejected the roles of wife and mother, and explored the implications of the analogy, popular at the time, of women’s situation being like that of “Negroes.”
She was working at exactly the kind of “good government job”—as a researcher for the Veterans Benefits Administration—that she had hoped to find in New York, when her socialist sympathies got her fired. Though she was not one for party discipline, she had connected with radicals in the city, which landed her on the FBI’s radar. She wanted to become a lawyer, but was initially rejected from Columbia Law School. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, she confronted an assistant dean, telling him that her rejection was unacceptable, since less-qualified white men had been admitted, and she used the school’s perception that she had ties to influential radicals to have the decision reversed.
Kennedy’s path as a black woman practicing law was never easy, and it was rendered more difficult by her marriage to a possibly abusive, alcoholic writer, and to her dishonest law partner, who literally took their firm’s money and ran. Kennedy left her husband and never married again—committing herself to activism instead. Despite these personal and professional losses, Kennedy began to make a name for herself as an attorney. She defended the singer Billie Holiday against narcotics charges and developed “a reputation as an entertainment lawyer willing to battle the industry on behalf of artists and their families,” writes Randolph, who argues that Kennedy eventually become cynical about the law, but was never willing to relinquish its strategic power as she fought for radical causes.
To build an activist voice in the 1960s black community, Kennedy began writing a weekly column for a local black newspaper, the Queens Voice, entitled “Once Upon a Week,” and hosting a radio program for station WLIB on Sunday nights called Opinions. She held parties and salon-like events in her apartment for left-wingers like herself, who believed that racism, classism, and US imperialism were linked. Her arrest in her own neighborhood in 1965 by police suspicious of her as a black woman only hardened her radical principles.
In view of this political background, Kennedy’s involvement throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both the black power and feminist movements makes a great deal of sense, and Randolph’s narrative really takes off in the latter part of the book, as she covers Kennedy’s contributions. With her view of linked oppressions, Kennedy argued that the nascent National Organization for Women (NOW) should ally itself with the black power movement—but not surprisingly, she was rebuffed. That didn’t stop her from continuing to attend New York NOW meetings, nor from bringing the white NOW members Ti-Grace Atkinson and Peg Brennan to the Black Power Conference in July of 1967, where they were decidedly unwelcome.
Such rejections did not stop Kennedy from continuing to advocate what we would now call an intersectional view of liberation. However, she and others who sought a politics of coalition faced a pervasive left ethos of what I called (in Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave ), the anti-coalitional politics of “organizing one’s own.” Left organizations in the 1960s and 1970s were concerned with authenticity and self-determination; as racial/ethnic lines hardened, so did the sense that one’s community was determined along racial/ethnic lines. Given this activist milieu, Kennedy was seldom successful in making the links among organizations that she wished to see. Rather, Randolph sees her as what the sociologist Belinda Robnett (in How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights ) calls a “bridge leader.” Randolph argues that Kennedy moved back and forth between movements and brought to feminists the ideological lessons of Black Power. Randolph writes that Kennedy, “[l]ike many other radicals…saw the emerging women’s movement as a logical extension of Black Power’s emphasis on liberation and self determination.” And in bringing white women’s liberationists to the Black Power Conference, Kennedy clearly wanted the black movement to address sexism within its ranks.
Kennedy was not exactly the kind of bridge leader that Robnett envisioned: she was both a behind-the-scenes go-between and a very public spokesperson. In 1970, she paired with Gloria Steinem on a speaking tour that took them to college campuses and local feminist groups; she was also instrumental in establishing grassroots support for the insurgent Feminist Party, which supported Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run for president. However, despite her high profile as a black feminist, Kennedy ultimately came to feel that white feminists were not ready for true coalitional politics. In a battle over NOW’s leadership structure—Atkinson had put forth a proposal for rotating the presidency of the group, to counter what she saw as Betty Friedan’s moderating power—Kennedy resigned from the organization. She did not turn her back on feminist politics, however; in fact, she played a catalyzing role in the formation of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973—although her involvement in that group was short lived, and she soon moved on to other political projects.
You can’t come away from Randolph’s biography without great admiration for Kennedy; whatever her shortcomings as an organizer, she was clearly devoted to her causes, and she constantly sought to inspire, educate, and connect with others. Randolph’s research was truly Herculean: she organized and cataloged Kennedy’s papers at the Schlesinger Library; sifted through other collections; conducted interviews; listened to audio recordings; watched archived video; read court cases, newspaper articles and scholarly sources; combed through FBI files; and spoke with family members. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the activist.
Still, aspects of Kennedy’s life, most notably her private life after her marriage, remain elusive. That may be by Kennedy’s design, but it is hard to know, and I wish that Randolph had broached the topic. I would also have liked to learn more about Kennedy’s life after the 1970s; Randolph fleshes out Kennedy’s early years but leaves her later ones underexplored. A growing literature shows that, contrary to the pop-culture stereotype, radical activists maintain their radicalism over time. It would have been instructive to know more about what Kennedy thought of the aftermath of 1960s and 1970s protest mobilizations.
I also wish Randolph had considered, in theoretical terms, why Kennedy was such an individualist in her activism, so unwilling to be beholden to any one group, so accepting, it seems, of being a perpetual outsider to the organizations that she touched. I mostly missed this theoretical consideration of the relationship between individual activists and organizational trajectories in Randolph’s narration of the “fall” of the NBFO, which she more or less blames on Kennedy’s failure to stick around and guide the group. Just as a “great woman/man” theory of history won’t fly in accounting for historical successes, a great woman, even one as vital as Kennedy, can’t be held responsible for an organization’s failure. Randolph argues that the NBFO faltered from a lack of resources, especially compared to a group like NOW. Others, however, including myself (in Separate Roads) and Kimberly Springer (in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 ), argue that resources were only part of the organization’s problems. Springer identifies homophobia, activist burn-out, and factionalism in accounting for the NBFO’s demise, while I argue that its New York City-based leadership failed to capitalize on grassroots support for black feminism by trying too hard to emulate NOW’s centralized control of local chapters. Kennedy helped to start the NBFO, but she wasn’t a central player in that organization after its first year or so, and its demise should not be traced to her influence or the lack of it.
All in all, Randolph has written an extremely useful biography for those seeking to understand the bundle of energy, style, humor, and smarts that was Flo Kennedy. The book is also a good entry into understanding the tumult of left protest politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Randolph’s work contributes to the leaky dam we scholars of that era are always trying to build against cultural forgetting. I’m grateful for both Kennedy’s and Randolph’s efforts on behalf of the ongoing struggle for progressive change.
Benita Roth is an associate professor of sociology, history, and women’s studies at Binghamton University. She is the author of Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (2004), and of The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s (forthcoming, 2016).
The Woman You’ve Never Heard of Who’s the Reason You Practice Yoga
By Michelle Goldberg
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 352 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
You don’t have to own a mat to know that yoga has transformed from a countercultural interest into a multibillion dollar “growth industry.” A 2012 Yoga Journal survey found that more than 20 million Americans practice yoga, and that practitioners spent more than $10 billion a year on yoga classes and products. Most gyms and community centers offer yoga. In both hip and no-so-hip communities you can seek out a studio tailored to your particular preferences, whether that’s hot, rock ’n’ roll, prenatal, or aerial yoga. (My local studio describes the last as a “heartfelt connection to Yoga with the use of aerial hammocks suspended from the ceiling.” I haven’t worked up the courage to try it.) Alternatively, you can download a podcast, pull on your tights, and do some yoga at home. At bookstores, plenty of how-to guides shed light on pranayama breathing and side-crow pose and which chant goes with which of the body’s chakra energy nodes. And next to those shelves are a growing number of books that cast a skeptical eye on the practice, including histories of individual scandals and recent investigations into yoga-related injuries and deaths.
Yoga cynicism is on the rise, and for good reasons. Today’s Yoga Industrial Complex can trigger second thoughts, even among students who have done yoga for years and have experienced multiple benefits from the practice (I count myself in this group). It’s easy to conclude that yoga has been fully commodified and corrupted by western capitalism. But this isn’t the full story. In The Goddess Pose, the journalist Michelle Goldberg argues that yoga was never pure or uncorrupted. It has always been a “hybrid of ancient and contemporary ideas, an East/West fusion.” Long before its discovery by the Bohemians and beatniks of the 1960s or its more recent entry into mainstream American culture in the 1990s, yoga was being reinvented by a dizzying array of teachers and popularizers, Indian and western. Goldberg’s biography of Indra Devi, a Russian-born aristocrat who ended up in Hollywood, where she “taught yoga to stars and leaders,” as her New York Times obituary put it, suggests how complex and surprising the history is.
Goldberg’s biography—the first of Devi in English—provides a fascinating look at a woman who opened studios in Shanghai, Hollywood, Mexico, and Buenos Aires; introduced yoga to the Soviet cosmonauts during the cold war; and taught figures such as Greta Garbo, Yehudi Menuhin, and Panamanian Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera. Devi deeply influenced the yoga many of us practice today, and yet, unlike many other yogis, she doesn’t have much name recognition. Goldberg’s well-written and impressively researched biography begins to correct the record.
The author approaches her subject as a “complicated, audaciously modern, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes maddeningly irresponsible woman, not as a spiritual exemplar.” She draws together materials scattered throughout several different countries—archival documents, old newspapers, government files, and several books penned by Devi herself—to assemble the story of this elusive and peripatetic woman. Because Devi changed her name multiple times, Goldberg divides her biography into four parts, each titled with her subject’s name during that period. In each section, she places Devi in her cultural and historical context, which is no small feat. Born in imperial Russia at the tail end of the century to an aristocratic mother and a Swedish banker, Devi—originally Eugenia Vassilievna—found herself in the middle of many of the next century’s major historical events and befriended an astounding array of individuals from many different countries. This situation presents advantages and challenges to her biographer. When material on Devi isn’t available, Goldberg fills in the picture with information about that particular place and historical moment; sometimes, though, Goldberg must bring in so many different events, social movements, and people that the details threaten to derail the story. That they never quite do is a testament to Goldberg’s skills as a journalist and a storyteller.
When Eugenia was eighteen, the Bolsheviks staged their coup and the country plunged into civil war. Her mother, who was separated from her father, lost everything. As Goldberg observes of Eugenia, “All around her, the country was turning into hell—and she was learning a lesson that would serve her for the rest of her long life: how to survive her world’s collapse by reinventing herself.” After her mother joined a theater troupe, they traveled throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Along with many other White Russian immigrants, they ended up in Berlin in 1923—the year Hitler first tried to overthrow the Weimar Republic. It was a time of chaos and hyperinflation in this “artistically vibrant” city, writes Goldberg, where Eugenia and her mother joined a Russian cabaret and continued to travel. During these years, Eugenia experienced various hardships—hunger, jail, anxiety, and heartbreak—but Goldberg can only imagine how her subject must have felt. The historical record is thin, partly because Eugenia’s lifelong cultivation of “relentlessly positive thinking” and a “buoyant, ingenuous approach to life” led her to downplay misfortunes in her own memoirs and writings.
A trip to Holland to attend a weeklong Theosophical camp (a precursor to contemporary retreats such as Omega or Esalen) fueled Eugenia’s interest in this movement, which had become popular during the last days of the Russian Empire and was attracting many Europeans interested in eastern religions, the supernatural, and the occult. Eugenia later called this camp a “turning point” in her life, an experience that fed her youthful desire to travel to India and would lead her far from traditional marriage and motherhood.
With “her charm and her aristocratic bearing,” Eugenia possessed a knack for forming friendships with powerful and influential elites; personal connections helped her realize what for many would remain pipe dreams. A friendship with a British feminist and Theosophist with ties to India, plus money from her banker-fiancé, enabled her to visit India. She was enchanted. After her trip, she broke off her engagement, sold her belongings, and sailed back, with enough money for only a few months and no concrete plans. After a short career in Indian cinema, acceptance into fashionable Indian society, and marriage to a Bombay-based Czech diplomat, she began to suffer from depression and severe anxiety. Unwittingly, she had traded a carefree existence for convention, and enlightenment for evening soirées.
Eugenia’s next metamorphosis, from society wife into yogini, proves no less fascinating. Here, Goldberg skillfully weaves in the story of yoga’s evolution, showing how Eugenia holds a rightful place in the lineage of this culturally hybrid and endlessly evolving art. From its origins in classical Indian yogic philosophy and the physical yoga developed by medieval Hindu ascetics, modern yoga underwent reinvention during the late nineteenth century. Western ideas about the spiritual value of physical fitness, American transcendentalism (itself shaped by “romantic conceptions of Indian thought”), and the growing Indian nationalist movement all shaped yoga’s evolution. For those who sought independence from their British colonizers, hatha yoga presented an authentically Indian form of physical culture, and several notable figures helped to foster a hatha yoga renaissance in India, including Sri Krishnamacharya, an innovator who drew from Indian philosophy, Nepalese yoga, and the gymnastic tradition of Mysore Palace (as well as, most likely, the Danish) in his development of a dynamic and flowing form of yoga intended for young boys.
After several failed attempts, Eugenia finally persuaded this “brilliant synthesizer” to teach a western woman, and as the months went by, she found herself transformed by the practice and freed from her anxiety attacks. When her husband was transferred to Shanghai, Krishnamacharya charged her with bringing yoga to the rest of the world—providing the seed for her incarnation into Indra Devi, the teacher who began her career instructing expats during the Japanese occupation of China and continued, after World War II and her marriage ended, in Los Angeles.
In the US, Devi started over—without a job, family, or connections. Yet she could not have picked a better place than southern California, ground zero for the emerging New Age culture. Devi opened the first yoga studio in Los Angeles, and her fame began to build. She was invited to teach at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine spa, and she gained a following among Hollywood stars; she soon befriended Gloria Swanson, who penned the forward to Devi’s bestselling 1953 book, Forever Young, Forever Healthy. The yoga in this book and in her classes represents what Devi had learned from her teachers, a moderately challenging mix of exercise and relaxation combined with “elements of New Thought and nature cure and even a light sprinkling of feminism,” as Goldberg describes it. While other yoga teachers share credit for introducing yoga to the US, Goldberg notes that Devi was instrumental in spreading a version of it that was both “resolutely free of religion” and particularly appealing to women, even “respectable bourgeois ladies.” Goldberg observes that this may be one of the “ironies” of hatha yoga in the US: “rich housewives discovered it well before it became the avant-garde enthusiasm of beats and hippies.” (In keeping with this history, in its 2012 survey, Yoga Journal identified 82 percent of practitioners in the US as women.) For Devi and the women who studied with her, yoga wasn’t about self-acceptance but rather self-help.
Goldberg’s insights about gender and class suggest a range of complex reasons for yoga’s prominence today. In keeping with New Age beliefs, yoga links health and salvation: by assuming certain physical poses, one can transform both body and soul (“clearer skin and clearer thoughts,” Goldberg quips). When stress entered the cultural lexicon in the 1950s (as in, “I’m so stressed out”), yoga provided a drug-free alternative to tranquilizers. However, the main goal was adjustment to the status quo—an objective, Goldberg points out, that’s in keeping with contemporary business applications of mindfulness meditation in workplaces. (This all changed during the next decade, when Devi became convinced that the world was in the midst of a “spiritual crisis” in need of yogic religious teachings.)
Goldberg does not shy away from exploring Devi’s internal contradictions. Over the course of her life, Devi developed a detachment that looked, to some, like callousness; after her second husband, Sigfrid Knauer, suffered from a series of strokes, she refused to care for him. “Her freedom was too important to her, her antipathy to quotidian domestic obligations too deep,” explains Goldberg. Contrary to Hindu and Buddhist disciplines, Goldberg notes, Devi hadn’t truly dissolved her ego; instead, she had used “eastern spiritual techniques” to deepen her own form of individualism. Yet Devi’s detachment kept her moving forward, and she remained vital for decades into old age. When she was 85, a rock star invited her to Argentina, and she moved to Buenos Aires, where she founded a yoga school; for years after this, she continued to travel. As global interest in yoga exploded, she became known for her youthful spirit and energy. She died in 2002, at age 102.
Most yoga today is far more physically challenging than what Devi taught; it originates from the teachings and innovations of other yogis. Yet Goldberg argues that Devi’s spirit continues to “animate” modern western yoga: It’s part of the same “cultural matrix as organic food, holistic spas, and biodynamic beauty products—things that seem to go together so naturally that it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always linked.” Goldberg convincingly suggests that Indra Devi transformed a male discipline into an “uplifting ritual for cosmopolitan, spiritual-but-not-religious women.” While there’s certainly more to be said about this cultural shift, Goldberg makes a strong case for viewing yoga as a flexible and adaptable cultural form that has constantly changed to meet the needs of the current moment. Whose needs it meets, and whose it does not, may be its as-yet unwritten story.
Heather Hewett is associate professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Revealing Ourselves to Ourselves
By Sandra Cisneros
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 400 pp., $28.95 paperback
Reviewed by Miroslava Chavez-Garcia
In A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros chronicles her journey toward building a true home. Honest and unapologetic, this collection of creative works, lectures, and introductions to books allows the reader to peer into the bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and closets where Cisneros has stored her personal treasures and the memories accumulated over a lifetime. Stories, she reminds us, “allow us to reveal ourselves to ourselves” and to others. She is herding these stories—the “stray lambs that have wandered out of sight”—and gathering them “under one roof.” “Where are you, my little loves, and where have you gone? Who wrote these and why?” she asks. “I have a need to know, so that I can understand my life.”
A nationally and internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist and poet, Cisneros is one the most celebrated Latina authors of our time. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, the only girl among seven children, living in close and cramped quarters, Cisneros says she has spent much of her life searching for and crafting a house of her own, literally and figuratively. For her, home-sweet-home is a safe and familiar place for friends and family but also a space where she can write without interruption, preferably with only her typewriter and her dogs for companions. A house, she explains, provides nourishment and refuge to the spirit, and protects the physical and intellectual self; it is a haven for daydreamers, night dreamers, and dreaming. Homes have souls and spirits that should not be trampled. The Mexican adage “Mi casa es su casa,” as she describes so poignantly in her final essay, does not mean help yourself “to more than what is intended.” Rather, it is a generous offer of hospitality, even when you have little to provide. A home is like a story, Cisneros writes, for it is ultimately about becoming and knowing yourself, and about the self and the self-making process.
Cisneros’s experiences as a girl growing up in her large Mexican American family in a relatively small space figure prominently here. She explains that to finish The House on Mango Street (1984), a coming-of-age story that eventually became her most well-known novel (today, it is assigned in elementary school and college-level classrooms across the country, has been translated into many languages, and has sold more than 6 million copies), she made her way to the nearly deserted yet enchanting island of Hydra, Greece. The simplicity of the “Hydra House,” she explains, gave her clarity of mind, body, and spirit, as well as “infinite pleasure, and this pleasure allowed me to write.” To recognize a space as a home, she writes, you “have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own.”
Cisneros searches not only for home and self but also for a genuine literary voice. In “No Place Like Home” and “The House on Mango Street’s Tenth Birthday,” she chronicles the shame—the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual alienation—she experienced in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For Cisneros, the experience was one of exile: we are displaced, she writes, from our “real homes, from the blood kin we have honored on our pages . . . when we have drifted away from them on that little white raft called the page.” To protect herself, she unleashed her writing. “I needed shelter. Maybe I was never more homeless than during those two years in graduate school,” she reflects. By coming back to ancestors, immediate family, friends, and neighbors—as well as some of the students and teachers she encountered—Cisneros developed characters who represented the collective experiences of young and old, poor and working class, who managed to survive and thrive in their social and cultural contexts. Their stories—“all our stories,” she says—emerge in The House on Mango Street, and form a collage of sorts, depicting the “shame of being poor, of being female, and being not quite good enough.” Through writing, she could “examine where [the shame] had come from and why, so [she] could exchange shame for celebration.” In the process, she discovered a fierce voice.
The fierceness comes through in “I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work,” an essay whose title is inspired by the nineteenth-century painter Mary Cassatt, who declared, “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.” The essay affirms Cisneros’s identity as an independent, single woman, and a creative writer—a vocation that was not easy for her to discover. She struggled to find a place in a Mexican American, working-class culture that emphasizes family, marriage, and motherhood, and devalues female sexuality—as she chronicles in “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess.” “I don’t want be nice/quedar bien . . . I want to be una brava, peleonera, necia, berrinchuda,” she writes, that is, a fierce woman, fighter, stubborn, and ill-tempered. She also had to fight the isolation that comes with writers’ need to “lock ourselves in a room and work.” No fretting, crying, or complaining about the process, she says; just get moving and working. Finish, because “[n]obody’s going to do the work for you.” Creative workers need to find ways to spin “straw into gold,” she explains in the essay of that title—whether that involves making corn tortillas out of masa harina (corn flour) when we have no clue how, or whether we are weaving words into stories. Ultimately, she concludes, writing is “resistance, an act against forgetting, a war against oblivion, against not counting, as women.”
Devoting space not only to the search for self, voice, and home, but also to celebrating the artistic creations, friends, and family members who inspire her writing, Cisneros acknowledges sculptor José Luis Rivera-Barrera, Chicano poet Luis Omar Salinas, novelist Marguerite Duras, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Catalan novelist Mercé Rodoreda, composer Astor Piazzolla, political activist and writer Eduardo Galeano, and queer ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, among others. The friends who refigured her consciousness include Jasna Karaula, whom she met in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and who was later caught up in the war and rape of Bosnian women in the early 1990s, and Mariana Yampolsky, a photographer whose images capture the simplicity and splendor of humble houses in Mexico City. These and other friends’ unconventional artwork inspired her own, allowing her to “redefine beauty on more generous and astonishing terms.” Thus, the essay “Tapicero’s Daughter” is more than an homage to her father, an upholsterer, who led his life with dignity and pride; it also honors her mother’s collections from thrift stores, and garage and liquidation sales, which gave rise to Cisneros’s own interest in cultural artifacts.
The collection offers a range of personal and political insights into death and personal loss, in “An Ofrenda for My Father on Day of the Dead,” “An Ofrenda for My Mother,” and “Resurrections”; overcoming despair, in “Only Daughter”; listening with your heart, in “A White Flower”; the struggle to claim public space and history in “¡Que Vivan Los Colores!” and “Tenemos Layaway, or, How I Became an Art Collector”; and the takeover by foreigners of Mexican communities, in “Epilogue: Mi Casa Es Su Casa.”
A House of My Own is thought provoking, introspective, and engaging, especially relevant for anyone in the middle or muddle of writing or other creative process. By sharing the challenges of writing and idiosyncrasies of successful writers, Cisneros provides relief, humor, and insight into the craft. And though with the exception of a small handful these narratives have been previously published, they have been updated, revised, and polished—revealing the evolution of Cisneros’s writing and thought processes over the years. The pieces are brief—between two and twelve pages; they engage you quickly and invite you to read on.
With this work, Cisneros joins a small yet growing pantheon of distinguished Chicana, Latina, and other writers of color who have one-volume collections of significant work, including the late Tejana, queer, writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa (The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ); Chicana, queer, indigenous activist and scholar Cherríe Moraga (A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness ); Dominican American novelist and poet, Julia Alvarez (The Woman I Kept to Myself  and Something to Declare ); the late African American Pulitzer prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks (Selected Poems ); and the late African American poet and activist Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches ).
The publication of A House of My Own comes at a time when we continually see men and women, children and elderly from across the globe leaving their homes, often forcibly, and searching for safe and stable places they can call their own. Cisneros reminds us that a home, literal or figurative, is a precious space that needs cultivation and protection. It is not fixed in time or space but can be transported in the heart and the mind over vast landscapes and terrains. Ultimately, she has given us new tools for constructing, utilizing, and interpreting “home.”
Miroslava Chávez-García is professor in the Chicana & Chicano Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is the author of States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (2012) and Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (2004). She is currently working on a history of migration, longing, and gender as told through 300 personal letters exchanged among family members in the 1960s across the US-Mexico borderlands.
Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information
By Eva Hemmungs Wirten
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 248 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt
Why not the Age of Curie? Citing polls and other evidence of the persisting fame of Marie Curie throughout the twentieth century to the present day, Eva Hemmungs Wirten responds that Curie, because gender intervenes, is not as easily generalizable as Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a few other men whose names designate an era. Puzzling over that exclusion alongside the very evident fame of a woman whose name inevitably leads polls naming women scientists results in a highly focused account of how the persona of Curie and her intellectual property intertwined—what Wirten terms the cultural construction of Marie Curie. With two Nobel Prizes in hand (in 1903 shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and independently in 1911), Curie was seldom out of public view. How she managed her celebrity, working to balance privacy with the very strategic use of her visibility for particular causes, frames Wirten’s account; she often finds that persisting interest in not only the persona but also her personal life was a distraction difficult to ignore.
In the early twentieth century, intellectual property (whether operating through the legal regulation of patent, trademark, or copyright) was widely discussed, as rules were put in place and later manipulated within and across national boundaries. For scientists educated in the nineteenth century, like the Curies, the academic norm to embrace “science for science’s sake” and to welcome open exchange of information was pervasive—but the principle became less tenable in a competitive environment of publishing priority and corporate secrecy. Thus, at the turn of the century, the academically oriented Curies chose not to patent radium and even readily shared information about its preparation and effects. In Marie’s biography of her husband, Pierre Curie (1923), she takes appropriate credit for the “general scientific movement” in the dissemination and application of their work and emphasizes that the couple refused to draw any profit from the discovery of radium. She wrote, <div class="wrbciteblock">We took no copyright and published without reserve all the results of our research, as well as the exact processes of the preparation of radium. In addition, we gave to those interested whatever information they asked of us.</div>
Academic scientists in the early twentieth century valued such disinterestedness and open intellectual exchange—although, as Wirten points out, according to property law in France at the time, because Marie was a married woman, her property rights would have accrued to Pierre. According to Helena M. Pycior, in her article “Reaping the benefits of collaboration while avoiding its pitfalls: Marie Curie’s Rise to Scientific Prominence,” (in Social Studies of Science ), Curie was astute about demonstrating her independent intellectual achievements and published some results in her own name, even as Pierre’s results on radium were always published with joint authorship. The decision to be open about their work was mutual, and indeed “I” and “we” occur quite interchangeably in Marie’s discussion of lives that were intimately intertwined. Nonetheless, their informal possessiveness with regard to radium would remain evident throughout their careers and become more complicated as an elaborate industry grew up around the discovery and its applications.
One counterpart to the selfless sharing of information about radium was the problem of acquiring that valuable substance for further research. Thus when the journalist Missy Meloney offered to coordinate a US trip in 1921 for Marie, by this time widowed, with the promise of securing from admirers a gram of radium for her research, a new alliance was created. Publicizing the significant and generous openness of the famous physicist, Meloney stressed both the exceptional intellectual achievements of the two-time Nobel Prize winner and the petites curies, mobile x-ray units that had been deployed at the front lines during World War I, with Curie herself involved in training soldiers how to use them. The previously reclusive Curie emerged as a woman of multiple dimensions and intentions, even as she tried to keep her personal life private.
The challenges in an “age of information” proliferated, and in the 1920s Curie engaged closely with two specific, interrelated issues regarding intellectual property. One was providing open access to scientific ideas and data through an international bibliography, and the other was establishing the rights of those who made creative discoveries. In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations sought to disestablish arbitrary and incompatible laws with more universal principles. Curie, along with eleven other scholars and diplomats, including Albert Einstein, was named to the League’s International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation in 1922.
The group identified a number of concerns. Perhaps the most agreed upon, although difficult to implement, was that of the creation of a scientific bibliography that would be consistently maintained, complementing other bibliographical efforts already in place, often on the national level. Updating access to publications throughout the world would minimize duplication and establish individual priority. More challenging was the issue of scientists’ right to benefit from their discoveries. French intellectuals such as the physicist Paul Langevin believed that scientists’ creative work was similar to that of artists in its moral and practical value. The French government had already recognized that artists often did not reap the profits from the resale value of their work, and established the droit de suite—an extended right to benefit from such sales. Recognizing how much corporations, including the radium industry, benefited from scientific discoveries, some scientists sought a similar solution. Members of the international commission, however, had several concerns about how to apply such a right and what it would mean for the field.
In what Wirten presents as a curious reversal of the early decision by the Curies to share their research results relating to radium, Marie Curie advocated more protection of scientific intellectual property. Wirten ponders the question of what motivated Curie’s shifting position, given her longstanding interest in the intellectual commons. Certainly her struggle to gain adequate research support, which led her to the American tour, might have been a factor. French law did more than the British and American systems to protect individual rights, so the precedents Curie knew best may also have contributed to that position. Even in France, however, there was not a uniform stance, and some colleagues did not support Curie’s direct request for support before the Academy of Medicine in 1931. What Wirten calls Curie’s “impossible notion of scientific property” was not achieved in France or by the commission, and thus the outcome remains a kind of enigma in the biography of Curie.
The role of patents changed in the twentieth century, as industrial leaders positioned themselves to take advantage of scientific discovery. Moreover, scientists often patented instruments, if not their discoveries, as had Pierre Curie, providing important income to his wife and daughters after his death. Thus, creating mechanisms to gain financially for personal needs or additional research was an idea scientists themselves put in play. Counterarguments were strong, however, given the longstanding norm of sharing research outcomes evidenced in the publication activities of scientific societies, the cumulative and collaborative nature of much scientific work, and the complexity of how and whom to charge for use of a scientific discovery. Curie’s support for some better acknowledgement of scientific innovation is clear, but how she debated these issues during the meetings of the commission is not recorded.
This book is not a biography. Susan Quinn has already written the most authoritative account to date, Marie Curie: A Life (1995), and there are numerous other essays and books that examine Curie’s life and times. Wirten provides an extensive and useful bibliographical essay as a guide through that literature. What this volume offers is insight into how Curie herself took charge of her intellectual property, including her own persona—both shaping and reflecting a rapidly changing world, in which a new capacity for celebrity raised fresh challenges about the management of information. It is the interweaving of the persona Curie cultivated, together with the conscious role she played on the international stage through her participation in the International Commission, Wirten argues, that established Curie’s prominence in the historical record of twentieth-century science. Those wanting to learn more about Curie’s scientific achievements will need to read one of the longer biographies, but this account offers a fresh perspective on Curie’s strength as an institution builder, a networked collaborator, and a woman quite aware and protective of her own intellectual property. In sum, her intellectual achievements and career contributions together offer a profile that indeed justifies thinking of the early twentieth century as the Age of Curie.
Sally Gregory Kohlstedt is a historian of science at the University of Minnesota. She studies on science as it intersects with various publics in museums, schools, and the media and recently published an edited volume with David Kaiser, Science in the American Century (2013).
The next president should read the current edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves (2011) cover to cover, to learn the realities of life for half the population of the United States. This is the book that more than any other begins to make clear what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” equally for women and men should mean.
Alicia Ostriker is a poet and critic, twice a finalist for the National Book Award, currently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her most recent book of poems is The Old woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014), and her most recent book of critical essays is Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (2000). She is also author of Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1987).
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2015). The United States suffers from a profound historical amnesia that almost always ignores the origins of this country in settler colonialism, which Dunbar-Ortiz defines as “the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” To counter (both personally and collectively) this amnesia, the next president should be conversant with indigenous histories and white settler colonialism’s ongoing impact around the world. Awareness can be the first step to transformation; by thoroughly understanding our own history, perhaps the next president could assist us in avoiding a continued repetition of our previous errors.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (3rd edition, 2015). This multigenre collection is as relevant today as when first published in 1981. With contributions from 29 US women, This Bridge Called My Back offers a variety of firsthand perspectives on racism, sexism, homophobia, interlocking systemic oppressions, and transformation. To address the oppositional politics that plague Washington, and to avoid becoming trapped in them, our next president will need to build bridges and develop complex alliances. The Bridge authors’ visionary alliance-building and sophisticated critiques of social injustice will provide our future president with a concise primer on feminism, as well as useful models for coalition-building.
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh (1999). For more than fifty years, the Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has allowed his deeply held spirituality to guide and infuse his tireless activism and political interventions. Exiled for decades from his homeland because of his peace work during the Vietnam War and despite many other setbacks, he maintains his belief in human beings’ radical inter-relatedness with all existence (which he calls “interbeing”) and uses this belief to work for social change. In this short book Hanh teaches readers how to cultivate mindfulness, even in challenging situations. The future president will benefit from Thich Nhat Hanh’s sage council and nonoppositional approach to individual and collective social change.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987). Given contemporary debates about immigration, racism, and border issues, Anzaldúa’s multigenre book is essential reading for every US elected official, including the president. Anzaldúa uses history, mythography, poetry, autobiography, popular culture, and critical theory to develop an incisive analysis of the borderland region between the United States and Mexico. Her theory of the “new mestiza”; her use of code-switching (shifts between English, Spanish, Nahuatl, and other languages ); and her critique of sexism, homophobia, and other narrow ways of thinking can educate and transform the next leader of our country.
AnaLouise Keating, professor and director of the Doctoral Program in Multicultural Women’s & Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University, is the author, editor, or co-editor of ten books, including Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change (2013); Teaching Transformation: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues (2010); and Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality, by Gloria Anzaldúa (2015). Her work focuses on multicultural teaching and literature; transformational pedagogies; US women-of-colors theories; womanism/feminism; Anzaldúan studies; spiritual activism; and post-oppositional thought.
Because of the absence of attention to Palestine from the vantage point of Palestinians, I have decided to suggest titles that an incoming president is not likely to have read. The titles speak for themselves and offer alternative perspectives to mainstream public discourse on the growing crisis in the Middle East as it relates to Occupied Palestine.
The Question Of Palestine, by Edward W. Said (1992). First published in 1979 and later updated to address more recent issues, Said is one of the most compelling intellectuals of our era.
Palestine Speaks: Narratives Of Life Under Occupation, edited by Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke (2014).
On Palestine, by Ilan Pappe and Noam Chomsky (2015). An informative conversation between two outspoken critics/intellectuals.
Reflections From Palestine: A Journey of Hope, A Memoir, by Samia Nasir Khoury (2014).
Beverly Guy-Sheftall is the founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College, and an adjunct professor at EmoryUniversity’s Institute for Women’s Studies. Her publications include the first anthology on black women’s literature, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, coedited with Roseann P. Bell and Bettye Parker Smith (1980); Daughters of Sorrow: Attitudes Toward Black Women, 1880-1920 (1991); Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought (1995); Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality, co-edited with Rudolph Byrd (2001); Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities, coauthored with Johnnetta Betsch Cole (2003); I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, co-edited with Rudolph P. Bryd and Johnnetta B. Cole (2009); Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies, co-edited with Stanlie James and Frances Smith Foster (2010); and Who Should Be First: Feminists Speak Out on the 2008 Presidential Campaign, co-edited with Johnnetta B. Cole (2010). In 1983 she became founding co-editor of Sage: A Scholarly Journal of Black Women. She is a past president of the National Women’s Studies Association.
Though I read everything from the serious to the silly (both for work and for my Literary Sisters Book Club), subconsciously I ended up with a list that reflects a running theme. I guess I want the new president to look beyond his or her own experience and to develop a deep understanding of the lives of black female citizens.
Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde (1984). I was first introduced to Lorde’s work some years ago by a group of black women readers and educators. During the past few years I find myself quoting often from her body of work, especially her essays, which feel as though she wrote them yesterday.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine (2014). So much of what Rankine writes here resonates with my experiences and with our times of race confusion and race baiting. Here is the work that describes the real meaning of “microaggression” and explains why it matters. I am still working my way through the book, because I have to keep putting it down to manage my emotions.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013).Adichie, an expert story teller, weaves a tale of cultural assimilation from the perspective of an African woman in America. In fact, all of Adichie’s work, including her previous novels, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and Purple Hibiscus (2003), would be worthwhile presidential reading. Adichie has become famous, in addition, for her 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (2015). Alexander’s heartbreaking story of her life after the sudden death of her husband celebrates marriage, family, cross-cultural connection, spirituality, and moving on. Alexander, who read her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at President Obama’s first inauguration, gives us a real history of black love—there are not enough of these.
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (2015). Clifton’s work is witty and wise, earthy and ethereal. She is a true “race woman,” and I’ve found sustenance and support in her words. Our president may, also.
A Shining Thread of Hope: Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson (1998). This is only one of Hine’s many great books about the history of black women in America. Her research that has established the field of black women’s history in America.
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden (2003). Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s ground breaking book examines the particular family and cultural challenges black women face in the corporate workplace.
72 Hour Hold, by Bebe Moore Campbell (2005). Campbell’s novel about mental health challenges in black families helped to break down some of the stigma of mental illness.
Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, by Craig Wilder (2013) In his meticulously researched book, Wilder examines the relationships of some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities with slavery.
Callie Crossley is the host of the weekly public radio program Under the Radar with Callie Crossley and of the public television show Basic Black, and a frequent commentator on local and national television and radio. A former producer for ABC News 20/20, Crossley often lectures at colleges and universities about media literacy, media and politics, and the intersections of race, gender, and media. She has had fellowships from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her awards include the 2015 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists, for a compilation of her weekly commentaries, Observations on Ferguson: America’s Racial Ground Zero; and the 2014 Associated Press, Edward R. Murrow, and Clarion awards for writing, producing, and co-hosting the radio documentary, Witness to History: WGBH’s 1963 Coverage of the March on Washington.
Courtney E. Martin
The Samaritan’s Dilemma by Deborah Stone (2008). Stone explores the philosophical and moral implications of caretaking and provides suggestions for integrating it into public policy.
The Art of the Common Place by Wendell Berry (2002). This is a foundational look at how meaning is found in taking responsibility for what is right in front of us—whether that is a place or a person.
Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker Palmer (2011). Palmer draws a line straight from the personal to the political. He calls for a reimaginging of the public sphere, which would include how we interact in neighborhoods, communities, and cities—in order to change Washington.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine (2014). This deeply affecting, multigenre poem is about the ways racism infects even the smallest of human interactions. I think it would be an important addition to a president’s understanding of structural racism.
Courtney E. Martin is an author, entrepreneur, and weekly columnist for the public radio program On Being. She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun; less debt, status, and stuff). Martin is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. Her books include Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists (2010), and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women (2007). Her work appears frequently in national publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. She has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America and other television.
We are in a period of societal struggle as significant as that for self-determination in the sixties and early seventies. Now, as then, the struggle takes many forms: equal rights, including marriage equality, for the LGBT community; freedom from discrimination and injustice, including police brutality, for African Americans; and equal rights and breaking through glass ceilings, for women. The struggle (always) continues even as we celebrate our victories.
Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America’s First Legal Same-Sex Marriages, photographs by Marilyn Humphries and text by Patricia A. Gozemba and Karen Kahn (2007). This is a chronicle of how the LGBT community fought for and gained marriage equality, with photographs documenting players in one of the most important civil liberties achievements of our time. The book demonstrates how much you can achieve by listening to and forming alliances with grassroots constituencies.
Carrie Mae Weems, by Andrea Kirsch and Susan Fisher Sterling (1993). In her “Kitchen Table Series,” Carrie Mae Weems created a narrative with facing pages of photographs and text. The images are black-and-white, stripped-down photographs of Weems, who is African American, by herself with others at a kitchen table, that most commonplace private and communal space. She pairs these with colorful, streetwise, lyrical prose that traces the progress of a fictional romantic relationship, from start to collapse, along with a woman’s growing self-assurance.
Cindy Sherman, by Eva Respini (2013). Cindy Sherman made a name for herself with her “Untitled Film Series,” in which she photographed herself as an actress in fake publicity stills of fictious foreign, art-house, and noir movies. With each subsequent photographic series of herself, she delves into ever more disturbing terrain, from bleak “centerfolds” through grotesque “fairy tales” to macabre scenes of violence and decay. When everyone in a policy meeting is willing to complacently adopt conventional strategies, particularly those to improve the lives of women, people of color, and those in the LGBT community, remember Sherman’s bravery in continually defying expectation…and go for the bold and daring approach.
Faces and Phases by Zanele Muholi (2010). Zanele Muholi, a black lesbian artist, photographs LGBT people in her native country, South Africa, in an approach she calls “visual activism.” This book’s portraits of strong, even defiant individuals, who live in a country plagued by homophobia, make the case for using artistic activity to move people from sympathy to action. As you establish a public works program, remember the role our artists can play in effecting cultural change.
Ellen Feldman is a fine arts photographer whose portfolios often take off from her interests in street photography and film history. In addition to exhibiting her photos in numerous solo and group shows, she has self-published a photo/comic book of a dancer incorporated into a Fantastic Four comic, The Dancer as the Invisible Girl (2011) and two books of street photographs: Les Mystères de Paris/Paris Mysteries (2010), and A Week in Prague: Wall People/Street People (2012). Feldman is photography editor of Women’s Review of Books. She holds a PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University. Visit her website at www.ellenfeldman.net.
The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson (1948). This story needs to be reread often, because, of course, it’s so perfectly written, but also to remind us that we do many hateful things merely because of stupid, obsolete traditions.
The Kid, by Sapphire (2012). This sequel (of sorts) to Sapphire’s book, Precious (2009), this novel tells the story of Precious’s son, Abdul, and how he is repeatedly failed by people and institutions. It’s a powerful and brutal account of how a person can get chewed up by our society, how victims become victimizers, and the devastating results of injustice.
People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, by Joris Luyendijk (2009). Luyendijk is a Dutch journalist who explains how “truth” is carefully controlled and edited by those with the power to disseminate information—and how they do it inevitably, both consciously and unconsciously. While he specifically describes his experiences as a journalist in the Middle East, his descriptions of how the messenger manipulates the message is universally applicable.
The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss (1961). Seuss writes:
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But humans, like Sneetches, take insignificant things and turn them into gigantic problems.
Jennifer Camper is a cartoonist and graphic artist. Her books include Rude Girls and Dangerous Women (1992) and subGURLZ (1999). She is also the editor of two Juicy Mother comics anthologies. Her work appears in numerous publications and has been exhibited internationally. She edited the Queer Pin-Ups playing cards and is the founding director of the Queers & Comics Conference.
If the Trump juggernaut somehow holds through November 2016, we won’t have to stock the White House with any books because he knows everything. Ayn Rand? He wrote it. Pop-up books? He is one.
If President Obama leaves some of his Marilynne Robinson collection behind, it would be a nice welcoming gift to the incoming president.
I hope she will arrive having already read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nahisi Coates (2014).
For her bedside table I recommend poetry. Had a tough day at the Oval Office? Try a Kay Ryan, June Jordan, or Adrienne Rich nightcap
Kate Clinton is a humorist.
The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress with Heather Boushey and Ann O’Leary (2009).
From Outrage to Courage : Women Taking Action for Health and Justice, by Anne Firth Murray (2009). Murray is the founder of the Global Fund for Women, and here she looks at the health of women around the world as a human rights issue. It is an indicator and correlate to poverty, social inequity, war, violence against women, trafficking, education, housing, and a host of other facets of human rights and social welfare.
Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, by Rachel Lloyd (2011).
Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2008).
Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate—the Essential Guide for Progressives, by George Lakoff (2004).
Katie Grover is the board chair emerita of the Ms. Foundation for Women. She has also served on the advisory board of the Wellesley Center for Women, and on the boards of Re:Gender (formerly the National Council for Research on Women), and Equality Now. She has long worked for social justice for all women and girls.
Understanding not only race relations, but also racial psychology in the United States, will be an absolute must for the next president. Here are three classic books that I’ve found provide different angles on black psychology and politics. Triangulation of the three provides great insight into black thought and the solutions black intellectuals have brought to moving race relations forward in a complicated world:
The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois (1903).
The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon (1963).
Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches, by Audre Lorde (1984).
With a world embroiled in conflict and significant controversies, it will be essential for our next president to know how to maintain inner peace and equipoise. Here are four of my favorite books for staying centered, focused, and calm, even in the midst of storms:
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated by Alistair Shearer (2002).
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön (1997).
Peace Is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh (2005).
Your Invisible Power, by Genevieve Behrend (1921).
Given the generational changes occurring in US society and globally, I think it is important to have a fresh and research-informed perspective on youth. So many current issues—from education and jobs, to mental and physical health, to drug use and the criminal justice system, to family concerns ranging from teen pregnancy to childcare to family leave—hinge on how we think about youth. To this end, I am recommending
The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, by Laurence Steinberg (2014).
In terms of foreign affairs, here are two items I’d like the next president to read and reflect upon. The first is a controversial book that invites us to ask tough questions about foreign aid to developing countries, and the second is a document I’d like the next president to get the United States to ratify!
Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo (2009).
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. Layli Maparyan, PhD, is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.
Li-chun Tricia Lin
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975) and its sequel (of a sort), China Men (1980), by Maxine Hong Kingston. Kingston’s first two books were instant classics and are counted among the finest of American literature. In these two books, Kingston retells—beautifully, hauntingly, and poignantly—an American origin story, with Chinese-Americans, in place—as a the missing piece of the American genealogy.
The Fifth Book of Peace, by Maxine Hong Kingston (2003). This is Kingston’s prayer for world peace. She offers a meditation, an exercise in mindfulness, for all who enter her literary world. In this book, her Chinese-American character Wittman Ah Sing (who first appears in Kingston’s 1989 novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book) reappears. Kingston’s book of peace is a defiant act against war and destruction, and a Chinese American song of “Mitakuye Oyasin” (“All our relations,” in Lakota).
State of Exile, by Cristina Peri Rossi, translated by Marilyn Buck (2008). These powerful poems capture the experience of exile in our nomadic and fragmented world: the constant search for meaning in a foreign land and the power of language to evoke dislocation and a permanent state of loss. Rossi left her native Uruguay in the early 1970s, when a military dictatorship took over the country. From Barcelona, where she makes her home, she evokes what is forever missing: what once was and is no longer possible. This collection is timely, due to the current refugee crisis in Europe.
Language Duel, by Rosario Ferre (2002). Rosario Ferre is one of Puerto Rico’s leading feminist novelists and short story writers. In Language Duel she explores biculturality and what it means to write in two languages, English and Spanish. In our globalizing world, it is important to understand biculturalilty and bilingualism, celebrating both differences and similarities.
Country of Red Azaleas, by Domnica Radulescu (2016). This riveting a novel traces the friendship of two women, one from Bosnia and the other from Serbia. Even as war tears their countries apart, their friendship survives. The novel celebrates courage in times of adversity as well as the power of women’s friendships.
Marjorie Agosin is a poet and human rights activist. Originally from Chile, she is the author of nearly forty books, including poetry, essays, and memoirs. Agosin is the Luela Lamer Slaner Professor of Latin American Studies at Wellesley College.
I spent July through December 2015 in Geelong, Victoria, near Melbourne, Australia, and I confess: living outside the United States during the run-up to a presidential election is a blessed relief. Many of the Australians I spoke with seemed to consider the American campaign an entertaining sideshow akin to Survivor or The Voice. They were surprisingly knowledgeable about US presidential candidates—at least in terms of bad or good hair and the most absurd sound bites. But it’s disturbing that many Americans don’t know much beyond the sound bites, either.
Australians and Americans are culturally kissing cousins. Australian ideals are both egalitarian and “matey” (i.e., macho and white), and while you can find ferocious feminists in progressive pockets like Melbourne, the status of women and indigenous people often elicits eye-rolling. Australia has had a female prime minister (briefly), so Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is not an issue. But women, children, and minorities of all types are disproportionately affected by economic class differences, and just who benefits from “the good life” in Australia (or America) is the big issue.
So, this presidential season, I’ve found myself most worried about the increasing gap between rich and poor around the world—and the cultural gaps in understanding that are festering everywhere. For these reasons, I’ve selected five books for the next US president that highlight such gaps and the lasting damage they do.
Indelible Ink, by Fiona MacGregor (2010). Fiona MacGregor’s big fat social novel documents economic change in one of the world’s most expensive cities, Melbourne, through the eyes of a formerly wealthy wife who loses almost everything in a divorce, and her adult children. The protagonist ends up covering her body with artful tattoos, crossing all sorts of class and cultural boundaries. Why should the next US president read this book? Because novels make you feel what it means to fail in a tough economy.
Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas (2013). Christos Tsiolkas (also author of The Slap ) is a master at portraying economic, ethnic, and racial differences. The protagonist of Barracuda is a young working-class swimmer who dreams of Olympic gold—and even gets a scholarship to a fancy private school. His story exposes the flip side of the Australian (and American) dream: What happens when you aren’t good enough to make the cut?
Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, by Laurie Penny (2014). Laurie Penny says, “Being a good girl gets you nowhere. Asking nicely for change gets you nowhere. Mutiny is necessary. Class mutiny, gender mutiny, sex mutiny, love mutiny. It’s got to be mutiny in our time.” Even if we end up with a female president, she needs to be reminded that feminism is not just about advancing your career—it’s about changing the terms of the patriarchy.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos 2014). American presidential candidates pay lip service to China’s status as a world power, but Osnos’s recent book offers a complex understanding of a nation undergoing rapid economic change.
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin (1955). Racial prejudice remains a raw wound to the American national soul. These essays, although they were written during the American civil rights movement, remain disturbingly relevant. I recommend Notes of a Native Son to all white Aussie politicians as well as to the next US president.
Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talkingwriting.com, a digital literary magazine based in the Boston area. She’s a contributing editor at WRB and teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School.
I struggled with this task of selecting books for the new president, because to desire the position is to desire imperial, colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, and racist power. That said, should someone be elected to the nation’s highest office, I’d like to offer materials that would hopefully help them realize the deep-seated problems with their chosen profession.
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn (1980). If you are going to be the leader of the so-called free world, you need to get down the basics about your country’s violent past. Howard Zinn’s history will help the new president see how the United States government has violated the human rights of the people who reside on Turtle Island (North America) in both the past and present. Perhaps the new president will be moved by people’s continual resistance and willingness to fight in the face of governmental oppression.
The Street, by Ann Petry (1946). Ann Petry’s book is a master-class in the real world impact of capitalism on those most marginalized in our country. This is deep sociological theory disguised as a brilliant novel. Racism, sexism, class, and the impossibility of the American Dream when you are black and poor are all expertly rendered in this tragic but beautifully told story. If the president takes the book to heart, they will surely have to transform the economy, end racism and sexism, all while creating a new plan for city living.
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler (1993). The dystopic future predicted by Octavia Butler is here, now. The threat of collapse is closer than we think. By following Butler’s character Lauren and her ever-growing cult of followers, the new president might start to see how big policy changes affect communities and individuals. The new president would hopefully see the writing on the wall and attempt to shift course by intervening in the corporatization of our lives.
Moya Bailey is a Dean’s Postdoctoral Scholar of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Digital Humanities at Northeastern University. Her work focuses on marginalized groups’ use of digital media to promote social justice, self-affirmation, and health. She is interested in how race, gender, and sexuality are represented in media and medicine. She curates the #transformDH Tumblr initiative in Digital Humanities and is the digital alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network.
Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich (1973). The incoming president might want to listen to the inner lives of US women baby boomers by reading one of Adrienne Rich’s most potent collections. Here, the struggle to articulate the consequences of patriarchy finds a voice—in poems including “From a Survivor,” “Translations,” and “Meditations for a Savage Child.” In the title poem, Rich begins to fashion a language for a new way of being and thinking.
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (1925). With its thematic antipathy to war and war’s devastating consequences for the human psyche, this novel is more important than ever. In it, Virginia Woolf combines an examination of gendered, middle-class London in the post-World War I era with her style-breaking rendering of the inner life. Women’s friendship, the compromises of heteronormative marriage, and a poet’s lush language make this a presidential must-read.
Where do I begin, when the range of candidates on the Republican side includes those who deny science, are willfully ignorant of history, lie, exaggerate, sidle up to preachers who encourage violence against LGBT people, or who are just plain demagogues?
For the Republicans, I recommend simple books with clear, easy-to-understand messages that might upset their neatly ordered apple carts.
The Bible. Its themes include social justice, ethical values, inequality—and how all are flouted. Isn’t it the Bible that portrays a marriage between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman?
Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman (1989). This pioneering classic expands the possibilities of the nuclear family.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (2014). Who knew that the superheroine’s creator was the nephew-in-law of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood? In Sanger’s spirit, kudos to the Boston-Irish taxi driver who said to Gloria Steinem,“If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” And a Wonder Woman chastity bracelet to anyone who still wants to ban abortions.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980). Cartoonist Art Spiegelman shows what it’s like to be crushed by the top dogs and the fat cats. In a just world, this book would put an end to fake analogies to the Holocaust.
For the Democrats, I recommend:
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (2010). It’s critical that our president move away from cold war stereotypes and begin to appreciate the magnitude of the destruction of lives and property in the former Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe. Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens lost their lives in the war in Europe; the Red Army saved the rest of the world from Hitler and an even worse Holocaust. This book aids understanding of the murderous crimes of Stalin and their legacy in Russia and the former Soviet bloc. Yet, if the US could work with Stalin to defeat Hitler, surely we can figure out a way to work with Putin to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Sex, Politics, & Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia, by Valerie Sperling (2014). Valerie Sperling argues that Putin maintains power by appealing to strong masculine stereotypes. Feminism is thus an opposition strategy.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (2010). Our country was built by the free labor of countless slaves, too many of whose descendants are now in prison as the US has, by far, the highest incarceration in the world.
Year One of the Empire A Play of American Politics, War, And Protest Taken From The Historical Record, by Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler (1973). This play shows how US global imperialist policies began with the War on the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century. Teddy Roosevelt plays a critical role in whipping up passions for global expansion. Southern segregationists and Jim Crow demagogues such as Pitchfork Ben Tillman oppose him, to no avail. Abominable atrocities against Native people including water torture, go largely unpunished.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1, 1884-1933, (1992), and Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2, The Defining Years, 1933-1938 (1999), by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Hillary Clinton will make history if she wins, as the first female leader of the most powerful country in the world. Margaret Thatcher hardly offers a positive role model, and Angela Merkel appears to have been weakened. Eleanor Roosevelt is the best model of a US woman close to the centers of power, who knew how to stand up to men in power and maintain the courage of her principles.
Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild is an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and a producer of the documentary film Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge.
By Margo Jefferson
New York: Pantheon, 2015, 248 pp., $25.00, hardcover
By Fran Ross
New York: New Directions, 2015, 230 pp., $14.95, paperback
Reviewed by Marilyn Richardson
Negroland in its heyday, from the 1940s through the 1960s, was an extraordinary place to live. Its families enjoyed privilege, wealth, and opportunity beyond that experienced in other parts of black America: its citizens were doctors; lawyers; academics; scientists; publishers; a few well-placed clergymen (women were not yet ordained); highly successful artists and entertainers; champion athletes, if they had enough money to make up for a lack of education; and a few moguls and tycoons. Together they enjoyed the fruits of their hard work and good fortune. The national motto: “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.”
It was, like most countries, an abstraction: a locus of shared history, complex loyalties, and distinctive rituals and mores; controlled by ruling hierarchies, it was sometimes roiled by internecine tensions. But it was also a physical, geographical reality: latitude and longitude placed it above the equator, part of the continent of North America, with borders often indicated by the red lines on the real estate maps of major American cities. Travel across borders could be subject to restriction and risk. Throughout the twentieth century, all regions of black America stood in stark contrast to, and deeply justified distrust of, white America. Negroland, though, stood apart from both white America and most of black America. It was an archipelago of the looming, white mainland and dependent upon it for survival.
Margo Jefferson was raised in this environment to be “wholly normal and wholly exceptional.” She belonged to a small subset of midcentury African American children who were raised in a rarified hothouse intended to produce blazingly overachieving men and women—vindicating previous generations of black American suffering, humiliation, pain, and rage.
Jefferson declares herself “a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.” She begins her memoir with a brisk flyover of its historic beginnings. She touches on its slave origins and its rich history of personal, communal, and cultural achievement. She moves from a sharp focus on the lives and achievements of specific individuals and families, to the broad vistas of the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the various migrations northward that led to the founding of Negroland. This introductory section is a tour de force of the incisive, eloquent, and elegant writing that shapes this work from its historically informative beginning to its startling conclusion.
Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and journalist. During her decades at the New York Times, she was celebrated for her heart-of-the-matter assessments of the work of the day’s most original and influential artists, entertainers, and intellectual heavy-hitters. That meant locating herself as an attentive ear and reactive voice to the call-and-response of the American cultural zeitgeist, while offering insights and analyses that would move the conversation forward. But as a black woman writing for the United States’ “newspaper of record,” whose culture was she addressing? Whose zeitgeist? Was it her own, although she seldom saw herself reflected in its manifestations? Or, seeing the denizens of Negro America and of Negroland caricatured and stereotyped—either deliberately or inadvertently— did she ask herself if it was better to be ignored than to be humiliated?
Jefferson, the author of a book called On Michael Jackson (2006), was in her professional life a liminal figure, thoroughly conversant with two worlds often at odds with each other. Her stock in trade was the explication of each, although not necessarily one to the other. She was among those who paved the way for the current moment of expanding opportunity and achievement for black women in national media. But it’s clear that those paving stones could become pretty Sisyphean when the work included an element of assault against the barricades. As, for example, in one of a group of dialogues Jefferson posits on race and gender:
-The women of our generation weren’t well trained in the narratives of the male workplace
-We’re learning. I’ve just been in a pissing contest with an associate.
-Did you win?
-I will. Now I know it doesn’t have to be bigger, it just has to piss farther.
Jefferson’s father was a physician, chair of the department of pediatrics at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital. Her mother had studied social work and practiced for a few years, but gave up her career to raise Margo and her older sister, Denise, “to become a full-time wife, mother, and socialite.” The Jeffersons married during World War II and were among the founding families of Chicago’s Negroland, which was both a conglomeration of sometimes shifting neighborhoods and a well-defined social milieu. Those not born to the black elite could marry into Negroland, or vault in over the ramparts by virtue of outstanding achievement, but the distinction between them and hereditary members of this world never disappeared completely.
The Jefferson sisters grew up in a charmed environment with ballet, piano, and violin lessons, private summer camps, family vacation enclaves, a family boat, and a host of organizations that provided a peculiar kind of buffer between their world and the white world beyond. “In Negroland,” Jefferson writes, “we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.” There were young people’s clubs that offered membership only to children from the right sorts of families. There were the men’s clubs, women’s clubs, fraternities, and sororities that echoed their exclusive and expensive all-white counterparts. For the daughters of Negroland, much depended upon manners, background, poise, and proper speech—things one could either be born into or taught. But much also depended on shades of skin color, hair texture, the size and shape of a nose, the tenor of a voice, and other involuntary grounds for cruel or merely capricious exclusion.
For a sensitive, bookish young girl, such a world was both carapace and chrysalis. While there was certainly no shortage of parental love, devotion, care, and sacrifice, the children of Negroland were explicitly handed the burden of being generational point persons for assaults on the institutions of the dominant culture. First the schools, then the professions; they were expected to become pioneers, groundbreakers, ceiling smashers. But at what psychological cost? Once launched into the worlds of higher education and work, there was always the ambush of repeated outrages, great and small. The stories traded back and forth of being taken for an underling—for the waiter at an exclusive dinner, the secretary at the law firm, the orderly at the hospital, never mind the stethoscope around your neck. And these were followed by the delicate exercise of explaining oneself without demeaning the people who held those service jobs—all the while contending with ominous exhortations from a few rungs down the social ladder not to “forget where you came from.” As if.
School was an additional crucible, to which Jefferson gives sharp and probing attention. The one Jefferson and her sister attended (and all right, all right, I, too, for a while, before my family moved East—as if you didn’t suspect as much) was called a Laboratory. Not that it was designed for us—but for high achieving or aspiring black families of that era and in that city, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, nursery through high school, where at least half of the students were the children of university faculty or staff, were the prized enrollment for their children. Founded in the nineteenth century by John Dewey, the schools did not admit their first black students until the 1940s; those of my generation were their newest guinea pigs. And as I read, it was startling and bittersweet to come upon the names of childhood friends, some deceased, some long since out of touch, some few still, or again, in my life. For Jefferson, the Lab Schools were the sites of most of her academic, social, and wider white-world education beyond Negroland. Her path home from school was across the Midway, the huge, blocks-long grassy expanse originally constructed as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, an extension of the White City at its heart. “So we, Lab’s Negroes, would leave the White City of Lab, cross the Midway, and take one or, usually, two buses” to homes in the better Negro neighborhoods, writes Jefferson.
Negroland is a book of raw elements with no chapter headings. It includes segments of various lengths, cinematic narrative jump cuts, dispassionate third-person observation, and urgent first-person testimony—the latter never more so than in the breathtaking section that begins “In Negroland boys learned early how to die.” It was one thing to strive to be a “Good Negro Girl,” following your marching orders of duty, obligation, and discipline. If you found yourself, years later, out in a world with too few external points of reference or aspiration beyond an unwelcoming white society, there were the options of the therapist’s office and the psychopharmacologist’s potions. But what of the sons? Turning away from the approving mirror of family and social circle, they walked into the institutions of a larger society that did not wish them well. And yet, it was the one in which they were conditioned, indeed condemned and trained, to compete—to both emulate and best the enemy. So many young men coming of age in Negroland in those days had to cobble together inner resources of the spirit. After all, hadn’t their fathers done it? But this was not the world of their fathers, and many died trying.
Humor is one among the necessary things that carries us through. All of us, of whatever origin. Margo Jefferson is candid, wry—mocking and self-mocking. Hers is wit that sees both the absurdity and the pathos in a line that she ruefully quotes a few times, from a letter her mother wrote to her father, when they were separated during the war: “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.”
Blackness is not an issue for Christine Clark, a.k.a., Oreo. It is just part of who she is. As is her Jewishness, although less obviously so. Both Jefferson and the fictitious Oreo honor the ancestors, though. Each would recognize the other’s central question “Who are your people?” For Oreo, the answers begin in black Philadelphia, lead her to New York City, and conclude in Theseus’s Minoan labyrinth. Author Fran Ross starts out with a disclaimer as part of Oreo’s epigraph—“Oreo, ce n’est pas moi”—attributed to “FDR.” Fran Deloris Ross, that is. So never mind that the brilliant, hilarious, multilingual, brash, tender, bawdy, and unsentimental voice of Ross’s heroine equals the rare and outrageous voice of Ross herself, a woman hired, after all, to write for Richard Pryor. When his show was canceled, Ross went from Los Angeles back to New York, where she continued to work as a writer and editor. This book is the result. It did not fly off the bookstore shelves when it first came out in 1974. Fortunately, it’s back, for the reading pleasure of those who revel in laugh-out-loud-in-public books with kick-ass heroines and brilliant, abundant plot lines. Sadly, it is unique. Ross died in 1985. But what a legacy! Oreo is a Joycean hero’s journey. A black girl’s manifesto. A family saga that searches down the generations all the way back to Greek myths. Ross is a writing whirlwind. This, from a reverie on a woman determined to become a football player (!): “Imagine what astrodomes of nature and nurture she had to friedan in order to test that artificial turf.” Or this, at the conclusion of a conversation with a man determined to pave over Central Park: “‘Remember, he said as she was leaving, ‘look out for rock outcroppings. Manhattan is full of schist.’”
“And so are you, thought Oreo, misunderstanding him.”
Oreo is raised from a young age by her grandmother Louise, a formidable woman with “a love-tap on her that could paralyze yeast for three days.” Louise speaks in the worst kind of down-home dialect: Christine was actually nicknamed for a bird that had appeared to Louise in a dream—an oriole—although there was some confusion about it between Louise and the neighbors, who heard the name differently. Louise is a remarkable cook. Here’s a selection from the menu for the homecoming dinner she makes for Helen, Oreo’s mother, who is a traveling musician and mathematician:
La Carte du Dîner D’Héléne
CHEESE AND CRACKERS
Music compels Helen’s son as well, Oreo’s brother Moishe. Called Jimmie C, he speaks and sings in a language of his own invention that sounds very much like bebop scat singing. In fact, Oreo is the first (only?) American klezmer novel, a fine literary mashup of raucous jazz and equally raucous Eastern European Jewish celebratory music. Neither tradition is a stranger to songs in a minor key.
Oreo, in preparation for her journey to follow the clues and solve the riddles that will enable her to discover her origins, adopts the ancient motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit”—“No one attacks me with impunity.” She explains, “Ain’t no nigger gon tell me what to do. I’ll give him such a klop in the kishkas.” (This is a book written before the word “nigger” was sanitized into “the n-word.”) She also develops a system of martial arts, the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT, described in some detail and used to excellent effect against a sadistic pimp. The virginal Oreo goes into battle wearing a mezuzah, sandals, a bra—and an invincible secret weapon up something other than her nonexistent sleeve.
Jefferson describes, with admiration verging upon awe, the late Florynce Kennedy, the first black feminist she had ever seen “in public and in action.” With a “whiplash tongue and a cowboy hat….dangling earrings and many necklaces,” Kennedy was a woman who had “planted herself and thrived in every movement that counted: civil rights, antiwar, black power, feminism, gay rights. Her principles never swerved; her tactics never staled,” Jefferson writes. Ross and Jefferson are both after a Flo Kennedy-esque wit that incorporates style, command, and personal freedom: the enduring and empowering wit that is the wellspring of women’s survival is at the beating heart of each of these books.
Both Negroland and Oreo have complex conclusions. Jefferson and the fictitious Oreo prevail. They grow in grace and wisdom. But both Jefferson and Ross are better people, and better writers, than to offer their readers a ready conclusion, or even to suppose there is such a thing. As Jefferson writes, “Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can’t imagine you.” There is no way to write finis to that.
Marilyn Richardson writes about intersections of art and history.
By Terese Svoboda
Tucson, AZ: Schaffner Press, 2016, 627 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Margaret Randall
Terese Svoboda opens her biography of Lola Ridge with a scene reminiscent of the 1989 photograph of the lone protester standing before the oncoming tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Except that it took place more than sixty years earlier, and Ridge—a woman, an immigrant, and a poet—was standing up to a rearing horse. She, along with many throughout the world, was protesting the impending executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—Italian anarchists who were falsely accused of armed robbery and murder. The horse, Svoboda tells us, reared again and again. The woman, “anorexic and Virginia Woolf-ethereal . . . tiny yet always described as tall,” remained motionless.
Poets rarely receive their due. This is true especially if they are woman, and even more if their poetry eschews lyric pleasantry to address the sociopolitical issues of their time. Lola Ridge (1873 – 1941) came into her mature voice in the interwar years, when political passion was suspect. Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980), another female poet with similar concerns, belonged to the generation after Ridge’s and still had difficulty being taken seriously by publishers and critics. Reading this biography, I sensed a connection between Ridge and Rukeyser, although the former’s poetry was less literarily compelling than the latter’s. Still, Ridge is a figure who deserves our attention, and Svoboda’s long overdue and immensely welcome biography does her justice.
In carefully constructed, chronological sections, Svoboda gives us a life, complete with all of its challenges and richness. As a poet myself, and as a reader, I especially appreciate the way Svoboda includes Ridge’s poems in the text, creating a conversation between the details of the life and the work. This is a meticulously documented volume, enriched by extensive notes, a bibliography, and quotations from letters and other archival material.
Place is important in this story. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Ridge spent her formative years traveling among Sydney, Australia; San Francisco; Chicago; New York; Baghdad; Taos; and Mexico City. In many of these places she was central to the vanguard artistic community. Because of Svoboda’s skill, we walk the streets of these places with the poet and gain an understanding of what they looked and felt like when she was there.
Ridge was an anarchist concerned with the larger political picture but concerned as well with intimate life. Well ahead of her time, she supported the rights of women, laborers, blacks, Jews, immigrants, and homosexuals (she identified and was identified as bisexual). She advocated individual liberty as well as social justice. In 1919, she gave a speech in Chicago entitled “Women and the Creative Will,” in which she argued that sexually constructed gender roles hindered female identity development. This was at least a decade before such ideas were popular, even among women’s rights advocates, making her a model for us today as we struggle in a world beset by ever more sophisticated versions of the sexist, racist, heterosexist, and xenophobic threats that face each new generation.
Does the artist have an obligation to witness and record her time? I believe she does. And more than the historian or journalist, the successful artist should express not only the events—the facts and figures—but also the feelings the events evoke. Women writers, precisely because they insist on expressing such feelings, have often been ignored or belittled. Svoboda recreates a Ridge who was “not just a poet of activism . . . but one of the first to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and in particular, women’s lives in New York City.”
When Ridge lived, such concerns were considered no more literary than they are today. “Four years before Eliot’s … ‘The Wasteland,’” Svoboda writes, “[Ridge’s] equally long poem ‘The Ghetto’ celebrated the “otherness” of the Jewish Lower East Side and prophesied the multiethnic world of the twenty-first century.”
Ridge “died at the nadir of leftist politics, just as the US was entering World War II. By then Eliot and Pound had very effectively equated ‘elitism’ with ‘good’ in poetry,” Svoboda explains. She thought that the sixties generation, with its feminism and anarchism, might have resurrected her subject. Not so. And in the 1970s, although feminists rediscovered many politically engaged women poets—Meridel LeSueur comes to mind—Ridge would remain unread and virtually unknown.
Ridge edited and/or contributed to the important journals of her time, including Dial, the New Republic, and Poetry. Like young artists in every era, she confronted an old guard in her field—female as well as male poets and editors—who felt threatened by her inclusivity, groundbreaking range, and versatility. When she explored issues of style, they accused her of ignoring essence; when she was most passionate they demanded a greater attention to poetics. Her meter was awkward, except to the wisest ear.
“Respectable, high-minded persons are given to classifying writers of vers libre with dog stealers, ticket scalpers, wife deserters, and the Bolshevikii,” Ridge wrote in an announcement of one of her readings. In retrospect, it is clear that much of the disdain Ridge confronted was because she was a strong woman, and an unashamed one at that. Men were wary, and male-oriented women followed their lead.
Ridge knew and communicated with the great thinkers and creative spirits of her time. Although some denounced her, many remained close. She was a figure in important movements, from anarchism and socialism in politics to modernism in poetry. Her work was widely published, in both political and literary magazines. Yet, because of extreme dysfunction in her family of origin—she was deeply affected by her step-father’s insanity—she tended to shy away from those she considered flamboyant or “crazy.” For this reason she attacked what she termed “madness passing as art” in the dadaist performances of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had been embraced by the Little Review, the influential literary magazine published by the lesbians Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. One might have expected Ridge, with her own avant-garde inclinations, to warm to such manifestations, but her psyche held contradictions, and it is to Svoboda’s credit that she conveys the poet in all her complexity.
Throughout her life, Ridge grappled with a variety of ills, ranging from an eating disorder and moments of severe economic insecurity, to the threat of political repression during the 1919 – 1920 Palmer raids on leftists and anarchists, and what may have been a nervous breakdown. She weathered them all, though she died at 68 because of ulcerated teeth and a body devastated by physical and emotional pain. Toward the end, shunned by many she loved but cared for by a loving husband, she retreated into the fierce solitude of her writing. She wrote,
My thought is now a strong current rushing against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, sometimes making a clear path through these, more often held up, but fighting to penetrate, to blaze its way—never evading or going around, or leaving that obstruction for the one who comes after to tunnel through.
Surely, many women artists today will identify with these words.
The independence and astuteness of Ridge’s mind can be seen in her dismissal of Stalinist aesthetics as well as capitalist excess. She wrote:
I think of those awful paintings at the Soviet building in the [New York] World’s Fair—the mindless grimace of assumed joy on the faces of the people depicted . . . this tawdry decoration of a smile stamped upon the faces of a people—the Smile, not only officially approved but officially imposed.
At the same time, she described Wendell Wilkie, then the Republican candidate for president running against Franklin Roosevelt, as
an intelligent businessman, a shrewd advocate of capitalism . . . he implies a society of good capitalists—no more believable than a plague of good locusts—who out of their self-imposed self-control should devour only selected crops—leaving a residue for the grateful croppers.
In her rejection of all political extremes, Ridge was way ahead of her time. She was never limited, in either her life or her work, by what was acceptable or popular at the time.
Her second book, Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920), got rave reviews. Dial called it “acidly translated truth.” The Nation said, with “Freud rather than Plato . . . read back into the infant mind,” it had an “honesty so quick as to be diabolical.” Ridge was able to sustain the long poem better than many, and her title poem, “Sun-Up,” reads, in part:
The girl with the black eyes holds you tight, and you run . . . and run . . .
past the wild, wild towers . . .
and trees in the gardens tugging at their feet
and frightened dolls
shut up in the shops
crying . . . and crying . . . because no one stops . . .
you spin like a penny thrown out in the street.
Then a man clutches her by the hair . . .
He always clutches her by the hair . . .
His eyes stick out like spears.
You see her pulled-back face
and her black, black eyes
lit up by the glare . . .
Read today, these lines are a profound evocation of the abused female child, precursor to the abused woman, the woman still struggling to throw off millennia of patriarchal control.
Ridge wrote as meaningfully about woman abuse as she did about other, less intimate, social ills—but she always wrote from her lived experience. Svoboda brings her to us whole and with a still-beating heart. We should be immensely grateful for this excellent biography of a poet too long forgotten.
Margaret Randall’s most recent nonfiction book is Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression (2015). Her latest poetry collection is She Becomes Time (2016).
By Jacqueline Rose
New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, 339 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
Sometime in the mid-1980s, in the era of nuclear nightmares at the height of Reagan’s reign, I visited the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont—an old barn filled with puppets, props, and posters from the radical theater company’s decades of performances. There I first encountered Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish creator of Life? or Theatre?, a remarkable work of autobiographical art comprising hundreds of gouaches filled with images, texts, and songs. Salomon made the paintings in a frenzy of traumatized creativity between 1941 and 1943 in the south of France, where she had fled the Nazis to live with her grandparents. There she discovered a hidden history of family suicides, including her mother, aunt, and eventually, with Salomon in the next room, her grandmother.
Salomon died in Auschwitz after the Germans took France, yet Life? or Theatre? is much more than a Holocaust narrative, entwining the personal horror of a family story and the sociopolitical horror of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. At the Bread and Puppet Museum, I saw a series of paintings of Salomon’s paintings used in Margo Lee Sherman’s art and performance piece, Life and Death of Charlotte Salomon. Even in such mediated form, Salomon’s work stunned me from depression into hope with its insistence that beauty and insight can emerge from the most dire circumstances; that to speak one’s truth is not always enough, but is always something; and that wherever it leads, the struggle matters.
Salomon is one of the key figures in Jacqueline Rose’s new book Women in Dark Times, a passionate, powerful, and occasionally problematic manifesto for a feminism centered on a new articulation of what has become an old saw, “the personal is political.” Women in Dark Times is modeled after Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times (1968), a collection of essays on thinkers (both men and women) who grappled with the spoken and unspoken horrors of the first part of the twentieth century. Rose, in turn, presents six thinkers and artists, along with a collection of victims of honor killing and activists against it, as women “whose rage against the iniquities of the world meshes with their own darkest hours,” and who thus serve as exemplars for her vision of the radical possibilities of women’s speech in addressing our own dark times.
That speech, she argues, in a plethora of psychoanalytically telling images, gives access to the “gutter,” “landscape of the night,” “inner, private dimensions,” and “very dark places,” what is “beneath the surface,” “subterranean,” “at the very core of the world”—that is, to the individual and cultural unconscious. These depths must be exposed because of their imbrication in “the cruelty and injustice with which [the world] tends to go about organizing itself.” Her women in dark times, she claims, reveal—and understand—how the personal, intimate, and private are always connected to the political and public, exposing the insufficiency and violence of our public politics. They must be incorporated into a new public politics if we are ever to truly overcome—or even hope to overcome—the depredations of the modern world.
The so far unstoppable reach of those depredations—perpetrated by capitalism, war, racism and prejudice, violence against women and the environment—points, Rose suggests, to the limits of the enlightenment modalities of reason and law that thus far have been used to address them. She argues that therefore women, as feminists, must delve into the roots of those depredations, which lie in the passionate and unreasonable realms of the self, the family, and the structure of consciousness itself. They must not only embrace those roots but incorporate them into a politics that, rather than suppressing the “stubborn unruliness” and “messy uncertainty” that fundamentally characterizes humanity, will encompass those wild complexities, rejecting certainty and embracing unpredictability.
If this argument sounds abstract and theoretical, well, it is and it isn’t. Rose is one of the pre-eminent voices of British feminist and psychoanalytic thought, and her argument is based on a deconstructive understanding of how oppositions always contain each other, whether she is talking about the construction of masculinity around fighting off the threat of the feminine or the idea of honor, which always already contains its own undoing. So she is not arguing, in oppositional terms, that women are the victims of a battle that men are winning (she is assertively antivictimhood), nor that women can use their dark depths to topple the bright light of male supremacy (overdetermined imagery intended). Rather, she contends that the thinking of the women she discusses upends such distinctions and instead reveals how feeling, thought, and the domestic are integral to politics, whether politics is trying—and failing—to manage them (as in the case of rape and discrimination) or simply failing to substantively address them (as in the case of prejudice and war). But as these parenthetical examples suggest, Rose is not just engaged in an academic exercise: she is acutely attuned to and concerned with the actual violence faced by women and immigrants (she never mentions race in the American sense) and the terrors wreaked by nationalism and totalitarianism; her goal is to find another way—though she never explores the practical implications of basing a politics on unpredictability, an observation that is both boring and necessary to make.
Rose lays out her argument in a cogent preface and introduction, then further (and further—by the end, she sounds like an enthusiastic museum docent eagerly showing us yet another painting that proves her point) explicates that argument in a series of portraits of women who exemplify it. The first three chapters take on the socialist Rosa Luxemburg, Salomon, and Marilyn Monroe—all of whom, she claims, spoke the unspeakable of their personal lives and political moments (fear, incest, revolution, the plight of workers) and thus traced and challenged the effects of war, patriarchy, totalitarianism, and capitalism in twentieth-century Europe and, in the case of Monroe, the United States. The fourth chapter discusses victims of honor killing and the women family members and activists who give them voice, literally and politically. The last three chapters describe the work of the contemporary artists Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana, and Thérèse Oulton, whose sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, and paintings make room for the dispossessed—immigrants, Jews, women, the earth itself—to speak, while simultaneously asserting the power of liminal spaces and positions, thus instantiating the radical possibilities of women’s art.
The most intellectually engaging chapters are the ones about Rosa Luxemburg and honor killing. Luxemburg is Rose’s primary exemplar. As a woman, Polish Jew, emigrant, intellectual, and revolutionary, she was an outsider everywhere, which grounded both her rigorous analysis of capital and politics and her deep commitment to freedom of thought and feeling. Luxemburg’s socialism was based on radical democracy and the belief that individual consciousness and process mattered more than the party, regardless of the uncertainty to which they might lead. Hence her opposition to Lenin’s shift toward totalitarianism and, likely, her murder by a rightwing militia during the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin. Luxemburg, Rose convincingly claims, was “a genuine revolutionary” “who lived in every fibre of her being…the link between the mechanics of freedom and the unknowable processes of the heart.” Of course, there is the awkward fact of the early death she shares with Salomon (murdered at Auschwitz) and Monroe (whether suicide or murder, undoubtedly killed by society’s pressures), but of that Rose has little to say. What matters is what she stands for, not what became of her.
Women who die early are also at the center of Rose’s incisive dissection of honor crimes. On the one hand, she argues that by pinning honor crimes on immigrant communities, the European body politic absolves itself of its own complicity in violence against women. On the other, she questions the multicultural paradigm that allows immigrant communities to police themselves, with the result that women in danger are too often not helped and men who kill too often supported. While this is in some ways the most politically urgent chapter of the book, Rose also interrogates the very nature of honor, which exists on the fault lines between private/public (shame is the private made public through rumor and gossip); woman/man (the woman holds the family’s honor, which the man must but never can fully avenge); and personal/historical (the current prevalence of honor killings in Europe is inextricably tied to the pressures of migration on traditional communities). Her discussion ends up uncomfortably, if necessarily, between the rock of violence against women and the hard place of discrimination against immigrants, but in this case, at least, the material value of women speaking out about what is happening in their communities is indisputable.
Throughout the chapter on honor killings, Rose is scrupulous in giving credit and voice, through stories and quotations, to the immigrant women who are fighting honor killings. Strikingly, though, aside from a Toni Morrison quotation, they may be the only women of color in Women in Dark Times. If Rose has written a compelling brief for the power of women’s voices, the ongoing relevance of feminism, and the fundamental value of complexity and uncertainty, her vision of women and feminism is strangely monolithic (no feminisms here). Defining feminism as a way of seeing and speaking, she does not explain why women are the privileged subjects of this seeing and speaking until the book’s very last pages, when her psychoanalytic account of the primacy of sexual difference as the engine of male violence against women is too little, too late.
The last forty years of intersectional feminist, antiracist, and queer activism and thinking have more than established that gender is far from the only or even the dominant position of otherness, even for women. It must be asked, then, why Rose confines the power of seeing and speech to women. What about people of color, queer and transgender people, Jews? What about David Wojnarowicz, Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, and Essex Hemphill, to name just a few from the era when I discovered Charlotte Salomon? Surely this is a question Rose should at least address, even if she wants to stick with women. And surely, too, she does not mean to say that only white European and American women can enact her feminism; yet putting forward six such women puts forth a powerful message.
If she proffered a definition of women, or even a justification for locating her vision in women and feminism, this problem might not be so glaring. Instead, she states that “The fact that they are women is key,” but does not go on to explain why—or rather, she goes on to explain the experiences of suffering and agency her women share, but does not locate those experiences specifically in gender (one of several important terms missing from her index, and indeed rarely present in her text). Thérèse Oulton, the last woman artist through whom Rose explores her vision, questions such gendering: “Oulton is not sure whether the new aesthetic she seeks should be defined in gender terms: ‘It doesn’t necessarily belong to the male or female.’” Rose does not comment. I am writing after Beyoncé released her incendiary video “Formation,” in which a black woman speaks truth to the power of the American state, meticulously kaleidoscoping police lines and majorette lines, plantations and churches, Bill Gates and Red Lobster, wig stores and afros, in a simultaneous paean to black women’s lives and power and retort to the forces that work against them. On the one hand, “Formation” can be seen as yet another exemplar of Rose’s argument about the political power of women’s creative voices; on the other, it speaks loudly to complexities of identity and intersectionality that she never fully acknowledges.
Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor in Boston. A former professor of English and Women's Studies, she is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary(2011).
By Gloria Anzaldúa, edited by AnaLouise Keating
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 271 pp., $25.95, paperback.
Reviewed by Romana Radlwimmer
“When I am writing at night, I’m aware of la luna, Coyolxauhqui, hovering over my house. I envision her muerta y decapitada, ... una cabeza con párpados cerrados…. But then her eyes open y la miro dar luz a los lugares oscuros.” I have been reading these opening lines of Gloria Anzaldúa’s recent book Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro over and over, imagining the fragmented Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who rose up into the night sky to became the moon—her lunar knowledge touching Anzaldúa, shimmering through her, reflecting back to the many worlds we inhabit, reaching me, reaching us, years later, years ago, the same moon, conocimiento lunar. If I had been able to ask her about her vision of the moon, she’d probably answer that we are “all strands of energy connected to each other in the web of existence.” Now, more than a decade after Anzaldúa’s death, her dissertation project, Light in the Dark, continues and synthesizes the life’s work of the acclaimed Chicana theorist and writer.
Ever since the 1980s, Gloria Anzaldúa contributed significantly to international debates on borders, textuality, spirituality, sexuality, activism, knowledge, and the links among them. Her most prominent ideas, such as La Frontera, Mestiza consciousness, in-between-worlds—her notions of fluid, hybrid, decolonizing identities and their challenges and potentials in a patriarchal world shaped by the consequences of colonialism and imperialism—rested on and referred to, the South Texas borderlands where she was raised. “My body is sexed,… is raced,” she wrote. “I can’t … e-race my body.”
She demonstrated that Chicana forms of knowledge are useful frames of reference for understanding the experiences of marginalized, silenced—subaltern—groups in the United States and throughout the Americas. She expanded the epistemologies of the global South to a worldwide scale, going beyond western feminist cultures and writing by interweaving fiction and theory, and bringing Spanish and Nahuatl words into her English-language writing. Light in the Dark adds to her previous writings on embodied knowledge, self-expression, and existence in all kinds of (physical, spiritual, metaphoric) borderlands. Anzaldúa builds bridges among heterogeneous, contradictory realities, employing what she calls her autohistoria-teorías: personal theoretical approaches to living and writing. She prefers these to the academic illusions of scientific objectivity and distance; through them, the Chicana theorist can comprehend the philosophic nuances and epistemological significance of everyday experiences.
Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera (1987) was a shifting point for Latina thought. As a feminist intervention, it challenged the patriarchal, nationalist undertones of the Chicano movement and destabilized outdated categories, while avoiding the traps of binary thinking and postmodernist evasion—yet did not undermine the movement’s achievements. Soon, Borderlands was cited as the central reference for discussions of the border. “[I]t didn’t matter which database” researchers “went through, the result was always the same: Gloria Anzaldúa,” writes María Socorro Tabuenca-Córdoba (in “Twenty Years of Borderlands: A Reading from the Border,” Güeras y Prietas: Celebrating 20 years of Borderlands / La Frontera ).
Nearly thirty years after the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúan thought remains inspirational. The daily doses of mass-media normality, which paint complex power structures in simple black and white, have created an ongoing need for “new ways of knowing,” Anzaldúa wrote, capable of dismantling destructive “prevailing modes.”
The essay, “Let us be the healing of the wound,” the first of Light in the Dark’s six chapters, sets the tone for book. Reflecting on the world-changing impact of the 9/11 attacks and their political aftermath, she examines how to deal constructively with the traumatic occasion, especially as “each violent image [is] repeated a thousand times on TV.” She proposes a shift from violence and revenge to harmony and healing, explaining that “[i]n estos tiempos of loss, fear, and confusion the human race must delve into its cenotes (wells) of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern” in order to achieve a “collective consciousness” with “the power to counterbalance the negativity of the rest of humanity.” She suggests that the lessons we learn from such conflicts, arising out of “multiple and conflictive worldviews,” can help us to cure current and future wounds. These lessons are, first, to acknowledge that we cannot control if and when such terrible events happen, but that, second, it truly matters how we react individually and in our communities to them. Anzaldúa sees our artwork and our imagination as possible “attempt[s] to achieve resolution and balance where there may be none in real life.” She writes: “Let’s begin by admitting that as a nation we’re killing the dream of this country (a true democracy) by making war,” and asks us to “stop giving energy to only one side of our instinctual nature, to negative consciousness.” Opting for compassionate interaction instead of fury is part of what Anzaldúa calls conocimiento, knowledge, and it bears the spiritual imprint that suffuses her whole philosophy.
With healing as a primary goal, Anzaldúa looks to the ancient narrative of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, who is killed and dismembered by her mother’s warrior-son. He throws her head into the sky, where it becomes the moon, and her mother can see it and take comfort. Anzaldúa is “aware of la luna,” aware of Coyolxauhqui, aware of the fragmented, colonized feminine body and soul—and of women’s power. “Like Coyolxauhqui, let’s put our dismembered psyches … together in new constructions,” she writes, and through this “interweaving of all minds and hearts and life forces” create and live “the collective dream of the world.”
Coyolxauhqui is an image for the artistic, epistemological, and transformative processes that Anzaldúa discusses throughout the rest of the book. In “Putting Coyolxauhqui Together,” she contemplates the writing process. From the moment of the first “vague longing for form” when “the potential story calls,” the interactions among the writer, her writing practice, and the text lead her through exhausting landscapes of experiences, excavations, and emotions: “Just a couple of more drafts and you’ll be done, but you’re feeling a lot of resistance. Why do you always run into a stone wall when bringing the work to its final completion”? she asks herself. She proposes a literary philosophy in which literature is conceived not as an object that we read and study but rather as a living being with its own will and its own body (made of words). This metaphoric, personified understanding of literature pictures a relationship between author and text that breaks down hierarchies. It is not only the author who makes decisions on how a text evolves; the words themselves also have the power to lead the writer through a creative journey.
Anzaldúa’s final chapter, “now let us shift,” is a masterpiece of feminist decolonial epistemology. Anzaldúa shows the difficulties that can arise in processes of knowing, and theorizes seven stages of how to overcome them:
1. El arrebato, a rupture in one’s worldview
2. Nepantla, being torn between ways
3. The Coatlicue state, not wanting to know about new understandings
4. The call, acceptance of the new worldview
5. Putting Coyolxauhqui together, the creation of new personal and collective stories
6. The clash of realities, a negotiation between the new worldview within old realities
7. Spiritual activism
The concepts of “spiritual activism” and “nepantla,” which are so important in Anzaldúa’s work, are significantly expanded in Light in the Dark compared to former versions. Spiritual activism means to shift from old to new realties by uniting activism and spirituality, integrating contemplation, awareness, and empathy into the daily routines of professional and academic work. Spiritual activism enables us to fight for a cause yet to let go of anger and maintain compassion. It is enacted by nepantleras, people who occupy borderline spaces, who create bridges between diverse kinds of knowledge, and who encourage others to perceive the webs of connections between everybody and everything. Moving from the intricate Tex-Mex-rootedness of Borderlands to the more spiritual, historical-mythical, liminal negotiation zone of Light in the Darkness, Anzaldúa continues her examination of in-between spaces. Her concept of nepantla enables multiple thematic and stylistic lines to intersect, defining possible spaces of cultural transformation.
The process continues; each end is a hopeful beginning. Light in the Dark, which is, for now, Anzaldúa’s “final completion,” leaves us “dreaming” of “another story.” And in fact, Anzaldúa’s archives, at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Austin in Texas, promise more unpublished beauty, which will shape the future of Anzaldúan thought.
Light in the Dark should really be considered a critical edition, since it includes extensive appendices with alternative versions, correspondence, and other documents. In a preface, editor AnaLouise
Keating explains how she organized the archival material and details the reasoning behind her many decisions. Keating explains that her role as a friend, writing comadre, and editing colleague of Anzaldúa’s motivates her work, and that their relationship gave her a “solid understanding” of Anzaldúa’s “personal aesthetics—the emphasis she placed on how a piece sounds and feels.” These descriptions do not claim an interchangeability of editor and author, but are loyal to Anzaldúa’s principles: the embodied personal perspective, the spiritual component of intuitive knowledge, and collective arranging and writing processes. “To be in conocimiento with another person or group is to share knowledge, pool resources …, seek input from communities,” writes Anzaldúa.
Newly published, posthumous texts implicitly pose questions of before and after and what if and who with. Some of them remain open, creating constructive tensions. Keating says, for example, that some of the papers she found in the archive, such as a table of contents, were “finalized.” However, as her archives prove, Anzaldúa constantly re-elaborated her notions, journeying through numerous textual designs. Who is to decide whether or not newer versions would have followed? Anzaldúa’s original dissertation papers remain closed to scholars; as long as this is the case, her textual legacy will persist under the mysterious aura of posthumous knowledge politics (and concurrent polemics of security measures and / or power positions). Until then, this long-awaited book stands powerfully for itself, “guiding me home.” Anzaldúa’s poetic words of lunar knowledge are a must read; their “light is my medicine.”
Romana Radlwimmer has a PhD in Latin American Literatures from the University of Vienna. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Departamento de Estudos Românicos of the Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal, and currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Latina/o Studies Programo of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
By Patricia Melzer
New York: NYU Press, 2015, 352 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heineman
From the moment the Red Army Faction (RAF) burst onto the West German scene, women have been its face. Images of such violent female radicals as Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin filled tabloids and wanted posters during RAF’s heyday. Women were overrepresented in such iconic artistic representations as Gerhard Richter’s 18 Oktober 1977. Critics of radical chic feminized the notion with the (admittedly clever) label “Prada Meinhof”—a play on the alternative appellation for RAF’s first generation: the Baader-Meinhof Gang. (Andreas Baader, together with Meinhof and Ensslin, led the group until their capture, convictions, and prison suicides in the mid-to-late 1970s.) All this, despite the fact that women probably made up only about one-third of West Germany’s far left, according to Charity Scribner’s After the Red Army Faction. What did leftist terrorism mean for the women who committed themselves to its secretive and violent world, and what can we learn from the representation of gender in portrayals of the RAF and West Germany’s other far left groups?
It is always difficult to tease apart representations from the subjective experience and meaning-making of those represented. The problem is exacerbated in the case of those who lived underground and thus left few traces other than their actions—until they were caught, at which time their communications were sharply surveilled by prison apparatus. Among the projects of Patricia Melzer, an assistant professor of German and Women’s Studies at Temple University, is to recapture far left women’s own perspectives on their actions. Employing both a close reading of radicals’ correspondence and journals as well as interviews of movement veterans, she explores their understanding of feminism, motherhood, and armed political violence with great sensitivity. Media accounts typically dispatched RAF women’s rejection of motherhood, for example, with reference either to their purported unnaturalness or to their supposed unambivalent adoption of RAF’s ideology of immersion in underground life. Closely analyzing the cases of Ensslin and Meinhof, Melzer instead discovers the women’s genuine struggles over the question of how to reconcile their revolutionary politics and their roles as mothers—not just in the abstract, but in their own highly charged relationships to their children, those children’s fathers, and their extended families. Rather than understanding motherhood and armed action as paradigmatic opposites, which would suggest that the adoption of the second requires the rejection of the first, Ensslin in particular articulated the notion that “the form women’s oppression takes [especially in their maternal roles] should logically lead to armed resistance.”
The yellow press of the day—and a fair number of more “serious” commentators—saw women’s prominence among radical left terrorists as evidence of “excess feminism.” Yet women of the RAF and other radical left groups denounced feminism as a bourgeois concern, and major feminist outlets such as the monthly magazine Emma denounced terrorism as contrary to the feminist values of pacifism and maternalism. Complementing her insistence on a more nuanced discussion of far left women’s understanding of women’s oppression, Melzer also calls into question the notion of a West German feminism unified in denouncing violence. Rather, she discovers contrary strands within feminism, which were subdued by the wave of terror.
Prior to the rise of RAF and other violent far left groups, West German feminist radicals had discussed the uses of political violence. Yet terrorist actions—and the media’s fascination with “emancipated” women’s role in them—made it politically necessary for feminists to distance themselves from RAF, and many feminists who might have engaged in debates about political violence were horrified by what it meant in praxis. The feminist field thus narrowed. The feminist response to evidence of women’s capacity for political violence was, ironically, to develop a feminist theoretical framework rigidly linking violence to maleness and masculinity. The dominance of maternalist, pacifist feminism in 1980s West Germany was in part a legacy of far left terrorism in the 1970s.
What about the triangular relationship among Far Left terrorism, feminism, and liberalism? RAF created a genuine crisis for the West German liberal project, as the state responded with illiberal measures regarding both the rights of prisoners and the rights of political expression and association in civil society. How does feminist analysis help us to understand RAF’s challenge to liberalism?
Melzer posits that prison hunger strikes constituted a feminized politics without a feminist subject (since the revolutionaries disavowed feminism). Hunger strikes, according to Melzer, challenged liberalism’s premise of the rational (disembodied) subject, since liberalism, at least in its origins, had prioritize the rational propertied white male over those who were presumably driven by their bodies, such as women, people of color, and colonized subjects. Hunger strikers’ turn to self-starvation to achieve political ends, and prison officials’ performance of politics through the rape-like process of forced feeding, made the body the locus of politics. Furthermore, rather than perform individual self-abnegation (as in religious fasting), political hunger strikes subverted the liberal subject in a second way: they subordinated the individual to the collective identity (they starved for the larger political project) and elicited a response in which the state treated them as a collective threat.
Charity Scribner’s insights into RAF, feminism, and liberalism are broader. Scribner, an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center and Lafayette Community College, City University of New York, draws on the Frankfurt School’s observation that in rejecting theory in favor of action, the RAF collapsed the political and the aesthetic. The results were not only offensively uninformed, for example, in the RAF’S conflation of its struggle with those of national liberation movements, such as those in Vietnam and Palestine, and the rebellion of African Americans in the burning cities of the US. They were also irresponsible and deadly. Having declined to grapple with “the question of how and when a revolutionary subject could be identified and defined,” the RAF “wagered their lives and those of their victims before developing a viable social alternative” to the state’s monopoly on violence, explains Scribner. It was this “blind demand [for] the priority of action over theoretical elaboration,” and not just anti-Semitic actions, that aligned the RAF with fascism.
What would it mean to reject this collapse of the political and the aesthetic? Scribner finds clues in artistic responses to the RAF, ranging from literature to visual art to film and dance. Some of this work reiterated the media-driven tendency to prioritize narrative over critique (for example, in curatorial decisions at the Berlin Kunst-Werke’s 2005 exhibit on the RAF). Some was downright problematic, presenting Germans collectively as feminized and sexualized victims of the RAF (in novels by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Friedrich Christian Delius). But the more successful work allowed for precisely the kind of contingency, uncertainty, and multiple points of view that the RAF rejected, and these qualities, according to Scribner, are key elements of a “postmilitant” stance that seeks to disentangle the possibility of radical political change from terrorism.
Feminist analysis is a key to Scribner’s understanding of such aesthetic products. Delius’s novel (translated as Windowseat at Mogadishu ), for example, emerged at precisely the moment the trope of Germans as feminized and sexualized victims of the Red Army in 1945 was gaining currency. These mutually reinforcing discourses revealed yet another subterranean link between fascism and RAF terrorism: Germans’ desire to believe themselves to have been victims of both. In a fascinating chapter, Scribner contrasts the “shattered” body of Ulrike Meinhof, in Johann Kresnik’s eponymous dance piece, and the fate of Meinhof’s literally disembodied brain to—of all things—the vulnerable yet healed body resulting from the radical-turned-cabinet minister Joschka Fischer’s fitness program.
Yet feminism here is not simply an analytical tool. For Scribner as for Melzer, it is a historical phenomenon in dialogue with far left politics. Second-wave feminism’s critique of the public/private divide applied equally to RAF and to liberalism, both of which denied the relevance of the private sphere to politics. In bringing to light the fallacy of the public/private split, feminism offered (and continues to offer) a paradigm-shifting critique of liberalism that does not have as its logical outcome the nihilism of terrorism, but rather that opens the door to a productive reworking of the Enlightenment project. Scribner locates this possibility not only in political practice but also in such aesthetic artifacts as the films Marianne and Juliane (1981), by Margarethe von Trotta, and The Edge of Heaven (2007), by Fatih Akın, which transgress the public/private divide to critique RAF terrorism and suggest a postmilitant but not postpolitical subject.
The legacy of the RAF has hardly faded into history, and scholars who write about it confront difficult questions about their own positioning. Melzer, who interviewed movement veterans and plunged deeply into their writings about such personally painful matters as their separation from their children, emerges as more sympathetic to the RAF women than does Scribner. Does this matter for the authors’ evaluation of RAF’s actions? Perhaps it is Scribner’s relative distance from RAF that sensitizes her to artworks that tally and name the RAF dead while leaving their victims uncounted and anonymous. Scribner appears to accept the notion that RAF support for the Palestinian national project was necessarily anti-Semitic; Melzer challenges the conflation of anti-Semitism and a pro-Palestinian position. But then, Scribner also notes the attempted bombing of Berlin’s Jewish Community Center in 1969—an act far harder to describe as anti-imperialist, and one which Melzer does not mention.
Both authors acknowledge the difficulty of writing about far left terrorism in an age of renewed worry about terrorism, although in very different contexts. Both offer incisive feminist readings of a past that is far from past. Taken together, Death in the Shape of a Young Girl and After the Red Army Faction signal a necessary rereading of feminism, liberalism, and radical violence.
Elizabeth Heineman is professor of History and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is author, most recently, of Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (2011) and the memoir Ghostbelly (2014), and editor of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (2011).