Tag Archives: the American South

Women’s March in Trenton (2)

If you read my previous post, you know why I passed on the big marches in DC and Philadelphia… Another reason to go to Trenton was to help out a friend who is currently “mobility impaired”. We decided to attend the rally in front of the State House.

When we arrived, I missed most of what the speaker was saying, due to the quirks of the microphone in the open air. We moved forward a little before the next speaker, an African American woman, began. I wish I could tell you her name. I’ll take the liberty of calling her Elder Sister. I believe she was 90+ years old. Elder Sister spoke about her experiences in Trenton as a young teenager. She integrated two businesses by refusing to cooperate with segregated arrangements. One was a hotdog stand, the other a movie theater. It was good to hear her recount her successes. She offered encouragement to continue the struggle for equality and justice. I wish the setting had offered a chance for us to learn more about her life.

I was reminded of another account by a young woman fighting against racism. This account comes from the writings of Maya Angelou, probably from her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’m giving you this from memory, having read the book within a few years of its publication in 1969. Maya Angelou went to live with her Grandmother in the deep South, and resented how meanly the white women in that town treated their hired housekeepers. One day she spoke up, told a woman she was unfair and that she wouldn’t work at that house any more. She returned home and, perhaps with pride (?), recounted the incident. Maya Angelou’s Grandmother took her immediately, before dark, to the train station and sent her away, back up north, for her safety.

Elder Sister and Maya Angelou were born around the same time. Their accounts differ, but I strongly suspect Trenton also resisted integration and other social changes. Maybe not as harshly as the rural South, but change can’t always have been as easy as Elder Sister’s brief discussion made it sound.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if these two women could have met, shared their experiences, poured out more advice for the younger generations! Maya Angelou, sadly, died in 2014, at her home in Winston-Salem NC. Wikipedia, in a LONG article, describes her as “…poet, memoirist and civil rights activist”. She recited poetry at the Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, received numerous prizes and was commemorated by the US Postal Service on a stamp.

What about Elder Sister? I don’t know! An account of her life story would be such a treasure. I expect she deserves awards and honors. All I can do is say THANK YOU here.

What a blessing to us all when wise women share their stories!

Advertisements

“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I won’t review this book. That has already been done by practically everyone. Amazon lists 8,318 customer reviews!

The publication history of Watchman is interesting. Harper Lee (now almost 90 years old) had said she never intended to publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. For the record, I agree that Mockingbird is one of the best American novels ever written.

Watchman is described as a first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, and it does have a slightly choppy, anecdotal quality. But I was hooked from the first pages. The characters are so vivid and distinctive! Lee is a wonderful narrator. Some people advised Harper Lee not to publish Watchman because it would somehow detract from the stature of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t feel that it did.

Watchman has become a favorite of book clubs and discussion groups, at this time when national dialog on race is very intense. What happens when 2015 consciousness is applied to a novel written in the 1950s? If you have participated, please share!

Check my blog entry dated March 12, 2015 for a reminiscence about my first look at To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Looking for Longleaf – the Fall and Rise of an American Forest” by Lawrence S. Earley

(The University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 272 pages plus notes, bibliography and index. Extensive illustrations.)

This is a “must read” book! It’s a highly enjoyable combination of ecological science and regional history.

The longleaf pine forest of the Southeastern US was an astonishing natural resource. It was never truly “primeval”, being influenced by human activity since the original Americans arrived from Asia. But it was vast and rich in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Longleaf pine is “managed” no matter what is done to it. The range of outcomes (from commercial timbering to bird habitat enhancement) is broad and the time scales (from a few years to over a century) are impressive.

To my surprise, I’m currently following the progress of TWO forest management plans.

One covers the campus where I work, specifying practices for perhaps half of the 1600 acre property. It has two purposes. One is to get the campus out from under a misguided state policy that requires one-to-one replacement of every tree that gets cut for construction or other development (like parking lots). The other purpose to keep the forest healthy and enhance biodiversity. A healthy forest can hardly be taken for granted in New Jersey, battered as we have been by storms and insect infestations. (Remember the gypsy moth?) We also suffer from invasion by non-native plant species. So our woods need careful management. So far, one “prescribed burn” has been conducted and some selective cutting is in progress. This is a wonderful accomplishment! Finally we are done with decades of neglect. Leaving a forest alone is NOT the best way to care for it.

The other forest management plan in my life was developed about five years ago, to protect land in North Carolina owned by my husband’s family. Some timber has been harvested under this plan, and other steps may follow. Will this include reintroduction of longleaf pine? I don’t know, but I’m glad that preservation is being combined with management on this rural property, with its beavers, bears, rice field and aged trees.

The only forest on MY side of the family, a seven acre sliver of New England hillside, was sold about fifteen years ago. It was important to my childhood. I miss it. A peak at GoggleEarth recently showed me that it remains undeveloped. Surprising!

I recommend Looking for Longleaf to anyone interested in the fate of nature in our rapidly changing world.

Maya Angelou – 1928 to 2014 – Rest in Peace

Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!

That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!

She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.

I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.

(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)

I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?

I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.

Flannery O’Connor… Why?

I recently attended a seminar on two stories by Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. I barely prepared for the discussion. I had read the first story a few years ago. I found a plot summary for the second story on the internet, and read a bit about O’Connor herself. A longish drive to the seminar event with friends completed my “preparation”.

O’Connor is the most depressing author I’ve ever read. In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a family you couldn’t possibly like (bitchy grandmother, henpecked son, bratty children) fall into the hands of the misfit. All are murdered. In Good Country People, an unscrupulous Bible salesman seduces a handicapped (and not very likeable) young woman and steals her prosthetic leg and eyeglasses to satisfy his perverted sexual fetishism. So much for plot…

Ugg. These stories put images into my head that I don’t want there. O’Connor described herself as a “Christian realist”, but I see no sign of any type of redemption in her tales. I was told her stories are allegorical, but I am a decidedly literal minded reader. O’Connor said (approximately) that readers who placed her work in the “horror” genre were generally reacting to the “wrong horror”. So there must be a point to these stories that I don’t get.

BUT these stories kept the seminar group talking! We ran 45 minutes overtime. People had plenty to say, so if one criterion of good literature is that it supports extended discussion, O’Connor’s stories are good. Another occasional criterion of good literature is that it takes people outside of their “comfort zone”. Flannery O’Connor goes WAY outside…

I found myself thinking about Steven King, whose autobiography On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft I discussed in a blog post on December 21, 2013. King embraced the “horror” genre 100%, and it made him rich. He seems to have disdained plot in favor of his “characters”, who, if I understand him correctly, often do things their creator finds surprising. What makes King so sensationally successful? I guess I will only find out by reading him, but for now I am taking a break from fiction.

If YOU have read a Stephen King novel, or seen a movie based on one (like The Shining), I’d love to hear what you thought of it! Meanwhile, I’m not recommending Flannery O’Connor, unless you are looking for something really gothic and creepy.