Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl By Diane Seuss
Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf Press, 2018, 120 pp., $16.00, paperback
Profiled by Laurie Stone
Diane Seuss writes about sex as though she is talking directly to you. “[B]y the time she’s sixteen, every girl knows how to think dirty,” she writes in “It wasn’t a dream, I knew William Burroughs,” a poem in her third collection, Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf, 2015). There is sex in her memories of the red shoes that tipped her balance, a captured toad so scared it peed in her hand, and the dark mound in the center of a brown-eyed Susan that reminds her of “a nipple bitten black.”
Her poems float between Downtown New York and things that get stuck to screen doors in the country. And in every one, there exists a now and a before that are lived simultaneously in sleepless, horny sadness. All the nightgowns she wears are “war-torn.” Even death looks like a bad boyfriend you want never to get over. There is sex, especially, in the scratch and sniff of words. “Thoughts are puppets, dangling from their tangled strings,” she writes in “Free Beer.” Nothing turns this woman on more than arousing language past meaning, then setting it loose to bite your neck.
Four-Legged Girl was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, and Seuss has racked up a number of other awards and residencies. She taught creative writing at Kalamazoo College for thirty years before retiring recently. The poems in her just-out fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, are based on paintings and the lives of visual artists. Really, the book is another lab for experiments with language, rough emotions, and the indeterminacy of feeling like a hick in New York and a hipster in a cornfield. Seuss likes picture frames because they freeze time and because, as with doors, you want out when you are in and in when you are out.
She thinks about what is big in a painting and what is marginal. She thinks about people who aren’t depicted in art and don’t go to museums, like many of the farmers she grew up around in tiny Michigan towns with main drags made of dirt. Each poem is a lens through which we can see the painting as well as the life the poet sees inside it—namely her own life, playing as a kid in a cemetery near her house and wandering boggy trails. If you look carefully enough at frogs and stalky things, they deliver a vocabulary for delirium. In the poem “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” the poet sees seeds in split milkweeds, ready to fly off, and remembers them “once packed in their pods like the wings and the hollow bones / Of a damp bird held too tightly in a green hand.” In “A Wal-Mart Parking Lot,” the paint flings of Jackson Pollock conjure arcs of “frozen Coke splatter.” And in the extraordinary poem, “Still Life with Turkey,” the poet cannot tear her eyes from a dead turkey, strung up “by one pronged foot.”
Each death is all deaths, especially the death of her father, who died when she was seven. He was sick for as long as she knew him, and when, at his funeral, she is asked if she wants to see him in his coffin, she says no, thinking it’s what’s expected of her. In the poem she writes, “Now I can’t get enough of seeing, as if I’m paying / a sort of penance for not seeing then.” A moment later the turkey, with its “raw-looking head,” reminds her of “the first fully naked man” she saw when working as a candy striper. And there they are, all her subjects in 36 lines: sex, death, and comedy, trussed together in a green hand.
I called her to talk about writing and women during the thing that is happening to our country. She was open, funny, and smart. There is a sweetness in her voice. A softness delivers the wit, and it reminded me of something she told an interviewer about her time in New York in the 1970s, when she was hanging out on the edges of cool and living with a guy who turned out to be a heroin addict. She said, “I wasn’t tough…. I wasn’t hard enough for that situation…. A lot of women weren’t. A lot of women got impaled on it.”
In our conversation she said, “I got out of a shitty relationship. Who’s ever in love with somebody who isn’t shitty? I left with my manual typewriter and my dad’s briefcase and escaped.” Back in Michigan she met a man “pretty quickly,” and they had a son who in time also became addicted to heroin. When we spoke, Seuss had just returned from a visit with her son that had gone well. “He’s clean,” she said. She plans to stay in Michigan for the time being, to be close to her mother, whom she adores. Otherwise, she said, “I would go anywhere where they would take me—Canada, Iceland. I love solitude and wouldn’t mind being cold.”
We moved on to talk about how she makes poems, and she said, “I stuff all the parts of an experience into a gunny sack, then I slit open the sack and the language falls out.” I said, “What’s a gunny sack?” I imagined burlap but wanted to be sure. She laughed and said, “A sack you carry potatoes in or kittens you are planning to drown.” She wrote many of the poems in Still Life at the artist colony, Hedgebrook. Nearby was a place called Cape Disappointment, and one day she drove there. She said of it,
I mean, how could I resist? It’s a lighthouse up on rocks, and you had to hike out to it. I just didn’t want to. I thought I was maybe passing up the opportunity to jump, but I climbed into the back seat of the car and took a nap. Afterward I thought about how the outing was like my poems, where nothing much happens on the outside. It had been a long drive, and I had had to piss, and I’d just squatted and pissed, so that had happened. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf, where a shawl falls off a wall, and she decides, “I better write about it for 100 pages.” I was deciding to live pretty much for the sake of language, and I think that has been part of my whole life. Even at my dad’s funeral, I remember someone handed me a rose, and there was an ant crawling on it, and I liked having the words to describe it to myself.
That singularity stamps all her sentences. Every original voice teaches you to hear its sound as much as what it’s saying. At the last conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), Seuss was asked to be on a panel to talk about poetic personas, and when it was her turn to speak, she recalled an incident from her time as a graduate student. The poet Galway Kinnell was a visiting writer, and Seuss’s mentor suggested she read some poems to the star. Seuss was sitting on the floor, by his feet (it was one of those scenes). She read two poems narrated by what she called “monsters,” who spoke in the syntax she had heard growing up. Kinnell had sat with his eyes closed. When she finished, he opened his eyes and wearily asked, “Why don’t you write in your own voice?” At the AWP panel, she said that she, embarrassed and ashamed, had not answered him. To me, she said, “Now, I would have told him, ‘That is my real voice.’”
She continued that thread, “Where I grew up, there was this woman who carried everything she owned in a dress form. Another woman refused to die. Her body was done, but she just wouldn’t stop living. There was a wildness and erotic rawness that people don’t get about the people I’m from. The other day my niece said to me, ‘I danced ‘til my pussy was raw.’”
Back at AWP, there were three other panelists with Seuss, all younger than she, and after she finished speaking, each one told a story about how wonderful and inspirational Kinnell had been to them. It was like the experience with Kinnell was happening again, forty years later, and Seuss told me, “I thought if I don’t speak up now, I’m going to drive off Cape Disappointment. I threw my water bottle on the floor and said, ‘Come on, you guys met Kinnell after his dick fell off. That night he had his eye on somebody else. They all came to the college and fucked students. Sometimes I was the girl. The writing world was extraordinarily dangerous for a young woman. The danger was to her psyche, never mind her body. The feeling was of being erased, and many talented women stopped writing.’” The audience encouraged her to keep going.
Before we rung off, I asked Seuss what she was working on. She said a memoir in sonnets. She stated that she was pretty happy, then laughed, adding, “There is no thought in my head that does not eventually find itself to death, no relationship that is free of death, even with living people, the few that are left.” She told me, “People see poetry as such an emotional process, but I view it, even when I write about difficult things, I see it as an intellectual process, as a problem to be solved. That’s what I love about these sonnets. You have fourteen lines and that’s it. To get all of that stuff in that little sack. It’s teaching me about what you don’t need about life. It’s such a pleasure; even the hard stuff is so sweet.”
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and criticat- large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
An essay by Noelle McManus
In twelfth grade, I was bused off to a local college with the other members of my high school newspaper club. Tour guides ushered us inside a lecture hall, where we were to hear from the communications department head. He sidled into the room emptyhanded and straddled a folding chair. For the next twenty minutes or so, he treated us to an improvised speech about how our generation was ruining the English language.
“You text,” he told us, as if it were a revelation. “You text and text and text and throw grammar out the window. Kids don’t read anymore. They don’t know how to spell.” Slowly, he leaned back, a smug grin playing at his lips, and mentioned, “You know, if my daughters ever use that ‘text speak’ when messaging me, I refuse to respond until they type it correctly.”
“You text,” he told us, as if it were a revelation. “You text and text and text Correctly. What a word to use. I bit the inside of my cheek and continued to listen to this man tell us we were doing ourselves a disservice, refusing to use our brain power—in other words, allowing ourselves to become stupid. His lecture finished, he sent us away with a wave and a self-satisfied smile, clear that he had enlightened us to new avenues of thought. But all I could think of was how steadfastly I disagreed.
“You text,” he told us, as if it were a revelation. “You text and text and text Many people fear that the changes in language fostered by texting will erode modern youth’s capacity to communicate. This concern is not new; in fact, it has existed as long as language has.
Many people fear that the changes in language fostered by texting will erode To understand why such changes are natural, one must understand how our world came to have as many idioms as it does. Each individual language had a complex beginning. Speakers of Vulgar Latin, for instance, were looked down on by the educated scholars of the time, similar to how we young “texters” are viewed by many modern academics. These common speakers, however, did not sacrifice or lose their ability to communicate effectively, nor did their dialect bring about some kind of intellectual dark age. Instead, Vulgar Latin evolved into what we know today as the romance languages: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan, and Romanian—beautiful, flowing tongues of love and poetry placed on lofty pedestals in American society.
This brings up another reality that may upset language primitivists: languages die. Latin is no longer in colloquial use. Neither is Sanskrit, Old English, Ancient Greek, Aramaic, or a slew of others that gave birth to modern languages. These departures are nothing to mourn over. Of course the old languages were wonderful, and so are their legacies. Now, how could any of this be related to today’s “text speak”? Isn’t sending a message like “lmk tm :)” only a corruption of English? An indication of laziness? All it is is a mess of misspellings and grammatical mistakes, right? Wrong.
In reality, text speak has the complexities of a dialect. Its native speakers— young people like myself—are well-versed in its rules. After all, we can scarcely remember life before smart phones and internet; text speak, to us, is something fluid and poignant and right, useful in areas that Mainstream English is not. A reader can easily tell the writer’s tone based on presence or lack of misspellings, excess of punctuation, usage of abbreviations, and other nuances that leave outsiders scratching their heads. For example, there now exists a divide between the formal case “you” and informal case “u.” “I’m ready!!” clearly shows more excitement than “I’m ready” and “I’m ready.” adds a layer of solemnity. Wellknown acronyms like “lol” have almost taken on the role of punctuation to either diffuse any supposed seriousness or show passive-aggressiveness.
This oddly complicated way of writing didn’t appear out of nowhere. It emerged to fulfill a need. Typed sentences on their own can do little to explain one’s emotional state or feeling about a topic, both things that can be gleaned easily from face-to-face communication. Therefore, texting evolved to express as much feeling as necessary using as few letters as possible. Typed emoticons or emojis are not indolent placeholders for people who don’t understand writing; they are replacements for the body language and tone of voice the bare written word lacks. Even paragraph breaks are utilized to simulate the pauses that would normally occur in spoken discussions.
And all that is only the tip of the iceberg. In truth, young people know text speak so well that many of us they have difficulty explaining how, exactly, we understand it. Like a native language, we find it quicker to read and comprehend than formal English. Its so-called “simplification” is merely an evolution.
Another dialect of English that has long been considered non-standard is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), popularly known as ebonics (a portmanteau of “ebony” and “phonics”). Its unique grammar and vocabulary has led some to see it as a lesser form of English. Though AAVE’s origins are not fully known, to me at least, it is generally accepted that it began as a mixture between southern American English and the various languages of creole people forcibly brought here to be slaves. What to some may seem like grammatical errors in AAVE actually follow specific rules. It is an “aspect heavy” linguistic variety, as opposed to mainstream English’s tense heaviness. Aspect is a focus on the progression and whole makeup of an event rather than the time or present of the event. Therefore, the sentence, “She been working,” means, “She had been working for a long period of time.” “She be steady working,” means, “She consistently and intensely works.” Emphasis also plays a critical role in imparting the meaning of a statement. “She been working,” for example, can be transformed to mean “She has been working” if emphasis is moved from been to working. These conventions and many others found in AAVE—including zero copula, which is shown when one says, “She at home,” rather than “She is at home” —have their roots in Caribbean creoles (stable languages that are a mashup of earlier tongues), in which habitual verbs and omission of “to be” are common. Thus, AAVE is the result of a story that mainstream American English cannot tell, the product of centuries of enslavement and the culture and communication that burst through the cracks. Far from a “dumbing down” or regression from proper language, it is the very epitome of innovation and evolution.
Despite this fact, speakers of AAVE still struggle to be respected and taken seriously in academic fields. To this day, disproportionate numbers of African American children are needlessly placed in special education by teachers and staff who don’t understand the dialect’s intricacy or how it conveys thought. Yes, AAVE has a logical structure, but many of us, even among educators, have not been taught that language is flexible—that a person’s dialect reflects much, much more than their intelligence. By contrast, an inability to accept and “read” the versatility of language speaks to a lack of intelligence.
Which brings me back to text speak. Though it isn’t an “ethnolect” like AAVE, it is still associated with a very specific group of people: young people. Its properties, which so many have gone to such great lengths to criticize, have existed in various forms throughout history. Text speak makes use of initializations (recorded in Ancient Greece and Rome), pictograms (most notable in storytelling cave paintings), and logograms (used in Chinese, Japanese, and certain Egyptian hieroglyphs).
I am, of course, biased. After all, my text messages are filled with abbreviations, run-ons, and fragments that would make any language purist feel ill. I can say with certainty, however, that while people love to be angry about language, what they seem to forget is that language adjusts itself to suit the needs of its speakers. It is not a static entity. Rather, as foundational linguist Edward Sapir stated in his 1921 book, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech: “Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.”
I’m 18 years old and about to begin my second year of college majoring in linguistics. I have much to learn. I know I must grow used to the neverending complexities of academia: the need to stay quiet and listen, to respect those who came before you, and to trust in the word of your elders. Even so, I resent being told that the natural branching out of language is something to fear and prevent. I welcome text speak. I welcome AAVE. I welcome the transformation of my language. If, one day, English is a dead language, so be it. It will have been replaced by something the population needs even more.
Noelle McManus is an editorial intern at the Women’s Review of Books and a linguistics major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst actively studying Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and—soon enough—German. In addition to foreign language study, she writes fiction and poetry in an effort to show the beauty of words in all their forms.
Maggie Terry By Sarah Schulman
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 272 pages, $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Nino Testa
Maggie Terry begins the day after the fireworks. On July 5, 2017, the titular antihero starts the first day of the rest of her life—in recovery. Maggie is a queer white woman in her 40s, a former detective with the NYPD who was fired for being drunk on the job. She is starting a dismal new career as a private investigator, the job a life-preserver thrown to her by an old friend. Having detoxed and rehabbed, Maggie is now faced with the neverending banal acts of daily life to be completed without the influence of drugs or alcohol. She lives in a sad, unpainted studio with no blinds on the sole window. (Will she ever buy those blinds? The reader hopes so. The reader understands what this quotidian victory would signify. The reader also hopes that she will buy those tea bags she needs. The reader might even try to remind Maggie as she turns the corner to her sad apartment at day’s end to just pop into a market and buy those tea bags! “Don’t do it for us, Maggie. Do it for yourself!” the reader implores.) She has no towels yet, so she dries herself with dirty laundry. She attempts small talk with an East Village deli owner. (Could she buy those tea bags at this deli? She is already there. Just think about it, Maggie.) But on Maggie’s first day sober after rehab, she has more to worry about than whether to eat the unappetizing apple she has just purchased or when she can sneak off to the nearest AA meeting; she is confronted with a murder.
Sarah Schulman, prolific author that she is, has written mystery novels before. Her iconic After Delores (1988) could be said to have established many of the conventions of the lesbian detective genre. Still, she is best known for her searing social and political critiques, in both fiction and nonfiction, including The Gentrification of the Mind (2013) and last year’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Maggie Terry, which reads as a Schulman “greatest hits,” is short on neither mystery nor politics. We follow Maggie as she tries to discover who murdered Jamie Wagner, a young white actress with a bit part in a big Broadway play. Fans of Schulman’s work will find plenty of Easter eggs in Maggie Terry, which playfully references Schulman’s long career and weaves together several interrelated themes upon which she has mused since her first novel, The Sophie Horowitz Story (1984). One character in Maggie Terry, Steven Brinkley, the tortured writer who is Jamie Wagner ’s former romantic partner (and therefore a key suspect), is author of a novel called The Mere Future, which shares its name with Schulman’s 2009 sprawling dystopian satire. As Maggie peruses Steven’s bookshelves, looking for any clues about his relationship to the dead woman, she finds books by Schulman’s real life buddies Rabih Alameddine and Claudia Rankine. (Could someone with such thoughtful taste in literature really be a murderer?)
Less playful, and more powerful, are the oblique references to Schulman’s non-fiction and the theories of social injustice they have explored. Gentrification, police violence, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, familial homophobia, they are all here—not buried like the clues to Jamie’s murder, waiting to be discovered, but on the surface. These are everyday forms of violence that should mystify and astound us, but that are all too easily accepted as the normal way of things. As we walk through the novel collecting clues with Maggie, we stumble over these normalized forms of violence. We might wonder what makes them less worthy of our attention than the sensational hunt for the killer. Maggie Terry is a murder mystery—it has all the narrative pleasures of red herrings, late night meetings, and cryptic foreshadowings that we would expect of the genre—but Jamie’s murder never quite seems to be the point of the novel.
True to Schulman form, the political world is the point. The novel begins: “Everyone was in a state of confusion because the president was insane.” What to make of this clunky reference to Donald Trump and the many similar references that follow? While my instinct was to cringe at these attempts to incorporate the Orange One (the omniscient narrator’s nickname for Trump) into the story, the persistence of their clunkiness becomes a vital element of the narrative. After all, does anyone know how to have an easy, organic conversation about all that Trump has come to signify? Could such a figure in American history be discussed casually, matter-of-factly, with ease? Schulman’s novel thinks not. Like her 1990 novel People in Trouble, which documents the art and activism of the AIDS epidemic in late-1980s New York, Maggie Terry attempts to document the political crises of our current cultural moment but finds itself referencing headlines that have, in the short span of a year, already faded from public memory under the deluge of Trump news. But, also like People in Trouble, reference to yesterday’s headlines doesn’t make the novel feel outdated; instead it gives the book an eerie, nightmarish feel, a record of the angel of history’s most recent rubble and a reminder that today’s horrors will be tomorrow’s archive.
While the intrigue surrounding Jamie’s murder is framed as the narrative center of the novel, the more compelling mystery, the one that is no mystery at all, revolves around the police shooting death of a young black man named Nelson Ashford. The shooter is Maggie’s partner and friend Eddie Figueroa, and Maggie (via flashbacks) decides, along with Eddie’s father Julio, to investigate the circumstances of this shooting and clear Eddie’s name. Instead of asking why Eddie shot and killed an innocent person (there seems to be no mystery here. The logic of anti-blackness remains unremarkable to the characters, though not to Schulman), Maggie turns an inquisitive gaze to the witness who filmed the shooting: “Why was he there?” she asks herself.
Like any good detective, Maggie wants to find the missing puzzle piece, the fact that will give this whole mess some meaning, some sense of closure. In the “mystery” of Nelson Ashford’s murder, the catharsis that Maggie seeks, the resolution that will answer her questions, clear her partner’s name, and assure her of the white worldview, in which her subjectivity has formed and around which she has organized her life—a worldview that posits the essential fairness of things, the rightness of her convictions, the value of camaraderie over justice— is nowhere to be found. What she doesn’t realize at the time is that her quest has nothing to do with justice, so long as it is centered on the clearing of her friend’s name. While Maggie’s struggle with alcoholism, her wife’s decision to leave her, and the loss of her job are at the center of her emotional life, in the end it is the murder of Nelson Ashford that reveals itself as the emotional crux of the novel; but this is not a mystery to be resolved. Maggie’s quest for resolution marks her persistent and unconscious reliance on her whiteness: Can this just be over? Can we just move on? No matter how desperately Maggie searches for resolution, absolution, to get her life back on track, to fix the broken systems that have decimated her city and, indeed, the entire world, resolution, unsurprisingly, does not present itself as a viable option.
It would be easy to say that Maggie’s struggle with addiction is a metaphor for America’s inability to recognize the hard truths about how we got to this place that feels so much like a cultural rock bottom; but knowing Schulman’s work, the use of marginalized people’s experiences as a metaphor would feel crass, exploitative, and appropriative. Schulman flirts with the possibility of this metaphor early on, saying of Maggie, “[H]er private disintegration mirrored that of her society. And this made her seem even more pathetic and small.” In naming the possibility of addiction as allegory, Schulman summarily dismisses the ease of the comparison the reader might be tempted to trace. So, perhaps, addiction is not a metaphor, but a story with its own apparent truth, that might be instructive to us. For instance, Maggie’s sponsor in AA is Rachel, a dentist and trans woman who seems to have her whole life in order. How? What, Maggie wonders, is the secret to recovery? Maggie tries to soak up Rachel’s aura, hoping to find the key to it all. Rachel has no magic bullet, of course, but offers Maggie the truisms of AA that have come to sustain her, one day at a time. No easy fix here; nor is there an easy fix to the problem of Donald Trump when that other Rachel, Rachel Maddow, makes a brief appearance in the story. Rachel(s) cannot save us. In fact, Rachel (Maggie’s sponsor) reminds us of the long legacy of exploitation that Trump and his family represent in New York. This cannot be waved away with a segment on MSNBC.
The backdrop of Schulman’s novel is evergentrifying New York City, that space of constant loss and perpetual erasure that allows its denizens no time to mourn what was, before the next coffee shop opens: “Whites move in latte first, and the wine shop follows.” There is no mystery here. Nothing with which to grapple. No hidden clues and secret meaning. The overpriced latte speaks for itself. The changing landscape of gentrification makes Maggie’s whiteness more visible to everyone around her: “When she’d first arrived in New York, she’d walk through someone else’s neighborhood with respect and quiet caution. When she worked for the NYPD, she was always in street clothes, but her whiteness laid out a carpet of silence. Now, just a few years later, a white person in Brooklyn was a threat: of eviction, raised rents, irrelevant business, and disappearance.” This commentary gives us the tools to understand the importance of Maggie’s racial identity to the novel’s plot, even as Maggie struggles to make the connections herself.
In the book’s final pages, with the resolution of the novel’s primary mystery tied up in a neat narrative bow, Maggie is free to explore (poignantly, quietly) that which must remain unresolved: the anti-blackness that has normalized Nelson Ashford’s murder. With all of the narrative pleasures promised at the start of a murder mystery made available by novel’s end, there is space for white readers, in particular, to consider the lingering impacts of racialized violence and their role in that violence: What does it mean to show up for anti-racist work, with no resolution or absolution in sight?
As much as white liberals might prefer an easy solution to complex systems of violence (the depths of which, if we are being honest, are being exposed to many white people, myself included, for the first time), Maggie Terry suggests that we not fall victim to the fantasy that all can be made right. With those clunky references to Donald Trump scattered throughout the novel, it is difficult not to consider the parallels between the narrative pleasures of this murder mystery and the narrative pleasures of an afternoon watching CNN, waiting with bated breath for the revelation that will bring down the monster himself: Russia! Collusion! Comey! Impeachment! Would this revelation, pleasurable as it may be, have the power to address the deepseated racism, sexism, and xenophobia that Donald Trump has come to represent, but is in no way responsible for creating?
Beginning, as it does, on July 5, the day after the fireworks, Maggie Terry challenges us to look past the shimmer of mystery and the noise of national media. Schulman’s novel grapples with the relentlessness of Trump headlines and horrors, but warns us not to yearn too deeply for the days of resolution, because anything that resembles a resolution to the tragedies of Trump’s America will not be justice; it will be something more like politics, which is what led us to this nightmare in the first place. It is a lesson we should have learned by now—that racial and gender justice can’t be achieved once and for all with the revelation of a mystery and the punishment of a “bad guy.” Maggie Terry is an important reminder of what this lesson has to do with the compelling pleasures of watching and hoping for the fall of Donald Trump.
Nino Testa is the Associate Director of Women & Gender Studies at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas, and a board member of The Dallas Way: An LGBTQ History Project.
Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture By Tamura Lomax
Durham, NC; Duke University Press, 2018, 288 pp., $25.95, paperback
reviewed by Mariam Williams
In Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, independent academic and Feminist Wire founder Tamura Lomax uses the cultural jezebel trope and the biblical Jezebel character to explore the Black Church’s duality as “wellspring of black religiosity, cultural formation, and liberatory acts” and an institution mirroring “the antiblack, sexist, classist, homophobic, transantagonistic violence in the rest of the world,” particularly in the ways the Black Church and black popular culture produce and engage in discourse about black women and girls and mark them as sexually deviant. The title also plays on The Potters House Church pastor/author/ movie producer Rev. T.D. Jakes’ book, conference series, and movie, Woman Thou Art Loosed!
Lomax witnessed the synchronous relationship between the Black Church and black popular culture growing up as the daughter of a black Baptist preacher. In her prefatory remarks, she shares a vivid memory of the first time her black female body was marked as deviant. Lomax was eleven at the time. After a prominent elder in the church told her father he was distracted by her butt during altar call, Lomax’s parents chastised her for “looking too grown” and banned the dress she had worn that day from her wardrobe. The elder was not disciplined for sexualizing a child’s body.
Lomax’s anecdote is fami l iar; I ’ve heard similar stories from many black women who grew up attending church regularly. A man sexualized their child or adult bodies, and someone, often a woman, told them to cover up. Like them, I was reared in the Black Church, but I don’t remember being marked until adulthood, and not in quite the same way. Once, as I entered the sanctuary before a Mother’s Day service, a deacon extended to me the greeting most women were receiving that day: Happy Mother’s Day. When I told him I didn’t have children, he said, “Well, you will have children one day, so it’s a happy Mother’s Day for future mothers, too.”
I asked him, “You really think every woman is destined to have children?”
Taken aback, he replied, “Well, yes.” I said, “Not every woman wants to be a mom, or can be,” and found my seat in the sanctuary.
I’m sure the deacon considered his comment innocuous, but I heard patriarchy and oppression in it. I heard, “Isn’t carrying and birthing children what God created your body for?”
I was in my late twenties then. In a few years, I would read about the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and learn how middle class black women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries policed themselves and other black women to prove that they, too, were chaste, pious, and capable of running a good home. They wanted to show that they, too, deserved the respect reserved for white ladies and hoped their example of white, middleclass, patriarchal gender standards would demonstrate blacks’ ascension into the civilized world, and possibly lead to some relief from the racialized terrorism African Americans were experiencing throughout the US at the time.
After my reading, I thought of the deacon’s comment again and linked it to respectability. Perhaps he believed my role as a black woman wasn’t simply motherhood, but community uplift through repudiation of centuries of hypersexualized discourse on black women’s bodies.
As Lomax observes in chapter five, the repudiation route to black progress requires the continued promotion of what she calls black feminine-ism,
a mass-mediated atavistic discourse, representation, and belief grounded in natural hierarchy, heteronormative-patriarchy, hypermoralism, sexual dissemblance, wifedom, motherhood, beautification for others, erotophobia, phallic power, and racial loyalty that reproduces, maintains, holds together, and justifies jezebelian ho discourse and theology, the discourse on black ladyhood, the myth of the black matriarchate, and the black “nuclear” project in the name of black normalcy and racial progress.
Black feminine-ism requires black women to embrace their place in a cis heterosexual nuclear black family led by a black patriarch. It also requires black women, the Black Church, and black culture to continue investing in sexual binaries for black women and girls. The black female can be the cultural ho who can’t be turned into a housewife, the biblical Jezebel or the Virgin Mary, a whore or a Proverbs 31 woman—with no room for nuance or complexity.
Lomax’s work in Jezebel Unhinged is to detach black women from these binary interpretations, lessen their impact on black women, understand how and why black women have participated in and invested in them, and what value the discourse has for them. Lomax recalls her college days when she and her friends would defend themselves against street harassers calling them hos but also dance freely to beats under misogynistic lyrics in their dorm rooms. Similarly, Lomax affirms black women who have filled the pockets of preachers and entertainers like Rev. T.D. Jakes and Tyler Perry, two of the chief producers of ho discourse, not as uninformed but as “complex cultural readers … who know how to take what they need and discard the rest.”
Acomplex cultural reader herself, Lomax argues that a black feminist study of religion is needed to complete her mission. Though criticizing a Jakes sermon or a Perry movie—both of which Lomax does in chapters six and seven, splendidly, fairly, and without regard to whose feelings she might hurt—can cause chaos at a black family barbecue, Lomax’s positions on womanist cultural criticism and black feminist thought are potentially much more explosive in the circles in which this book is most likely to be read. In chapter three, she explores the work and limitations of womanist thought in religion for critically reading jezebelian sexual theologies. She applauds womanist scholars for developing a theological framework that begins with the experiences of black women, names oppressions in religion and society, and seeks liberation from those oppressions but argues that their work falls short for black women and girls seeking freedom from ho/lady binaries. Womanist readings, Lomax contends, focus too much on white ideological bias, limit willful and nuanced black participation in heteropatriarchal racist tropes, and leave black women in an inescapable narrative of “suffering, resistance, and survival” that doesn’t take them beyond traumatic and oppressive constructs.
For Lomax, black feminists provide a language and strategy for transcending an oppressive moral order. They make room for readings she calls “ugly” and “messy,” for understanding how “texts that fail to feel like love may still draw black women and girls in and the complex ways they negotiate their relationships within and toward those texts.” Lomax’s main critique of black feminist cultural thought—distinct from womanist thought—is that scholars have neglected the Black Church, despite its prominent ideological and physical role in the lives of black women and girls. Lomax steps in to fill that gap.M
Building on the work of black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins, Hortense Spillers, and Joan Morgan while also taking cues from womanist scholars like Kelly Brown Douglas, Jacqueline Grant, and Emilie Townes, Lomax’s black feminist study of religion “contends the following: It holds that Black religion is a primary text and source of meaning making in black women’s and girls’ lives.” It gives black women and girls agency and acknowledges and welcomes the experiences of homosexual, transgender, and gender non-binary black women. It rejects notions of black women’s bodies as sites of sin and “pushes the gaze toward choice, consent, satisfaction, safety, and the ugly and messy.”
Lomax’s articulations on the work of black religious cultural thought span several pages and provide possibilities for dissertations for decades. I wonder, though, whether a new theoretical framework is necessary. Lomax isn’t the first scholar to critique womanist cultural thought, and it is curious that her bibliography does not include work by Monica Coleman, a religious scholar who, in 2006, acknowledged some of the same limitations in her article, “Must I Be Womanist?” (though her critiques were not specific to jezebel discourse). Coleman also edited the 2013 volume, Ain’t I a Womanist, Too? Third-Wave Womanist Religious Thought, in which established and emerging scholars discuss expanding what it means to center black women’s experiences in theology and religious thought. I question, then, whether Lomax’s reading of jezebelian texts requires a black feminist study of religion or a more in-depth discussion with the current direction of womanist scholarship.
I also wonder how audiences outside of academia will receive her critiques. I could share anecdotes of “black feminist” being a radioactive adjective compared to womanist outside of academia, but that’s not my concern here. According to her preface, the eleven-year-old Tamura needed help making sense of why a church elder sexualized her and why her parents reacted as though it were her fault. She states that her book “is the text I wish my parents or I had when I was growing up.” As an independent black academic, Lomax occupies one of those complex (ugly?) spaces she may depend on black feminism to make sense of. “Academic” demands the robust theoretical discourse presented in chapters three and four. but, “independent” implies a responsibility to eleven-year-old black girls still being misread in Black Church pews. This is not the book for them, or for most of their parents. Jezebel Unhinged is, however, a book for black women who want freedom, even those who might run Lomax out of their church. It’s an ambitious book I would love to see her selling behind a vendor table at T.D. Jakes’ next Woman Thou Art Loosed! Conference in Dallas, October 2018.
Mariam Williams is a writer, arts educator, and public historian based in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in creat ive wri t ing from Rutgers- Camden, is a VONA alum, and writes a column on faith, race, and gender for National Catholic Reporter. Her review of No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America by Darnell L. Moore appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of the Women’s Review of Books.
Severance By Ling Ma
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 304 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
Recently I drove for twenty-five minutes along a path I take every day, multiple times a day, in Los Angeles—the route from my child’s preschool to our house—and as I pulled in the driveway, I realized with terror that I had no memory of having just driven. Either I was a) having a stroke b) experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s or c) a humanoid robot who repeats the same pattern every day (make breakfast, make lunches, drive, laundry, drive, make dinner), the protocol downloaded into my operating system with no need to activate my awareness.
I worry that it’s number three, because I do weird, autonomic things all the time. Once I swallowed my dog’s dermatitis medication after getting distracted for a moment before dosing her, losing the thread, and just taking the pill on autopilot. That led to a hysterical call to poison control. The other day, I was picking a bug off the table at a picnic and, distracted again with bug in hand, I ate it. It reminds me of this food research experiment where some people eat soup from bowls that are secretly refilling, and people just keep eating and eating with no consciousness of feeling full or the fact that they are endlessly slurping soup. It all makes you wonder about how much of our life is automatic.
The idea of mindless habits is a repeating motif in Severance, a gripping, sardonic, and kind of creepy debut by Ling Ma. The novel centers on Candace Chen, a young Chinese-American who moves to New York City after college. Even though she is a typical millennial bolstered by a trust fund after her parents’ death, she decides to take a job in book publishing, as a coordinator for the cheap printing of books in third-world countries. Candace works in the Bibles division, where she packages the same content over and over (and over) for different markets. Despite her more generationally accepted previous non-job as a photo blogger, Candace snuggles comfortably into her corporate cubicle, the mindlessness offering her a respite from the grief of orphanhood. “Once I started, I was good at losing myself.... The morning passed in a blur. I answered emails. I measure spine widths to the exact millimeter.... I don’t remember if I took lunch or not.”
Then a mysterious epidemic hits the city. Shen fever—named for Shenzhen China, where it originates—is an illness that causes the victim to repeat tasks from their daily lives, ad infinitum. They forget to eat or take care of themselves, enslaved to their own habits and routines. People drop like flies, the subway grinds to a halt, but Candace stays at her job, doggedly sticking to her routines in a rapidly deteriorating urban landscape until she is finally forced to leave. Like every good apocalypse story, she joins a cultish group of survivors who are trekking across the country to set up camp in a suburban shopping mall. And also like a typical apocalypse story, the survivors turn out to be more dangerous than the disease.
Even though the fevered aren’t horrifying flesh-eaters, they bear a more than passing resemblance to zombies, with their decaying bodies, dead eyes, and slow, one-track mind. Zombies are a stand-in for what our culture fears most. In past narratives, that’s been black people, atomic war, communism, and genetic engineering run amok. In this book, the zombie-types seem to represent mindlessness itself—our distracted culture, our impersonal lives, our routines. Ma writes about the look of the infected: “[The eyes] were open but unfocused.... The closest approximation for this gaze is when someone is looking at their computer screen, or checking their phone.” Candace comes upon a fevered family where a mother endlessly sets and resets a family dinner table, a husband and son lick their empty plates clean, and the daughter reads A Wrinkle in Time and chews her hair. (If this were to happen to me, I would be endlessly driving around L.A. like a Lyft driver from hell, murmuring “use your words.”) The behavior is reminiscent of Alzheimer’s, a disease to which Candace’s mother succumbed. After her brain became “flea-bitten,” her mother obsessively called Candace to remind her to use the Clinique 3-step skincare regimen: Liquid Facial Soap Mild, Clarifying Lotion 2, and Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion. “What you do every day matters,” she told her daughter, presciently.
Speaking of Clinique, Ma deploys a mindspinning list of name brands in the narrative— Candace buys cashmere at Uniqlo and Cleansing Beauty Oil at Shu Uemura, watches a sad fevered Juicy Couture employee endlessly folding and refolding sweaters, and takes refuge in a L’Occitane store in the mall. The blank-eyed consumerism reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, wherein all characters were so mesmerized by luxury brands that they didn’t notice the killer in their midst.
These zombies are also a stand-in for our guilt about our economic dependence on cheap labor and goods from poor countries. Shen fever originates in factory China and spreads to the world through the shipment of their products, a satirical poke at our cruel system of replaceable and invisible workers. Interestingly, the very first mention of zombies in America was also related to grueling work conditions. In 1929, William Seabrook wrote The Magic Island about Haiti’s voodoo culture. The author was touring the Haitian American Sugar Company, where he was introduced to four “zombies.” He writes, “The supposed zombies continued dumbly at work. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons. The eyes were the worst.… They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind but staring, unfocused, unseeing.” Instead of seeing the workers for who they actually were—slaves employed by American sugar companies, working relentless hours, living in squalor—he saw the undead. Thus, out of slavery and misery a mighty zombie genre was born! In Severance, the factory workers making a special preteen bible with semi-precious gemstones are unable to complete the job because their lungs are filling with rock dust. Once the fever hits, the world economy stops.
This might be a narrative about the tedium of work, but it’s also a loving tribute to work. Candace’s parents fled China so her father could pursue his career goals in America. Ironically, when her mother left home, she lost her fulfilling career as an accountant and found herself an underemployed non-English speaker in Salt Lake City, doing menial labor such as hooking synthetic hair onto wigs for eighty dollars a week. She mourns who she was in China, and poignantly fantasizes with a young Candace about what it would be like if she worked in “personal wealth management” and her child did all the cooking and cleaning. On her death bed, she tells Candace that the most important thing is for her to be “of use.” Candace heeds her mother’s advice and throws herself into performing at her job, even if it’s dull and endless. It takes her mind off things.
Severance is also a love letter to life in the city—its humming energy, the hive mind of its worker bees. Ma writes,
“To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms, to move within the transit layout made for you during the morning and evening rush, winding through the crowds of fellow commuters. To live in the city is to consume its offerings.”
When she first arrives in New York, she takes daily walks from one end of the city to the other, taking photographs for her blog, NY Ghost. She is pretty sure her photos are clichéd, but she enjoys the rigorous routine of having somewhere to go and something to do: “The thing was to just keep walking, just keep going, and by some point, the third or fourth hour, the fifth or sixth, my mind drained until empty.” Candace stays in New York until she is seemingly the only human left, and then she heads to another metropolis, ready to make herself of use again.
“Severance” is an interesting title for this ambivalent book, because it’s an ambivalent word in itself. It can be a needed wake-up call from a dead-end situation, a golden parachute that delivers you to your next adventure. Or it can be a forced cutting off from your previous life that can leave you feeling rootless and pointless. The only time I have ever received “severance” was during my own New York apocalypse after 9/11. The city was inundated with the smell of melted steel and pulverized rock, flapping papers with smiling faces tacked to every building surface and votive candles in front of every firehouse. I was an editor at a trendy online magazine with a bunch of young and talented types. The dot com bubble had burst and the money was draining from the operation. One by one, workers were let go until it finally came to me. I had never been unemployed before, and I immediately felt unhinged. I became obsessed with becoming a cheese-monger and gained ten pounds. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to be walking faster than me on the streets—I couldn’t keep up. I had gotten out of sync with the city, and I didn’t really feel normal again until I got another job several months later, at another magazine. I was of use.
Everyone always harps on the importance of mindfulness these days. I have no fewer than seven guided meditation apps on my phone, and I swear my third grader learns more about meditation than multiplication at his school. But perhaps there are some benefits to mindlessness—the routines, the path more traveled. My kids were at their grandma’s house last week. I got in my car, not sure where to go.
Jessica Baumgardner is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She reviewed The Perfect Nanny and The Perfect Mother in the May/June 2018 issue of the Women’s Review of Books.
Five Attempts An essay by Elena Ruiz
“I am absolutely one of those people who learned, through graduate school, to address a white readership in my writing … The advice that steered me toward the process of revision was coming from life experiences that were not familiar with the thoughts and ideas that arise when you are moving through the world with brown or black skin.”
—from “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” keynote by Aisha Sabatini Sloan at NonfictioNOW, in Reykjavik, Iceland, June 2017
As a first year student at Pratt Institute, an art school in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, I took a journalism class where students wrote for the school paper, The Prattler. Our theme for the first issue was “Fierce and Femme.” In order to share the abundance of fierceness required to succeed as a black woman at an academic institution, I sat down to write this essay, “Five Attempts.”
Thinking about how to configure this essay, I asked myself how I was going to make a predominately white audience understand my experience as a black woman at Pratt. I took inspiration from Aisha Sabatini Sloan, whose keynote last year pointed out how even trying to communicate this way obstructs voice and vision. As an act of reclaiming black readership and black revision, I am writing without a white reader in mind. With that being said, I offer five attempts to summarize my experience as a black woman at Pratt, for a black audience.
I. My journalism professor asked the class what first came to mind when hearing the word institution. Our heads tilted upward in thought, but everyone feared the direction of the conversation if they were to be honest. Finally, one of the students broke the tension, “I feel as if the word institution usually holds a negative connotation.” My professor’s face contorted with confusion.
“Prison,” I interrupted, and looked at my professor. She appeared shocked.
“Prison?” she scoffed. She actually scoffed. “Really?” I felt the anxiety of being around white people I suddenly must explain myself to and I shyly explained that institutions are usually seen as a system built to perpetuate oppression. I wondered why that wasn’t the first thought she had. Then it hit me: this is not a reality that upper middle class white women must acknowledge or think about on a daily basis. It was after this class that I came up with my favorite phrase to summarize my experiences in institutional academic settings: I always knew I was black, but I never felt black until I came to Pratt.
I was alone in the revelation. There is a moment when even your white supposed ally with a “Resist” T-shirt and a “Black Lives Matter” sticker can’t help you explain why your teacher ’s ignorance is doing the entire class injustice. I was at college, finally immersed in what had always been described to me as “the real world,” and found the same old world where the systems of oppression succeeded at infiltrating institutions, like this one of “higher learning.”
II. When I first arrived to college, I was on the constant prowl to find other students and teachers that looked like me. Unsurprisingly, my first acquaintances were cafeteria workers and security guards, as people of color dominated these parts of the staff.
At the one Black Lives Matter meeting I attended, a student brought a pie chart on CollegeFactual.com displaying diversity percentages at Pratt. Black people made up 4.2 percent of the student population and 11 percent of the faculty. Where was I supposed to see myself? In the classroom—or serving other students?
III. It seemed that my professor had finally come to her senses when our next journalism assignment was to visit and write about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” I was excited. My writing is inescapable from the politics of womanhood and blackness, so the art rang close to home. I was ready for my white classmates to get a glimpse of my truth through the work and eager to begin our class discussion on the lawn afterward. After seeing this exhibition, we would have to address the divinity of the black woman as displayed in the exhibit.
As we made our way outside, I awaited a fruitful discussion on the complexities expressed in the show. Were they going to address Blondell Cummings’ dance “Chicken Soup” in which she mimicked the action of shaking a skillet the same way I had seen the women in my family cook?
My professor led the conversation. She asked about the different ways that writing can be implemented in museums to enhance an exhibition. I offered that the exhibit was as an epic and complex rendering of the black woman experience. My classmates and professor nodded but remained silent on the topic. While the class moved on to the next discussion prompt, I looked at the photo I had taken of a Carrie Mae Weems’ portrait from her series “Ain’t jokin.” In it, a black woman peers to the side of a frame that a white woman stands behind. The caption reads, “Looking into the mirror, the black woman asked, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all?’ The mirror says, ‘Snow White, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!’”
IV. During a meeting to discuss my goals as a writer, I explained to my teacher the importance of writing for my communities: “I want my writing to be accessible and comprehensible for the common person. I feel like my future work might move from the book to the screen; videos are far more accessible to lower income minorities who already feel failed by the school system.”
She replied that she didn’t understand why books would not be commonplace in the hood. I responded to her, “Sometimes the last thing a kid wants to do at the end of a day is pick up a book after having adult responsibilities or suffering familial trauma. In my experience, if the school system is already failing to address the child’s home life, and the school is the only place providing the child with books, the page is one of the last places they’re going to turn to for help.”
Speaking of adult responsibilities, many days at Pratt I assumed the position of the instructor and taught my elder the most successful ways to gain the attention of under-resourced black children. I was not (necessarily) talking about myself, but upon retrospection, I should have spoken personally. Perhaps if I had made it clear to the professor that what I was offering was not just a powerful way to teach and address the “other”—i.e., “under-resourced black children”—but the way to speak effectively to me, her student, it would have made more of an impression.
One time the teacher even said in class, “I can’t believe you guys are thinking this critically as freshmen; maybe you should teach the class.” Although she was being sarcastic, I thought about how much more successful of a teacher I would have been. There are some skills a credential can’t provide, such as how to navigate an environment created to fail you, how to refrain from exuding your ethnicity like the bright light it wants to be, and the exact moments when to assert (or hide) your blackness in an unfamiliar territory.
V. Every time I’m in a difficult point of life, I cross paths with a black female writer and embarrassingly cry to her. When Aja Monet visited Pratt as a guest speaker for the writing department, I was teased by powerful black energy. After her reading I sobbed—about my feelings of isolation and about my lack of connection to the faculty. Monet reassured me of the power of the black woman, and held me in her arms compassionately. She encouraged me to use my frustrations as fuel for change. So, I use each day at Pratt as fuel for transformation and growth; I make thread to support my future self; I keep spinning and cocooning, cocooning, cocooning.
Elena Ruiz is the lead singer of the rock band The Jamming Nachos, and a creative writing major at Pratt Institute who uses both music and writing to build community awareness and evoke change.
The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy By Anna Clark
New York, NY; Metropolitan Books, 2018, 320 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
This is the story of how the city of Flint was poisoned by its own water,” writes Anna Clark early in her richly detailed and unsparing book The Poisoned City. It’s the story of public trust in city officials, and how people’s lives were damaged thanks to the failure of government to protect its citizens—most of whom were poor and black—and how that public trust vanished. Lives were upended. Children suffered irreversible harm. Twelve people died. It is an American tragedy, and a haunting cautionary tale.
As Clark reports, back in April 2014, the city of Flint opted to change its water supply to a new public water system, allegedly to save money, even though the new pipeline would literally parallel one that already existed. In the interim, while this system was being built, state officials decided to use water from the Flint River. Disaster ensued.
Many saw the indelible images on TV and social media—desperate and angry Flint residents holding up murky and brown-tinged water in plastic bottles that Michigan officials adamantly claimed was safe to drink. But Clark takes us behind those disturbing images to the far more disturbing facts of how it happened: State officials switched the water supply, and then broke federal law by not checking for corrosion. The water was corrosive, and flowing through the city’s aging lead pipes; without proper treatment, that corrosion caused the pipes to rust, flake and leak. Lead and other toxins leached into the water, contaminating it and exposing an entire city of 99,000 people to potential harm. Residents complained and complained that the water tasted, smelled and looked funny, and worse yet, people were getting sick—nausea, hair loss, rashes. Even people’s pets were dying.
Meanwhile, officials from the state environmental department and other local officials stonewalled and outright lied for eighteen months, refusing to take residents’ complaints seriously. People were told their problems were “isolated,” or due to individual plumbing; parents were advised to consult their doctors because ailments afflicting their children were not due to the river water. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling even sipped the water for TV cameras, claiming incredulously that his family drank it. This while the State of Michigan installed new water coolers in its Flint offices and imported cases and cases of bottled water so that state employees would be spared from drinking the city’s tap water; this while General Motors decided the water was too corrosive for its car engines and opted to switch back to Detroit water for use in its factory.
Clark is a young, accomplished journalist who lives in Detroit, grew up in a small town along Lake Michigan, and has done advocacy work for several years in the city. She’s the right writer for this tale, and with her rich narrative skills, the story reads like an environmental thriller, its villain in plain sight. A stunning account of a manmade disaster, the book traces with breathless pacing the build-up of problems caused by this insidious monster, water, a seemingly innocuous element used by all. Clark takes us through the journey of how the culprit’s hazards went from discoloration (“dark as coffee”) and foul-smelling odors, to carrying E. coli bacteria, to containing a carcinogenic disinfection byproduct, to causing Legionnaire’s disease, to the worst and most egregious crime of all, lead poisoning.
Clark delivers the story of a major tragedy we thought we knew with rich and in-depth detail that makes us realize how much we didn’t know. Her narrative is coupled with well-placed context that fleshes out our understanding of various histories—for instance, lead itself and its role in our modern lives, the Flint River, environmental activism, and the adoption of federal laws to deliver clean water to Americans.
“Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance.”
One of the most compelling aspects of The Poisoned City is how it situates this crisis through the lens of systemic racism, one “built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry, and the suburban area surrounding it,” as stated by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s 2014 report on the water crisis. Clark illuminates how racist policy, fueled by segregation, led to Flint’s residents finding themselves impoverished and vulnerable to government neglect and worse, malfeasance. Clark also powerfully shows how emergency management—when a governor foregoes democracy to appoint an unelected individual to have decision-making power over a city—has “unmistakable racial overtones,” as the communities affected like Flint and my own hometown of Detroit are nearly always majority black.
“The people of Flint had no say at all in what came out of their showers and kitchen sinks,” writes Clark. “Certainly not with four consecutive state-appointed emergency managers in place when critical changes were made to the city’s water supply ... there was no accountability for poor decisions made under the EMs tenure.”
As with any extraordinary tale, there are heroes at the center of this one. Brave community activists who protested and organized, as well as journalists and concerned scientists all did their parts to force the real story to emerge. Yet, two heroes in particular shine through in Clark’s book, both women who worked doggedly in search of the truth.
LeeAnne Walters is one of those bright lights and Clark renders her story with powerful effect. Walters set out to prove the toxicity in her Flint home after she noticed that her family had developed rashes, including her husband, her teenage son and daughter, and her three-year-old twins (who had streaks of red across their hands, feet, and buttocks). After a pool party for her daughter ’s graduation, Walters noticed that everyone who emerged from the water had “angry red blotches on their skin.” Then came hair loss and abdominal pains. She knew it had to be the water. So, Walters and her daughter brought plastic bottles of the murky stuff to a meeting at the City Hall dome, and showed them to the emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose. His reply? “That’s not your water.”
Infuriated by the insinuation that she was lying, Walters persisted. It took a doctor ’s note about her son Gavin’s compromised immune system for the city to test her water. Turns out, lead levels in her water were seven times higher than federally acceptable levels. Gavin had such high lead levels in his system that he developed problems with his speech. Essentially, he had been poisoned. Yet the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality denied that her family’s ailments had anything to do with the river water or city pipes. Eventually, Walters would go above the state agency to the EPA’s District office in Chicago, connecting with a conscientious regulations manager who himself put her in touch with an activist civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech. As Clark writes, “The alliance of these three would make a citizen scientist out of LeeAnn Walters.”
Soon, Walters uncovers the lie told by a state official to the EPA that Flint’s river water had been treated with corrosion control, by tracking down public documents to the contrary. She later shares with a journalist a copy of an eight page report, “High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan,” written by that EPA regulations manager, that details her home’s contaminated water. As a result of Walters’s efforts—and, as Clark elucidates, the fact that she was a sympathetic “face” of the crisis, as a white woman married with children—an unconscionable disaster that had stayed local for an entire year became a national story.
Another clear champion in this story is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a 38-year old pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who treated some of the city’s poorest families. With the help of a research assistant, Hanna-Attisha sorted through 1,746 test results of blood-lead data for Flint children and 1640 records for children living in the same county, but outside Flint. She made sure there was no room for error before she held her now famous press conference to deliver the news. Hanna-Attisha stood in her white lab coat facing the press at Hurley Medical Center and delivered the facts: Since Flint had switched is water source, there was more lead coming out of Flint’s taps and much more lead in the blood of the city’s children. In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under five with high blood-lead levels had doubled. And in the poor areas with large African American populations, the levels had tripled. She said as many as 27,000 children were vulnerable to persistent lead exposure. “These results are concerning,” said Hanna-Attisha. “And when our national guiding institutions tells us…that lead poisoning is potentially irreversible, then we have to say something.”
Thanks to Hanna-Attisha’s own citizen science, the state finally admitted the water was poisonous. Citing the doctor ’s study, county commissioners at last declared a public health emergency. Even Governor Rick Snyder finally reversed his claims and conceded the truth. The fallout continues to this day, writes Clark, with Flint residents still using bottled water as they await the replacement of all lead pipes, a project due to complete in 2020.
Two decades ago, Thomas Sugrue’s seminal book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, detailed the abandonment and government neglect of American northern cities. Anna Clark’s book is equally important for detailing the urban crisis of this century. In the epilogue, Clark warns: “Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities. Another is segregation, secession, redlining, and rebranding: this is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes.”
“The cure,” she writes, “is inclusion.”
Bridgett M. Davis is the author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, forthcoming from Little, Brown in January 2019. She is Professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY, and Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness By Austin Channing Brown
New York, NY; Convergent Books, 2018, 192 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Erynn Porter
I would like to preface this review by saying that I’m a white woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black woman, or any woman of color. I learned much, however, from reading activist and author Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. What I learned includes a deeper understanding of the term “emotional labor.”
Emotional labor is many things, such as when you have to manage your emotions for a job. It is also when you are expected to be responsible for someone else’s emotions—for example, the responsibility of explaining big and painful lessons, ideologies, and sociological ideas to those who don’t experience them without causing the “student” upset or distress.
White people expect a lot of free emotional labor, and most don’t acknowledge it as labor at all. Sometimes it’s a Facebook argument that goes on for too long or challenging everything a person of color says, by relentlessly asking for proof or examples. The impact on people of color who are providing this free labor has been discussed on Twitter, where there are threads and threads dedicated to it, as well as in articles on Everyday Feminism and Huffington Post. Largely in digital spaces, the question of just how much emotional labor marginalized people are supposed to give is currently debated. Is it more appropriate for dominant-cultured people to do their own research? Why is there any expectation at all that marginalized communities should teach people of privilege?
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is an act of emotional labor. Channing Brown bares and bears much in this memoir, putting herself in a very vulnerable place. She breaks down big ideas about white supremacy (often unnamed and therefore unaddressed) through painful personal stories. She exposes herself in every way she can in the service of shedding light on racial dynamics in the US.
The memoir opens with a chapter called “White People Are Exhausting,” in which she describes how white people usually expect her to be a white man because of her name. She writes that her parents chose her first name in part so that people would think she’s a white man on paper—“One day you will have to apply for jobs,” her mother tells her, “We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.” People definitely assume she is white and male, but it doesn’t always work out in her favor. Brown recounts an early incident—she’s seven—in which a librarian implies that she is lying and using someone else’s library card. Brown writes of her growing understanding of this racism:
People’s reaction to my name wasn’t about my gender. It was also about my brown skin. My legs stilled. That’s why the librarian hadn’t believed me. She didn’t know a name like Austin could be stretched wide enough to cloak a little Black girl.
How white people are exhausting extends to small, innocent/ignorant (i.e., they don’t realize are hurtful) comments that add up to a big drain on her energy, such as “comments about my hair. Accolades for being ‘surprisingly articulate’ or ‘particularly entertaining.’ Questions about single moms, the hood, ‘black-on-black crime’ and other hot topics I am supposed to know all about because I’m Black.” Brown describes her usual interactions with white people as being massively generalized: Brown isn’t so much an individual as a stand in for all Black people. White people are never similarly treated, she writes. Still, when she has a racist encounter and reports it, white friends and allies are quick to dismiss it as a misunderstanding or a one-off bad apple—not behavior that should be attributed to white people, just that white person alone. In the same chapter, she describes how white people attempt to exploit a relationship with her. They want to use her to prove they are diverse, use her to prove they aren’t racist, use her to learn about Blackness. But of course, they don’t really want to learn about Blackness, because that challenges whiteness.
These are the ways of “Nice White People,” which is the title of another chapter. The big problem with nice white people is that they believe there is no racism inside them. They think racists are easy to spot, because of their Nazi flags and tiki torches from Pier 1. But, Brown argues, that’s not how racism works. “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.”
Tellingly, when Brown challenges nice white people’s actions or attitudes, they get defensive and angry and seek her to affirm that they aren’t racist. They deploy the standard “I’m not a racist, ask my Black friend” sort of comment. Brown is pointing out racism, not attacking their intrinsic value, but nice white people can’t see that. They take Brown’s emotional labor and throw it away.
Guilty nice people may be worse. They see her as a cleanser figure and confess all their racist sins. Again Brown, and countless others, lose their individuality as they are transformed into tools for white people to feel better about themselves. They shove their burden onto Brown and others, expect them to hold this weight on their shoulders. Phew, now they feel better—the burden is lifted!
I’m Still Here has many moments of heartbreak, ranging from her favorite teacher worrying that two Black girls sitting together was “disruptive” to the class to having to deal with ignorant people saying random idiotic things about affirmative action. Maybe the worst example she gives of everyday punishment, though, is a trip she takes in college to learn more about Black history; the trip is called Sankofa. In it, twenty Black students are paired with twenty white students for a three-day journey in the South. The first stop is a plantation in Louisiana where the guides tells of “happy slaves” who sang while working in the fields. Later, the guides—having espoused inaccurate, romanticized versions of slave life—invite the students to pick cotton. “Black students,” she writes. “Picking cotton.” The Black students are enraged; the whites are confused, especially about the rage. After this, the group heads to a museum dedicated to lynching. Brown looks at bodies that look like hers hanging from trees. Bodies that had been beaten, brutalized, and burned. Tears are shed.
Unsurprisingly, this trip exposes a racial divide between the white and Black students. White students immediately distanced themselves from the museum’s images of white people gleefully pointing to the hanging Black bodies. They want to push those events as far away from that moment as possible: It’s not their fault, they weren’t there, they are different, this has nothing to do with the white students, they argue.
Meanwhile, the Black students are overwhelmed by feelings of connection to those who were lynched. To the Black students, this was a palpable reminder that their ancestors lived in fear and Black people still live in fear of white violence today.
While Brown helpfully narrates examples like this to illustrate concepts like white supremacy, white dissociation (i.e., innocence), and white fragility, she isn’t only writing to whiteness. In fact, she writes about why loving her Blackness had to be learned, how that happened, how crucial it is, and how trying to be a “white culture whisperer” alienated her from her community, leaving her lonely.
I want to reiterate that this memoir isn’t a bashing of white people. I experienced it—and Brown intended it—as an act of love, a term that she focuses on quite a bit throughout the text. As a Christian, Brown has had to reconcile her faith with reality. How can God be a loving entity when there is so much hate geared towards her and those who look like her? How can she love those who hate her for existing? She explores Christianity and these conflicts deeply in this book, and I will leave it to you to read how she resolves them.
Austin Channing Brown’s act of love was tough to read but also so very kind. Her accessible style is intimate and effortless. She uses simple, concrete language so that anyone can understand her complex ideas as well as empathize with experiences not their own. Her book was an act of emotional labor—and I honor the strain that it must have taken to bring I’m Still Here into being.
Erynn Porter is assistant editor for Quail Bell Magazine and the creative nonfiction editor for Blanket Sea. She lives in Manchester, NH, and has written for Bust, Bitch, and Brooklyn magazine, among other venues. See more of her work at erynnporter.com.
The Terrible By Yrsa Daley-Ward
New York, New York; Penguin, 2018, 224 pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Erika Gallion
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s new memoir, The Terrible, posits that “there is no word to describe the feeling of disappearing and being there at the same time”—and then creates a rich vocabulary for that feeling. Ward is an acclaimed poet whose visceral 2014 collection, bone, was self-published via CreateSpace. It became a best-seller and, in 2017, was repackaged by Penguin with a foreword by Kiese Laymon. Born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, Daley- Ward grew up in Northern England with her maternal grandparents, devout Seventh Day Adventists, and went to a majority white school. Daley-Ward came to poetry as a way to process her inner life, and she expands on that journey of selfdiscovery in The Terrible.
The memoir is structured in four sections. First, is her childhood in Northern England, in which she confronts childhood-ruining concepts such as racism, addiction, male violence, and the hyper-sexualization of girls. During her depression-plagued adolescence, she battles with body image, disillusionment, continued experience with excessive male dominance, and the beginnings of sexual power. In the third part, her early adulthood features experimental drugs, sex work, her brother’s loss of innocence (which so closely mirrors her own), “a pure romantic love, her mother’s death, and surrendering to the darkness,” and, finally, Daley- Ward reckons with The Terrible—her mental illness and trauma made tangible—and eventual acceptance that The Terrible both disrupts and defines her.
The first reference to The Terrible occurs before the prologue begins, in a short opening note: “in love with how it happened so far, / even the terrible things. / and God, there were terrible things.” The last line exists at the bottom of the page, distant from the previous two lines, and is flipped upside down, creating a mirror-image before the book begins. Daley-Ward sets the tone of her memoir here, showing the dual nature of her battle with depression—the beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.
Many of the beautiful moments lie in Daley- Ward’s relationship with her baby brother, “Little Roo,” to whom the book is dedicated. In the prologue, Roo and Daley-Ward see a unicorn in their garden: “Sometimes, when the world around us grew indistinct, when facts would blur into less certain truths and frightening things looked set to occur, the two of us could see clearly into the Fourth Dimension.” These magical capabilities offered a reprieve for the two siblings, sustaining their hope amid the terror of their reality; as long as the two of them could see that unicorn in the garden, The Terrible starting to form would not win. Readers witness Roo and Daley-Ward struggling against their own versions of The Terrible, and see the siblings’ attempts to comfort each other as well as their inability to bridge the gap of one another’s pain.
As in bone, structure, spacing, and repetition play important tonal roles here. Daley- Ward purposefully plays with the visual representation of her words on the page, producing further metaphorical language in negative space. For example, in her poem “a test—things our bodies have been,” Daley-Ward makes an alphabetical list, each word existing on one line, creating a slim corpus of words edging the page. The Terrible uses similar tactics—her prose broken into stanzas or repeated via enjambment and spacing. Daley-Ward also uses subtitles through her memoir ’s sections, as if titling poems; in section one, pages are titled “Aa” and “Bb,” perhaps indicating her age and learning to read and speak. Later, Daley-Ward uses numbers (ages) in the same way, indicating a linear passage through the memoir. The Terrible varies between verse and prose, employing poetry (and in one instance screenplay) to build distance around the especially traumatic moments of Daley-Ward’s story. Her ability to traverse different genres amplifies the movement of the memoir, accelerating the story and disrupting readers’ grooves to intentionally ask for a closer reading.
“Beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.”
In sections one and two, Daley-Ward introduces readers to the racism and misogyny that bring forth The Terrible and force her to deny it. As a young girl, her mother tells her that her stepfather will be tempted to commit sinful acts because of her sexually maturing body. Meanwhile, her grandfather asserts that men are biblically above women and that male violence is inherent—male prerogative—so she must avoid triggering it. Later, at school and in her modeling career, Daley-Ward is encouraged to view her black body as a negative to be overlooked and forgiven due to her “cool” attitude and acceptable personality.
When Daley-Ward’s grandparents and mother begin taking notice of her gray moods, she is mocked, so she commits to hiding her pain. “I learn what not to feel,” she writes. Little Roo, too, is learning not to feel, a slippage that Daley-Ward notices early but is incapable of addressing. Nor can she address her hatred of her reflection and her obsessive eating habits; she believes that by following instructions laid out to her via the Bible and Disney, she will bloom into a likeable beauty.
As Daley-Ward grows, she gains “powerfear,” the name she gives to her ability to tempt men by playing in to her sexual appearance. Powerfear plagues nearly all sexual relationships Daley-Ward recounts in The Terrible. In one powerfear-fueled moment, Daley-Ward abruptly has sex with a window cleaner at her mother’s house: “He gets it out right there and then / and slides on a yellow condom. Yellow, she thinks. Ha, / yellow, she thinks. / My favorite color as a kid. / Yellow, she thinks. / Shit, I used to be a kid. / Yellow; / am I still / a… ”
Awareness percolates under The Terrible, which contaminates something as innocent as the color yellow with something to be scrubbed off in two sessions of bathing. Daley-Ward is masterful in how she depicts her constant distancing from awareness that The Terrible is real and has control. She turns to drugs to lift her out of “the terrible here and now.”
In section three, Daley-Ward meets William, falls in love, and finds a new narrative for relationships: “He stays. I can hardly believe it. It feels like the bottom will drop out of our thing. Any / Moment / Now. When he sleeps, I stare at his eyelashes in the dark and hope he never leaves. Sometimes I hold my breath to give the thing some weight. Some promise.” In the safety of this relationship, Ward faces The Terrible in a new way; instead of escaping, she looks: “There is something underneath my seams. What’s new?”
Things don’t miraculously resolve, and by the fourth and final section Daley-Ward is an adult coming back to visit troubled Little Roo. She tells him: “unicorns don’t exist / I say. Roo / says / ‘yeah they do / remember the garden?”
There is a satisfying reckoning as she ultimately faces The Terrible. “You may not run away from the thing that you are/because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing is deep / inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it. / Wherever you are, it catches you up.” Daley-Ward names this lonely pain, over and over again: The Terrible, this undeniable force in her life. She has bled out, silenced, and loathed The Terrible, but it thrives. The Terrible gives her poetry and darkness; The Terrible encourages her to distrust and to be alone. How can one combat The Terrible?
Yrsa Daley-Ward grabs The Terrible by the face and insists: “There will be more love.”
Erika Gallion is a writer and reader originally from Ohio and currently living in Los Angeles. She works at UCLA as an Academic Advisor.
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over By Nell Painter
Berkeley, CA; Counterpoint, 2018, 352 pages with color illustrations, $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Who can talk about the rock star historian Nell Irvin Painter without explicitly addressing the obvious, which is that her last name is Painter? This is her last name. Painter’s beloved husband has a different last name. When I was briefly a fleck of crystal in Nell Painter ’s orbit, when I taught Creative Writing at Princeton, where Nell Painter was permanently endowed, I could tell Nell was a painter by her palette—skin to hair to coat to shoes to portable accoutrements. Of course, Nell Painter, with her portentous name, would use the freedom of retirement from History as a first career, and choose to launch a second career by going to Art School.
Nell Painter goes to Art School with gusto, and while there, she rediscovers an appreciation for her own hand. Art school awakens her long-held affinity for drawing. Painter possesses sketches she made in her early twenties, in the early 1960s, when her color-sight was awakened in Ghana, where she moved with her parents during the early days of the Black Liberation era. Looking back, Painter recalls how Ghana changed her, before her career in history, but in a patently artistic way:
In Ghana I moved through a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheel hues. The dirt was Venetian red, the trees and grass Hooker ’s green. White buildings, red tiled roofs. Cadmium red bougainvillea climbing whitewashed buildings and cascading over fences and walls, some topped with menacing shards of broken brown glass or black wrought-iron spikes testifying to class tensions barricading the wealthy against the grasping poor. Together this colorful landscape and the very black people in white and spectacular clothing altered my vision of everyday life.
Painter ’s keenly trained eye and intellect prompt her to recognize the specific and the theoretical. Painter brings these strengths to her Art Education. Strong and spry and expectant, Painter finishes six years of Art School, completing two brand new degrees, by the striding age of seventy. An alert observer, Painter renders her experience with humor, with skepticism, with anxiety, and in many voices.
Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University. Even though Painter’s prodigious accomplishments in History do not make People magazine, her status in American History has for decades been neon to academic faculty, feminists, historians, and cultural critics. After a huge career, her decision to attend Art School reads in some ways like turning away from a well-traveled road and into the wilderness. Painter is pointedly clear about her attraction to engagement with art: “Art stopped time. Art exiled hunger. Art held off fatigue for what would have been hours as if hours had not really passed.”
Writing deftly about the work of switching gears, and how to rev up to making art, Old in Art School decodes and details the substantive study and artistic processes Painter had to master in her sequence of studios, first at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, in Newark, and finally, at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Old in Art School succeeds as a story of a budding artist, and also as guidebook: you can design your own art education by following along with Painter ’s readings and reflections on artists in the canon; women artists who Painter appreciates, and elevates, and sometimes befriends; artists who become important to Painter’s interests and to her cultivated eye. From Rembrandt to Faith Ringgold, from Matisse to Alice Neel. Painter also enumerates inspirations and omnipresent impressions. She is in Art School encountering “art works” addressing Barack and Michelle Obama, some of them simply, duly noted, and others worthy of pause and commentary. Most artists also engage with other artists to create a fertile and inspiring context in which to work, and keep time: for Painter, Cassandra Wilson and Abbey Lincoln help create ambience—both women crooners and philosophers who speak to artists and writers and intellectuals of a certain type, like Nell Painter.
At the very beginning of Nell Painter’s Art School career, a fellow student asks her how old she is. Painter, then 64, remarks that there was no hello, no other leading questions, no “Are you a teacher?”, no preliminaries. Just: “how old are you?” Blunt interrogation. It’s no surprise; Art School is known as a cauldron of interrogation—and critique. Painter also approaches her Self and the experience of Art School as a process of interrogation. She describes how she did not quite see herself as old—she was, in fact, starting anew—and yet throughout the narrative, which contains a number of dips and turns, Painter is (mildly) plagued by questions about her age. Painter ’s experience of seeing herself as other people saw her, namely as “old,” relates to DuBois’ assertion that we see ourselves as other people see us, as well as how we see ourselves.
Nell Painter cuts no corners in Art School; she is as thorough as she has been in history. She makes volumes of art work; she tries to fit in. She finishes all her assignments and exercises with gusto and consistency and expectation. She even sits on the floor, and commends herself heartily for being “old,” yet being able to get up and down off the floor at will.
Painter prides herself on diligence and vigor, even as other Art School students, and Teacher Him and Her, and Visiting Artist They and Them are telling Nell that she will never be “A Real Artist.” For one, they suggest she in fact is too old, and they also argue that she probably doesn’t have the talent or the sense of struggle to make the legendary sacrifices that making art demands. Budding Artist Nell listens to this drivel, and resists, and listens again. The degree to which Painter even temporarily succumbs to the wash in negativity her peers and teachers “offer” is probably the least compelling aspect of this otherwise nearly rollicking memoir. Enlivening it is a counter-chorus of many other voices, channeled through Nell Painter’s insight: Nell’s parents, their old friends, Nell’s history friends, Nell’s new artist acquaintances, Nell’s family with their roots in the Bay Area. Hilarious, the voices Nell hears; too funny, the Names she gives them.
Painter insists that her age elicited reactions during Art School that ranged from cool dismissal, to critique of her vision with insinuations of the antique. Painter experienced, and accepted, the self-doubt generated by the relatively harsh atmosphere of the Art School “critique.” Painter’s young classmates often looked at curiosity as if it were a relic, an artifact of a time to which they did not belong. In Art School, Painter is confronted by her 20th century-ness, and her stalwart curiosity, as dated conditions. At one point, Painter bluntly states that curiosity represents a great strength. She notes her frequent use of 20th century terms, and wonders whether her ideas were rejected as too 20th century. Painter explores her own attachment to meaning, and learning that’s very 20th century. In the 21st century, presumably, you can be unabashedly attached to just how things look; coherence be damned. Whether the painting or artwork exhibits substance, or skill, or coherence has become passé as a mode of analysis.
Describing one of the artists outside Art School with whom Nell Painter consulted, the narrative is driven by inquiry and curiosity:
Noting my interests in the world, he lent me R.B. Kitaj’s Second Diasporist Manifesto … its untamed monomania blew me back … I settled into its omnidirectional nuttiness … Kitaj knew his book was all mixed up, and he dove deeply into piebald obsession. Kitaj’s weirdness, even though it cost him his reputation as a painter for many years, inspired me.… I had known all along I wasn’t the only one juggling history, group identity, individual proclivities and visual art.
Fully aware that the artist is responsible for motivating herself to make work, Painter ’s intellectual strengths, deep knowledge, visual capacity, and determination all combine to give her wide access to all you have to pull together to make art from this chaotic, fractured world of disciplines and genres, histories and oppressions, travesties and triumphs.
Painter is ultimately able to arrange more situations of artistic discussion where she experiences nurture and gains motivation from critiques that are offered or that she can request, but these nurturing experiences are outside the Art School milieu. Particularly at the graduate level, Painter finds the most engagement and perception with outside artists. Perhaps people closer to her own age. Art School, in other words, is loathe to let go of its breakdown strategy. Speculation about the reasons and/or necessity for Art School cruelty have gone on since the advent of Art School. Perhaps the meanness is supposed to ensure that artists are tenacious enough to hold onto the very vision that Art School portends to critique out of them.
Nell Painter persists. She finishes graduate Art School, but the journey is complicated by a whole series of drama and grief, both quiet and startling. Which brings us to one of the most compelling voices in Old in Art School: Daughter Nell. For most of her six-year experience in undergraduate and then graduate Art Schools, Painter is caring for one or both of her parents.
The dissonance and tension between making art and tending aging parents could not be more stark, and is riveting as a storyline. In happier, more youthful times, Nell Painter and her parents were intellectual activists during a fomenting era in America. Especially among studied, Black, proud intellectuals, Painter and her parents have upright, ‘60s and ‘70s bona fides. They followed DuBois’ theorizing and lived for a time in Ghana, during the Liberation experiments. Nell Painter knew Maya Angelou in Ghana, when Angelou was young and had a last name not yet made famous. The Irvins moved from Ghana to the Bay Area, where La revolution continua, and where Budding Historian Nell went to undergrad at Berkeley. After Berkeley and a Master’s degree from UCLA, she relocated to the Ivied East, and in the ensuing decades there built an esteemed career as an innovative, incisive, and wry academic Historian.
In the book, the most intense period caring for her parents occurs after her mother has already transitioned. In his eighties, Nell’s father asks to be moved from the Bay Area where he had lived, been married, raised Nell, and been widowed—all pieces of a life over the course of seventy years. He wants to move to New Jersey, where Nell can watch over him as he begins his long transition away from this world. For much of the story, even before this last move, her father lay in what Painter describes as a “bitter bed.”
Her father’s depressive saga parallels woefully the (slightly) foreshortened life of Painter’s spunky and beautiful and resilient mother. Nell’s mother, Dona Irvin, predeceased Nell’s father. She published two books in her “old age,” one on the history of Black Methodist churches, called The Unsung Heart of Black America, and the other, I Hope I Look that Good When I Get Old, a guide for aging gracefully that Nell Painter references in the context of her motivations at her own age.
In part because her parents are characters in her memoir, “old” seems too final a choice of word for this determined, intentional adventure in the present tense. Painter is not convincing as an “old” person. Since there is nothing after “old” in our culture—except silent and immutable death—“old” must be defined differently than the can-do years represented by a fit person in her sixties and early seventies even. The many men who keep themselves in power are that age. They do not question their fitness or their age. They do not question themselves at all.
How is “old” defined anyway? Over sixty? Over seventy? Retired? Slowed down? White hair? Can’t do this or that? Can’t sit on the floor, or can’t get up? Full career already done? Many aspects of “old” do not apply to Nell Painter, who has not slowed down. She has had one full career, and has embarked upon another. How old is that?
The memoir is touted as Nell Painter’s eighth book. The list of publications that makes this Painter’s eighth book does not include Soul Murder and Slavery, which has monograph intellectual heft, if not monograph length, and is my favorite example of Painter ’s daring. Most famously, Painter authored the New York Times bestseller The History of White People, which was a visual book. Authoritatively named and unassailably daring, The History of White People started with a question; it is worth reading the memoir just to learn about the stunning process that spawned the book. Creating Black America is another of Painter ’s sweeping, landscapechanging book projects. Old in Art School is subtitled, in a nod to academic form, a Memoir of Starting Over. Rock stars do not start over; they just turn up the amp.
Now, Nell Painter has two bodies of work: her hefty and scholarshipaltering oeuvre of conceptual histories—and, her art. For those perspicacious and hungry enough to follow her artistic progress, there will be the continuing progression of her inventions, including the presumably continuing Odalisque Atlas, or the visual volumes of Art History by Nell Painter, or the completion of her series One Hundred Drawings for Hanneline, or maybe more of her series of maps, torqued away from geography and into the pulsing heart of concept. Nell Painter lives and works and paints in a studio in Newark, NJ. She is a woman of an age, and a woman of strong will. The history will never disappear. And the paintings multiply.
In the end, Painter argues that visual art set her free. This is a bold, sweeping, and unequivocal statement for Painter to make. Although trained as an artist, Painter maintains the specificity and precision of a historian, and she does not speak of freedom lightly. Writing clearly and coherently, about a subject [Art] that cottons to chaos, Painter lets us watch as she tries to pin down aspects of her visionary freethinking. She translates that freedom into concrete invention: Painter now makes collage, and shape shifts, and projects, and paints, and grows exuberant in the infinity of color. It’s expression that is distinct from her visionary contributions to history, that practice of standing rigidly upright rediscovering and reinterpreting established facts. Nell Painter’s trained curiosity carries her through; her art knows no hindrance to crossing chronologies or continents, to shift and reshape time, all on one canvas.
Art takes vivid liberties, whereas history is tied to the archive, and exercises no freedoms therefrom. The connection, then, between art and art history and history did not accrue on the side of art. Freed from the archive, Painter communicates in language which is bodacious and, in moments, color-saturated. Real color, not race color—starts to blossom in the book early. Painter refers to our fantasy of democracy as viridian green, that dark shade of spring. She announces a “Pyrrole orange flash of insight.” The grief colors that come with the loss of a very close friend are “muddy gray mashing down” and “green-tinged brown on an unwashed palette.”
You almost have to go to Art School to let go of the binary of raceassociated black and white, but Old in Art School gracefully offers us that blessing. Colors are infinite and inspiring. If you read Old in Art School, you will learn, from Nell Painter, what it means to speak in color.
A.J. Verdelle is the author of The Good Negress. She teaches creative writing in the English Department of Morgan State University, and teaches fiction and revision in the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, MA.