THE WEDGE THAT DIVIDES US

The southern elite—plantation owners before the Civil War, bankers and mill owners during the Jim Crow era—benefitted from keeping African Americans and whites in separate spheres. They engineered a system that prevented exploited people of both races from conversing—at a lunch counter, on the bus, at a school meeting, at church, at a movie theater, or at a neighborhood gathering—and discovering how much the “rigged system” hurt all of them. And they even manipulated less privileged whites into supporting and enforcing the segregation that prevented a bi-racial populist uprising. It was a brilliant strategy.
One of the most powerful weapons in this “southern strategy” was the manufacture of horror at the mere thought of “race mixing”—specifically any kind of sexual contact between black men and white women. (An amazing feat of denial conveniently ignored the generations of sexual contact between white men and black women, obvious in the multiple shades of “colored people.”)
Most of the lynchings of the Jim Crow period involved the suspicion of inappropriate behavior between an African-American man and a “Caucasian” woman. The accusation of merely whistling at a white woman was enough to get Emmet Till beaten to death.
Donald Trump’s first attempt to grab public attention and open a path to political success was not the “birther” controversy. It occurred 27 years ago, in 1989, when the jogger Trisha Meili was raped and severely injured in Central Park. Five young African American and Hispanic men—ages sixteen and under—were charged with the crime. Donald Trump bought newspaper ads urging the city to BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY in the case. In essence, he was calling for modern day lynching. We now know that the young men were manipulated into false confessions. Twelve years later they were cleared of charges on the basis of DNA evidence and a confession by a serial rapist. But just as Trump continued to argue that President Obama was not born in the United States, for years after the long-form birth certificate was produced, he still insists that those originally accused of the attack in Central Park are guilty.
It is no coincidence that Trump’s second intrusion into politics was to proclaim that the product of a sexual union between a blond woman from Kansas and a very dark-skinned man from Kenya could not possibly be a real American.
Recently Trump’s 2005 boasts about fondling any woman he finds attractive have made the news. There might seem to be a contradiction between his bragging about forcing his attentions on women and his horror at the Central Park incident. The explanation, of course, is white supremacy. As was true on the plantation, Trump seems to believe that a white alpha male should have unquestioned access to any female. But a black male who approaches a white woman challenges this entitlement and must be severely punished.
The divisions between black and white voters persist. After Reconstruction, African Americans began to migrate from the party of Lincoln to the Democrats. And, true to LBJ’s prediction, after 1965, working class whites left the Democratic party to form an odd alliance with country club Republicans. Nixon and Reagan argued that some people (especially African Americans) were too lazy to get a job and were living off welfare at taxpayer expense. This clever strategy caused white voters to approve of cuts to the social safety net from which they, too, could have benefitted.
Trump has recently made some attempts to woo black voters—or to appear to be reaching out to them as he speaks to mostly white audiences at his rallies. So he uses coded language for his racist statements. For example, he does not depict those who benefit from social programs as undeserving “welfare queens,” but he promises that a six-month maternity leave program could be financed by ending fraud in the unemployment insurance program. He has not openly called for the kinds of voter intimidation that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but he asks his supporters to volunteer as “Trump Election Observers” in “certain areas—you know where they are.”
I will not call Trump’s supporters “deplorable.” But I will say to them, don’t get tricked again by these time-worn tactics designed to silence our voices by driving a wedge between us. All of us who are not (like Trump) in the top 1% of the economy are in the same boat, if we will just open our eyes to see. We all need access to affordable, high-quality health care. We all benefit when social security, Medicare, and Medicaid are fully funded, when college tuition does not burden us with huge debts, when a variety of good jobs are available. I dream of an America where we can find spaces for all of us—of many different hues—to meet and talk and find common cause. I dream that we can join forces to vote for the only candidate with detailed plans for creating a world where we can all succeed. That person is not Donald Trump.

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FALLING SCALES

“Joy to the World” descends the scale—one note at a time.
This tune—so familiar –doesn’t ring my bells,
Until one December afternoon
When I go caroling at the Memory Care Unit
And watch as every worn face mouths the words
And tears course down each cheek.

The gospel choir overflows with gratitude.
Their words describe hands lifting in praise
As the notes move down and down and down—
Until the music soars again in overlapping Amens.

Listen, now, to Webber’s “Requiem”
As that ethereal soprano voice
Hovers near the apex of the Gothic arches
And wafts downward as we wait below,
Breathless.

What is the magic here?
What ancient incantation is evoked?
What genetic memory
Or ecstatic moment from a former life
Is linked to the soundtrack of these descending tones?

While “Joy to the World” bounces down the scale
And “Total Praise” strides confidently along,
“Pié Jesu” floats, drifting as gently
As a falling leaf on an autumn afternoon,
Lofted briefly on an updraft,
Only to settle on the ground
In perfect peace.

“Joy to the World”

“Total Praise”

Andrew Lloyd-Webber “Requiem”

REFINING FIRE

in honor of Ellen Douglass Leyburn

I’d like to go out in a blaze of glory
Like these falling leaves.
The chemistry of their dying
Strips off masking green,
Reveals true colors,
So they now flame forth—
Orange, yellow scarlet—
Before they crumple—brittle, brown.

As in blue gown at after-lecture party,
She glowed, all dross refined,
Fine facial bones just visible
Through translucent skin,
Lavishing on us the intensity
Of eyes—blue jewels—lit
By fire about to be snuffed out.

CREPE MYRTLES

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CREPE MYRTLES

In mid-July

Crepe myrtles burst into bloom—

Brash, brazen—

In vivid red and purple, sunset pink,

And splashes of white.

They dominate the landscape.

 

Our Southern aunts instructed us

That it is rude, unladylike,

To put ourselves forward

With such dramatic flair.

We should, instead,

Seek to be accommodating, pleasant,

To fade into the background.

 

Why then?

What rebellious streak,

Hidden even from themselves,

Led these proper matrons to supervise

The planting of crepe myrtles

That line our quiet streets

And clamor boisterously for our attention?

 

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

Yesterday I went upstairs to look for my notebook, walked into the room where I write, and couldn’t remember why I was there. It happens. Often. At this point in my life.

And, yes, it is comforting to believe that my mind is now so full of all I have experienced, all I have felt and thought, that it’s hard to access any kind of information—especially a recent acquisition in the cluttered library stacks of my brain. Still.

I read recently, somewhere—maybe in an AARP magazine, maybe on Facebook (source of quantities of information and misinformation) that one particular kind of memory lapse has to do with moving through a doorway, passing into a different space. A portal seems to cause the brain to push a re-set button, forgetting the recent past and starting over. Although my previous attempts at mindfulness and meditation have been unsuccessful, I am starting a new practice of chanting the name of an object or errand as I pass through a door.

I am thinking of all those stories about passing through portals into a whole new world. Alice walking through the looking glass or falling down the rabbit hole. The children entering the land of Narnia through a wardrobe. The van door sliding open to reveal the Delorean that will take Marty McFly back in time.

In ancient societies a threshold represented a major transition. Anthropologists have written about “liminal” spaces (a word derived from the Latin term for the board at the bottom of a doorframe). In rituals, such as the “rite of passage” from childhood to adulthood, there are three phases—the identification with the old status, the space between, and the new status. That space between—the liminal space—is unsettling territory, a test, representing uncertainty along with new possibilities, fear as well as hope.

In my daily life, I am not good at crossing thresholds. Once I begin an activity—whether it is working puzzles, pushing a lawnmower, reading a novel, or answering e-mail—it is hard for me to stop and move on to something else. If I get deep enough into the task of writing, I can lose myself in that place where I do not feel time passing. But eventually I need to get up, move around, and return to “the real world.”

I was not conscious of any previous fascination with portals and thresholds. But I now realize that the first play I ever wrote told the story of two girls who fell into the previous century through a door in the town depot. And one of my most recent plays is a variation on the myth of the heroine’s journey, tracing the small and large steps that a woman must take to move from one kind of life to another. Its title is “Rhonda’s Rites of Passage.”

At the age of seventy, I am aware of another doorway in my future. My brother and one of my best friends are now negotiating the passage from this life to whatever lies beyond. It is my hope that I will have several new spaces to explore before I cross that final frontier. If I can muster the courage and confidence to step across each threshold.

 

 

 

FOLLOW THE LEADER

In the past few months, Donald Trump has gone from being a joke, to being the scary monster under the bed, to being the likely Republican candidate in the next election and possibly the next president. How did this happen? What has Trump tapped into?

Bernie Sanders has spoken about empathy. “When your child is hurting,” he said, “my child is hurting. We’re all in this together.” I believe that human beings have the capacity for this kind of empathy. But I also believe we have other, darker tendencies—part of the survival-of-the-fittest mind set developed when our species began to walk upright.

One of these traits is the tendency to fight fiercely for what we believe is ours when resources are scarce. Another is the way we identify one tribe as our own, while identifying others—on the basis of eye or nose shape, hair, skin color, or “talking funny”—as the enemy. Donald Trump’s rallies have appealed to both these instincts.

And there is a third consequence of our ancient struggles for survival. When we sense danger, our prefrontal cortex shuts down, activating a fight-or-flight response. We have a desire to join forces, to form a flock or herd, and to follow the leader—someone who keeps things simple and speaks confidently, someone who promises to take care of everything—a figure like Donald Trump (or like Hitler or Stalin or countless other demagogues in recent and ancient history).

An article in the Atlantic Monthly last summer asked whether successful business executives are more likely to be nice guys or jerks. In times of extreme stress, it concluded, employees prefer jerks who, they believe, will look out for them. We are living in a time of stress for the middle class, especially those whose jobs used to involve manual labor. They have been suffering for years, and they have been forgotten. We also live in a time of fear—especially of terrorists. If there is another terrorist strike on US territory or another stock market collapse, watch out. If panic sets in, our instincts will tell us, “Find someone who projects confidence, someone who promises protection. Follow the leader.”