Blues

This week in Chicago, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the first time in several years. It’s not generally my thing, contemporary art, but I’ve always found the place deeply thought-provoking. This time was no different. Howardena Pindell—an artist whose work I didn’t know. But trusting the MCA (and the nice guy at the front desk who recommended her show as he sold me my ticket), I went. I was drawn in at once by her exuberant color, and the strange, nit-picky way she numbered grid paper in her early work—an homage to her mathematician father, the labels claimed—and the intricate transition from those fetished numbers into hole punches inscribed with numbers, into hole-punched canvases, into beautiful, hand-stitched paper assemblages scattered with punched holes, bits of glitter, talcum powder, thread.

I was merrily absorbed in all of this when I was taken up short by an abrupt transition—Pindell’s car accident in 1979, from which she emerged semi-amnesiac. Now the hole-punched abstract canvases took on more urgency. She began affixing scraps of paper—images, slivers of postcards from friends, fragments relevant to her lost memories. Titles repeat the word “memory,” as if by insisting on memory she might recover it. The work is recognizably hers—the vibrant colors, the obsession with punched holes, stitched paper.

And then the show’s great revelation: a vast and brilliant blue oval of sea (or sky or both) reckoning with the Middle Passage and Pindell’s African ancestry, titled Autobiography: Water/Ancestors Middle Passage/Family Ghosts (it belongs to the Wadsworth Atheneum). Here, in this impossibly beautiful blue piece, she conjures the stitched-together nature of memory, collective and personal. We see a female body, capped with a self-portrait of Pindell herself, cut from and stitched back into the broader canvas, which is scattered with images conjuring the slave trade, including the notorious diagram of a slave ship with its packed human cargo. And in its midst is this body—alive, fragrant, contemporary. The arms and legs are patched with small images of eyes. She is both an eye and an I. A witness—in a place where she was meant to be only cargo, eyeless. I-less. But here instead, like an Egyptian goddess, she sees all.

The piece feels one with Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, in which Hartman, a descendant of enslaved African Americans, attempts to stitch together the “gaps and silences and empty rooms” of her history. “Alongside the terrible things one had survived,” Hartman writes of those who endured the Middle Passage, “was also the shame of having survived it. Remembering warred with the will to forget.”

I’ve got evidence that my own great-great-great-grandfather purchased an imprisoned African from the illicit slave ship Wanderer in 1858. I too am working with scissored truths to reconstruct a history from this destruction. So blue and beautiful from a distance, the sea: so cruel in the details.

Optimists

It’s the first of the year, the temps are dropping and evenings lengthening by the minute. On January 4, the mornings start growing longer, too—or so my Swiss brother-in-law, born on the 4th, tells me. We move toward light.

Two weeks ago, I went out at daybreak to get the paper and heard a rush of bird song. Or rather, a triple-word, triple-syllable trill by a bird I eventually spotted in the top branches of the mock orange beside our garage. Small, brown, wrenlike, with a brilliant song. What gives, I thought, when even birds are making merry in this shortest, darkest month of the year?

In another 30 days, bird song will be rampant and we’ll have gained an hour of daylight. We move toward grace.

Last week in Switzerland, I discovered the Protestant church in the town of Martigny in the heart of Catholic Valais, with its 17 stained-glass windows designed between 2011 and 2013 by the Swiss artist Hans Erni. Erni was 102 when he began the project and 104 when he completed it. A non-believer, he turned Biblical stories into charged, nearly secular images whose searing colors and often whimsical imagery struck me as profoundly sacred, inasmuch as they sanctify the everyday. Consider Eve as a farmer’s wife harvesting apples by the basketful, Jonah as a diver plunging head-first into the sea as he reaches out with one hand to play with a fish, Isaiah as a young boy charmed by the guileless snake at his knees.

Consider, above all, the faith of a painter who in his second century of life took on this massive commission. The Protestant church at Martigny is lit from the inside at night, so that residents of the town, believers and non-believers both, cannot avoid the bright vision of this spirited centenarian.

Erni died in 2015, at 106. May his optimism inspire ours.

Reading the News

 

“Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation / Grant us thy peace.” —T.S. Eliot, “A Song for Simeon”

The sky’s still here, the sun’s out, the first bulbs are sprouting in the garden. Everything seems OK. But I fear the ghosts—the demons, devils, tribes—inside us. I remember the months I spent in the archives in Spain, principally Madrid and Granada, trawling through newspapers from the early 1930s. In particular, I remember the small articles, the notices so tiny they nearly dissolved among the ads—offhand reports of edicts against Jews in Germany; accounts of random violence in Madrid. None was more than a ripple in a lake, the benign burbling of some creature breathing beneath the surface of things. No storm yet, no kettle-drum rolls, no ominous movie soundtrack. Just incremental history, as slow as a cake rising in the oven, even, sometimes, sweet-smelling.

But still. There I sat, a U.S. government grant recipient paid to study the life of a gay poet murdered by Fascists in 1936. I sat there with my crisp and eerie knowledge of what later unfolded—the gradual and then sudden suppression of rights not only in Spain but across Europe; the bombs; the round-ups; the mass graves. Blessed with a hindsight I wish I had now, I knew where those little articles led. As I read them, I made invisible underlinings, reminding myself—as we’ve been reminded lately by the likes of Masha Gessen—that this is how it happens. The tanks don’t just suddenly appear on the streets: we get there in increments.

So how do we function? Do we merely note the warning signs and hope to survive?

I remember sitting beside the open window of the reading room inside the archive in Granada (a repurposed Renaissance palace, one of the loveliest archives I’ve ever used), reading those terrible newspapers from the summer of 1936—the black headlines, the trucks, the guns, how the city morphed overnight into a battleground. I’d take a break midway through my morning and go across the street for a coffee, and sit there chatting with the bartender, and wonder how this peaceful and pretty city could have turned so abruptly into a killing zone in our own century. The barracks, the truckloads of victims ascending the steep road to the cemetery next to the Alhambra, where the firing squad waited.

And here I sit now, in my own country, sipping coffee, chatting with friends. The sun is out, the streets calm. I read the headlines and turn the page and every so often wonder if 50 years from now a scholar on a government grant will be poring over the articles I’m reading today, asking how did they not know.

How long before we enter the time of cords and scourges and lamentations? Or are we there already and just don’t see it?

Totems

Here in Vancouver, on a brief (and surprisingly welcome, given my recent misgivings) trip, I’ve been looking at totem poles. Dozens of them at the Museum of Anthropology; a handful of contemporary ones in Stanley Park; and just today, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, painter Emily Carr’s enthralled and turbulent renderings of the totem poles she saw during her travels along the BC coast in the first half of the 20th century.

I grew up with images of them, as I expect most Americans my age did. But I’d never really looked at them until now—at the intricate and fluid metamorphoses that unfold up and down the length of an individual pole. One creature grows out of another, resides within another, emerges intact from another’s mouth or ears or loins. Animal morphs into human, human into animal. It is an inviting, prelapsarian world—an egalitarian Eden, summoned, literally, from nature itself: those massive cedars I saw yesterday in Stanley Park, the whirling blue-green trees that sent Carr into such spiritual rapture.

But it’s their ancestral role (and work) that most intrigues me. A marker at Stanley Park describes the totem pole as “the British Columbia Indian’s ‘coat of arms.’” Clans identify with totemic animals, and poles narrate family history. It’s a rich image, one I’m eager to milk as I continue to wrestle with my own family’s past. In the presence of these towering structures, I see afresh how the generations build on and spring from and nest within one another—how long-gone ancestors grow into enormous figures whose deeds cast thick shadows. Try though I might to build my own house, independent of ancestral influence, there they are: immense familial poles rising tall on either side of my front door, exerting their power, generating complications, reminding me whose I am.

The View from Oman

Through the window of my hotel in Muscat, Oman, I see the Gulf of Oman, which leads to the Arabian (or Persian, depending on your politics) Gulf. Off in the mists of the horizon sit a trio of oil tankers. They’ve been docked offshore for the duration of my visit here—four days and counting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys—this one, which I didn’t particularly want—and journeys in general. My two grandmothers, maternal and paternal, both set their sights on the wider world, and for women born in the last years of the 19th century showed surprising travel mettle. One took tours to South America and Spain in her older age. The other moved with her engineer husband to the Caribbean in the early 1920s and spent the next 30 years there, raising kids on a sisal plantation in Haiti, battling who knows what illnesses and fears. I’ve inherited their wanderlust but not, it seems to me increasingly as I age, their apparently singleminded devotion to its pursuit.

I find it harder and harder to leave home.

I find the thrill of travel more and more elusive. My curiosity—that faithful driver deep inside the reptilian human brain—is waning.

So why go? In this instance, because the trip was more or less thrust on me. I said yes before I knew what I was doing, and here I am, in Oman, for a conference about cancer, which is its own unwelcome journey, of course, to use what’s both a cliché and a reality for the dozens of people I’ve met here—women, mostly, whose nobility in the face of their unwanted travels I find humbling. I’m here to talk about how stories can empower those who have cancer and those whose job it is to report on the disease, but it’s the stories I’m hearing that are teaching me.

As my flight took off four+ days ago, I thought of that term “liftoff.” You lift off from the earth and plunge like a needle through the clouds, and with luck into the clarity of a blue sky or a starpocked night. Maybe that’s what still impels me to say yes to these less-and-less welcome embarkations—the chance to lift off the mind’s clutter, shed the routines and rituals I take for granted, see those oil tankers on the horizon and know that we’re connected. To meet the intrepid women at this conference, voyagers who in so many ways remind me of my grandmothers: their passports stamped with the record of their travels and their travails, open still, ready for the next page.

Artifacts

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.” —Colette

 

In late January, on an unexpectedly frigid day, and despite a sore throat, I spent four hours inside Mexico City’s great anthropology museum. I’d been there once before, when I was 13, on a visit with my grandmother and brother. The museum was then four years old. It’s held up beautifully: still that bold stone exterior, at once hard and undulating; that astonishing umbrella-like roof shading its massive interior courtyard.

The day was overcast and damp, and the museum unheated. I’d worn nothing warmer than a summer raincoat. A cold day made worse by the raging wound at the back of my throat.

But the galleries held me. One after another, they told their stories. Mostly in stone and clay; occasionally in wood, fabric or paint. Figures two, three, four-thousand years old engaged in the stuff of everyday life. They watch, they crouch, they harvest and prepare food, they stare down from impossible heights, they give birth. They are noseless, faceless, dead, bleeding, about to kill, grinning. They’re being devoured by a snake, a jaguar, another being as powerful as they.

I lurched between admiration and horror. In each gallery, something whimsical called out: a squatting rabbit, a cat, a man cuddling a dog to his chest. In each gallery, something appalled: the sacrificial altar or slab where hearts were offered to the bloodthirsty sun. A display case holding the deformed and decorated skulls of child slaves who’d been purchased at the market for sacrificial slaughter.

I lingered for some time over the last of these, grateful to the archaeologists who’d excavated these artifacts and deciphered the grisly story they represent. Unnerved by that story.

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Reconstructed Slave Cabin, Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida

Why unearth the past? A man at the gym asked me the other day why I’m digging up the story of my slaveholding ancestors. I gave the obvious answers: because it’s important, because we need to confront the truth, because this country has done so little to acknowledge the brute realities of our history—slavery and Native American genocide, twin foundations of so much that we regard as American progress. 

Those are easy answers. The tougher one is how are we perpetuating this history in the present? I’ve often wondered how my ancestors could live their relatively comfortable lives within sight of the slave cabins. (How those ancient Mexican civilizations could carry on with business after murdering enslaved children …) But then I ask myself: what are the slave cabins of our era? The inequities on which my comfort depends? The shorn mountaintops of West Virginia? Detroit’s failing public schools? Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods?

Each generation solves and complicates. We leave behind marvels of beauty, artifacts rich with story, actions and attitudes too callous to explain.

Into the woods

Eat the slick interior of an oyster and you’re left with two shells, layered like mica or phyllo, blues shading into grays shading into lavenders and creams. I’ve never found a pearl in one, though I think of Steinbeck’s The Pearl (first read in fourth grade) nearly every time I eat an oyster.

But today it’s the debris that interests me, those massive piles of shells left after the sweet bivalve has been plucked. And particularly the strong-brittle substance known as tabby, which, like so much else, enslaved African Americans learned to fabricate and then turn into objects of utility: oyster-shell bricks with which to build houses, their own and those of the people who professed to own them. People like my ancestors.

I have such a brick in my family room here in Ann Arbor. It came to me from my late mother, who undoubtedly explained its origins to me, but I’ve forgotten them. I assume it’s from coastal Georgia, where my forebears grew cotton. The land is saltwater marsh, a fragile ecosystem then and now, riddled with snakes, gators, crabs and other crustaceans. In the summer, 19th-century planters used to escape the malarial swamplands by heading inland. They left their slaves to contend with the pests and keep working the land—dredging canals, clearing tick-ridden woods to make fields, hauling supplies from wharf to plantation to wharf, endless labor. And of course picking, sorting, baling cotton. Men and women both were expected to pick 80, 90, 100 or more pounds of cotton a day; a shortfall meant whipping.

A man I met last year at a conference, a former staff member at the Historic Preservation Trust, has proposed a “Who Built America” campaign to mark—and celebrate—the anonymous contributions of enslaved African Americans to the nation’s infrastructure. To date he’s got no takers.

Many of these things came to mind in May as I stood deep inside a grove of tick-ridden woods in coastal Georgia, on acreage my family owned in the years leading up to the Civil War. I’d gone in with an archaeologist who’s been working on a dig to retrieve artifacts from a  a half-dozen former slave cabins on the site. The foundations of those cabins are tabby brick—so much tabby, in fact, that the archaeologists are using some of the bricks to hold down the protective tarps they lay over the sites each evening. Together, the archaeologist and I inspected two of the cabins where she and her team have found the remains of adjoining tabby fireplaces. On either side of a shared chimney, a family of as many as ten would have lived. The space is maybe twelve square feet. It was humid and buggy the day we went in, and when we emerged, we each picked nearly a score of tiny red ticks from our pants and shoes.

Inside one cabin, the team had found a nineteenth-century penny with the word “Liberty” stamped on its surface. Perhaps the enslaved people who lived here studied it with hope? More likely, they doused their fears and sorrows with one of the multiple pipe bowls the archaeologists have also found at the site, along with shards of pottery and glass, all of which will eventually be taken to an archive for storage.

But not the fireplaces. Not the tabby foundations of the cabins. Those will be turned back into the earth and ultimately covered with an asphalt parking lot. My first—and enduring—impulse is to rail against this desecration. Americans are quick to fault others (the Taliban, ISIS) for destroying cultural heritage in the name of religious ideology. But we do it in the name of commerce.

Some small part of me resists, however. Maybe it’s fitting that this awful part of American life—what journalist Charles P. Pierce calls “the mother of all American crimes”—be pushed back into the soil and buried in our humic earth. Maybe it’s fitting that these countless bits of oyster shell—these tabby bricks, molded by nameless, countless hands—be restored to the Edenic place from which they came, a world not yet corrupted by human greed.