I've just finished reading Nella Larsen's "Passing" and also Sinclair Lewis' "Kingsblood Royal." Both are absolutely excellent books for anyone interested in the history of racism in our country right up to the present day - although these books both address a form of racism that isn't as much of an issue as it once was, namely the Jim-Crowing of white people who have 'hidden' African ancestry, ie "Black Blood." (By the way, my mother's high-school photo was sepia-washed like this photo of Nella Larsen, a popular 'technique' of the era for indicating 'mulatto' status).
Nella Larsen's novel, Passing, captures the emotional reverberations of the Jim Crow era for light-colored 'Negroes' as well those white-looking enough to 'pass' as white, better than anyone else I've ever read - for example, in the scene where the three women (two 'passing') talk about their intense anxieties about their children to the point where they are physically sweating with fear, or in the intense discomfort of feeling 'confined' in life that is experienced by the narrator's copper-skinned physician husband, Brian, who would like to escape the 'color-line' by moving to Brazil.
But the book is even beyond this, so much more! Nella Larsen seems to be quite a good psychologist, even though in life she worked mostly as a nurse and also as a librarian. For example, the main 'passing' character is Clare who is married to a white man who is a raging racist. The general consensus seems to be that people who pass are exceptionally selfish people who want to 'get' things, even though there is also an admission that everyone wants to get as much as they can, but not everyone is willing - or able - to 'pass' in order to get them. 'Getting things' seems to be a priority in human life, as far as I can see, but spurning your family and community to get them, or even to acquire a greater measure of personal freedom, is too radical a move for most people to make.
And here is the genius of Nella Larsen: she makes it quite clear that Clare does not have any family. Her mother died while Clare was a baby and she was 'raised' by a white-skinned Negro-identified drunken janitor who died when she was fifteen. At that point, she was removed from the community by three white maiden great-aunts who used her as their household laborer until the time when Clare's blonde dark-eyed beauty attracted a rich white man who wanted to marry her. She ditches the aunts without a backward glance - all the better that none of them know about her marriage, so that no hint of her secret black identity should get back to her husband, who turns out to be quite racist.
Clare has no loyalty to the white race, who in the form of her great-aunts, abused her, so she feels free to marry this racist man and deceive him as to her true identity. She tells Irene, the light-skinned Negro narrator, married to a darker man, Brian, a physician, that she, Clare, is the kind of person who just takes what she wants and doesn't care who she hurts. This is either not entirely true, or Clare somehow regrets this coldness about herself, because she weeps as she tells this to Irene.
Clare, in my book, is a 'survivor,' someone who has no particular allegiance to anyone else, who has always had to 'take care of herself,' and cope and survive - someone who has been minimally 'helped' but much 'abandoned' by both 'races.' Irene's 'dark' father may have been kind to Clare when her drunken parent died, but no one offered to take her in. As she tells Irene, without the great-aunts (who put her to hard work for her keep) she would have had no home in the world. To me this is not someone who is superficially 'selfish' but someone desperate to survive and desirous of the best that life can offer her, who knows that it's up to her to get it for herself because no one is going to help her, and is not denying herself - in the way that Irene seems to do, Irene who treads the safe, respectable, predictable paths of the black middle-class 'professional-people' lifestyle. Clare has no family and no community, black or white.
Plato said that people like this are not really human, and this is exactly what plagues Irene about Clare and makes her friendship toxic to her. Clare is not playing by the same rules as Irene and even tries unsuccessfully to talk to Irene about it.
People write that there is a lesbian sub-text to this novel, but I can't say that I see it. A book I read in 2013 called "Yesterday's Self," written by a Polish Jew whose family left Poland for Canada when she was 13 years old evinces the same kind of language of longing, writes about all kinds of people she had to leave behind almost in the terms one uses to describe a lover. I think, based on my own experience, that a culture, an ethnicity is a very sensuous experience: the sounds of a dialect or a way of laughing, the smells of skin, hair, the interiors of homes, of ethnic foods, the colors of people skin and hair and eyes - all of this can become the object of intense longing when one is separated from the culture and its ethnic representatives.
In recent decades we've read more literature coming from the pens of descendants of dark-skinned, 'black' African-Americans, describing their experience, the fictionalized and sometimes deeply researched historical experiences of their forebears, and less attention has been placed on those who might prefer to be known as multi-'racial' or multi-ethnic. Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer would be two writers who wanted to be known as bi-racial or multi-racial, but the Jim Crow society demanded that they come down on one side or the other of the colors line: either white or black. They knew they were both, and much of Nella Larsen's writing seems to explore this knowledge.
The light-skinned African-Americans who had the possible option of 'passing' were perceived by the darker, less mixed brethren as the privileged elite. And although they did most definitely enjoy privilege relative to the darker members of the 'race,' they were still trapped in the ghetto of Jim Crow society. Blackness is the seed at the heart of the matter. Even though the narrative does not revolve so much anymore around the paradox of white people who have blackness at their cores, their narrative was nevertheless the narrative of blackness in a racist society, and served to underscore the irrationality of it. Without their layer of the story, everything becomes much more black-and-white. And so the story continues.
My own interest in Nella Larsen in particular is that my great-grandmother 'passed' as white, or tried to. She was multi-ethnic from an 'isolate-community' in Delaware who attempted to escape the color-line by taking work in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at that time a booming city with many immigrant laborers among whom she could blend in, pretending to be Irish in order to 'disguise' her archaic 'Appalachian-like' non-standard English. This was not the story of someone 'elite' or 'middle-class' as scholars like to categorize the 'passing' narrative. She was illiterate, a prostitute until she was able to locate her goal in life - a white husband from one of the classes above the level of the working-class, which she found in my highly spiritual Civil War wounded veteran great-grandfather who had been a white collar worker: county clerk. Her appearance was more Indian, or Caribbean perhaps, than 'black,' but even in that world of immigrant labor, she was recognized as 'not one of them.' Her 'passing' status was handed down to her son, my grandfather, and from him to my mother, who struggled to decide which 'race' to join - note again the sense of freedom to choose a race rather than a gut-feeling of 'belonging' to a race - I think this must be a central element in the psychological makeup of those who pass - a lack of feeling of belonging to either race.
My mother married someone she thought of as a white Danish man (similar to Nella Larsen's white Danish mother), although he was a Danish Jew. When I was born unambiguously white-looking with blonde hair and blue eyes, she decided the passing narrative should cease, should go underground with all the finality of a burial. However, she couldn't help herself, I suppose, and dropped hints, said things which had so much 'charge' to them at the time, that I've remembered them, wondered about them, and done the archaeology necessary to put the pieces together and interpret them. But that's a whole other story, which you can find on my weblog, Great-Grandmother's Blog.
Finally, I'd like to say that there are many different narratives of racism from all around the world, and for me some of what specifically characterizes the time-period that Nella Larsen was writing in, is that in attempting to break out of the ghetto and find some measure of greater freedom and anonymity in the wider society one ran the risk of discovery followed by disgrace, losses of all kinds (friends, family, job, status, income - as for example is narrated in Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis), and a return to a community, the black community, which may not accept you because they despise those who attempt to 'pass.' For people who don't have the option to pass, the narrative revolves around being forced to live in substandard housing, to take the lowest and worst-paying jobs, to be invisible/dismissed/hated by the dominant society's members, to be aware that your survival does not matter to your fellow-humans outside the circle of your own family and community, ie that you are expendable. Actually, all poor people, whatever their color experience this latter problem. During the days when slavery was legal, dark-complected people, including many Europeans, even if they lived free, had to live daily with the fear that they would be shanghaied into slavery and lose their freedom and self-determination on every level.
But I can see that this particular 'passing' narrative of the white-looking 'negro' has its parallels in stories like those of the Spanish Inquisition, in which people - Jews or Muslims - may have converted to Catholicism, whether genuinely or out of a sense of conforming to the dominant society at least on the surface (as was requested repeatedly by royal edicts), could be dragged from their homes, have their property seized by the state, and then be tortured and killed. An even more radical result if one failed at 'passing'! There is a novel that writes about this particular form of 'apartheid' called "The Queen's Fool" if you are interested in reading a book that deals with similar themes to those of "Passing" but in the setting of Inquisitional Europe. However, this latter book, and most books as far as I am aware, cannot approach the sheer artistry of Nella Larsen's novelistic work.
I just finished reading this book, The Treasure of Montsegur: A Novel of the Cathars, by Sophy Burnham, while still engrossed in "Kingsblood Royal," but I want to write my review while it's still fresh.
I've read several books on the Cathar heretics and their supposed treasure smuggled out of Montsegur before the mass martyrdom of the Cathars, and I have to say that far and away this is the best! Not only does Burnham capture the blended Catholic-Cathar culture of the South of France and its parage (way of life), which almost no one else really 'gets,' but her writing is beautiful, sensitive, intelligent and nuanced.
Her protagonist Jeanne of Beziers goes from noble lady (by birth, adoption and marriage) to a poor beggar suffering from severe post-traumatic stress after the siege of Montsegur and the decimation of her whole world, including the loss of all her loved ones to violence, which she witnesses. Burnham writes very insightfully about all of this in her portrayal of 'crazy Jeanne.'
The tale spans the gamut of lovely life among the nobility to the penury of being a poor refugee, and also paints a picture of life among the peasantry working the land and raising animals and food. To me, this book is a minor tour-de-force, and definitely worth reading if you are interested in this period in history.
(I have this book listed under 'spiritual genealogy' because we have Huguenots in our family history, and they were another group persecuted by the mainstream church, but late enough in time to have been able to escape to the 'New World.')
I thought I'd be getting off the African themes for a while in my reading, but then my husband brought home a book from the recycling center, in new condition, called "Kingsblood Royal" by Sinclair Lewis. I've never read Sinclair Lewis, I think his books were probably banned by the Magisterium in my day. (He wrote blockbusters in his own day, like "Elmer Gantry.") But especially for young people today who want to know what racism was really like in its hey-day, "Kingsblood Royal" is the book to read!
What stands out to me about this book, probably because this was something that deeply affected my mother, and therefore affected me, was the prejudice against 'white negroes,' and I'm reflecting on how the elimination of this category from the world of racism has changed the playing field - in favor, actually, of those elite who want to keep the social structure the way it is, with 'blacks' on the bottom! (Actually, I feel that Native Americans are even more 'on the bottom' than blacks, but with with all the attention right now on places like 'Ferguson', I think this is the moment to focus on prejudice and injustice towards blacks.)
There isn't much sympathy on either side of the black-white divide for the 'white negroes' of Olde, but they certainly suffered, and I don't think anyone can compare 'sufferings.' Who suffers more? The person who can't walk because of arthritis, or the person who can't walk because of diabetes? (amputations) Some people do suffer more than others, for sure, but that doesn't diminish the suffering of the others, does it? The 'white negroes' had their share of suffering, and as far as my experience tells me, even after they had 'passed' into the white mainstream, the ones I grew up around certainly supported the civil rights movement, despite opposition from co-workers, neighbors and so on - although, again in my experience, most of the neighbors were also former 'white negroes,' Native Americans or recent immigrants from war-torn lands. Some of the latter were prejudiced against blacks, no doubt about it - but their level of petty prejudice, though it can do a lot of damage, is nothing compared to the power of prejudice in the hands of the monied elite.
To get the real skinny on race in America, read John A. Powell's recent book "Racing to Justice" which explains the structure of our social system, and why 'blacks' (ie the darkest of our human family) 'have to' remain on the bottom. It is grim, discouraging reading, but nothing will change if we hide our heads in the sand like ostriches. We've got to look at it, at least.
For me, this book helps to explain why our attempts to integrate the middle class seem to be resulting in a shrinking of the middle class. Sobering reading, for sure.
More on "Kingsblood Royal" to follow - I'm only about half way through the book.
I'm continuing my reading on African themes. I just finished Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and have begun Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter.
Both of these books were mentioned in Americanah by Amimanda Ngozi Adichie, which is what inspired me to read them.
Things Fall Apart is described as 'mythical' and it is told in that sing-song story-telling sort of way. What I particularly liked about the book was its almost anthropological-like description of life in a remote area in Africa, as yet untouched by colonialism (supposedly, although missionaries do appear before the end of the book). All the different aspects of life studied by anthropologists come into the narrative: hunting, courting, family-life, ceremonies, shamanic training (the all-night ride on the shaman's back through the countryside), war-customs and so on.
The Heart of the Matter is a tougher read for me, because its whole tone and tenor is so overwhelmingly Catholic, and not in a particularly good way, in my opinion. I suppose the 'pity' that the main character Scobie feels, and the hopelessness he shares with other characters, the anti-relationship/pro solitude messages and so on reflect an aspect of Catholicism that I found I couldn't really live with anymore. It made me feel too sad! Perhaps the author is setting us up for something different, but up til this point - when Scobie leaves for Bamba to sort out Pemberton - those Catholic elements are almost cloyingly present for me. It's a good reminder, though, of how much I've changed in the past twenty-five years since moving into a different spiritual stream. I still have ties with Catholicism, and always will have - it was too much a part of my early nurture to be left behind completely - just as I will always have ties with Gnostic Christianity, since that was also a part of my family heritage.
For me, this is one of the Great American Novels for today. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds me of Smollett in terms of her dry ironic humor, her socially-accurate characterizations and her peripatetic plot. The book is a gold-mine of realistic details, poetically presented - I can extrapolate from what she says about Philadelphia, since I know Philadelphia very well having grown up there. If she's as accurate about everything else - and there's no reason to doubt her - then the words 'rich tapestry' is no cliche. I have to say my mind was blown by this book.
I seem to be on an African-related-books kick. I just finished reading "Someone Knows My Name" by African-Canadian author Lawrence Hill - an absolutely epic book, beautifully written, historically accurate - its period is the eighteenth century, with the Revolutionary War period sandwiched right in the middle, featuring the Tories for a change, as well as the African angle. Books like these can't be described, at least not by me. But I do recommend picking them up and giving them ten minutes of your time - you won't be able to put them down after that!
Before reading these two books, I read Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which also deals with issues around African slavery in the New World, with an added dimension of feminist and abolitionist perspectives and developments prior to the Civil War period.
I find it interesting that I'm following this thread in my reading, because I've been thinking a lot lately about my 'Moor' ancestors, who seem to have been a blend of European, African and Native American people. My memories of the influence of these relatives and 'friends of the family' help me to understand why so many of my white friends in youth thought I seemed 'different,' and why my African-American friends in Philly thought I didn't seem white. It really necessitates a shift in self-image, but the price of this shift is worth it in terms of the clarity and self-knowledge they bring.
My grandfather tried to hold on to this heritage by attending the Moorish Science Temple in Philadelphia in the 1920's and he kept things around the house, taught my mother that we trace our spiritual heritage to Egypt - and she passed these things on to me. So, it is probably about time that I started learning more about it from an adult perspective. Reading these books is part of that exploration.
The next book on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Made of Sea-Foam,
Glittering in Moonlight,
Whirring with the wings of
Thousands of Dragonflies,
Seeing with the Thousand Eyes,
Glittering, of All Alive ~
I Meet You in the Cave,
The Dark Cave,
Lapped by the Edge of the Ocean,
I Meet You in the Dark Cave
Of Your Sacred Cosmos
Walking down the hill this afternoon from my part-time job, I reflected on words read earlier in the day in "The Invention Of Wings" about “Huguenot frugality.” I recognized that as part of my latter life lesson-plan.
I've had two upbringings: the first with my parents, where I learned kindness, compassion, patience, an appreciation for literature and music (in particular among the arts), a sort of free-thinking yet Roman Catholic Christian sensibility (a true American hybrid), a psychic connection with one branch of my ancestors, and an abiding awareness of Death. At this season of Halloween, it seems timely to recollect just how much the Dead and the soon-to-be dead, dominated our family’s consciousness. Holocaust-survivors, you might reasonably ask? No, the Jewish part of my background trace their persecution to the Spanish Inquisition. Some went to Sweden during Hitler's rampage, but some stayed right at home in Denmark, working. My uncle, as an electrician, was useful to them. No, our family's particular fixation with Death was much more quotidian: mere poverty and illness, rampant in their post-war world: post-Civil War and post WWI. I think our lot improved, if only slightly, after WW II.
My second upbringing has been with my husband and partner Gary, who derives one strand of his lineage from the French Huguenots. Strict, upright, frugal, clean, forceful and intolerant -these are the words I would use to describe him. Over the years, while he has been improving my rather lackadaisical work-ethic, I've been softening the glare of his moral searchlight. Thanks to our long-time partnership, he is far kinder and I am more hard-working, among other mutual influences, so I guess it's been a good trade. Life with Gary has also meant a life close to nature, although the urbis closes in more and more every year.
After walking down the hill to my house and entering, I notice again that the light seems brighter in our house for some mysterious reason I think it has to do with our weekly puja held every Tuesday evening, which I stubbornly maintain has physical effects, although subtle ones. There is such a good feeling in our house. When Amma visited, she said it is a good house and feels like a Hindu home. High praise.
I've found a wonderful book that I simply love! "God's Hotel" by Victoria Sweet is about one woman's adventure as an admitting doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the last 'almshouse' in the United States according to popular legend, and her exploration of pre-modern medicine in both her doctoral dissertation on 11th century mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen and in her twenty years of practice at Laguna Honda. Entertainingly written, this book moves between elevating our consciousness about health care to moving stories of struggles, cures and partial cures, told with wit, humor and deep compassion. Sweet avoids too much medical jargon but some of her 'tell-it-like-it' recountings of her patient's medical conditions may not be for the squeamish. I'm only half way through, but I can't wait to see where she is going to take us next!
In the chapter I’m currently reading, she’s in Switzerland, concentrating on writing her dissertation, examining medieval manuscripts live and in person. In Switzerland, she discovers that ‘pre-modern’ medicine is alive and well and co-existing comfortably – actually integrated with! – modern medicine! Even beyond the arena of medicine, she notices something concrete and actual that I’ve only dreamed about as ‘ideal’ – a society where all the truly useful, benefic things in life are kept on in those areas where they can really make a contribution. Where the past is not constantly torn down to provide something ‘Big and New’ (like the ‘Big and Large’ of ‘Wall-E’) and to keep sales rocketing – and trash accumulating. I had no idea that my ‘dream of how it could be’ actually is – in Europe!
“In fact, as the months went by, I began to understand that Switzerland, although modern, had not rejected premodernity as America had. Instead, the Swiss kept what they liked about the past and added the best of each period to their culture, consecutively. So when trains were invented, the Swiss took to them and put trains in everywhere, tunneling through mountains and laying tracks across peaks. But they kept their mountain paths and cobblestone streets for walking. When the automobile arrived, they took to it, too. They but in a bus system and highways, but still did not remove their trains, pave over the cobblestones, or put highways over their footpaths. They liked electric lights, installed them, and even improved on them. But they also liked darkness, and left their lakes and towns without much illumination, so that the stars were visible and the night sky not unfamiliar. Lausanne in particular liked its night watchman form the Middle Ages and still had one. At night, on the hour, I could his call that all was well.
“The Swiss way seemed to be melding the medieval with the modern in a kind of additive fusion, like lacquering, perhaps. Or better, like evolution, where what works survives, and what doesn’t work atrophies and disappears. This Swiss way was followed even in medicine, with the new ideas and medications of modern medicine integrated almost seamlessly into what had come before.
“So in Swiss hospitals, I discovered, massage and brandy were prescribed at night for sleep, and herbal baths still used. When a physician found homeopathy useful or even convincing, he did not therefore resign his hospital position, but mixed the two practices, medieval and modern. In the pharmacy I found medieval potions on the shelves right next to modern pills. Old dicta that America had rejected long ago – that cold weather causes colds, that vinegar applied to the temples soothes headaches – were still believed and passed on. What I was discovering with such effort about health and the body from premodern medicine in general, and from Hildegard in specific, was, in Switzerland, nothing new.” (pp136-137)
American Veda is very well written in a journalistic style and covers the entire history of Vedantic influence in the United States. Philip Goldberg weaves together every subtle strand of influence, from the great names such as Emerson, Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Krishnamurti, etcetera, and on to current teachers like Amma and others, and also mentions many lesser known thinkers, writers, teachers, and also celebrities, artists and musicians who have carried Vedantic ideas into our culture. Engagingly written, I must say he masterfully weaves this complex story through time flawlessly. A must-read for those of us who may we feel we have participated in this cultural sea-change at some level.
I must say, I felt like I were reading my own autobiography, there were so many influences mentioned from my own life. Now I know a lot more about most of them, which is something I appreciate.
I'm reading Sri Adi Sankaracarya's Aparoksanubhuti (Direct Experience of the Self) with commentary by Swami Chinmayananda - just starting it, as evening reading before bed. The first verse is the mangalacarana or verse praising the Source of the Teaching. In this case the verse is: "I bow down in prostration to that Sri Hari, the world preceptor, the Lord of the universe, the All-pervading, the cause of the whole Universe and the Supreme-Blissful Reality."
Chinmayananda's commentary states, "To Sankara, his teacher is not a mortal individual, but a person in whom the Great Truth stands revealed. It is through the mortal coil of the teacher that this Truth is communicated, but the real Teacher is SriPati, Narayana Himself. The human teacher is the vehicle through which the disciple listens to the words of Narayana. Thus the concept of the teacher is not that the teacher ishimself the Lord, but the teacher is the vehicle through which the disciples listen to the words of the Lord. So this Mangalacarana is directed to both the teacher and the Lord. The Lord alone is the one who can instruct us in this great Reality."
I certainly feel this way about my Teacher, Amma or Ammachi, the Hugging Saint. I've had trouble in the past saying that Amma is my Teacher, because I felt I wasn't experiencing her like that - I think I must have poor associations with the idea of 'teaching.' (Harping on?) I preferred to call her my 'Beacon' which has a meaning similar to Guru, one who dispels darkness and brings the Light. At times I have most definitely identified her with "Narayana Himself" because of the intensity of divinity I've felt - and seen - in her presence, but Amma says she doesn't like it when people refer to her as identical with God. I think because I grew up a Christian and had such a strong sense of 'the incarnation of God' - and in our sect we were expected to see Jesus and God as being one and the same - not all Christians see it that way, I've since learned, but more often see Jesus as a Teacher, in this sense that Sankara means. I have a devotee friend who says to me, 'What if Amma is just an ordinary human person? What does that say about us?' I think Amma would like this question.
For me, all I know is, that whenever Amma is around, my experience of the Divine intensifies and I learn many many things. So She is my Teacher. Not only does she speak the words of truth, but she shows us the Truth. One of her close Indian disciples now Swamini Atmaprana (think that is her name now, although I knew her as Dr. L--) told me once at the ashram in India that the reason Kali sticks out her tongue is to convey to us that this world is a 'Showing' - and Amma 'shows' us the true divine nature in her actions. She both teaches us through words and through example. Jesus too, when asked what he was all about, said to people, 'Come and see.'
And on yet another level Amma teaches us through the many amazing synchonicities that happen all around her. That surely must be a very high level of teaching. And on yet another level up, she gives us internal experiences that show us the direct, personal experience of the Self - that seems to me to be the highest level of teaching - although perhaps it's only the highest level I've yet known.
The Teaching comes through 'the Teacher.' The Teaching comes through all times and places forever. "Let those who have ears, hear." Yes, it's just a question of being open to it, at the least, and longing for it at the most. This is why my mother, who belonged to a Gnostic/Christian/Muslim sect throughout most of her youth believed in 'ongoing prophecy.' According to her, there is no 'final' prophet even though many religions like to claim their Teacher as such. She believed in ongoing prophecy until the end of her life, which she met with great equanimity.
"How blessed on the mountaintop are the feet of the one who brings Good Tidings." (Bible)
Thousands of pranams to the blessed feet of Amma, my Teacher.