Tag Archives: American culture

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine

 

Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

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Childhood Fears – The Bomb, Driver’s Ed and Amtrak

My corner of the internet is busy debating the impact of “active shooter” drills and other safety measures on the mental health of children. One author asked if any other generation of American children has known so much fear. Symptoms of anxiety are becoming widespread.

I remember my fear of The Bomb. I was born in 1949. By the time I was in elementary school, the Cold War was in full swing. The arms race was hot. By age 8, I participated in “flash drills”. I was taught to “duck and cover”, but it wasn’t at all clear what that meant. Protect the back of my neck? When the local emergency siren sounded it’s weekly test (noon on Saturday), I flopped down with my face in the grass with my arms protecting my head. I wasn’t frightened.

Things gradually ramped up. I lived near Hartford, Connecticut, and I was told Hartford was probably a nuclear target because of an aircraft factory (Pratt and Whitney). I knew that bombs were delivered by airplanes, so the air traffic in and out of Hartford’s Bradley Field and along the northeast corridor frightened me. Then I was told that the planes that delivered bombs were up so high that we wouldn’t hear them. This didn’t exactly help. I was afraid of invisible radiation.

Things came to a head one day. My mother was cooking dinner using the pressure cooker. (Nothing like having a bomb in your kitchen.) The valve got blocked. Fortunately there was a safety valve, which popped loose. The escaping steam made a loud, horrible, screeching, completely unfamiliar metal-on-metal sound. Assuming we had been bombed, I panicked and headed for the basement at a dead run. My mother intercepted me, explained the problem in the kitchen and helped me settle down. I’m lucky. No one mocked me. I’ve shared this as a funny story from my childhood. But it wasn’t funny.

We lived with fear. My parents, survivors of the Depression and World War II, didn’t tell us everything was going to be okay.

How did I “get over” my fear? I learned denial! Hey, we all use it. If we really thought about all the things that can go wrong in life, none of us would get out of bed. Surely we wouldn’t get into automobiles or airplanes. Not today, we tell ourselves. Not in my town. Not me. I first utilized denial the summer I was eleven. I was going to Girl Scout camp for two weeks. It’s hard to explain how happy and excited I was! And I thought “The Russians won’t drop the bomb while I’m at camp.” So I forgot about it, set it aside, and went off to spend two weeks in a tent. It was great. What’s wrong with denial, if it makes it possible to live with something you can’t change?  I knew perfectly well nothing had actually changed between the US and Russia.

I remember the controversy, when I was in high school, over gory auto accident movies. My high school offered Driver’s Education. Some movies went to extremes – showing decapitation, etc. Some teachers insisted everyone had to watch all the blood and guts. Other teachers allowed some students to be excused. I don’t remember the details. I wonder what is current practice. I do know there’s some educational research that may help those who make these decisions. Does putting a wrecked car in which a young person died in front of the high school reduce that chance of prom night tragedies? I wish I knew.

Here’s another experience I want to share, from the perspective not of a child but of a parent. The threat in question was train safety. Amtrak, understandably, wants to keep people (especially children) OFF THE TRACKS. One of their approaches (early 1990s) was to show a safety movie, and one target captive audience was children in schools near train tracks, most of which are not fenced. (Never mind that NO child in our town crossed a track to walk to school.) My son was traumatized. The movie was very upsetting. As a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to see the film, and, yes, it was shocking. After some general safety discussion (don’t walk on the tracks, look both ways if you must cross), the film showed two children on the tracks. One has boasted that he will stand on the tracks until the train “almost” hits him. Another child tries to pull him off. With a roar and screaming whistle, the train thunders toward them and the screen goes black. I’ll bet my son wasn’t the only child to get upset.

A school shooting is a different type of threat. Parents and teachers are straining themselves to the utmost figuring out how to help and protect today’s children.

So much to consider… children need to learn train safety, fire safety, pedestrian safety, and now, some things about firearms. Our responsibility as adults is to protect children and, over time, teach them to protect themselves. It’s not easy.

We all experience fear. Parents and educators face incredibly difficult decisions. We need to talk.

We are all in this together. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.

Riley C Howell, age 21 – Rest in Peace

On April 30, Riley Howell charged a gunman in a classroom at University of North Carolina/Charlotte. He was shot point blank. His action undoubtedly saved lives. The toll was two deaths and four injured.

The graduation picture released by Howell’s family is heartbreaking. Howell radiates happy energy. He is described as a fearless athlete who loved a challenge.

Why did he charge the shooter? Did he expect to die? We won’t ever know.

In my reading, I encountered someone who might offer insight. Frank Delaney’s book Simple Courage – A True Story of Peril on the Sea describes an incident that happened in 1951 in the north Atlantic. Delaney recounts that when Captain Kurt Carlsen had safely evacuated all crew and passengers off  his disabled bulk cargo ship Flying Enterprise, a young sailor/radio operator jumped from a tug boat to the foundering ship. Why? The risk was extreme. He didn’t know Carlsen. Possibly Carlsen would have survived without him. Together, for two weeks, they struggled to salvage the crippled ship, finally leaving it just before it sank.

I wonder what we could learn, if it was possible to speak to that radio operator. (Not having the book in my hand, I don’t know what he said, if anything.) If he is living, he would be at least 90 years old. My review of Simple Courage can be found in this blog dated April 22, 2014. (Interestingly, Amazon’s web site includes a review of Simple Courage by Senator John McCain, who found the book “absorbing, thrilling and inspirational…”)

Howell’s loved ones can frame this however they choose, remember him as a hero or regret his split second decision or both. Their lives will never be the same. My heart aches for them.

Before I could even post this, another tragic death has occurred, of a high school student in Colorado, in similar circumstances.

“Finding Dorothy” by Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy: A Novel

This book was given to me when I made a purchase at an independent bookstore in North Carolina. There was a stack (several feet high) of pre-release volumes from which I was invited to choose. The official publication date is February 12, 2019. My copy is marked Advance Reader’s Edition. Maybe there’s too much competition if you release a book right before Christmas?

The “Dorothy” of this book is the heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who spoke the immortal words “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” The book falls into the genre of fictionalized biography. (I disapprove, in principle…)

Elizabeth Letts begins by introducing Maud Gage Baum as an elderly woman, in 1938, during the months when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by her deceased husband, was being rendered into a movie.

Flashbacks then reveal Maud Baum’s life story, beginning with her arrival at Cornell University in one of the first groups of women permitted to study there.

Many aspect of Maud Gage Baum’s life are distressing. She suffered from the rampant sexism of her day, poor medical care and economic instability. Her mother, Matilda Gage, was a well known suffragist at a time when the vote for women was widely considered a joke.

The book would be depressing, but L Frank Baum was such an engaging, imaginative and kind man that we understand how Maud was able to carry on.

One well developed theme was the Women’s Suffrage movement. Additionally, both Christian Science and spiritualism are touched in passing. Maud Baum lived in interesting times!

What about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Letts describes Frank Baum as a man of vast creativity and optimism. His book is described in Wikipedia as “the first American fairy tale”. What a wonderful accolade! Its popularity was sensational. Children believed every word of it, loved it, read it, dreamed it.

Somehow, I never read the book and never even watched the movie all the way through. But now I feel inspired to do both. I think that makes Letts’s book a wonderful success.

PS: Why have I read two works recently in which a DOLL figures prominently? The Dorothy of Letts’s novel is not a person, but rather the beloved doll owned by Maud Baum’s suffering niece, who is tragically mired in poverty and loneliness. The doll is destroyed and Dorothy is reincarnated as an imaginary friend. Think about the doll in the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. Kind of witchy, right? Can anyone explain to me the end of that long saga, when the doll reappears?

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I wanted to write about this book BEFORE checking out reviews and other feedback, but it’s becoming more difficult every day! I just got a Facebook message from the man himself (Barack Obama) recommending the book, and offering a few other comments. He did not yet release his annual list of favorite books.

One of the first questions I was asked (by a friend) was whether Mrs. Obama had a co-author. There’s none on the title page. She mentions many people in her acknowledgements (which run to three pages and end, unpredictably, with a gratitude towards “every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady… Thank you for giving me a reason to be hopeful”). So, the answer is “no”. There was no co-author.

Michelle Obama emphasized one thing over and over. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us matters. Much of her public speaking has involved telling her story – that of growing up on Chicago’s side, seeing her neighborhood change from diverse to decidedly minority dominated, wanting SO MUCH to achieve, to be approved of, to get high grades!

Once, when she was in high school, Michelle was asked (by a relative near her own age) why she talked “like a white person”. Surprised, she didn’t really answer. Her parents and other adult relatives had emphasized diction and standard usage. My guess is that Michelle Obama is functionally bilingual (in two forms of English).

So much of Michelle Obama’s life was spent “juggling”. Between being “too black” and “too white”, and everything else. Too tall. Too earnest. Too “pushy”. She found her path, but became, in many understandable ways, cautious. She was always aware of the balance she needed and/or wanted to strike.

I was interested in the First Family’s life in the White House. Michelle wanted her mother to join them, but Mrs. Marian Robinson was reluctant. She had lived all her life in Chicago. Michelle enlisted her brother Craig to help change her mind. Mrs. Robinson was able to occasionally evade the constant Secret Service presence. She slipped out of the White House to run errands. If someone said “You look like Michelle Obama’s mother”, she smiled politely and said “Yes, people say that…”

I get the impression that Michelle and the President didn’t play any games AT ALL with the Secret Service. They accepted the fact that the stakes were way too high for that.

We all wonder what’s ahead for the Obama family. Leadership is so urgently needed, but they deserve a break, at the very least a long vacation, and I wish them all the best in the future.

“One Small Plot of Heaven – Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist” by Elise Boulding

One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist

Pendle Hill Publications, 1989, 216 pages plus bibliography and index. Why did I pull this old book off my shelf? Just looking for comfort, in these difficult times, and remembering Elise Boulding’s husband Kenneth from a lecture many years ago.

This book is a collection of twelve separate speeches and pamphlets. It’s far from coherent, but I’m glad these essays were assembled in one place, for our benefit. I read Born Remembering (third chapter) many years ago with a discussion group.

This time my attention was drawn to two chapters written THIRTY-FOUR YEARS apart, in 1952 and 1989. The essay from 1952 was entitled Friends Testimonies in the Home. My reaction to it was that Elise Boulding set an impossibly high standard for home making and child rearing! I mean, totally out of sight. On a scale of one to ten, my parenting (~1984 to 2010) would have rated about 0.3. When she wrote this essay, three of her five children had been born. Wikipedia describes her as “home maker and activist”. She lived in proximity to other Quaker families and attended a large meeting that provided substantial attention and support to families. A major focus was on how to raise children who would become peacemakers. Motivation, I think, sprang from post WWII international considerations and Cold War fears.

Thirty-four years later, Elise Boulding was looking at a very different world, and her focus was not on international considerations like war but on her beloved Religious Society of Friends. Quakers had recognized some of their failings, including the occurrence of  violence in Quaker families. How could she have missed this, she asks? She admits to “willful blindness” and describes the “strong effort of the will” it took for her to confront the ugly truth. Then she proceeds to offer analysis based on both Quakerism and sociology.

Boulding identifies and describes what she calls a “residue of emotional turbulence” and “the unacknowledged residue of anger” among Quakers. Yes.

The perfect Quaker family is a “fictive reality” (Boulding’s term).

This is an oversimplification. But I know from personal experience that trying to create the “perfect Quaker family” (or marriage, or persona) can lead to trouble.

The essay and the book end with hopefulness. More hopefulness than I can sometimes muster. Guess I better keep the book around, to help me through dark moments.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.