Guided by poets including Shakespeare, Homer, and Milton, Principles of Economics asks: can we stave off or transform grief by creating a faithful copy of the departed, by remembering everything in the manner of Borges’s Funes?
“In the body’s own words, it cannot live like a vegetable in the country.” I am twenty-one and sitting on a bunk in a shotgun house in Mid-City, New Orleans, reading C.D. Wright. After a few conversations on the phone with a professor at the University of New Orleans, I have come here, weeks after graduating college, to help with an oral history project about the experiences of people who lived through Katrina.
It’s no longer taboo to admit, as an American Jew, that you have a Christmas tree. Some people call it a Hanukkah bush, which is about as absurd as someone diplomatically wishing you “happy holidays” after the eighth day of Hanukkah. It’s a Christmas tree, and some Jews, whose religious services, as a friend pointed out, will never be broadcast on the local news, long ago decided they wanted in on the holiday cheer, and that there’s no shame in that.
My husband and I are yard-sale junkies, like our mothers before us. When we walk in our neighborhood, we rarely pass a cluster of rusty tea-kettles and CD-holders without taking a closer look. In our primes, we were both shameless appropriators of sidewalk goods: in Cambridge, MA, I once carried a plywood bookshelf nearly a mile home. His greatest find: a complete set of nesting screwdrivers. Alas, the great New York bed-bug crisis of 2010, along with our adult wisdom about the protein contents of other people’s futons, has made us wary of taking home anything upholstered.
In blending Cassie’s childlike fantasy with altruism and justice, Ringgold highlights not only one child’s ability to use play to prepare for the stresses of the adult world, but also the power fantasy maintains even for adults when it comes to seeking justice and defining freedom. Flight may be a typical childhood dream, but it’s also a deep motif of resistance in African-American folklore. (In 1985, author Virginia Hamilton packaged that motif expressly for young readers in her gorgeous collection The People Could Fly.) While Cassie’s dress changes color above the George Washington Bridge, the page is bordered with pieces of Ringgold’s story quilt–in which Cassie’s story originally appeared–a testament to the idea that the dream/memory is not only Cassie’s, but that of an entire community.
Who really gets to imagine? Not just to make things up, but to use imagination to navigate the world? As educational tools, illustrated books that give credence not only to children’s waking, real-world experiences, but also to the transformative power of their play, seem most often earmarked for privileged children, just as, for adults, the writing of fiction rooted in pure invention or methodical research, rather than autobiographical experience, is received most seamlessly when it’s done by white authors.
Since my last post, I’ve said goodbye to my twenties. One minute I was a flower opening, the next I’m not allowed to carry a children’s lunch pail or purchase fake Uggs anymore. I’m reluctant to buy into the notion that thirty is the age when you should become the person you’ll be until you die, and the age at which you should stop wearing glitter. But if the rest of the world expects age to herald change, there are a few habits I’d like to tilt toward or away from in the writing department–and not because my youthful metabolism will soon grind to a halt.
Last week, I saw a film about the life of Julius Rosenwald, an early twentieth-century businessman and philanthropist who financed a series of rural black schools, built and run with the oversight of the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald otherwise had a life such as that from which the myth of the American dream is made. He started as a merchant on the streets of Chicago, worked his way up in the “rag trade” and eventually became chief of Sears and Roebuck. In the meantime, he made large matching donations to black YMCAs and attracted the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington took him on a tour of Tuskegee, and soon the two formed a partnership, building what would be called the Rosenwald Schools, funded by Rosenwald and each school’s immediate community, staffed by Tuskegee-trained teachers, and erected by the black communities they served.
Now seems an apt time to talk about persona. Remarkably, America has recently been talking about how we perform our selves: culturally, racially, gender-wise. How do you know you are a woman? What are the surface markers of race and culture, and how do they relate to the deep, lived experience of those things? These are questions many anthropology and gender-studies professors never thought they would see outside of their classrooms. For writers, they are also design questions: how might we enter another’s consciousness without stealing? Why do we feel moved to write in someone else’s voice?
One Sunday at work, in the middle of a series of lectures and panels–a day-long affair with no planned bathroom or coffee breaks–a man stands up. He does so while I am moving a lectern across the stage, and I think recognize him, even before he begins speaking, as someone who lives under the weight of New York City’s constant renovation, someone whose patterns have long ago been papered over. At the institution I work for, a Jewish archive and library whose existence spans nearly a century and two continents, people like this come all the time, or call on the phone. They’ve woken up and started looking, desperately, for places they’ve lost.