The Legacy of Alexander Hamilton: A Theatrical Review of Miranda’s Hamilton

imageLin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the hip hop historical musical about the rise and fall of the divisive Alexander Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway, now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Thomas Kail is its director.  It had its first theatrical run at the Public Theater early 2015, where it performed to sold out crowds for the entire season. It was impossible, except through the Public’s lottery, to get a ticket shortly after its debut. Although a member of the Public Theater, I snoozed on trying to purchase a ticket to see it. I did not rush to get a ticket because I did not think that I would be interested in a historical musical about Alexander Hamilton. All I remembered about him from both my high school and college days was his position on a national bank. As a result, I did not immediately try to purchase a ticket. Unfortunately, when I read stellar reviews, and tried to purchase a ticket, I could not get a ticket at the Public Theater. I tried multiple times to get a ticket through the lottery at the Public Theater, but to no avail. After the Public announced that the production was headed to Broadway, I knew that seeing it there would be my best option. The tickets to many of Hamilton‘s upcoming Broadway performances were selling out quickly. I managed to secure my ticket to see Hamilton several months before seeing it on October 15th ( I went alone because it was easier to get one ticket instead of two or more). In hindsight, I should have just purchased a ticket when It was announced as part of the Public Theater’s season. I should have relied on the strength of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous work, In the Heights, instead of thinking about whether I would be interested in a historical musical ( I also almost snoozed again on Eclipsed, starring Lupita Onyongo at The Public Theater). Miranda, inspired by the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, wrote the book, the lyrics, and the music for the musical. Miranda casts no well- known actors in the show to increase ticket sales, but his success is from adroitly written lyrics with synchronic music, dances performed with rhythmic precision through stunning choreography and acting performed with great intensity. If a performance is great, it need not have a Hollywood actor perform in order to have boffo box office sales. Hamilton is mostly played by people of color which gives them an opportunity to play roles that would have been conventionally denied to them because all of the historical figures that they depict are white. The perspicacious and talented Miranda plays the steadfast Hamilton, the sophisticated Leslie Odom plays the cunning and murderous Aaron Burr, the ruminating Christopher Jackson plays the intense president and commander George Washington, the Suave and debonair Daveed Diggs plays the honorable Lafayette and the double-minded Jefferson, the refined and comely Phillipa Soo plays the strong and memorable Eliza Hamilton, the humorous Jonathan Groff plays the bitter King George, and the resolute Okieriete Onaodowan (He was ill during the performance, but he never missed a beat) plays the determined James Madison. The remaining members of the cast grandly support the entire production. The entire cast and its creative team add heft to the show through excellent choreography, passionate acting and stupendous directing. The musical has accurate references to historical documents, historical events including the framing of the Constitution and the development of the Bill of Rights and it even metaphorically references Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That was pure creativity at its highest!

The cast

Alexander Hamilton, a man of letters, rises up from indigence and from orphan status. Newly arrived in the United States from St, Croix, he desires to have his “one shot” at success in spite of his past. He becomes George Washington’s right hand man during the American Revolution. The musical depicts both his personal and his political struggles. His views were often contrary to many of the other founding fathers, despite the forged friendship with Washington and with others that helped catapult his political career. The other founding fathers often vehemently disagree with Hamilton on how to manage the state’s economy. The musical focuses on Hamilton’s shortcomings as a husband and as a politician. It portrays the conflicts that he had with Aaron Burr, Jefferson, and Madison. The performance rivets the audience when Hamilton’s son is killed by Burr and when Hamilton himself is killed (that scene is awesomely choreographed and acted).

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Hamilton is electrifying, engaging, and inspiring! Its frenetic pace thoroughly engrosses its audience into the historical framework of the American Revolution and into the lives of our founding fathers, and the decades that follow. It leaves the audience wanting more, and even saying “my $165 (had I not snoozed it would have cost me less than half that amount) was well spent!”   “Yes, it really is that good”, to quote Ben Brantley of the New York Times. The characters have such vigor, such enthusiasm, such vibrancy, such palpable emotion that one feels all of the passion connected with the characters themselves. It causes refection of one’s own legacy. It causes the audience members to ponder who will write” my story”? And even makes one ask if he or she has a story to tell and how will it be told. With its ponderous conflict, the audience member makes connections with his own shortcomings, with his own indiscretions, with his own conflicts, internal and external, and with his own passionate political stances vehemently and sometimes detrimentally held. At the end of the performance during the finale, the question is asked: What is your legacy? It is then that the self- reflection begins, which caused me to do an introspection and to look circumspectly at my own life. It’s rare for a musical to entertain, educate, and inspire one to live a better life. Politically and personally, the events of Hamilton’s life mirror events of today (marital indiscretions and the woman who ultimately “stands by her man”, and “back door deals” in “the room where it happens” about which few know). All of the Washington politicians who have flocked to see this musical, may have paused for self-reflection.

Both the music and the lyrics of each song produce great synchronicity that one’s attention never leaves the stage. Miranda through his writings adeptly tells Hamilton’s story. The lyrics are clearly performed at a pace that allows the audience to hear and understand every rap uttered word. The words as well as the actions of the characters add great meaning to this historical figure. The story is told well mixing contemporary with traditional subject matter, allowing for a story, that otherwise may have been lackluster, to be told with such verve and with such ebullience that the applause seems to still be reverberating in my ears.That is pure genius! Last month, to further develop his craft as an artist, Miranda won a MacArthur Fellowship or Genius Grant of $625,000 paid over five years. Rush to get your tickets. You may not be able to see it until the spring or later, unless, like me, you only need a single ticket. Trust me, you will not be disappointed!

Altruism and Personal Sacrifice in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky: A Call to Action

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Current and former New York Times reporters, respectively, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half The Sky, ( it is also a PBS documentary and is available on Netflix) paint a picture of women and girls throughout the developing world who are both victims and overcomers of rape, domestic violence, vaginal and rectal fistula, lack of education, genital mutilation, and sex trafficking. They have testimonies from women throughout Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa who have had many devastating events occur in their lives, but through intervention, have been able to overcome these tragic events, most of which are not dauntless. Most of these women are indigent, uneducated marginalized women who have been victimized because of their lowly station in life. Both Kristof, and his wife, WuDunn explain with depth, clarity, and immense compassion, the root causes behind some of these horrific practices, as well as possible solutions to reducing these systemic cultural practices within the developing world.They persuasively undergird their book with research that supports their theories, while stating arguments in support and acknowledging those against the possible solutions. Kristof and WuDunn ultimately come to the conclusion that grassroot efforts in which both liberals and conservatives work together to help educate women and girls, rather than legislate to change laws, work best. Laws can be changed, but if there is neither will to enforce nor power of enforcement, what good is the law? Volunteers who personally sacrifice their time by engaging in lofty, yet noble altruistic goals, change one life at a time, thereby impacting the world resulting in global change one day at a time. The work is neither easy nor glamorous, but it may be the most fulfilling work that one can do.

As a Teacher, I daily preach education to my students. I tell them that it is the great equalizer. I often say it is power and it is! Yet, an overwhelming majority of girls in the developing world are uneducated. Many of them have never attended school because the parents lack the financial means to send them to school. In the developing world, education is not free. Although it may not be expensive in our eyes, it is expensive in the developing world where people earn less than one dollar a day. When educated women in the developing world educate young girls, (women are usually needed as teachers because of Islamic laws prohibiting the mingling of the opposite sex) they empower the girls to become independent and goal oriented. The girls will then develop personal responsibility, and strive toward success, instead of having a defeatist attitude. When education takes place, the women and girls are able to make decisions for themselves and see the harm of some of their actions. When women are empowered through education, the family stabilizes, and both pregnancy and domestic violence decrease.

Sex trafficking of impoverished, uneducated women is a problem worldwide, not just in the developing world, (Thailand, Cambodia, Congo, India,etc.) and many police officers fail to enforce laws against sex trafficking. Many of the police are bribed, and often take advantage of the brothels in these countries. Many young girls from Cambodia are forced to be sex slaves, and are taken to Thailand, duplicitously, with the hope of securing employment to help support their families. When they arrive at the brothel, and are noncompliant, they are beaten brutally into submission, and many of them are forced to continue for years drugged to the point of addiction in order for the brothel owners to keep them docile.  Many of them contract HIV/AIDS and become further stigmatized and are labeled as prostitutes.  If they are fortunate to be rescued by a humanitarian worker, they are often, upon returning home, rejected by their families and therefore, return to trafficking. Humanitarian workers often establish, at the grassroots level, education and economic programs designed to help these women become self-sustainable so that they will not return to sex trafficking because of having no financial support. 

Men often rape and gang rape women in horrific numbers in the developing world. If women are raped by men other than their husbands, their families no longer want them and they are often forced into the street. These women do nothing to cause themselves to be raped. The rape traumatizes them, and they sometimes become infected with HIV/AIDS. Usually women who have financial means or have been educated go back to their communities to help other women whom the rape victimizes. When women are empowered, their husbands are less likely to rape and abuse them.

One of the most common problems in Africa, is vaginal and rectal fistulas.  Many of these women who suffer with this are impoverished and never receive medical care. They suffer fissures during childbirth because of a narrow pelvis and because they do not go to the hospital for delivery. They are no longer welcomed in their homes because of the odious odor emitted from both the leaking urine and feces. These problems can be prevented through Cesarian Sections instead of through vaginal deliveries. But, because of their indigent status, these women are not treated, and many of them die because of infection. To combat the problems, there are hospitals specializing in fistula repair and birthing centers ensuring safe delivery, both of which often are established by non-governmental organizations. This reduces the infant mortality rate, the morbidity rate, and the maternal mortality rate!

Another threat to the health of women is genital cutting (the term mutilation is an offensive term to those who practice it) that is performed on young girls to prevent them from having sexual intercourse before marriage. This cultural practice is deeply embedded in African culture and it ensures that their girls will be able to marry because they will be virgins. In order to change this practice, women must be educated about the risks of the practice, and make decisions for themselves. The entire community, however, must prohibit this cultural practice in order for all of the women to be eligible for marriage. If a woman has not been cut, then she will be presumed to not be a virgin, and thus, she will be ineligible for marriage. The issue of genital cutting is a complicated one that is not easily changed.

Additionally, “honor killing” is a cultural practice in the islamic world in which women are killed if they are suspected of sexual impropriety. Dozens of men kill the woman, often by stoning her to death, even if there is no independent proof of fornication or adultery. Women must be educated and given legislative, parliamentary positions so that they can have a voice in legislation.

One must first understand the culture, before she can work on changing any attitudes or beliefs that are staunchly held; however, there are actions that can take place that can initially impact a developing nation. Sometimes it is not always the largest institutions that have the greatest impact. Those individuals who understand the culture, who have the stamina, and have a personal investment in helping often have the greatest success with empowering women and girls. Religious organizations, according to Kristof and WuDunn have the greatest success because they do not have a legislative agenda. Individual people can help through giving donations, through giving their time, and through writing letters to both congressmen and senators urging financial support to combat world problems such as sex trafficking. Encourage students and children to start student organizations in which the focus is to shed light on the concerns in the developing world, and have the students fundraise and donate the money to worthy organizations. In addition, spend some time volunteering in the developing world to relieve some of the heavy burdens that the workers face. Workers are needed more in the countryside, not in the large cities (help is often concentrated in large cities). Why not help today?  Not only will someone’s life be enriched, but your life will be better for giving. The more one gives, the more he receives (you do not have to be a Christian to benefit from this biblical principle).  Listed at the bottom are some suggestions from Kristof and WuDunn for giving ( I personally vouch for Plan International, an organization to which I for one year gave a monthly donation to sponsor a girl from India. I am going to resume my monthly commitment starting in October).

This book is worth reading. It will galvanize both women and men to act now! Please read it and see the documentary on Netflix.

Suggestions for Helping

Sponsor a girl or a woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service

The Memorialization of Walt Whitman’s “The Untold Want” in Now, Voyager

Now Voyager, a 1942 film directed by Irving Rapper, stars Bette Davis. The title of the film comes from Walt Whitman’s “The Untold Want,” published in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman, in his epic masterpiece, composed of over 400 individual poems, writes “The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,/ Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.” This poem is number 289 in this epic work. Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s magnum opus in which he allows the reader entrance into his thoughts on life and on sensuality. Bette Davis, in Now, Voyager plays Charlotte Vale, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in this beautifully interpreted film based on Whitman’s two-line poem. Now Voyager, is a film in which a young woman’s truculent mother, for many decades, hinders her from both self-actualization and self-expression. Charlotte Vale dresses dowdily, she wears unflattering glasses, she is called fat, she is discouraged from achieving pulchritude, she is prohibited from relationships with men, and her mother censors her books. Through her sister’s intervention, she receives help and reaches new heights, and is no longer recognizable to either her family or to her family’s friends. This film is Bette Davis at her best! (I also love The Letter, and Jezebel as well). Whitman, in this poem and in others in Leaves of Grass, uses ships metaphorically to illustrate that life was meant to sail. It was not meant to remain stagnant. Depicted in this work of poetry, Whitman realizes the importance for people to both grow and develop without constraints, and that their lives should be allowed to sail, to go places, and to experience life. As he says in “ABOARD at a Ship’s Helm, “O ship of the body-ship of the soul-voyaging, voyaging, voyaging,” we must always be sailing to seek and to find new things as well as our true selves. After one seeks and finds, what shall she do?

Bette Davis, as Charlotte Vale, before the transformation

Rapper, through this film, shows us how life can be dampened when one is not allowed the freedom of self-expression, self-actualization, and when one is made to feel like an ugly goose. Irving Rapper, the director, interprets Whitman’s poem through the illustration of Charlotte Vale. She, with the help of a psychiatrist, is treated away from her home and from her family. After the near completion of her treatment, she takes a trip that results in her character blossoming and transforming into the person that she longs to become. She sets sail to seek and to find all that her mother had heretofore denied her. Previously, all of her desires for love and for adventure had always been discouraged, and she had no access to romance and to life.  Formerly, her mother, had always looked at her disdainfully, and forced her to live a staid life. Vehemently, her mother forced her to wear unattractive glasses! Charlotte Vale takes a stand and realizes that she must voyage, seek, and find. And, she does!

Bette Davis, as Charlotte Vale, after the transformation

When one is allowed to sail by experiencing life, one can see a person’s comeliness instead of his or her imperfection. Much to Charlotte’s family’s shock and her mother’s eventual chagrin, at the end of her trip, Charlotte “comes out and wants the world to know it.” She has found both temporal romance and friendship on the cruise. She finds everything that she is seeking.The scene in which Charlotte, after transformation, disembarks from the ship, illuminates Bette Davis at her best. Bette Davis, as Charlotte, confidently, not diffidently, walks off the ship. People are now attracted to her. She is not only beautiful, but she is interesting! Others are attracted to her character and to her style. She neither looks, nor talks the same. Furthermore, she now has a coterie, although in theory. She wears fashionable clothing, her eyebrows are arched, she has lost twenty-five pounds, she wears makeup, and most of all, she now is armed with both less docility and greater confidence to face her mother. We are able to see Charlotte through the eyes of her friends and through her own eyes. Charlotte learns to free herself of her mother’s shackles, and the limitations that others have placed on her. Best of all, Charlotte realizes that she too has the opportunity to help someone, a child, who is now in the same predicament that she previously faced. She helps the daughter of the man whom she loves, but knows that she can not be reconciled to him.

Thematically this film shines. It was relevant in 1942, and is ever more relevant today. Like Whitman said in his classic poem, “I Sing the Body Electric.” We see that everyone should be celebrated and respected without constraints, regardless of exterior features. Because of images that bombard us on television, women, young girls, men and young boys often struggle with self-image, often confusing it with body-image. A classic film, Now, Voyager, can aid many women and children who struggle to fit in society because they are not deemed classically beautiful.Through this film, both adults and children can see that they need not be bound by a family’s limitations, and despite these negative limitations, they can set sail, seek, and find that which seems out of their reach. Now, voyager, preserved by The National Film Registry, was selected by the Library of Congress in 2007 for its cultural, aesthetic and historical importance.

Study some of Whitman’s poems in Leaves of Grass, and show the film alongside it to help teach some of the concepts in Whitman’s poems. Engage students in small group discussions. Additionally, a novel that can thematically foster a discussion on beauty image is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s a bit complex, but if it’s taught children will grow and develop positively.

Personal Note

 I have had this film for two years. I have a collection of Bette Davis’s films, but I had not watched this one, until it was on Turner Classic Movies on September 5, 2015. I wish that it had not taken me so long to see it. I did not realize the significance of the title, until I watched the film!

Examining One’s Conscience in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

What is the purpose of writing a novel? Is it to entertain, to inform, to expose? Go Set a Watchman ( I will often refer to it as Watchman) does all three well and more! It holds one’s attention, its rivets at times, it exposes vices, it entertains, and it informs the reader by giving historical context to the novel, and greatest of all, it allows for thoughtful rumination on one of the greatest issues that seeks to still divides us all- race. For months leading up to the release of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s companion novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was not sure whether I desired to read it. When it was revealed that Atticus Finch, the father and attorney in both novels, was a segregationist, I admit that Watchman began to pique my interest. I wanted to know his thoughts, and what led him to hold such views.  I heard some English teachers talking about how disappointed they were in the social stance that Atticus Finch was now taking, and they were not sure that they wanted to teach the book. Their ambivalence further propelled me toward reading it. I ordered a copy soon after its release date, and it sat on my table for several weeks before I had the opportunity to read it.

I began to realize, while reading, that this novel resonated with me on many levels.  It spoke to me as: a Christian, as an individual, as an African-American, as a teacher, and as both a Northerner and a Southerner.  It caused me to reflect on my own upbringing, and to reflect on a historical tour that I took of the Deep South ten years ago this month (we managed to fly out the day before Hurricane Katrina hit land!).  If a historical novel’s purpose is to entertain, to inform, and to expose uncomfortable truths, then Watchman does its job.  Yes, this novel will make people uncomfortable, whether one is black or white, Christian or non-Christian, and an individualist, or a conformist. It will rivet the reader especially if he himself participated in conversations and activities that mirrored those discussed in the book, or whether he silently sat by without opining about his own thoughts on the subject. Many people of the last sixty or more years have had strong opinions on integration and on segregation. We often fear what we do not understand. We tend to not understand cultures that are different from ours, and we tend to place value judgments on some of their behaviors that directly conflict with ours. We can only see the impact of either segregation or integration on us individually instead of the impact on society as a whole. In Watchman, Jean Louise, the main character, helps us to ruminate, and with hope for tomorrow,  take action regarding our attitudes toward race and class, and toward conformity and individualism.

Go set A Watchman, begins with Jean Louise Finch ( she is rarely referred to as Scout in the novel) returning home to Maycomb, Alabama for her fifth annual visit.  She has been living in New York for the last five years, and her views of people have been informed by her environment, although the majority of her learning came from Atticus, her father. She knows that her ways and her attitudes are in stark contrast to those of her fellow Maycombians, but she continues to behave in a manner contrary to most of its citizens.  Her behavior, however, is tolerated because she is a Finch. Her friend, Hank, wants to marry her, but she is ambivalent toward wanting to marry him and refuses ultimately because they do not share the same views regarding both conformity and race.  He is considered white trash, and it is hard for him to rise above that station in life, although he tries. In the first third of the book, Lee sets the stage for the differences in behavior that Jean Louise displays, and that of its Maycomb citizens. She dresses differently, she behaves in an uncouth manner at times, and the expectation that she has of others is different from what they have of themselves. The action rises when she finds out that both her father and her friend, Hank, have joined a council that has been promulgated to maintain the status quo that the white citizens of Maycomb have enjoyed for many decades. They are against the NAACP legally fighting for the rights of blacks since the U.S. Supreme Court declared, In Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, that separate but equal was not equal, and therefore was unconstitutional. At that juncture in the novel, the action become less but more reflective through the verbose conversations that Jean Louise has with her uncle, her father, her aunt, and with Hank. Not one of them makes apologies for his or her beliefs; Each one tries to validate his or her position by giving historical context for the views.Image result for go set a watchman

Unlike Jean Louise, many of us do not want to acknowledge our thoughts on these racial issues because they may not be accepted, because they may not be politically correct, and because they may make us feel uncomfortable. Some of us are like Jean Louise or like Atticus, Dr, Finch, and even Hank. We either covertly or overtly discuss our thoughts. Jean Louise says that she is color blind. I admire that quality. How many of us have used the words “white trash, or nigger, or cracker? The ability to see people based on character alone is the best way to judge a person. It allows us not to prejudge. Jean Louise’s color blindness, however, causes her to question her home community. She realizes that she no longer fits in with her community. Jean Louise in the novel on page 150, questions ” What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked? No, not the last. What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say “nigger” when the word had never crossed their lips before?” My thought is that the townspeople’s ideas had always been there, but the political events of the time had brought their feelings to the forefront. We should all strive to be like Jean Louise. Her uncle said to her in the novel, “You’re color blind, Jean Louise,” he said. “You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like.  You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is a burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people. She acknowledges, though, that she does not want to “especially …run out and marry a Negro or something.” Jean Louise shows her humanity and how she is still affected by race.

Through these conversations, one can see fear, conformity, and individualism as each one staunchly defends his position on the issue of equal rights in the United States as these rights relate to race and class structures that have been established through centuries of societal norms, laws, policies, and regulations.  In the end, Jean Louise learns that she must maintain her beliefs and her values, and that if she is to effect change on the masses, she has to surround herself around people whose values conflict with her own. How shall others hear her thoughts, if she only surrounds herself with people who think like she does? According to the novel’s definition of bigotry, (“obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion”) are we all either big or little bigots?

Although this book was written over sixty years ago, it still has relevance to our lives because issues of race and class permeate every aspect of life. It impacts education, employment, housing, and even our coteries. Because most of us are not color blind, we tend to see color as a stumbling block in almost every aspect of life. Lee in the novel, puts the NAACP in context, because it was a feared organization at that time. It fought for the rights of African-Americans.  Although the NAACP was founded in 1909, it did not gain prominence until many decades later. The NAACP was founded to help blacks secure rights that had heretofore been denied.  Lee helps us contextualize this organization and the rampant fears it generated.

Although one may not agree with everything in the novel, the ideas espoused are now part of the marketplace of ideas that allows us to thoughtfully and somewhat painfully debate the ideas and actions behind the main characters in this novel. The question that everyone must ask himself is whether he is a conformist or an individualist. He must ask if he values people based on both race and class, or based on character. Regardless of the answers, we must all ponder our behaviors so that we can move forward as people, regardless of nationality, race, class, creed. gender, or sexual orientation. There are many issues discussed in the book, and I cannot do them justice in this space. Please read the novel, and feel free to opine about the issues discussed in the novel. Perhaps in years to come, we can learn to evaluate people based on character instead of on artificial distinctions. We should be individuals. The color of our skin and how much money we have should not determine our outcome in life, where we can live, the quality of education, our friends, and whom we should marry. Let’s aspire to build better character within ourselves and to encourage our friends to do the same.

Personal Note

In August 2005, I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith, the first African-American to integrate Ole Miss, Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers, and the parents of one of the girls bombed in the church in Birmingham, Alabama. I also toured Alabama, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. During those ten days, I had the opportunity to learn experientially, concepts that I had only read about. Going to museums and historical sites impacted my life, and I will forever remember what I learned and will turnkey the information. Prior to this trip, offered to me gratuitously, I probably would have never gone to the Deep South.

Arizona: America the Beautiful

 This is a picture of the lodge at the North Rim. I had breakfast and lunch there. The food was good, but the food is much better at the South Rim. The North Rim is not nearly as developed as the South Rim. The North Rim is generally about ten degrees cooler, and it receives about fifteen percent of the Canyon's tourism. The distance it takes to travel there accounts for the lower tourism numbers..
This is a picture of the lodge at the North Rim. I had breakfast and lunch there. The food was good, but the food is much better at the South Rim. The North Rim is not nearly as developed as the South Rim. The North Rim is generally about ten degrees cooler, and it receives about fifteen percent of the Canyon’s tourism. The distance it takes to travel there accounts for the lower tourism numbers.

Twenty years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Santa Fe, NM. It was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in the United States. I knew then, that I would see other parts of the Southwest to further enjoy the artistry and the culture of the most beautifully naturally landscaped area in the United states. Although I am an avid traveler, I enjoy the national parks the most because of the scenic landscape and all the geological features that accompany each park.  I have always enjoyed the outdoors, and I seek out natural parks whenever possible.  This year, after previously visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Acadia, and Shenandoah, I decided that it was time to visit Arizona. During my week-long trip to Arizona, I went to the Grand Canyon (North and south Rims), the Museum of Northern Arizona, the Lowell Observatory, the Heard Museum, Taliesin West, and the Valley Bar in Phoenix for a jazz night out. I decided to fly into Phoenix ( Flagstaff would have been closer, but more expensive) and stay near Sedona, a beautiful part of Arizona filled with spas, but miserably hot. I rented a Buick Regal from Hertz.  I had to have a large enough vehicle to climb the elevation to the Grand Canyon. The sales associate suggested a Buick.  It was a great choice. The day I arrived in Phoenix it was a stifling vaporless one hundred-seventeen degrees! As I drove north, the temperature decresed about thirteen degrees, and I struggled to maintain the speed limit or even to surpass it as I was steadily climbing to seven thousand feet. After an hour of driving, I became acclimated to my surroundings, and was no longer anxious about driving. My comfort level allowed me to travel through out the state (1600 miles in one week).

South Rim of the Grand Canyon
South Rim of the Grand Canyon
North Rim. I hiked along a trail at the North Rim. The key to remember is if you go down the trail, you still have to hike back up. Always carry plenty of water! The temperature is about ten degrees cooler than the South Rim, but the drive from Sedona is about four and a half hours. The drive to the North Rim becomes very beautiful, but treacherous as you get closer to the North Rim. I was afraid to look out my window as I was driving. It was beautiful, but I don't know that I would ever make that drive again. It's near Utah!
North Rim. I hiked along a trail at the North Rim. The key to remember is if you go down the trail, you still have to hike back up. Always carry plenty of water!

Both Arizona’s skyline and landscape completely bedazzled me. The Grand Canyon is dessert to a beautifully accented region. The state was resplendent with naturally carved canyons that are only seen in the Southwest. I realized that I did not remember the lingo for all of the land formations such as mesa, butte, and that I would need to have a working knowledge of many terms unique to the Southwest. The next morning after my arrival, at four AM I drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was significantly cooler. In fact, I began to worry if I had the appropriate attire for the weather.  When I reached the Canyon it was about sixty-two degrees around 9am. The drive was lonely, a bit treacherous, but scenic as I approached the higher elevations. I had heard that it was more beautiful at the North Rim because of the increased elevation.  The temperature was expected to be about ten degrees cooler than the South Rim and greatly cooler than the valley. Thus, it was a climate ideal for hiking.  I spent about five hours hiking there that day, because I knew that I had to drive back to my hotel. The North rim is significantly less developed and less accessible than the South Rim; however with its beautiful colors marked by water erosion and because of the sun’s angle, the pictures that I took seemed to turn out better than my South Rim pictures. Staying at the lodge in the Grand Canyon, whether it’s the North or the South rims, takes advance planning of at least a year for the summer months. On day three of my trip, I took the drive to the South Rim.  It took two and a half hours to reach it.  It was highly developed with a great walking trail around the rim, shuttle buses that picked people up at various points in the park, places to eat, and multiple places to stay in the park. In hindsight, I should have planned this trip over a year in advance so that I could have stayed in the park. As a result of this trip, I will plan my next national park trip now, so that I can stay in its park.

South Rim. On my next visit, my cousin's wife will accompany me to the bottom of the Canyon so that I can meet some members of the Hopi tribe. To get down there, one must ride a mule down, and then take a helicopter back up!
South Rim. On my next visit, my cousin’s wife will accompany me to the bottom of the Canyon so that I can meet some members of the Hopi tribe. To get down there, one must ride a mule down, and then take a helicopter back up!
Lowell Observatory

I always enjoy an educational component to my vacations.  I visited the Museum of Northern Arizona and the Lowell Observatory after driving along the famous Route 66! I spent about two hours at the museum so that I could learn the geological history of the Grand Canyon – how it was formed over millions of years ago by the Colorado River.  it also focuses on the archaeological history of the Native Americans. I learned much from my visit.  After the museum, I spent the remainder of the day at the Lowell Observatory, founded by Percival Lowell.  I took several tours through which I learned much about astronomy. I highly recommend both places, At night, I went stargazing for the first time using powerful telescopes that projected the images onto a computer monitor.

When I arrived in Phoenix at the end of my tour, I went to the Heard Museum, the largest of its kind in the United States dedicated to Native American history. I spent almost the entire day there, taking multiple tours to gain a greater awareness of Native American culture. I realized that I had scant knowledge of their culture and I have avowed that I must learn more.

Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, AZ.
Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, AZ.

I also went to Taliesin West, the winter home of Frank Loyd Wright, the self-proclaimed and arguably the greatest American architect ever (He designed the Guggenheim Museum).  His home is grandly geometrically landscaped with triangles accenting every area of the interior and the exterior. It’s adorned with Asian art and authorized replicas of his practically designed but stunning furniture. Today, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation owns the grounds as well as the architecture school that limits enrollment to thirty-six students yearly. However, because of new accreditation policy, the school is about to become fully independent from the foundation. The foundation even has the rights to all of the water on the property because Wright believed that there was water underground and negotiated the rights to any future water found on the property. He was thought to have been crazy to pay for water in a place in which there is little water. Water was later found from a  river that supplies all of the water to the home gratuitously! Imagine never having a water bill!

I ended my tour at the Valley Bar, a performing arts venue in Phoenix.  I listened to live music originally recorded by great jazz musicians. I contacted a friend living in Arizona.  We had great food and great music to top off a grand vacation!

A view of Wright's home from the outside.
A view of Wright’s home from the garden.

Visit the Southwest.  You will not be disappointed. It will do wonders for the mind, body, and soul! Now I can say that Arizona is every bit as beautiful as New Mexico! See the gallery of photographs.

Revisiting Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle

Currently ( Summer of 2015) the Brooklyn Academy of Music began showcasing some  of the best 1980’s independent films. The program was launched with Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. I saw this film in 1987 when it was first released in theaters in America.  It took me back to the jheri curl era in which black men and women exchanged the tight curliness of their natural hair for a loose curl that was maintained with “activator.” What I remember most about the curl is that the hair of those who wore it was constantly dripping with activator. The film depicts cultural practices of blacks during that time period. The film, however, is a satire that seeks to expose the behavior of Hollywood directors who continue to perpetuate black stereotypes in both television and film, although with our tacit approval.  In the film black actors desperately want success in the entertainment industry, yet the only roles that are allowed are those of black criminals, black hoodlums, jive talking blacks, and gangsters, etc. The main character, Bobby Taylor, is an aspiring actor who disdains working at a fast food restaurant, and does not want to settle for a job at the post office even though the work is honest.  He auditions for a part in a movie in which he is a black jive talking hoodlum who is prone to violence.

The film, Hollywood Shuffle, satirizes a school where blacks can learn to “act black.”

Throughout Hollywood Shuffle, the casting directors have Taylor and other black or Hispanic men audition using racial stereotypes of the aforementioned races. Many of the aspiring actors comply with the directors’ demands, albeit unhappily. Bobby’s younger brother idolizes him throughout the entire film, and wants to be just like him.  Both Taylor’s mother and grandmother support his aspirations, although they are not content with the type of stereotypical roles that he is portraying. Through much soul-searching and through a conversation he has with someone, he realizes that honest work is better than selling one’s soul to achieve fame and stardom. This makes his family as well as his girlfriend immensely proud. This film was made more than thirty years ago, although released years later.  At the end of the film, Taylor is featured in commercials while working at the US Postal Service.  The moral of the film is that one must be true to one’s self. The question to pose is what, if anything, has changed during the last thirty years within Hollywood? Are dark-skinned blacks still getting gangster and thug roles? Are they still getting roles as slaves? Are blacks still depicted as uneducated and inarticulate? Let’s examine some of the recent films of the last decade to make both a fair and honest assessment of the changes, if any, that have been made.

Many films, in which blacks have been cast, that recently have garnered accolades have been movies directed, written, and produced mostly by blacks. There are some exceptions.  Last year Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Oscar for best picture.  It featured blacks as enslaved people and whites as slave owners.  Brad Pitt was the executive director. Similarly, The Butler, (directed by Lee Daniels) a period drama, starred Forrest Whitaker in a film about the heroic steps that a butler takes when working as a butler at the White House.  It was a film about a journey one man takes to reconcile his desire to be compliant with his job’s demands while not allowing others to take advantage of himself. It featured black actors in the primary roles.  Additionally, at the end of 2014, we saw the release of Selma, a civil rights drama that chronicled the historical events of the march in Selma, Alabama. It primarily featured blacks in the major roles. The blacks featured were both educated and articulate in the film. Ava Duvernay, a black woman, was the director. There have been a series of “Best Man Movies” and The Black Nativity film. Jamie Foxx starred in Django Unchained, a western set two years prior to the Civil War.  It is about a former enslaved man who is freed so that he could assist a bounty hunter. It was directed by Quentin Tarantino; Furthermore, Will Smith has starred in a series of films over several decades.  He and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, however are among the coproducers of many of these films. Viola Davis and Kerry Washington have succeeded in television and in film; however, the shows in which they star are produced by Shonda Rhimes, a black writer, producer, and director. Then there is Blackish (cocreated by Kenya Barris) and Empire cowritten by Lee Daniels), both successful shows featuring blacks. Both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington  in the last decade have played many roles that have not been stereotypical and that have been neither directed nor produced by blacks. Washington’s films include the The Book of Eli, and The Great Debaters. Chris Rock recently directed his last film, Top Five. Morgan Freemen recently starred in 5 Flights up, a film about an older interracial couple reflecting on their life together. It appears that seasoned actors are better able to command the major roles that are directed or produced by whites.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates in 2004 starred in a PBS documentary series entitled America Behind the Color Line. It featured, among other topics, the difficulty that black actors have in receiving major roles in Hollywood. If the actor is not an “A List” actor and is not the right complexion, then it is hard for him to obtain major roles.  The texture of one’s hair is also an issue. Although the roles that blacks get are not as stereotypical as they once were, getting those roles still remains difficult. Gates interviewed Chris Tucker and Morgan Freeman. Tucker specifically talked about the difficulty blacks have in getting major roles. If whites are not able to relate to our films, then we are not likely to receive those roles.  Since we are in the minority, it is financially inconsequential if we do not receive those roles.

Thus, it appears that blacks have stopped to a large degree taking demeaning roles. Yes, we still take roles depicting slavery, but not in a pejorative way.  It also appears that we have empowered ourselves by producing and writing films that depict us in a positive light.  Green-lighting our own films is still expensive.  It also appears that we are supporting each other more within the entertainment industry than we have previously done. Overall, progress has been made.  We had to get to a position and to a point in life in which esteeming our worth was more important than accepting those stereotypical roles in order to advance in the entertainment industry. Complexion, still matters, especially if one is female.  The lighter one is, the more likely one is to be cast. We could and still cannot wait for others to do what we can do ourselves.

If you have never seen this film, it is a must see.  If you have, see it again. You will laugh and reflect on the issues that are presented. I leave with you the words of Polonious in Hamlet, ” This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the /night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man./ Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.”

Love Lost and Love Regained in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

Image result for cymbeline public theater


by William Shakespeare

Directed by Daniel Sullivan

with  Teagle F. Bougere, Kate Burton, Emma Duncan, Raul Esparza, David furr, Hamish Linklater, Jacob-Ming-Trent, Tim Nicolai, Patrick Page, Lily Rabe, Steven Skybell, David Ryan smith

The Public Theater’s production of Cymbeline, part of its annual free Shakespeare in the Park series (Central Park’s Delacorte Theater), is extraordinary in its direction of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works. It is a cool summer breeze transporting the audience away from the summer heat; It is a cool delicious salad that leaves the audience wanting more! Magnificantly directed by Daniel Sullivan, it includes a creative team that features Riccardo Hernandez for scenic design, David Zinn for costume design, David Lander for lighting design, Acme Sound partners for sound design, and Tom Kitt for the original music.This is a beautiful contemporary rendition of Shakespeare’s work. During the morning of the performance, I read and studied Cymbeline so that I would have a better understanding of the performance. I wanted to be able to focus on the performance instead of the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. Becoming well acquainted with the performance beforehand makes a great difference when seeing Shakespeare. I was able to determine which scenes were deleted from the performance and how some scenes were rearranged to suit the contemporary performance.

The best part of the show,  is how select members of the audience, while sitting on stage, participate in the performance, and how music and dance are beautifully woven within the story. The sound and the lighting design beautifully accent the actors’ performances. Lily Rabe plays Imogen and Hamish Linklater plays both Posthumus Leonatus and Clotus. Patrick Page adeptly plays Cymbeline, the King. Cymbeline is the story of a daughter’s love, and a father’s fury; it’s the story of a queen’s revenge and a stepdaughter’s triumph; it’s the story of Iachimo’s chicanery and a husband’s redemption; and lastly, it’s the story of war and peace. Cymbeline regains his long-lost sons who were both kidnapped twenty years before the beginning of the play, and Imogen regains her husband that she previously believed was dead. The Queen and her son, Clotus are both dead, and no one is sorry for their death! Truly at the end of this play, the audience can say, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” But, that is another play! 

Daniel Sullivan, the director of this play, is ingeniously creative. He takes what appears to be difficult text and rearranges the text to help the audience better understand the performance.The syntax of the opening lines of the text makes the initial concepts somewhat difficult to understand. I read those lines several times to make sure that I was understanding the text; however, in The Public Theater’s performance, there are two characters on stage who serve, initially as narrators, to give us an understanding of the opening scene of the text. Under the direction of Sullivan, audience members are given lines to read as the narrators orient the audience to the events in the story that take place prior to the beginning of the play. There are times when the audience is encouraged to clap to the music, further bringing us into the drama. I looked forward, however, to the scene in which Posthumus father’s apparition would appear during Posthumus’s  dream; it, however, was a deleted scene. The play is three hours long including a fifteen minute intermission. That scene and others would have added additional time to an already lengthy running time.

Hamish Linklater stupendously plays both Cloten, the queen’s son, and Posthumus Leonatus (so named because both his parents are deceased).  The range of acting is great, and I did not realize that Linklater plays both parts.  The two characters are the antithesis of each other and the costume design for each character is different as well as the voices of the two characters. The way Clotus interacts with Imogen made me not even consider that the same person played both parts. The audience can easily identify with Posthumus, while despising Clotus because of Linklater’s delivery of his lines as well as his gesticulations while acting.

Lily Rabe is perfectly cast as Posthumus’s wife and as the sister to her long-lost brothers.  Her love for her banished husband is evident as she gazes into his eyes at the beginning of the play and at the end of the play. The affection that they have for one another sets the stage for the events to follow. Her love for her husband is the impetus for all of her actions that follow.  When she climbs into the grave with the man whom she thought to be her husband,  Posthumus, one could see and feel that she truly loved her husband. The scene was both powerfully acted and directed.  Her actions and Sullivan’s direction serve to beautifully illuminate the scene. The filial love that Imogen has for her brothers, even before she realizes that they are her brothers, is adroitly and tenderly acted as they gain at the end of the drama, the relationship that they should have always had.

Patrick Page, as Cymbeline rages early in the play at his daughter for her oppositional and defiant behavior in marrying the lowly, but gentlemanly Posthumus. The emotion by which he delivers his lines is neither melodramatic nor overwrought, but delivered with enough intensity that the audience feels his choleric temperament. She desires his love and affection, but his furor grips him to the extent that one would wonder if their relationship would be repaired. At the end of the performance, the King is now at peace as he realizes that his sons are alive.  He forgives his daughter for her disobedience when he becomes aware of his queen’s beguilement, Cloten’s deceit, and the extent of Iachimo’s mendacity to deceive Posthumus. This scene is filled with a range of emotions.  We see the King’s regret, Imogen and Posthumus’s love, and the reconcilement of the entire family, minus the two self-absorbed characters, the Queen and her son, Cloten. At the end of the play, the King’s affability has been juxtaposed with his previous irascible temper.

Both the lighting and audio design help transition the audience from scene to scene. The battle scenes are beautifully choreographed with the sound of war orienting the audience to time and place. We  hear muskets and canons firing. There is music similar to “the Battle Hymn of the Republic,”  ushering the audience into the scenes. The sound design is potent and the music is beautifully directed as the drummer plays with great passion during the battle scene. The neon lights during the contemporary dance add stunning brilliance to the scene in which Posthumus and Iachimo meet. They meet in a “bar’ where the wager is made that Iachimo can make Imogen commit infidelity. The lights as well as the music and dance bring a smile to one’s face because of the jazz music and dance of the 40s and 50s. The costume design perfectly matches the glitz and the glamour of the forties. At the end of the performance the dancers all come out on stage dancing what appears to be western style dancing, now that the “West has won” and the war between the British and the Romans is over. Everyone is reconciled and elysium is achieved as the characters move toward a more halcyonic time and place.  It is a cool summer breeze that llifts the audience from the heat’s heaviness.

This performance is a must see, especially because it is seldom performed. The music and the dance as well as all of the creative elements catapult this show to great heights. Please get your tickets today. It will uplift your spirit. The Odyssey will also be performed in the park from September 4-7

Four ways to get tickets:

*Free distribution in Central Park at noon (line starts forming early before 6am.)

*Free virtual ticketing lottery (I’ve never been successful at getting tickets that way.) *

Free downtown lottery distribution at the Public Theater (I’ve never been successful with that either.)

*Skip the line and support free Shakespeare. ( for a sizable donation of $200 )

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me: A Review

The US government is quick to acknowledge and disdain ethnic divisions that have spurred civil conflict throughout the world; however, we fail to confront seriously the ethnic divisions in our own home. Although we may not have had any ethnic cleansing in the US, we have had and continue to have contemptuous practices that put to shame our status as a developed nation. Both race and color are difficult topics for anyone to discuss. All of us are touched by these issues and we cannot escape the ramifications of the labels that have been placed on us.  America, unlike other countries of the world, identify people based on race and not nationality. Groups in the minority will always fare worse than the majority. As a result, no matter how much we try to see people as individuals, the issue of color is always looming overhead. We have had over four hundred years of this classification, without escape. Honestly, but unfortunately, I notice race when I first meet someone. It’s not to discriminate, but it’s an identification marker. Moreover, race is especially a big issue for me because my brother was the victim of a racial incident in Connecticut twenty years ago. He was severely attacked because of a relationship that he had with a white woman. Amazingly, he was able to move on and work through the issues that the attack caused. I also on many occasions have been questioned by whites when I have been the only person of color at an event. I have been asked whether I had a ticket to attend the event. I have been asked what I do for a living when shopping at a high-end store.  These questions are all based on race.  Many of us have read many articles on race relations. Some we agree with and others we discard. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and the author of Between the World and Me,  has put forth his theory on race relations in America.

When I received my copy of New York magazine two weeks ago, the cover featuring Ta- Nehisi Coates intrigued me. Much to my chagrin, I had  never heard of Coates prior to the featured article and his image gracing the magazine cover, and I only had a cursory knowledge of the Atlantic magazine for which he writes. A few days later an article by David Brooks appeared in the New York Times about Coates and his new book.  I read both articles in their entirety. I became intrigued to hear his theories on race relations in America. Coates has been featured on news programs in which he has discussed his ideas as well as his new book.  In this book he examines some deep-seated causes for the racial unrest that has been plaguing our country for centuries.  He explains his theory on the root causes of behavior of African-Americans as well as the causes of behavior of whites or those who “call themselves white.” Prior to its release, his publicist sent a copy of the book to Toni Morrison who stated, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive.  And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.  This is required reading.” Thus, with this endorsement in mind, I decided to read Coates’s view on race in America. Coates states at the inception of his book that the success of America is based on violence and on stealing.  He says that the progress of those in America who are white or who want to be what America calls white have prospered from America’s history, and those who are not white have suffered because of it.

Coates book is a letter to his fifteen year old son that discusses his worldview on race and how he came to formulate his opinions. His parents taught him to read and write well so that he would be able to think for himself instead of regurgitating other people’s thoughts.  He had to be able to develop his own ideas and support those ideas with evidence. At an early age, he learned how to navigate the crime ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore. He also learned how to take pride in himself and in people of African descent. At Howard University, his Mecca,  he gained strength through his camaraderie with people from the African diaspora. He learned from his parents and from fellow students to value his skin color and the physical traits of his blackness. Coates opines on black hair, and the lengths that many black women go through to camouflage their hair so that they can blend in with the rest of society.

According to Coates, fear is the major emotion that drives people’s behavior.  He says that people live in fear of what might happen.  Black parents beating their children, he says, is a result of fear. They fear that if they do not beat them, then someone else will if they engage in negative or criminal behavior.  This fear explains why the woman during the recent riots in Baltimore beat her son in plain view when she saw that he was about to take part in the riots. She was vilified for beating her son.  Few people understood her actions. She was trying to save her son from future harm.  Her actions might not have been appropriate, but they were understandable.  Black people fear the police because the police have not been there to protect them.  Coates cites numerous recent incidents such as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others.  These individuals were either not protected by the police departments or they did not receive justice because those responsible for their deaths were not criminally charged or adjudicated to be criminally responsible. Furthermore, Coates acknowledges that black cops as well as white cops are just as likely to kill black men.  He looks at the structure of the police department in Prince George County, Maryland.  There are many black officers within that police department, yet they were responsible for the death of Prince Jones, an unarmed black man, who should never have been pursued by the police.  Jones came from an affluent family, and was not a criminal. His mother, a radiologist, is the head of her department at the hospital where she works. Her economic status could not shield her son from death. Fear caused the officers to overreact, thereby killing him. Officers, justified or unjustified, fear the effects of nonconformity to a code of police behavior.

Additionally, Coates also examines the school system. He says that schools place more shackles on African-American boys through punishment, while trying to force them to conform to a model of behavior that does not fit many African-American boys. Coates outlines that African-American children are expected to behave according to rigid standards of conduct.  They are often punished for nonconformity, and he says that schools do not adequately educate African-American children They are just gateways for punishment.

Lastly, Coates tells his son that we must struggle against the climate of the country. We must try to work through the challenges we face.  He acknowledges the difficulties, the hindrances. He says that we must struggle for our ancestors, struggle for our families, and hope and pray (he is either an atheist or an agnostic. He appears to waffle of which one best defines himsel) if one is moved, for those who willingly participate in the activities that continue to divide us and destroy our country. One must never give up the struggle. Using the words of Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Prayer will help us work through these difficult challenges that Coates discusses. We must be willing to tackle these issues and see people as individuals.  We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and meet and befriend people of other races. We must form bonds with people who come from diverse backgrounds. If we can do that, there will be hope for tomorrow. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Coates is moving with his wife and son for one year to Paris, a city where he feels that he will not be evaluated based on race.  He is truly following in the traditions of Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other black  writers of the twentieth century. I hope he writes about his experiences. I highly recommend this book. Excerpts can be used as informational texts in a high school classroom.

Taking Flight in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings: A Review

Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees, captured my heart when I first read that novel.  She was both creative and ingenious to write a story that was incredibly metaphoric and touching about the life of a young girl as it relates to the life of a bee.  I read her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, but it did not “wow” me.  Most recently, however, I read her latest novel, The Invention of Wings.  After I finished reading the novel, I said to myself, “That was a great novel.” The story had an even greater effect on me than The Secret Life of Bees.  The Invention of Wings enthralled me from its first page.  It is a historical novel set during the first half of the nineteenth century in South Carolina.  Kidd, a South Carolina native, often sets her stories in South Carolina, and uses South Carolina from a historical perspective. South Carolina, unlike the other states in the union had the largest concentration of enslaved Africans, and Charleston was the port of entry for many Africans who became enslaved.  As a result, Charleston was among the wealthiest cities within the original thirteen colonies.  As many as forty percent of the enslaved arrived in Charleston where they were bartered.  Many continued to arrive in South Carolina because of the need for free labor to produce rice.  Africans from Sierra Leone were experienced with planting rice. Thus, their knowledge of planting rice inadvertently fostered the slave trade in South Carolina.  It is with this backdrop of enslaved Africans in Carolina, that Kidd begins her story.  Kidd’s historical novel is about both individual purpose and resolution, alternatingly told through the eyes of Sarah Grimke, the prominent promoter of women’s rights at that time in America and Hetty Handful Grimke, an enslaved woman on the Grimke plantation and Sarah’s personal maid.  The story is told with historical accuracy as it infuses authenticity into the story through historical figures and through historical events that transpired during the first half of the nineteenth century in America. Kidd uses superb metaphorical and lyrical language throughout the text that draws the reader to each page.  She builds the story through both internal and external conflict experienced by the characters that results in the reader rooting for the main characters.  The metaphoric language allows the reader to take the story of the enslaved family’s “invention of wings” folk tale to great height. Both Handful and Sarah both take flight at the end as if they had wings like an eagle enabling them to soar to great heights, accomplishing the unfathomable.  The novel ends with a stunning denouement that makes the reader say, “brava” to Sue Monk Kidd.

The Invention of Wings is historically based on specific events relating to the Grimke family, a prominent planter family in Charleston, South Carolina, during the nineteenth century.  The family was affluent and owned many enslaved Africans on their plantation.  The story is based on the lives of two women and how their lives intersect at different points in their development.  It is also about how these women impact the lives of others around them because of their steadfastness in pursuing their dreams.  This is a story about women’s rights, about abolition, about individual determination, about heartbreak, about love, and about not losing sight of one’s dreams and goals.  Both characters work through what seem to be insurmountable odds.  This story is set during a time in which South Carolinians were staunch slave traders and when women were prohibited from gaining stature through education.  Kidd weaves her story through the abolition movement with Denmark Vesey, with Lucretia Mott, with William Lloyd Garrison, and with the Quakers.  The story includes a foiled slave revolt organized by Vesey, an African American Episcopal Church leader; however, the rebellion was preempted by two enslaved individuals who conveyed the plot to their master. Vesey was later hanged along with several other slaves.  The novel details the inhumane treatment suffered.

Additionally, the novel reveals the individual grit that both Handful and Sarah maintained to work toward achieving freedom, abolition, and women’s rights.  Historically all of these aspirations were eventually achieved at great person cost to Grimke and to others like her.  Kidd elaborates on the difficulties that Sarah and her sister Angelina both faced and endured with the Quakers because the Quakers were not keen on combining the Abolition Movement with the Women’s Rights Movement. The two sisters quickly realized that abolition did not mean equal rights. Kidd incorporates the sentiment of the time that women were only meant to be homemakers, and that any other aspiration was denigrated. “Handful’s resolution to escape the shackles of slavery resulted in brutal treatment.  Some of the exact details of Handful’s life are fictionalized, although she did exist on the plantation and Sarah did teach her how to read and write.  Kidd in her comments at the end of the novel, details to the reader the fictionalized elements used to tell the story as well as the historical documents that she used. She unwaveringly tells us the triumphs and well as the both the obstacles and disappointments that the sisters as well as Handful experienced. It gives us a great picture of the events of that time as it lyrically transports us back toward another time and place. This is a great book for adolescents and for adults of all ages. This book is an excellent companion to James Mcbride’s The Good Lord Bird, a historical novel.

My Personal Connection to South Carolina

My maternal grandmother, Rosamae Hill, was born in South Carolina in 1911 and was a descendant of the enslaved Katy Dawkins. William Dawkins, the slave owner of the plantation in Union County, South Carolina where Katy Dawkins resided had children with three enslaved women: Katy, Millie, and Rosetta Dawkins. Katy Dawkins died in 1870 and William Dawkins died in 1872.  In William Dawkins’s will, he left the entire plantation, 750 acres of land, and all of the farming equipment to the other two women who remained on the plantation.  Dawkins’s white family contested the will.  He did not have a legal wife or any other children outside of these three enslaved women.  His family did not prevail, but the ‘wives” in essence won because their children were legal heirs to the property. (It is not known why Katy’s son, Randall, did not try to gain any of the property, but we know through my grandmother that the family was aware of the property.) As a result, many of the beneficiaries became college educated.  They became physicians, teachers, ministers, and attorneys.  Their descendants went on to achieve financial prosperity seven years after emancipation – a time in which it was difficult for most “Negroes.” It truly “reconstructed” their lives.  My branch of the family did not initially fare as well both educationally and financially.  It was about five generations later before the descendants of Katy Dawkins saw its first college graduate.  Having a level playing field makes a difference.  The plantation is still in the “family.” Currently, the descents of Millie and Rosetta Dawkins, have been meeting annually since 1926.  Next summer in July, the ninetieth reunion will take place on the plantation in Fishdam, South Carolina in Union County.  For the last six or seven years a few of the descendents from Katy Dawkins have joined the rest of the family in its annual meeting.  Thanks to my second cousin, Eleanora, a genealogist, the family history was unearthed and is being preserved.  Possibly in 2020, the reunion will take place in New York City.  Just maybe we can get the descendants of Katy Dawkins to fully participate.

The Color-line and Sexual Abuse in Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child: A Review

After reading the first seven novels that Toni Morrison wrote, I declared a personal moratorium on her novels.  I enjoy complex novels, but I decided that I needed a respite from the great complexity. That respite, however, lasted eighteen years. I recently decided to purchase her most recent novel, God Help the Child.  The title grabbed me, and the first page transfixed me. Sweetness, one of the characters in the novel says, “I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father.  Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color.  Tar is the closest I can think of yet her hair don’t go with the skin.”  Because of these issues, Lula Ann wrongly accuses a woman of sexual abuse.  She desires her mother’s attention, and therefore, engages in mendacity to achieve it. Unmistakingly, Morrison is making social and political statements within the novel in reference to both the color line in America, and to sexual abuse, and she makes it plain enough for everyone to comprehend. Frederick Douglass first coined the term the color- line and W.E. B. Dubois, later in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, expounded on the issue that was plaguing the world, not just America. The color-line is the relation of the darker to the lighter races of people throughout the world.

The first page of the novel riveted me because I myself have felt a fair amount of disdain from within my own race because of my skin color, although, my parents loved me and never made disparaging remarks about my color. My mother is a light brown complexion and my father and I shared a similar complexion. I still, however, felt the contempt from school children and from others within my own home for the color of my skin.  As a result of my adolescent experiences, I have during adulthood and continuing, put myself on a journey to like every aspect of myself including both my hair and my skin color. I tend to show both an increased amount of love and affection for darker skinned children because I know that they are not often esteemed as lighter skinned children. I wish that I did not feel as if I had to treat children differently based on skin color.  I am a victim, and equally a contributor to the issue still plaguing the world. Thus, when I began reading the first page of the novel, I easily identified with the main character in the novel. I hesitate to call her the protagonist, because in many ways she is no hero, but is a victim of the tragic mistakes that parents often make with their children. Although these issues are prevalent within the black community, I am sure it is not restricted to the black race. Through her novel, Morrison is making a statement about how childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and neglect, often leave long-lasting scars on children that affect them for the rest of their lives. The novel ends with the statement, “God, help the child.”  Indeed, God help the child!

God Help the Child is centered around a woman, renamed Bride (Lula Ann), and her friends who each have suffered a traumatic event in his or her childhood. She renamed herself Bride because of the connotations associated with brides. Brides often wear white. Bride, at the suggestion of a friend, began wearing white to reflect the beauty of her own black skin. She wears every shade of white and only white.  As a child, she was often alienated because of her “blue-black” skin. She has had difficulty working through all the conflict that her color produced.  She was rejected not only by both parents but by others in her community.  She spent her entire childhood trying to get her mother’s love, but not without detrimental effects. Bride and her friends also spend their lives trying to work through both the abuse and the trauma they have either witnessed or experienced. She and her two friends are all connected by some form of trauma, even though they are unaware of their connection.

The name of the characters in the novel all symbolize some trauma of their lives, and reflect their coping strategies. Bride’s best friend, Brooklyn, rescues her from a severe assault from the woman Bride wrongly accuses of sexual abuse.  The name Brooklyn is symbolic of the original Dutch name, “Breukelen” meaning “broken land” and even the American meaning for “brook” is significant; it means water or stream. Brooklyn is indeed broken by childhood abuse, and she provides herself as a lifeline for Bride. Water, is a sign of life. Bride’s lover, Booker, as his name implies, is concerned with books and with writing (He is broken too.). He is a deep thinker, which negatively impacts his ability to work through the trauma of losing his brother because of a sexual predator’s actions. He relives the trauma of his brother’s death, and cannot forgive his parents for their ability to move forward.

I wish that I could say that this story ends on a positive note.  At first glance it does. Bride is pregnant out-of-wedlock. The Bible says in Proverbs that “Children are a treasure from the Lord.” Unfortunately, neither Bride nor her lover have worked through the trauma of their lives for this child to feel the treasure that she will be.  They have not reconciled with their parents and with the events that have shaped their lives. The reader knows through the words of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, that the path for her unborn grandchild will be fraught with challenges. Sweetness says silently in her thoughts, “Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent. Good luck and God help the child.”

The novel provides subject matter that causes the reader to pause for reflection.The novel is both somber in tone and in content; it allows for both personal and powerful rumination for both parents and their adult children. Do not expect the typical Toni Morrison style of unfettered complexity, but perhaps upon careful meditation, one may accept the challenges of parenthood with both alacrity and God’s help. I recommend it, but the reader must know, that the novel is thought-provoking, with the hope that it will spur both parents and children toward positive action.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch