Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
By Sally Mann
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 481 pp., $32.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Trish Crapo
Photographer Sally Mann may be best known for the images she created of her children between 1985 and 1991. For the photos in her show Immediate Family, which opened at Houk Friedman Gallery in New York in the spring of 1992, Mann used her three children as models. But hers were not romantic depictions of childhood. Mann photographed her daughter Jessie, her face swollen with hives from insect bites; her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, his expression a dark glower; her daughter Virginia nude, hands on her hips, another little girl in a white dress in soft focus behind her.
The photographs caused a stir. That the children appeared nude was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only thing the critics found unnerving. These kids were not smiling. They didn’t seem innocent or particularly tender. In one photo, all three children, naked from the waist up, look at the camera with level gazes that one critic read as “mean.” In a nutshell, these were not kids in the way people felt comfortable thinking about kids.
Critics accused Mann of exposing her children to pedophiles or of taking advantage of them. In a New York Times article entitled, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” (September 27, 1992), Richard B. Woodward asked, “Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if—especially if—the artist is their parent?”
The controversy spurred by these photos is the primary way I had known of Mann before reading her new book, Hold Still.
Here, Mann relates that she began as a writer, filling stacks of diaries and notebooks from early childhood until her early twenties, when photography took over as her means of expression. Her father gave her his “travel-scarred Leica” in January of 1969, when she was seventeen, and Mann developed her first roll of film while at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, that spring. Like many photographers, she describes as life-changing the experience of holding those first negatives up to the light, and she began to throw herself earnestly into what she describes as her “True Calling(s), writing and photography.”
Going to boarding school in the North removed Mann from her home in Lexington, Virginia, and the separation kindled what would become a life-long love affair with the southern landscape. Over the years, Mann, born Sally Munger in 1951, took many photographs at the farm along the Maury River where she had spent time as a child, and that she and her husband, Larry Mann, later bought from her family.
The pull of place, memory, and the sense of rootedness in the region’s history are currents that Mann returned to again and again in her work. Often working with large-format cameras and older techniques such as the wet plate collodion process, in which the photographer exposes the image directly onto glass plates, she created black-and-white photographs that ended up seeming both haunting and direct. It was as if staring at something through her camera produced not clarity, in the sense of unveiling her subject, but rather a deeper sensation of its mystery.
In Hold Still, Mann presents small reproductions of many of her photographs, along with thoughts about her creative process and stories of how they were made. And though the book is already a hefty $32.00 in hardback, I longed for a larger format to do justice to these photographs, as well as to the old letters, childhood drawings, snapshots, and other memorabilia that Mann includes as she recounts the history of her parents’ families.
In her writing, as in her photography, Mann is unafraid to expose her own vulnerabilities. In addition to presenting the finished versions of some of the images that were exhibited in Immediate Family, Mann provides unusual insight into her process by including some of the “duds” and “losers” that she made along the way. One example is a photograph taken in 1987 of her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, the flow of the water smoothed to a dark gloss by a slow shutter speed. Tracing her progress toward the final image, Mann shows seven attempts and points out what’s wrong with them: a mask and snorkel calling too much attention to themselves; Emmett standing too far out of the water; an out-of-focus light meter strap falling into the foreground; a strip of reflected clouds that she doesn’t like; and various exposure problems or compositional awkwardness.
In the final photo, the boy seems to have been captured midstride, stepping forward into the current. His fingers are splayed, his hands resting lightly but confidently on the water’s surface. His chin is tilted slightly down, his mouth set in a firm line, and his eyes cut up at the camera with a ferocity that Mann admits may have resulted from having been submitted to repeated takes in a cold river in October, over the course of seven or eight days. Mann insists that her children participated in the photographs of their own accord. She writes,
Mann attributes the misinterpretation of the motives behind her project to a profound divergence between southern and mainstream culture. To illustrate, she recounts the story of a “leather-elbowed, goatee-sporting PhD candidate” who once asked Mississippi writer Eudora Welty about a marble cake that appeared in one of her short stories. How had she come up with that “powerful symbol of the marble cake, with the feminine and masculine, the yin and the yang, the Freudian and the Jungian all mixed together like that?”
Welty paused, then replied in what I love to imagine as a quiet southern drawl, “Well, you see, it’s a recipe that’s been in my family for some time.”
Late in the book, in a chapter entitled, “The Sublime End,” Mann tells of the photographs she made at the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, popularly called the Body Farm, where human bodies are left to decompose so that scientists may study the stages of decay and the factors that affect it. Sent there on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Mann hauled her cameras and wet plate collodion darkroom to Knoxville and set about photographing bodies in various stages of decay. The photographs are difficult to look at. They are gruesome, even sickening, such as the one that shows “wasps and yellow jackets … drowning in the spreading brown pond of goo beneath what used to be a face.” For the first time in 400 pages, I found the images in the book to be quite large enough!
But I mean “gruesome” and “sickening” as description, not judgment. I admire Mann’s ability to push past her first squeamishness and keep on looking. And I am moved by her compulsion to understand the mystery of death—which haunts me, too. Her photographs answer questions that, when push comes to shove, I don’t seem to really want answered. I turned away from the marbleized patina of dead flesh, bones laid out in skeletal outline on the earth, corpses lying clothed or nude upon the ground as if rolled from the back of a pick-up and abandoned. But though I found the images unsettling, I knew from everything that came before this chapter, that Mann’s close attention to the decaying physical body is not gratuitous. She is chasing a larger truth. She writes,
Whether she is photographing the effects of her husband Larry’s advancing muscular dystrophy on his body, Civil War battlefields, or African American men, Mann is always focused both on the specifics of her subject and on a larger question that resonates beyond it. In a chapter entitled, “Who Wants to Talk About Slavery?” she writes,
I appreciated these moments when I got a glimpse beneath the black cloth Mann drapes over herself and her large format camera, and into her mind. Not all good photographers are also good writers. Mann is both. For example, this description of what it is like for her to “really see”:
Hold Still is a book not just for lovers of photography but for anyone who has struggled to create, or felt a deep love for a landscape—whether it is the one she was born to or one chosen later—or for anyone who has tried to untangle the knots of family lineage in order to understand herself.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer. She has completed two volumes of The Leyden Portrait Project, a series that, through photographs and interviews, documents the lives of residents in her small town of Leyden, Massachusetts. She also covers writers and the visual arts for The Recorder, an award-winning newspaper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She recently completed a book, Dune Shack, a compilation of photographs and written musings about her artist’s residency in a dune shack in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Photographs from Dune Shack were exhibited at Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston from mid-May to mid-August. Trish has been awarded a second residency in the dunes in September.
South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration
By Marcia Chatelain
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 264 pp., $23.95, paperback.
Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans
By LaKisha Michelle Simmons
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 282 pp., $29.95, paperback.
Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are impressive historical examinations of black girlhood during the early twentieth-century period of de jure and de facto racial segregation in the United States. What makes these critical contributions to girls’, migration, and youth studies, as well as to black and women’s studies, is the authors’ twofold claim: one, that black girlhood holds epistemological importance to these fields; and two, that historians can recover and reconstitute the lives of black girls, despite the silences and absences imposed on youth without gender, race, or class privilege.
The two studies share many commonalities in terms of focus, point of departure, and method. South Side Girls explores the experiences of black girl migrants to Chicago between 1910 and 1940. Crescent City Girls centers on the ways black girls in New Orleans came of age during the latter decades of Jim Crow, from 1930 to 1954. Of interest to both investigations are the actual lived experiences of black girls, not just constructions of their girlhood. The authors push against what the historian Darlene Clark Hine termed the “culture of dissemblance” that has long constituted black womanhood—enveloping within layers of silence much of black women’s lives as migrants and clubwomen in the first half of the twentieth century. In order to provide themselves some psychological protection from emotional and physical exploitation at the hands of whites and black men, black women engaged in elaborate forms of masking, guardedness, and impression management. Recent work in the social sciences—such as Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (2003); Kamesha Spates’s What Don’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger: African Americans and Suicide (2014); and my own Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009)—demonstrate the continued relevance of dissemblance. It is the foundation of black women’s demonstration of invulnerability and independence—that is, their strength and respectability—within both the black community and American society at large.
Both authors seek to examine black girls in terms of their subjective experiences of struggle and pleasure. However, if dissemblance defines respectability among generations of black women, if archives are largely indifferent to existence of what Simmons calls “marginalized and sometimes invisible citizens,” and if, as Chatelain writes, “many girls’ footprints are subsumed within the giant steps of adults,” then how is one to access their voices? Doing so requires the utilization and deployment of a “disciplined imagination,” a tool of cultural studies and social history that fosters “new ways of looking at and using sources and scraps that might otherwise be discarded by historians” lacking a focus on black girls and girlhood, explains Simmons. The disciplined imagination constitutes not only a guide for searching for black girls but a challenge to represent them as full human beings. By locating girls’ voices in their responses to social science interviewers, educational and religious institutions that inadvertently recorded their existence, their short stories and essays about romance, and photographs taken of their leisure in safe spaces, both authors refuse to present the black girls of their investigations as flat or simply reactive historical figures.
Migration from the South to Chicago was an intentional effort to give black girls access to the privileged space of childhood. Black families hoped that daughters would “escape domestic service, feel safe at work, and for the first time enjoy being a child,” writes Chatelain. Black northbound girls encountered a childhood constructed through protective work legislation, compulsory education laws, and new choices in consumer and religious “markets.”
Despite relative improvements in their material status, black girls often struggled against powerful constructions of their girlhood. Reviewing the institutional records of the first African American orphanage in Chicago and the black nationalist Moorish Science Temple of America, a precursor to the Nation of Islam, Chatelain reveals how maternalist, racial-uplift rhetoric sharply circumscribed black girls’ experiences of childhood. By insisting that they accept “their eventual roles” as dutiful wives and mothers, the claims of racial respectability denied the existence and independent needs of black girls as children and indeed “accorded with the prevailing notion that black girls were not necessarily children,” Chatelain writes.
Despite the predominance of maternalist rhetoric, however, black girls and women, often working together, did challenge its premises. Chatelain captures a particularly poignant example in the vocational philanthropy undertaken by the black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). During the 1920s, members of AKA—who were often educated at area majority white institutions—made “scientific” rather than simply moralistic arguments about social progress. They utilized their outreach to urban black girls to introduce them to “such esoteric fields as ‘bacteriology, creative writing and forestry,’” declaring that “all girls had the potential to use professions [rather than motherhood] to uplift the race.” Although advocating young urban girls’ pursuit of these careers might have been idealistic in already deeply segmented, racialized, and gendered employment markets, these professional ambitions significantly refuted the prevailing discourse of racial uplift that permitted black women’s efforts as long as they did not threaten the larger racial project of “restorative patriarchy,” in Chatelain’s words, operating in communities and households.
In their embrace of girlhood as a space of possibility and freedom, black women community leaders mobilized to make the leisure activity of camping accessible to black girls. Established in the early twentieth century as “an unquestionable pleasure of childhood,” camp culture was originally founded to foster the racial superiority and fitness of white children, Chatelain explains. However, with regard to the Girl Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the YWCA Girls Reserves, “black women leaders adapted their instructions and ideas to make them relevant and accessible to black girls,” she says. By financially supporting the operation of camps and pressuring integrated settlement houses to honor their commitments to inclusivity, these black women insisted that black girls be provided with access to recreational activities, contact with nature, and exposure to the “rehabilitative impact” of the outdoors.
Like the politics of respectability, however, the politics of play required good and bad race representatives. Virtuous girls involved in outdoor activity and public events were counterposed against those who were excluded from this image of the “representative girl citizen: teenage mothers, juvenile delinquents, and poor girls.” Summarizes Chatelain, “When civic-minded girls arrived at children’s hospitals to distribute toys during the holidays, wore carefully stitched badges on their uniform sashes, or posed for pictures for the [African American newspaper] Defender, they symbolized the best of African American parents and communities.” In such venues, black girls demonstrated to both white and black audiences that “they too embodied the highest of American ideals and values.”
After exploring both problematic and supportive constructions of black girlhood within the black community, Chatelain exhibits a particularly deft reading for the girls’ voices. She utilizes a disciplined imagination to reread the interview transcripts with girls and their families that led to the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in Chicago (1932), which argued for the existence of a regressive black matriarchy among migrants, which threatened the patriarchal rights of black men and boys. Moving past the narrative of pathological black femininity, Chatelain interprets the girls’ openings, hesitations, themes, and allusions to argue that their early sexual activity was often the consequence of “naiveté, curiosity, loneliness, and ignorance.” She reveals their lack of knowledge about sex, the peer pressure they experienced to engage in sex, and their revelations of “coercive sex and sexual abuse,” often within their homes. Thus, what Frazier viewed as parents’ inability to control their daughters, Chatelain reads as evidence of adults’ failure to protect them from harm. She concludes that these girls were not bad citizens or negative examples of the race but rather victims of the “gender dynamics, social barriers, and inequalities” that fell especially harshly on the poor.
Simmons calls Crescent City Girls a “cohort biography.” Because it covers a more recent period than South Side Girls, it has an immediacy, much of which emerges through the life-history interviews with New Orleans women that supplement Simmons’s archival evidence. Focused on “the gendered violence of segregation,” she conceptualizes black girlhood within the “double bind of white supremacy and respectability.” The brutality of the first combined with the learned constraints of the second “were the two lenses through which girls came to understand themselves and their place in the world,” writes Simmons. With her explicit attention to sexualized violation and its impact on the psyches of black girls, Simmons reminds us of a point that Ida B. Wells made forcefully in her antilynching treatise, Southern Horrors (1892): black girls were key, yet often overlooked, witnesses to southern violence. Because a major aspect of their subjectivity was constituted through “unwanted sexual contact,” many came to womanhood by internalizing the “peculiar silences” of Jim Crow, writes Simmons.
The still-underappreciated parallel to the “public spectacle” of black boys’ and men’s experiences of lynching were girls’ and women’s ongoing exposure to “meddling,” their term for a range of unwanted sexual advances. As one oral interviewee recollected, “You got hardened to it,” given its ubiquity and the lack of redress, within the white legal system and the male dominant norms of black culture. Although Simmons places most of her focus on girls’ experiences of white-male sexualized violence, she also attends to the lack of bodily safety black girls experienced within their own neighborhoods and homes. Catcalls, touching, and insults were regular threats and encroachments that they were expected to tolerate and accept in the course of growing up. Attending to the “geographies of exclusion and harassment” that included commercial centers, play areas, and residential streets and their affective impact on girls, Simmons captures many of the “small violences of the spirit” that constituted black girlhood.
Despite the magnitude of exclusion and violation in these girls’ lives, Simmons instructively asserts that “without making an effort to recover pleasure, black girls’ lives are narrated only by the trauma of Jim Crow. To consider black girls as full human beings, we need to understand their pleasures just as much as their pains.” She pushes her disciplined imagination most dramatically and importantly in the service of finding, documenting, and reconstituting what she calls black girls’ “pleasure centers.” In these spaces, typically in protective segregated environments, black girls were able to voice their aspirations, forge friendships, and represent themselves in their own words. Simmons examines three examples of such “critical black respatialization” in the lives of New Orleans girls: popular romance reading and writing cultures, YWCA productions, and black Mardi Gras. Each of these pleasure cultures foregrounded “life behind the masks” where, even temporarily, black girls “fought geographic dispossession …. [and] “oppos[ed] traditional geographies of domination.” As they “constructed[ed] alternative subjectivities around enjoyment, intimacy, and fantasy,” they afforded themselves freedom and asserted dignity in a city literally mapped on making those elusive if not impossible for them.
Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are significant scholarly contributions. Not only do they attend to the role of black girls—both as real persons and imagined figures—in the larger processes of migration and segregation, they also boldly and instructively reject silence and invisibility as the final words on black girls and girlhood. In writing that is accessible and conceptually generative, both books demonstrate not only that black girls existed, but that they mattered—an important challenge to the implicit and ongoing view that girlhood is a whites-only space.
Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant is professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at DePauw University and author of Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Race and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009). Her current research project examines the rise of new womanhood as an alternative femininity and its impact on the visions of key feminist Progressive Era social reformers.
Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms
By Patricia White
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erin Trahan
I’ll confess to an easy rapport with Patricia White, who quips that Netflix has pegged her as a lover of “dark dramas with female leads.” There’s the fact (me too!), and then there’s the politics of including this information in what is also an ambitious and compelling assessment of global women’s cinema. Women’s Cinema, World Cinema would be a worthy nucleus to a course syllabus, or as I took it, an expertly curated film festival with exclusive bonus material.
White’s previous book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), is treasured by lesbian and queer advocates and considered a must read within media studies. She has also collaborated with Timothy Corrigan on foundational texts such as The Film Experience (2014) and edited essays and lectures by the film scholar Teresa de Lauretis in Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory (2007). Just as significant are White’s many decades of on-the-ground advocacy for the distribution and exhibition of women’s cinema.
Because of this, her latest is peppered with the personal (she cites the marquee of her favorite Philadelphia art house to make a point) and grounded in both the practical (how women’s films are made and circulated) and the theoretical (how they are perceived). White has assembled a book that has applicability beyond the academy and could be read, in part or whole, by an array of people working in independent film production and exhibition. Certainly it’s relevant to, if not vitally needed by, feminist cinema-goers in North America.
Nonacademics like me may get lost in some of White’s rhetoric—films’ “enunciation and address” and “accented style” could receive pages of discourse—but her larger effort triumphs: her book expands and shifts how cineastes consider both women’s and world cinema, separately and together. Even more to the point: the films she studies are brilliant. Add them to your queues.
White’s book arrives at a time, she argues, when “women’s cinema as a concept seems to have fallen off the map, even as the field of film studies has taken on the world.” The flourish of support earmarked for women filmmakers by government and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Australia, and Europe in the 1970s has all but disappeared. The great women’s film festivals in North America have folded or morphed beyond recognition.
Even with the fortification of those prior decades, along with the simultaneous expansion of film studies toward what the film scholar Lúcia Nagib calls “a positive definition of world cinema” (in contrast to uses of the term that sanctioned “the American way of looking at the world, according to which Hollywood is the center and all other cinemas the periphery”), White observes that the “political and epistemological motivations of women filmmakers…seem to have been absorbed by market categories.” Consumer labels like “foreign film” or “chick flick,” used wittingly or not on the circuit of North America film exhibition, can unnecessarily abridge film content and limit films’ range of public debate. This process has imprinted, too narrowly, how women’s films from “there” are situated “here.” The dismal, flat-lined statistics of women-made films and their lack of awards across the international board, for example, tell us that troubles remain.
White points out that, like feminism itself, such troubles are neither simple nor singular. Nor is trouble the entire story. Globally, women are making films in greater and greater numbers, and new forms of distribution are opening up more channels of circulation. Likewise, the need for more women media makers has garnered increasing coverage in mainstream North American media, in Oscar speeches, and in social awareness campaigns such as #AskHerMore or #DirectedByWomen. With all of this in mind, White embarks on an ambitious global journey to create a canon of emerging women directors within a few key parameters. She focuses on feature-length, fiction films made in the 2000s—what she also calls “entertainment films”—and she by and large looks at films that have been vetted by esteemed European film festivals and US art house theaters. Still, I’d neither seen nor heard of way too few of these gems.
In her findings, which refreshingly reference not just theorists but also large- and small-scale critics, trade publication interviews, box office sales, and film ephemera such as press kits, posters, and DVD extras, White urges fellow academics (and presumably the rest of us too) to move beyond lenses of our own, monocultural nation states when considering women’s cinema. The category is dear to her (she published an elegiac essay, “The Last Days of Women’s Cinema,” in 2006) and she wants it redeployed. “New critical practices are needed,” she says. Her strategy is to expose the limitations and possibilities of the “terms of visibility” women directors from all nations face today.
For White, those terms include auteurism, cultural authenticity, women’s genres, regional networks, and human rights. She devotes a chapter to each. The terms do not represent White’s ideals; rather she is naming the current points where women’s and world cinema intersect. (To illustrate: imagine an Oscar-nominated foreign language film in which bridesmaids suffer war crimes, and in which the director, who is telling her life story, also stars.) Given that the dim stats about women filmmakers also apply to women film programmers, critics, and jurors who bestow prizes and prestige here, there, and everywhere, it’s worth noting that only one of White’s fields of critique, human rights, has a likelihood of having women in leadership roles and in that way influencing public dialogue.
In keeping with world cinema scholarship, White does not let geography alone dictate the organization of her case studies; she nimbly crosses borders to compare and contrast films based on her own criteria. Thus, the book hops from Australia to Argentina to Iran to India to Lebanon, and moves on to South Korea and China. Filmmakers from continental Africa are missing, as is an accounting for their absence. The few references to African films focus on North Africa; the one comment on sub-Saharan cinema, in the introduction, leaves me curious and wanting more. White writes,
As White is keen to remind readers, women directors set their own terms and, in her case studies, act as “harbingers of new film culture.” That is, women are shifting and innovating the form itself. At least a dozen of the films I watched in preparation for reading the book include images, locations, or storylines that were wholly new to me—and unforgettable. And I watch a lot of movies. (Netflix has me pegged as someone who should read more!)
Indelible are two films by Peruvian-born Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009). Both feature the stunning Magaly Solier as protagonist, in one case as the town virgin for a religious celebration in which sin does not exist, and in the other as an enigmatic young woman who keeps a potato in her vagina to protect herself from sexual violence. In both films the actress’s Andean background is part of the storyline; the films trade on convincing indigenous folklore that Llosa—with Solier as what White reads as “coauthor”—concocts from scratch. With Llosa as part of Peru’s cultural elite and with her family’s involvement in Peruvian politics (an uncle ran for president in 1990), it’s not surprising to learn that critics outside of Peru have failed to fully grasp the class and race debates stirred by the films.
Further complicating matters, in White’s view, Llosa grasps that North American audiences have a propensity for “foreign” films with female characters who overcome unimaginable hardship. Yet her main characters veer off scripts that typically garner sympathy. This transnational self-consciousness “turns the internationally circulating art film’s anticipated display of the signifiers of the exotic national identity and trauma into a performance,” says White. Not only do The Milk of Sorrow’s two women leads become entangled in an exchange of art and commerce (a professional singer promises pearls to Solier, her maid, for songs), but Solier now has an off-screen singing career because of her roles in Llosa’s films. White spells out what happens when a European-identified cultural producer uses indigenous talent for personal gain: “the two women’s power-saturated alliance at the very least indicates a scenario of collaborative female creativity.” She is shading the nuances between The Milk of Sorrow’s leads, but the point, that there’s something generative about women joining forces, is also made for the give and take between Llosa and Solier. White’s discussion of this film is one of few into which she incorporates crew beyond the director or principle actor.
White is at her best, and seems especially comfortable, when closely reading Llosa’s films and those by Argentina-born Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga , The Holy Girl , and vThe Headless Woman ); Korea-born Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat ); and Taiwan-born Zero Chou (Spider Lilies  and Drifting Flowers ). In these sections she factors in the filmmakers’ biographies and their nations’ filmmaking milieus, all the while offering deep analysis of the films themselves. You could take a weekend, binge-watch all the films by one of these filmmakers (if you can find them: I recommend interlibrary loan and a lot of patience), and then sit down and read what White has to say.
Which filmmaker to choose? There is no wrong turn. White unleashes her full arsenal of examination, including a reading of lesbianism that most critics have failed to acknowledge, on Jeong Jae-eun’s foresighted Take Care of My Cat. The discussion occurs as part of White’s chapter on women’s genres, which includes another recommended section on Lebanese-born Nadine Labaki (Caramel  and Where Do We Go Now? ); Labaki’s well-deserved homeland celebrity has curiously not crossed into North America.
Take Care of My Cat is about five female friends who try to stay connected as they transition from school age to adulthood. (Think Sex and the City meets Girls, but with class consciousness and set in South Korea.) White’s analysis disrupts two chick-flick tropes by defending “girlhood as a subjective social position” and “the strength of affective bonds between women, including erotic ones.” Girls and their modes of communication are too often dismissed; yet when this film was made in 2001, girls in South Korea were on the cutting edge of cell phone use and texting. White shows how Jeong celebrates their innovation as well as their “tender yet skeptical perspective” at this unsettled time in their lives. She makes particularly effective use of frame captures (which differ from the still photographs offered in press kits by film distributors). In one, Jeong splits the screen into four panels, showing all five friends talking on their phones; two others show text messages being composed and received as title overlays. “With its mobile style,” White sums up, “the film intimately signifies the effects of globalization on girls, even as its narrative shows how, as girls, they are likely to get stuck.”
This section is important for several reasons: South Korea is a “full service” cinema hotspot; the region has integrated academic and political communities into its film culture—and that goes for feminists, too; and Take Care of My Cat is one of the few films discussed that depicts girl culture. The overall creative environment is a source of hope for women’s cinema, and even better, as White points out, this film “is not an isolated example of feminist feature filmmaking in South Korea.” Still, it was disheartening yet not surprising to learn that despite strong critical reception, Jeong has struggled to earn a living as a filmmaker. It’s as if White anticipated my cautious optimism with a reminder that feminists need to celebrate the small victories while always pushing for the big ones.
Women’s Cinema, World Cinema is a substantial victory in terms of scholarship and the ripple effect it could have on the far-flung communities of people who care about women’s cinema. In my research I found companion books such as Krista Lynes’s Prismatic Media, Transnational Circuits: Feminism in a Globalized Present (2013), but no single volume completely echoes White’s endeavor. Reading it reminded me why I considered pursuing an academic career and then, weighed down by I thought would be too narrow a scope, I ventured in a different (possibly also too-narrow) direction. My work in independent film journalism and exhibition has been held back by the very terms White describes. After several conversations about the films in this book with like-minded colleagues—the people I count on to be familiar with world and women’s cinema—I realize I’m not alone.
Erin Trahan has worked in film exhibition, production, and journalism for more than 10 years. She currently edits The Independent (www.independent-magazine.org) and writes regularly about movies for radio station WBUR in Boston. Before that she worked as a program officer for a private women’s foundation and as a staff member at the Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston.
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).