Jesmyn Ward on Returning Home

I fantasize about living in that fabled America. And then I remember that one cannot escape an infinite room. Moving across a few state lines is not going to help me escape this place that tells me I am less. The racist, misogynistic sentiment I encounter every day in Mississippi is the same belief that put in place the economic and social caste systems that allowed America to become America. It is the bedrock beneath the soil. Racial violence and subjugation happen on the streets of St. Louis, on the sidewalks of New York City and in the BART stations of Oakland. I breathe. I remain. I remember…

Read the full article at Time.

Someone Told Me Once

Someone told me once, not long ago, that I fit. It was in an email. I won’t give the context but only the response.

Her response was a broad way of delivering to me–a person who loves context and who, often, uses context to be narrow and too focused–an invitation to the large neighborhood of hospitality.

She was hosting me, settling me into a spaciousness. She said to me, “There’s no doubt that you fit. That’s not an issue.” She and her people weren’t discussing my fit. That was a call that had been made. That was a choice that had been decided. I already fit. The rest was derivative.

Reading Humane Insight

Humane Insight explores the ways we see people, the ways we look and notice the experiences of people through the history of experiences of suffering and death.

“Humane” is a word that intends to point toward a particular “kind of looking,” one that “seeks knowledge about the humanity of that person” (5). Baker’s book about seeing pain focuses on the ways Blacks have been represented visually and how those visual portrayals express, challenge, or ignore the intense suffering within black life.

In investigating (or re-searching) how black suffering has been identified, she illuminates possibilities for maintaining the humanity and protection of the black body. The particular kind of looking that she invites readers to is a looking through the experience of African Americans in order to preserve humanity and dignity. Dignity threads the pain-filled pages. It lifts the project to purposes beyond seeing, allowing us to look and to, in my view, hope.

There are a number of conversation partners in Baker’s work. She listens especially to liberationists from the past with Ida B. Wells and Mamie Till as two notable survivalists. Baker points to how these folks have contributed to “the image of the African American body in pain and death” (6), making visible black experience in order to call for change despite what is the extremely private event of a person’s body. Noticing black particularity is a means of understanding how to notice broadly. Baker calls this noticing empathic and political, active and ideological. Her book takes what is seen and interprets the visual into discourse. In using language for this translational purpose, Baker “reveals how black pain has been made to make sense” (7).

Baker takes the reader through discourse (i.e., language) in order to construct a critical understanding of humanity. She brings into dialogue theorists who are steeped in empiricist and scientific ways of seeing, such as Darwin and Schmitt, in order to put forward good questions about the acknowledgement of vulnerability as universal and how racial identity impacts perception. The construction of photography and enduring images from history are her tools to interrogate race, culture, and the various ways black pain and suffering are re-presented.

She traces the re-presentation by lifting up expressions of culture as a component of how humanity is expressed, drawing attention to the abolitionist movement in order to situate the term image, turning to lynchings as a social controlling mechanism, exploring the political and emotional power of Mamie Till-Mobley’s insistent decision to show the world brother Emmett’s brutalized body, and activating imagination for the connected civil gestures of nonviolent direct action. The book ends with a recounting of the destruction around and in Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Baker doesn’t exactly hold her reader’s hand through the text. You know she cares but you don’t always feel it when you meet the deep wisdom in her scholarship. This seems good. Responsible critical discourse, even if it ends in one’s growth, is not first about the emotional. The sentimental is present in the book but there is a wideness to those available sentiments. There is disappointment and anguish in the pages. There is appreciation and gratitude for those who have fought, resisted, lived, died, and made babies who took pictures with their lives and passed on their stories so scholars and teachers and other black people could keep the life alive.

I couldn’t read Humane Insight without seeing more of how I see. I think Baker’s meditation on critical race watching has contributed to my “sensitive” sighting of race as an enduring, political, and ideological tool that can construct, dissemble, and reconstruct how we see beautiful black bodies. Baker’s work makes me think of the body and she helps me reconsider how the body is depicted in popular media and in decidedly theological discourse.

Related, black bodies that have been afflicted by pain–be it through sickness or violence–are particular, and the re-view of such bodies takes and develops care. I would be interested in seeing a similar analysis by Baker on black photographic resources and materials. She highlights the important role of black newspapers in portions of US history, but her primary work is to interrogate the ways mainstream images have constructed views, calcified understandings, and sustained images of and about Blacks, images which don’t represent true expressions of suffering and death in African American life.

How you see matters. How you see people matters. I’ve known this and Baker tells me a lot more about what I know. She deepens my knowledge in a relentless, thorough, painful, and captivating way. She shows and tells a truth about how black bodies have been shown and how black bodies have been told or spoken or languaged into existence and death. In creating such an engrossing, scholarly project, Baker has given a gift to the world, even if it’s a gift that’s hard to fully appreciate. Gifts remarking upon pain are no less valuable for the spread of responses we have to them.

That Comment at Dinner about Manhood

The other day at dinner, we were all at the table, and you said something about “Trump.” I corrected you, told you to insert a “Mr.” and you did. Then, you went on with your story.

Since then, I’ve had a couple moments reflecting upon that parental intervention. I’ve questioned my response like I often do with you. Was it right? Where was I coming from? Was my approach authentic to the best parts of my upbringing, the parts that I want to pass on to you and to your brother?

And I’m thinking over the goods and bads of that insertion. That Mr. comes with problems. I didn’t go into the problems then, though they were on the borders of my thinking. I’m your father and a part of my role is to regularly be as close to my best thoughts as I can be because you and your brother come up with all kinds of things I want to affirm, correct, question, laugh at, or otherwise capture. It takes energy to be present. It takes energy to be a good father. I want to be both with you and number two. So the Mister.

In some ways, we’ve already discussed portions of the problematic insertion. In some ways, explaining myself at the time would have gotten us off the important point you were making and pulled us away from the more pressing matter of what you wanted to say. But this is why I blog, to post up little indications of increasingly critical and vulnerable discourse so that you and your brother will have trails of thinking where I’ve said my piece, made my peace.

There are issues with my suggestion about the current person sitting in the Oval, the broad white structure made by a lot of beautiful black hands and recently inhabited by a beautiful black family, the family there when we traveled to DC as a family so we could trek through the Museum while our president was Barack Obama.

First, everyone is worthy of being treated like a person. In my quick move to tell you how to put a handle on a last name, I was foundationally trying to say that you should treat “Trump” the way you’d treat anyone who was an adult and that isn’t by saying there name.

Second, this is an admittedly cultural application. You know people, some of them are your friends, who call people by names without handles, but that’s not the family you are being raised in, is it? Black people have conventionally raised each other to be honorable and that honor is expressed by an enduring respect for elders. That respect is easily translatable to others who aren’t old but who are older than you.

Third, you cannot restrict yourself to the limited experiences of people who use language irresponsibly. For better and worse, I am your father. You and your brother have inherited the godparental influence of Auntie Pat who on too many long rides corrected me and Uncle Mark and who wouldn’t let us get away with poor speech. I am passing that on. Of course, she has told you some of these stories herself. Both me and your dear mother are communicators in our own ways. There are certain phrases you must use, certain ones I’d strongly encourage you not to use.

Fourth, adults are adults. When you become an adult–and I plan to tell you precisely when that occurs!–those who are older are elders. As I said, adults and elders generally must be treated as, among other things, containers of deep wisdom. This comes out of your African heritage. It isn’t constricted only to blackness but it is certainly in your blackness. Your lineage includes honor for the elders.

I was coming out of these points of view. However, and now we turn toward the paradoxical and toward the ways I’m encouraging you to second-guess me and toward ways I’ve second-guessed myself on this comment at the table, some people are not worth your Mr. Some people–and I’d include this person in the Oval–are not worth your respect.

There are males who are only men by virtue of their maleness, who do everything to diminish your view of them because of how they conduct themselves in the world, and those males are not worthy of your respect. They may well be worth your acknowledgement of them as human beings, but they are unworthy of your respect. The men in your life, me among them, are aiming to teach you in how to discern which qualities make a man respectable. For now–and at the table–I was intervening, showing you this current example of a man who is unworthy.

You know because of how you are being raised by your dear mother, by me, and by our extended family (the plural collective that I’m collapsing in the singular term) that your respect is hard-won. Your respect is an indication of what it took for you to develop an idea of personhood broadly and manhood in (this) particular.

You have seen and loved and been by and loved by good men. For quick instance, your uncles are good men. All of them. For another instance, I am a good man. We are teaching you to respect yourself and how that respect is immediately and intricately related to respect for others. Since it’s hard-won, you ought not give away easily.

Giving your honor to a person means that you are extending to him or her some part of you that they ought to be able to accept, take in, and appreciate. People ought to be able to receive you, receive the pearls that come from you to use a biblical allusion. The man is the Oval, the current president of the country, is not one of those people. Again, this is complicated so I need to tell you more about why I’m offering a well-situated exception to the rule.

The current president, as you have told me, has been unkind to many people. This was a part of your heartbreak when he was elected. You remember how excited you and your peers were to vote in school, how surprised and perplexed you were when the man who said “those bad things about Mexicans and women” won. He has called for the harm of individuals and families. He has repeatedly told lies. He has admitted to participating in sexual assaults against women. He has deceived. He has consistently misapplied sacred texts, a devious consequence when a person is not a part of a sacred community. He has made decisions based upon people he knows and not taken the wide grace of counsel beyond his own comforts. He has encouraged violence and engendered, insofar as is possible for his talent, a national culture of division. He has been a successful businessmen in the United States of America without any real historically visible integration of spirituality which says more of the same. These may be true about other political misters but it has been documented by others in this president’s case and it has been experienced by you in your own life.

The current president will not always be the president. We will have others. So govern yourself accordingly. You can respect his personhood without extending to him what he would not extend to you. You can respect his personhood without accepting the type of masculinity that he models.

I wish I could tell you to use me as a guide. In some ways, you necessarily use me as a guide and measure of manhood. That is a delightful, bruising, high burden for me. But I’m imperfect as I often tell you. What I’m happy to do is point to the very contours from which you will judge me and judge others. Use these mentionings to hold me to the accountability of your best notions of respect. And use them to judge others too. They’re good enough for that, these cultivated ramblings.