Monday, November 12, 2007

Veteran's Day + Mailer/Cooper/Washington + Troy Smith: Beautiful and "Kind"

African American Veterans, World War IIToday is Veterans Day, which I nearly forgot because, I'm embarrassed to say, we don't get it (or any other holidays, save the major ones) off at the university. I'm the son and grandson of (deceased) veterans, the godson (twice over) of veterans, the nephew and cousin of many. Some of them fought in wars (World War II, Vietnam, etc.), but most served during the illusory societal calm we like to call "peacetime."

I always think of some of them--my uncle J., for example, who was deeply affected by Vietnam--when I consider the plight of our most recent new veterans, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 1/4th of today's homeless are said to be veterans, though they constitute about only 10% of the population. Iraq returnees are suffering from higher rates of suicide, PTSD, and other psychological problems, than the public at large. Until the public scandal broke earlier this year, hundreds veterans at Walter Reed Hospital were living in conditions that would not be fit even for rats, and veterans, like so many other Americans, are experiencing a range of crises, including home foreclosures, bankruptcy, and so on, yet there appears to be little to no response from the people in power in Washington. Today anti-war veterans were arrested at an American Legion event in Boston.

One of the smallest and most important things you can do is try to be aware of the issues longtime and new veterans are facing, and advocate on their behalf to your elected representatives whenever you can. It's easy to salute the troops, champion their sacrifice and valor, and ignore them when they most need our support, so try not to forget them today, or in the future.


Yesterday brought news of Norman Mailer's (1923-2007) passing. For most of my youth and early adulthood he was considered one of the preeminent American writers, or rather one of the MAJOR WRITERS with a capital "M" (also for MALE). His fame came quickly with his first and best novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Naked and the Dead (1948), but also attended his pioneering works in the then-nascent field of creative nonfiction, such The Armies of the Night (1968) and the infamous and extraordinary The Executioner's Song (1979); he was also of the major literary and cultural celebrities, a liberal, sometimes progressive journalist, critic and commentator on all things American and, misguidedly, many things Black (getting into a verbal sparring match with James Baldwin, among others), one of the co-founders of the Village Voice, a political candidate, a dogged anti-feminist (who stabbed one of his wives in the 1960s), a homophobe and racist who loved to quarrel with Truman Capote, Germaine Greer, Gore Vidal and countless others, and lace his fiction with as much polymorphous perversity as he could, and a larger-than-life personality whose cavorting in the public eye often threatened to eclipse his work. (As far as the fiction goes, it did.)

It's probably fair to say that Mailer's public stature diminished considerably over the last decade, as fewer people of recent generations knew of his exploits first hand and his recent books were generally not worth the time it took to read and comment on them--the last book of his I waded through, Ancient Evenings, an endless, sex-besotted romp through the Pharaonic epoch(s), came out in 1983, and I didn't buy it, my mother, a longtime reader of his, did--but Mailer did still throw some punches, as when he began writing critical pieces about the W Gang a few years ago in the New York Review of Books. The pugnacious and blistering intellect that garnered his fame was on display in these pieces, though the reality was and is that the people who probably might have listened 25, 35, or 45 years ago to the best parts of his arguments were no longer interested or already agreed with him. His passing marks end of era.

Patricia Spears Jones told me that poet Jane Cooper (1924-2007, at left, from W.W. Norton & Co.) had passed away, so I wanted to mention her as well. Along with Grace Paley, Muriel Rukeyser, and several other notable writers she established the acclaimed creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, where she taught for over 40 years. I usually tend to think of her as a lyric poet of life's quieter moments, but she could be bitingly sarcastic, as in her famous poem "Seventeen Questions about KING KONG," in which she critiques her familial relationship to the 1933 film's director, Merian C. Cooper.

Here's another of her poems, from the Academy of American Poets website, the lacerating "Clementene," about that most central of American themes, race (click on the link you can hear her read it as well):



I always thought she was white, I thought she was an Indian
because of her high-bridged nose, coin-perfect profile
where she sat in an upstairs window, turning sheets sides-to-the-middle—
There are so many things wrong with this story,
Muriel, I could not tell you—

Her cheeks were oddly freckled, and her hair would be squeezed down
into a compact, small knot at the nape, gray as chicken wire, gray
as the light, unaffectionate glance her eyes would give
if she lifted them from her work.
No child would interrupt her.

She came twice a year to do the sewing, she slept in the house,
but her meals were brought up, so that she dined by the Singer,
now and then staring fixedly across the river. She joined neither white
in the dining room nor colored in the kitchen.
Her wishes were respected.

Later I saw the same light, disconcerting gaze and futuristic planes
in Oppenheimer's face, but she looked most like my grandmother's friend
Miss Gertrude
who taught me to tat. Once we moved north, Mother confided
of the two finest families in Jacksonville, no one could be sure
whose father was her father.


Muriel, I never told you, I never revealed how Clementene
died in our house a white woman and was claimed by her black

How she flung up her arms in wild grief
so different from Clementene's reserve.

How she hollered and called on Christ Jesus,
flinging her body from side to side at the foot of the staircase.

How the police arrived, it was nine o'clock at night,
long past my bedtime.

How I leaned over the stair rail,
unnoticed for once, as their torches burst in.

It seemed as if tumultuous shadows
crawled through the door, odors of pinestraw, magnolia, river

They are carrying a blanketed stretcher.
Now the daughter follows, still whimpering into my mother's small-
boned shoulder.

I had seen how a mother could be mourned.
Now I watch my mother shiver and pull away.

Why, if I was not an accomplice,
did I feel—do I feel still—this complex shame?

Copyright © 1994 by Jane Cooper, from
The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed by Jane Cooper.
Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Yesterday was also the 20th anniversary of Harold Washington's death. He was the 42nd and 1st African-American Mayor of Chicago, elected twice, in 1983 and 1987. Harold Washington was and remains a hero to many people all over the country and globe, for his pioneering victories, for what he represented, and for how he governed while in office. I can remember the near-frenzy among family members and friends an entire state away, in Missouri, when he was first elected; I was a senior in high school and his primary win, against a field of other Democrats, and win in the general election, seemed like the opening of a new era. If only it was...

Here is his first inaugural address. And here's my favorite section, the end, where he cites the founder of Chicago, and says to the city of Big Shoulders, "Let's go to work." And he did.

I reach out my hand and I ask for your help. With the same adventurous spirit of Jean Pointe Baptiste DuSable when he founded Chicago, we are going to do some great deeds here together.

In the beginning there was the word. Throughout this campaign you've given me the word. The word is over. Let's go to work.


Troy SmithReggie highlights a recent appearance by the gorgeous former Heisman Trophy Winner Troy Smith (at right) at a juvenile detention center in his hometown of Cleveland. I'd forwarded the article to a mostly poc-g/sgl sports listserve I'm on, because I felt Smith's actions and remarks were, to put it mildly, extraordinary. What I wrote to the list was this (excerpted):

"I was more interested in how Smith was described and in particularly how he addressed the young brothas in the correctional facility. I may be alone in this, but I rarely read reports of anyone, particularly a young, beautiful, somewhat famous talented Black man still in the public eye, telling other young brothas whom society has decided to give up on that they are "needed" and "beautiful." That a city wants them to come back and participate in shaping its public life? Do you? And that he's brought to the point of tears expressing it?"

Am I wrong? Does this happen often? Does anyone regularly tell young Black men, or young Black women, or young Black people--or young people of any color, especially young people who are poor and working-class, who are already in the cogs of the prison-industrial complex, whose lives may already have passed through versions of Hell and worse, that they are "needed," that they are "beautiful" (and I don't mean in a sexualized-eroticized sense), that they are "wanted," that they are "missed," that without their active participation and engagement society cannot go forward? What would happen if we did this more often? I think of the response Smith got, and of my own experiences, brief though they were, working with young Black and Latino and Asian kids in the New York City schools, and witnessing first hand how they craved someone to show interest in them, to love them, to listen to them, to guide them, to encourage them, to push them, to assure them and challenge them, to let them know that their presence wasn't superfluous, as everything around them was conveying regularly, that they were not subalterns without any possibility of relevance unless they rapped or played basketball or were taking their clothes off. So Troy Smith's actions really moved me, and I was glad Reggie highlighted them. I also wonder, why don't we--since we know our traditional and "mainstream," which is to say, corporate media aren't going to do it, because in their eyes we still do not really exist--make it a regular practice, and make sure that there's some substance to it?


  1. With respect to men of African descent, it seems as if we are quick to find fault with one another as opposed to celebrating one another in a larger world already inclined to point out our perceived shortcomings.

    Those kids heard from someone who believed they could do better. One who believed in them period.

  2. Bronzebuckaroo, very true comments you make.

    BTW, did you see that you're on the blogroll? I'm one of your fans!