FIVE WOMEN—Provocateurs and Touchstones

Five Flowers by Mike Gabelman via Flickr

I started out to write a book about a man. By the time I finished my novel, Provenance, it had become the story of five women—distinctly different in age, outlook, and objective—and how they uniquely shaped their lives as they changed the life of one man. Mother, Grandmother, Caretaker, Counselor, Lover—these women became provocateurs and touchstones in the life my primary character, Lance Henry Withers. They also shaped me as a writer as I came to understand the complexity of each character and the role they played in the arc of Lance’s life. Several factors informed that actions of each woman in Provenance—when and where lived, marital status, social restrictions, age and most importantly, aspirations. These were key in how each woman acted and reacted in a story that surprisingly – even to the author—gave them equal footing with the primary character.

I begin Provenance in the early 20th century and followed my characters through five decades—a period of remarkable change in the lives of the women in the book as well as women in the real world. My character, Charlotte, was born in 1881 with a burning ambition to change her circumstances and, the sobering fact that she needed the complicity of men to make her dreams reality. Maggie, Charlotte’s daughter and Lance’s mother, was the opposite of her mother. She sought dependence—first on her husband and then her son—suffering betrayal and loss that she was not equipped to deal with without a man. Del, who managed the Whitaker household, became a study in wisdom, determination, and dignity during a time and place, the 1930s in the segregated south, when these were attributes not afforded people of color. Belle, was a woman before her time. During the 1930’s to 50’s, she was as sexually and socially unconventional as she was independent, intelligent, and beautiful teaching Lance how to live fully and successfully. And Emma, who embraced the emerging independence of women in the 60s and 70s, taught Lance about true love, and how it thrives when a man and a woman are equals.

Five women—provocateurs and touchstones—who changed a life as they, and the world around them, changed.

What Happens to History When African American History Month is Over?

Detail of Unsung Founders Memorial by Melinda Stuart via Flickr

I have very mixed feelings about National African American History Month, also called Black History Month, which is why I haven’t added posts to my blog during the month of February. Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History suggested the week that became the month of February’s annual observance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. Since the history of African-Americans has been the hidden and marginalized history of the United States of America, I believe there should be full integration of African-Americans in American history. I wonder if giving the history of African-Americans one month on the calendar and “American History” all year all the time, further marginalizes the important people, events, contributions and sacrifices February is supposed to celebrate.

Some say take the month and really celebrate; others say you can’t, in just a month’s time, celebrate or even tell how America became America on the backs of people who still struggle for respect and a fair share of her riches.  I raise these issues though I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to this historical equity dilemma. What I choose to do is share what I know and what I find out about Black History in America—my history—throughout the year.

Belle da Costa Greene by Paul Cesar Helleu c. 1913

There is so much we don’t know about ourselves that even with one daily revelation, I doubt we’d ever run out of people, events, contributions and sacrifices to share. In just this past year, I wrote about Eugene Jacque Bullard, Maggie Lena Walker, Belle da Costa Greene and important places like Richmond’s Jackson Ward and Evergreen Cemetery, just from the research I uncovered while writing my novel, Provenance.

Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.

For Veterans Day I wrote about the military prowess of African-Americans in America’s fight for freedom—from the Revolutionary War to today. I rejoiced when Provenance was a finalist for the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Award because it was an honor to place in a competition that bears the name of the first published African American female writer.  I said goodbye to Barack Obama, a Black man and one of the greatest Presidents the United States has ever had.

All of these people, places, events, contributions, and sacrifices are too much history for a mere month, so I will continue to write about American history in all of its colorful glory when the spirit and history move me, be it February or any other month of the year.

Just Facts – Not the Alternative

I am planning a series of posts for Black History Month but when I saw this and it had to take precedent. Thank you, Eunique Jones Gibson of Because of Them We Can for this gem. Who better to call out all of our adult nonsense than our children. Jones Gibson is a Bowie State University alum; my husband Dr. Granville Sawyer is a professor there. So proud of the vision and talent HBCU’s give to our country!

Resistance, Duly Noted

Women’s March Washington DC by VeryBusyPeople via Flickr

We have been here before. Now is not new – it is not even original or unique. It just seems that way because it is happening to us. It is our turn. The methods (twitter, executives orders, alternative truths, etc.) may be today’s tactics but sadly, the strategy is the same. Divide the people and conquer the country. Set one group upon the other by promoting erroneous beliefs: if you have more, that means I have less; if I make you feel small, that makes me bigger; if you’re different from me then you are against me; compromise, collaboration, and compassion are weaknesses—might is right.

These beliefs have never been true and they never will be. However, all of the unrelenting reporting of half-baked breaking news from unreliable sources reverberates the rhetoric in an echo chamber of unproductive partisan communication. We are not talking to each other, we are talking to ourselves.

When we turn off the television’s not-news noise, ignore the fake headlines on our electronic device screens that are only crafted to make us click, and look to literature, we’d see the well-worn path around the same issues. The questions and concerns we have today have been explored and exposed, reasoned and wrestled with, asked and answered. Yet, here we go again.

In my search to help me understand what is going on in America today, I came across a 2012 blog post from OnlineUniversities.com entitled “The 10 Best Protest Books of All Time.” It is a wealth of literary protest gems worth revisiting because they show us who we were then, where we are once again and maybe, what we can do to get ourselves out of this recurring mess.

Henry David’s Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience advocates public resistance to unjust laws and acts of government and is so appropriate for these times it could have been written on January 20, 2017. Building on the work of Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and Simone De Beauvoir (The Second Sex)  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique positions women’s rights as human rights, still a battle cry for this generation. Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man, a classic from 1952, still speaks for and to us about civil rights and the intolerance of white privilege. Though it may be remembered as a book about the atrocities of food processing facilities, the journalist Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to addresses the treatment of immigrants. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded the alarm for environmental justice and public health that continues to warn us about the callous treatment of our planet and, Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn is still a relevant read of America’s socioeconomic situation. W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk; Poems, Protest and a Dream: Selected Writing by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Harriet Beecher Stow’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House round out OnlineUniversities.com’s list.

 Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

Once again we are in a struggle for America’s heart, mind, and soul. In the protest literature of the past, there’s wisdom, inspiration, courage, and perhaps a way to inch us further forward so we won’t end up in the same place—again.  Never has it been more important to read, research, reflect, act and repeat.

In the comments box below, please share any protest literature that you’d add to this list. We’ve got four years of hard work to do on these issues.

 

 

The Fictional Life of A Very Real Man

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

It is a story that invites the envy of this writer of fiction. A Tolstoy-worthy tale replete with unimaginable wealth, unbounded love, profound loss, revolution, a daring escape, theft, intrigue, and a treasure trove of the world’s most remarkable art. Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile heir, and magnate began buying art on trips to Paris. His love of the unconventional art and artists he found in Paris after the Great War lead him to start his collection. However, the deaths of his wife, sons, and brother led him to try to fill the void created by their loss, with art. His grief led to Shchukin’s frantic collection of more than 275 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern paintings including multiple works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Van Gogh.

As it is in Russian tragedies, Shchukin would not only lose his family but his country, home, art collection and ultimately, his name. When Lenin began his purge of the bourgeois during the Russian Revolution, Shchukin, fled to Paris — his opulent home and prized art collection were seized by the state. The new Russian government had no use for Shchukin or his decadent art; they planned to dismantle the collection and destroy it. The wife of the director of the Hermitage was thankfully a lover of modern art and convinced her husband to distributed the collection to Russian Museums away from Moscow. For nearly 100 years, the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity. Shchukin’s name was erased from the collection’s provenance and from the history of commerce and art in Russia.

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

Shchukin’s story is the stuff of fiction, except that it is real. And in August of 2016, through his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection once again made art history in the landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,”  at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The exhibition, featuring 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector, is scheduled to close on March 5, 2017. If, like me, Paris is not on your itinerary, Richard Nahem, an ex-New Yorker who writes his I Prefer Paris blog from “a fabulous 18th-century apartment in the fashionable Marais district of Paris,” has taken some stunning photographs of the showstoppers in the exhibition.

Every art collection tells the collector’s story but rarely is one as vivid in art and as exciting and tragic in life as that of Sergei Shchukin; a story so real, it seems the stuff of fiction. Though I did not know about Sergei Shchukin when I wrote my novel, Provenance, the similarities between Shchukin and my protagonist, Lance Henry Withers, are striking. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers lost the countries of their birth, their homes, and their names. They used art to heal the profound loss of home and loved ones. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they became lovers of what was unpopular art during their time in Paris—Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and Modern art. And by collecting art, they found a way to once again experience love and life. They were truly kindred souls—real and imagined—in life and in art.

The Significance of Black Bodies—Buried

©Brian Palmer/brianpalmer.photos

  In my novel, Provenance, secrets are buried, and revealed, in Richmond, Virginia’s Evergreen Cemetery. The same can be said for the cemetery itself. When slavery ended and African-Americans in the South could claim a final resting place, approximately 5,000 African-Americans chose Evergreen Cemetery. Now the two historic African-American cemeteries in Richmond, through neglect and civic indifference, lie under decades of overgrowth and underbrush. The same freedoms that made black cemeteries possible also became reasons they turned into woodland—families moved away, some migrated North establishing a home place away from the segregated south. In time, some folks forgot or just never knew the significance and the secrets buried along with black bodies during the early 20th century. However, through the efforts of some people in the 21st century, secrets long kept and compacts long hidden are being revealed.

One of the diligent excavators of the secrets within Evergreen and East End Cemeteries is Brian Palmer, a photographer, writer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. I discovered Palmer’s work while doing research for Provenance. Through his photographs, Palmer tells the story of people and situations that he knows might otherwise remain untold—Evergreen and East End Cemeteries are such stories. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Palmer uses his pen to illustrate and illuminate complicit compacts in states like Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. These states award thousands of taxpayer dollars annually to preserve the burial sites and erect monuments for traitors and oppressors while ignoring American citizens who were oppressed. Read Palmer’s eloquent opinion piece, For the Forgotten African-American Dead, where he calls on the Virginia General Assembly to pass House Bill 1547 and provide some taxpayer support to preserve historical graves and cemeteries of African-Americans. 

In The Significance of a Final Resting Place, I wrote about Palmer’s work, the prominent African-Americans buried in Evergreen Cemetery and, how the historic site became a pivotal scene in my novel. You can see more of Palmer’s work at http://www.brianpalmer.photos/

If you live in Virginia, contact your state legislative representative and insist that they vote for House Bill 1547. If you live in other states turning a blind eye and providing paltry or non-existent funding for African-American historic sites – speak up on behalf of history for all of us.

Who Do You See When You Look at Me?

I am so passionate about art because it is a mirror and a crystal ball. It shows us who we are and at the same time who we could be. True creatives often use their craft to help us see, and hopefully, see beyond the lies and misrepresentations – we can really use that now.

The French artist, Edgar Degas, said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”  That is a powerful message and an even more powerful mission. A stellar example of that power is Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male, a current exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. It is the work of Charlotte-based photographer and filmmaker, Jerry Taliaferro who photographed 34 African American men and then challenges the viewer by asking, “Who do you see when you look at me?”

In his artist’s statement Taliaferro writes, “Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary black American male. Sons is a humble attempt to reveal how black American males see themselves while encouraging a thought-provoking examination of how they are perceived. Perhaps this project can be the start of a conversation.”

rl-exhibition-john
Who do you see when you look at me?

When you enter the Sons exhibition gallery you start in a section called “Perceptions,” black and white photographs of just the faces of black men. The images are not identified, labels only ask Taliaferro’s provocative question. There are no clues or social cues to depend on for your answers; simply faces making your assumptions a testament to your experiences and beliefs.

As you move further into the gallery you enter the “Realities and Reconciliation,” area.  The same subjects from the previous section are named and identified through short bios as well as videos that are accessible using QR codes that you can scan with a smart phone or tablet. Once identified, you see men who run the gamut of the black experience. You can hear them talk about their experiences when others’ perceptions of them are inconsistent with who and what they really are. Dr. John T. Bullock, a Towson University professor and recently elected Baltimore City Councilman, talks in his video about what he and his wife, Jacquelyn, call the “Double oh!” When he introduces himself as a professor, or now as an elected city official, he often gets that surprised look and response, “Oh! Oohh! So, you’re a councilman?”

The video by comedian, Jason Weems, is a heartbreaking contrast to his occupation as he talks about having to keep his son from playing with a toy gun in the park fearing that a childish game of cops and robbers could lead to a real-life cop shooting first and asking questions later. Other subjects—all sons and fathers—include a hospital administrator, a county executive, a police officer, a disc jockey, a musician, a tech executive. community activists, educators, and attorneys; they demonstrate the diversity of black men, however, their experiences are strikingly similar.

Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.
Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.

During the preview, I had the opportunity to meet several of the men who are subjects in the exhibition. Many attended with their own sons and I was impressed by the confidence and optimism they exuded. Through Jerry Taliaferro lens these black men are now art, and to repeat the words of Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Sons forces you beyond the perception to see, really see, fathers and sons—black men—as they are and as they hope to be—mirror and crystal ball.

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male is on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture through 2017. If you’re in or near the Baltimore area, please go. It will change the way you see.

You’ll find more information on the exhibition and there’s a short film featuring some of the men in the exhibition at, http://lewismuseum.org/special-exhibition/sons-seeing-the-modern-african-american-male