Archive for December, 2008

Hoppin’ John By Any Name

December 31, 2008

This New Year’s Day meal has as many variations as it has names, and as many arguments over the derivation of the names, and over the contents of the dish.

One thing is certain: Lots of Southern folk, especially black folk, and lots of transplanted Southern folk eat the Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day for good luck. To be perfectly proper, one needs to also eat greens, usually collards, for money. Our family usually ate kale instead of collards because Daddy grew it in his garden and it always tasted better after it had frozen. I cheat and sauté a little garlic in olive oil and then pour it over spinach. This year I may even cheat more and use some sort of frozen greens.

The normal accompaniment in our house was homemade corn bread, which as far as I know doesn’t have any symbolic significance. It just tasted good with the peas and rice.

The name has various origins. What’s Cooking America offers several theories. I had never seen the saying “rice for riches, peas for peace” until I saw it on this site.

My New England family did not have any tradition of eating this dish until my great-uncle Frank Chisholm, born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia, married into the family. He and my father disagreed about most everything, but somehow Uncle Frank got Daddy started on Hoppin’ John. Daddy’s Creole family on the bayou didn’t have any Hoppin’ John tradition either. For them it was red beans and rice, traditionally on Monday. But by the time I came along, my father had pretty much taken over the daily cooking chores. I think Mother got insulted because he used to tell people that he taught her how to cook, which was a blatant lie. He also said he could cook everything at home better than any restaurant. I made him take back his words after I treated him to dinner at a Thai restaurant where he admitted the Chuu-Chi Shrimp was beyond his culinary powers.

Anyway, Daddy fixed Hoppin’ John by browning some salt pork, removing it and adding to a couple of tablespoons of the fat some chopped onion, garlic, and celery. When the vegetables were soft, he restored the salt pork and poured in water and the black-eyed peas which had soaked over night. He seasoned it with bay leaf and a substantial amount of salt and pepper until Mother put herself on salt restriction. The dish cooked on the back of the stove for several hours and just as the peas were getting soft, he added rice. It had to be Uncle Ben’s long grain.

I’ve been making Hoppin’ John for several years now, and have evolved the recipe below, which combines two that I found at Epicurious with my dad’s version, plus a couple of flourishes of my own. If I’m cooking for company I use ham hocks, which are traditional. For me, it’s strictly veggie. There are a couple of don’ts. It is a capital offense to violate them. DO NOT add tomatoes. DO NOT add cheese. Other than those rules, feel free to experiment. Here’s the veggie recipe with approximate measurements. I am stringing the ingredients in narrative form because the space won’t handle double columns.

Hoppin’ John

2 Tbsp. canola or other light oil; 1 medium onion, finely chopped; 1 stalk celery, finely chopped (see Note); 2 cloves garlic, minced; 2 Tbsp. soy bacon bits; 1 bay leaf; 1 tsp. thyme; 3 cups water or veggie broth; 1 cup black-eyed peas; 1/2 cup rice uncooked (see Note); salt and pepper to taste; Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper to taste; a few drops of Liquid Smoke (see Note).

The day before you intend to cook the dish, rinse and pick over the black-eyed peas. Place in a large glass or other non-corrosive bowl and add water to cover by at least an inch. Discard any peas that float to the top. Soak over night. (See Note for alternatives.) When you’re ready to cook, drain the water and rinse peas.

Heat oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid and sauté onion, celery, and bacon bits until they begin to soften. Toss in a bit of salt and pepper to keep the mixture from browning. When veggies are soft, add garlic and sauté one to two more minutes. Add water or broth, Tabasco sauce, bay leaf, thyme, and drained peas. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook until the peas begin to soften, about 2 hours. Add water or broth if necessary, but don’t stir too much or everything will turn mushy. Stir in rice, cover, and cook 20 to 25 minutes. Add Liquid Smoke and adjust seasonings. Serve with greens and corn bread.

Notes:

Can add finely chopped green bell pepper and/or carrots along with the onion and celery. I use medium grain River rice (grown in my grandparents’ hometown of Abbeville, Louisiana), which seems to absorb more flavor than the traditional long-grain version. If you’re making the meat version, skip the Liquid Smoke. Several diners have suggested that this meal tastes better the day after it was made because the flavors have a chance to “marry.” You can short cut the overnight soaking by boiling the rinsed peas for two minutes and then letting them sit for an hour before adding them to the vegetables or cooking them in a pressure cooker with the veggie broth and seasonings for about 20 minutes. in that case, skip the two hours and just add the rice and Liquid Smoke.

Happy New Year!

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Tour de Force

December 30, 2008

Not long after I began reading Tina Brown’s powerful account in Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan, I thought about my dear friend Vera Johnson, a retired funeral director from New Britain, Connecticut. She may have been the first African-American woman in the state to hold a funeral director’s license. Vera was elderly, but she always looked perfectly dressed and coiffed. She wore white blouses with black skirts, sometimes a bright purple hat. And she loved the color red, red skirts, red suits.

My mind traveled to Vera as I read the story of Linda C. Jordan because Vera had stopped driving out of town when I met her about ten years ago, so I would take her on errands. Whenever we reached the highway, she would say, “May the Lord make the crooked way straight,” except she said, “Make the crooked-y way straight.” She repeated her prayer until we left the highway.

While Vera prayed for a straight road, Linda Jordan created one. Tina’s engrossing narrative will leave readers at once wrung out and inspired. Linda was abused as a child, exploited as a teenager, addicted as an adult, but she pulled her life together and became an advocate for African Americans, and black women in particular, in the HIV/AIDS community at a time when most people thought the disease afflicted only white gay men.

On the surface Linda and Vera had little in common. Vera was solidly middle class and a lady to the core; Linda was “street,” raised in poverty by alcoholics. But Linda and Vera shared one trait. They were survivors, given courage and hope by their faith in God. After her husband’s death, Vera sank into a deep depression. She nevertheless managed to hang on even as her neighborhood slid into disrepair. She maintained her oasis, installing a chain link fence, which she kept locked with a padlock. For personal protection, she bought and trained two big German shepherds. She continued to attend church and kept track of friends in her community.

Linda, living in far more dire circumstances a few miles away in Hartford, not only hung on, she flourished once she came to terms with what had happened in her life. Tina, my friend and former colleague from the Hartford Courant, weaves all the threads of Linda’s into a tour de force. At times Crooked Road Straight is painful to read because of the harrowing details of the life of this young woman who never really had a childhood, became a mother far too young, and generally lacked the support of family to help her through the pitfalls of being young, poor, and black. But Tina focuses on the uplift as well, writing with compassion how Linda overcame her addictions and developed the courage to speak out on behalf of people who were ostracized and struggling with their own addictions and illnesses.

Tina writes in the Prologue that she wondered why she continued to live and work in Hartford, a city that seemed to offer her little. While she wondered,Tina was giving to the city, as she wrote many award winning articles for the Courant and opened the eyes of folks in the suburbs to the pain of the city. She also contributed through her church, her sorority, and the Links. She received the answer to her question of “Why here?” when she approached Linda about writing the book and began to dig even deeper into the coping mechanisms of people who felt they had no means of escape from their prison. Tina found and served her purpose by telling Linda Jordan’s story. Tina, too, has done the Lord’s work by making Linda continue to live within the pages of this awe-inspiring book.

In the end, both Linda and Vera survived because their faith in God offered them solace. They both made their own crooked way straight. It is a sad irony that they passed away less than a year apart, Linda at the relatively young age of 53 and Vera at a venerable 88.

This review also appears on Amazon.

Cynic No More

December 27, 2008

Belated Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and a current happy Kwanzaa and Boxing Day to all!

First a confession: Some time in the last century I decided not to follow the news from the Middle East. Cynical me said the people living there had waged war against each other for at least 4,000 years. Every outside group that tried to bring peace mostly exacerbated the conflicts. Why, I thought, should I pay attention to a place where things are not likely to change in the next 4,000 years? Plus, I did not and do not trust major American news organization to provide “objective” information about the struggle. And my other source for such news, the BBC, is even less trustworthy in this case, since the Brits caused a good portion of the mess, as they did in India/Pakistan, and in a good chunk of Africa.

But back to the Holy Land. While I still despair for the immediate future, events have occurred that have given me hope for the long run. A young woman whom I met about a year ago has destroyed my jaded view that things there will always remain the same. When I first met Lizz I loved her. Of course she shares my name – but what’s with that extra z?

She and her friends were on their way to a play the day we met. We had been joking about some historical figure – at this point I can’t remember now if it was Christopher Marlowe or Alexander Hamilton. As the girls headed out the door, I said, “Plus, he was hot!” Lizz stopped dead in her tracks, turned around and flashed me a terrific grin.

Lizz went to Israel this fall and began the most amazing blog. It’s way better than this one on a number of counts. First the subject matter is focused on her semester abroad. She addresses serious topics, is forming liaisons with folks from other cultures, is learning about environmental planning for the region, and is confirming and forming her own opinions about how neighbors get along. Best of all her blog’s got pictures! But she can explain herself with far greater facility than I can so here’s the link to her Lizz’s blog.

Her passion didn’t surprise me – after all the girl wants to be a rabbi, and she has the energy of youth. What does impress me, over and over, is her ability to see through the b*** s*** from every side and her facility at digging beneath what her teachers want her to teach. I see a reporter’s instincts at work.

So glad she’s given me this education and sorry to know that her travels will be coming to an end in another month. I could see her returning to make a serious effort at healing the great wounds.

Oh, and about those photos: What’s a nice Jewish girl (grown woman) doing sitting on “Santa’s” lap asking for a pony?

Another ‘Coincidence’

December 23, 2008

The subject of yesterday’s blog might count as a “coincidence,” since my book featuring Elizabeth Alexander in the Prelude came out the day after Barack Obama was elected, but I wrote it a couple of years ago and thus consider the two events too far removed from each other to count.

What does count is that I’ve been rereading Shakespeare’s Henry V as part of the preparation for the symposium at Grambling. The day I started reading it – and had just reached the point where Falstaff dies of a broken heart because Prince Hal, now Henry V, isn’t around to play any more when I heard Adam Bellow describe Prince Hal as one in a line of “late-blooming dynastic successors.” Bellow mentioned his name in connection with his prediction that Caroline Kennedy would be the next U.S. senator from New York once the senate confirms Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. He also ventured that Kennedy would be a good senator because of that phenomenon. He did not say, but I assume he includes George 43 (grandson of Prescott, son of George 41) in that category as well, though the bloom may be off the rose by now.

As the son of writer Saul Bellow Adam Bellow is himself of course a beneficiary of nepotism, as am I, though our family hasn’t reached the dynasty stage. I will in the near future read In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush.

BTW Henry V (proper name The Life of King Henry the Fifth) does not count as a “What I’m Reading Now” entry as I hope to be done with it in fairly short order and moving on to other matters.

In Praise of Elizabeth Alexander

December 22, 2008

What a thrill that Barack Obama has selected Elizabeth Alexander to compose and read a poem at his inauguration. Her poet’s voice expresses that rare combination of inspired passion and down-to-earth reality. The opening of “Letter: Blues” from her first book of poems, The Venus Hottentot serves as a signal example as she juxtaposes yellow freesia that are “like twining arms” with shower curtains and smoke alarms in one stanza, and a juice jug and honey pot with a “violet 3-D moon” in the next.

A mutual friend introduced us just before I returned to Connecticut from Philadelphia in 1990. It seemed that our paths were bound to cross as her grandfather, Arthur Logan, had been my parents’ doctor when they lived in New York. Given their aversion to such folk, my guess is that Mother and Daddy saw Dr. Logan more socially than medically. My mother had also met Dr. Logan’s daughter and Elizabeth’s mother, Adele Logan Alexander.

Elizabeth gave me a copy of Venus Hottentot to give to Mother with the following inscription: “For Ann Petry, What an inspiration you have been to me! For the great gift of your work, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. All the best to you.” At that point, they began a mutual admiration society in the form of an exchange of correspondence that lasted until Mother died.

Since Ann Petry is a far better writer than her daughter, I’ll let her take over the story here. Mother replied to Elizabeth: “For a brilliant young poet to say that I’ve inspired her is an accolade beyond any I have ever received.” She called Venus Hottentot “magnificent, passionate, evocative.” Elizabeth wrote in “Omni – Albert Murray” “I think a painting is a poem.” Mother responded, “and in my mind – I think your poems are paintings.” In a journal entry she included Elizabeth with John Berryman and Derek Walcott as poets that she re-read to “refresh my use of the English language.” After receiving a letter from Elizabeth, Mother wrote in her journal, “She’s an extraordinary young woman, talented beyond the telling.”

Not long after I moved back to Connecticut, Mother and I went to hear Elizabeth read and lecture on writing poetry at Wesleyan. Mother wrote to Elizabeth afterward: “It was a very great pleasure to meet you at Wesleyan and to see for myself that you are as beautiful as I imagined you to be and to listen to you read a variety of poems from The Venus Hottentot The poems are wonderful! Listening to you I found myself thinking there is poetry in the sound of your voice. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.”

Now I’ll have the last word.

After Elizabeth finished that reading, in a room so packed with people that students were sitting on the floor and standing along the walls, she told everyone that there was a distinguished writer in the room. She asked Mother to stand. Mother tried to hide because she hated to draw attention to herself. Eventually she stood and bowed to the applause, said “Thank you,” and sat down. On the drive home, Mother complained about being the center of attention. I tried to explain to her that it was important for those students to know that before there was Elizabeth Alexander, there was Ann Petry. Mother never did acknowledge that I was right. But it was then that I decided to write her biography. The “Prelude” to At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry opens with Elizabeth’s introduction of Mother at Wesleyan, so I owe the impetus to write the book, at least in part, to Barack Obama’s chosen poet. Thank you, Elizabeth! If anyone can do justice to the significance of this important moment in our history, you can.

A brief note: Even though the book signing was snowed out, the book nearly sold out. I went to the store on Saturday and signed copies that people had purchased ahead of time and then saw some dear friends: my babysitter, her mother, the mother of a high school classmate, a former neighbor whom I used to greet in the post office all the time. By the time I left, I think the store had only five or six unclaimed copies.

Regret the Error

December 19, 2008

No book signing today. Snow has pretty much shut down the state, and thundersnow delayed the posting of this lighthearted entry for a dark and snowy night.

Each year I look forward to the summary of goofs, misstatements, gaffes and so forth that find their way into newspapers, magazines, web sites and other media. I’ve been a fan of highlighting errors since my early newspaper days when a news brief ran that someone had filed suit for divorce, but the typesetter substituted an “h” for the “u.” A few days later an obituary appeared in which the deceased was survived by a son, only it was spelled with an “i” in place of the “o.” And our secretary’s favorite was the headline in which a “Public Meeting” lacked the “l.” She told our boss she wanted two tickets to that meeting.

Now “Crunks 2008: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections” are out for your reading pleasure. Here are a few of my favorites. The headline “David Gest Does Not Have Herpes” is among the best. Two British papers and the Baltimore Sun reported Liza Minelli’s ex had an STD and then had to retract the statement.

Dave Barry won the Correction of the Year award. He misspelled the name of badminton player Kevin Cordon, even though in the same column he correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk right. (I did a copy and paste on those three so I would, too.) Barry said his fingers were “exhausted” by the time he reached Kevin’s name.

And in keeping with the “suit” and “son” type typos, kudos to the Valley News, which added an extra “s” to its own name on the masthead. The correction ended, “We sure feel silly.” And just below that one, a name change for a once very popular singer. He became Bob Jovi, maybe Bon Jovi’s younger brother?

Just below that item appeared the correction that kept on giving because the error was repeated on at least four web sites. Joe Lieberman was described as the vice-presidential pick in 2000, except that someone inserted an “r” between the “p” and the “i.” A great many Connecticut Democrats agree with the addition right about now.

Margaret B. Jones also deserves a mention. I wrote about her during the summer in “Freyed Again: Forgeries, Fakes, and Other Fabrications.” Jones (real name Margaret Selzer) was the most recent in a string of “writers” who fabricated a bad life. She substituted a childhood in a drug- and gang-ridden neighborhood for her real middle class upbringing in a two-parent family. She fooled a whole bunch o’ folks long enough to publish her book and become the subject of a flattering profile in the NY Times. Then her sister outted her.

On a lighter note, I was disappointed to learn via “The Error” that the Ikea chain doesn’t really name inexpensive stuff after Danish towns and use Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian town names for the expensive items. Phooey!

Among the Crunks that arrived too late for inclusion in the 2008 awards is one that I’ve been expecting for quite some time. The British paper The Guardian earlier this week put Bill Gates in charge of U.S. Department of Defense, demoting Robert Gates to the rank of mere billionaire. And the Wall Street Journal created an exciting new chain of stores: Bed, Beth & Beyond.

Regrettheerror also compiles a month-by-month wrap up of plagiarism. Among my favorites in that category is the photo of a high speed train roaring past a herd of Tibetan antelopes, an endangered species. The photographer admitted that he had morphed two images.

Rick Reilly from Sports Illustrated must really be good. His material got hijacked two months running, once by a columnist for a Vancouver paper and once by the Daily Herald of Everett, Washington.

And my top prize goes to the alt-weekly Bulletin in Texas. Slate ran “Dude, You Stole My Article” by music critic Jody Rosen. A reader had alerted Rosen to the similarities with a piece he wrote about Jimmy Buffet. Rosen found more than 10 paragraphs reproduced almost verbatim in the Bulletin. The same article contained material from USA Today and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Other Bulletin articles contained passages hijacked from the Boston Globe, the Dallas Observer, the Washington Post, another Slate article, the Guardian, and a couple of online music/entertainment sites. And that was just from one “reporter.” The Bulletin closed up shop for good after Rosen’s column ran.

What, Only Twelfth?

December 18, 2008

This post was supposed to go up on Monday, but it had to move over for UConn and the fabulous fish. As I was composing it I kept thinking of alternate titles. “Corruption Three Ways.” “Not as Bad as the Neighbors.” “What’s a Bribe Between Friends?” The information comes from the New York Times.

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s sad or funny to report that poor little Connecticut didn’t make it into the top ten for most corrupt state in any of the three tallies, even though we have a pretty significant roster: an ex-governor who left jail not long ago in connection with some funny business about a hot tub and bribe taking; a former Bridgeport mayor who is still in the federal pen for corruption; a state senator nabbed in the same probe is doing five years for accepting bribes; another former state senator who admitted he had contacted a known mobster about roughing up his granddaughter’s husband. And then there’s the truly despicable former Waterbury mayor who was being wiretapped for corruption when the feds caught wind of the fact that he was molesting two little kids. He pled to the corruption charge and is doing 37 years on the sex assaults.

That’s just the most recent scandals. Earlier the former governor had bounced 108 checks when he was in the House of Representatives but never suffered for it. And another former Waterbury mayor was convicted twice for accepting bribes. Is there something in the water in Waterbury besides the PCBs left over from manufacturing?

So with all this crime how come we’re only twelfth? Well, the rankings were compiled from a survey of reporters who covered the house of representatives in their respective states. I suspect we might have been even further down on the list if reporters from Massachusetts and New Jersey had responded. N.J. and Mass. came out ahead of Connecticut in another poll; in the third, only N.J. was worse. I still get upset when I think about the columnist in the New York Times who used to compare Connecticut to New Jersey on corruption – and Connecticut always came out worse. Maybe Giordano the child molester trumps McGreevey the adulterer who appointed his (male) lover to a government job. But what about all the other folks? Former mayors in Paterson, Livingston, Camden, Marlboro; officials in Hudson, Essex, and Mercer counties. And so forth and so on.

In the reporters’ survey our little neighbor to the east took top prize. Of course Rhode Island has quite play list too: a former governor, the mayors of Providence and Pawcatuck, two Supreme Court justices who were forced out. That’s a lot of busy people for a tiny state. At No. 2, Louisiana was no surprise either. After all, that’s where a former governor, who later went to jail, kept things so well greased that he claimed the only way he’d lose an election was to be caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy! The first time someone quoted that to me, I refused to believe it. But Salon says it’s true.

The other two measures of corruption make us look even cleaner. The first listed the states, the District of Columbia, and several territories just by raw numbers of guilty officials. Since Connecticut is small, we only had 111, and came in 26th, well below Florida (824) and New York (704). The Times thought that a per capita measure might be fairer. We ranked 24th in that one, so middle of the pack in two out of three ain’t bad. D.C. unsurprisingly came in way ahead in this last one, though as the Times pointed out, the huge proportion of officials to people and an aggressive U.S. attorney’s office skewed the results. Of actual states, North Dakota came in tops, and boy, were they pissed!

So I guess Connecticut has to try harder (or maybe not so hard). In the meantime, we can use the state slogan suggested by a law professor: “Not as corrupt as you think.”

Max Fish

December 17, 2008

So last night I ate possibly the best piece of fish ever – except maybe for a few times when I was living in Old Saybrook and the critters came right out of the water. Yesterday was Larry’s birthday, and I took him to Max Fish in Glastonbury. The Max chain is renowned in northern Connecticut. The original, Max Downtown in Hartford has been serving the insurance executive crowd (what’s left of it) for years. Until the state banned smoking in restaurants, the place had a cigar room that wasn’t quite sealed off enough to keep the odors from wafting into the dining rooms. On my one visit I thought the food overpriced and overly rich. My only stop at Trumball Kitchen for someone’s birthday luncheon, also in downtown, left the impression of a too-loud, not very comfortable place with decent food but not good enough to send me back there.

Max Amore, which is in the same shopping mall as Max Fish, serves excellent northern Italian cuisine. Its lunches are particularly delectible, though the portions border on excessive. I’ve never been to Max a Mia in Avon or to Max’s Tavern at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., though we’ve been talking about going there for a while.

Until now Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford was our favorite. It had some of the drawbacks of the Hartford venues – loud and crowded with insufficient parking opportunities. But it also has great food. On one of the first trips a group of us ordered a huge appetizer tray, not sure if it was the high rise or the sky scraper. It came with oysters, clams, crab claws, crawfish (the rest of the folks left those to me), and shrimp. Our most recent visit followed the performance of Deb’s summer school students. See July 24 post “Singing and Dancing With Frida and Diego.” That time the restaurant was disappointingly out of Connecticut oysters, but I had a smaller bivalve in Max’s Bloody Oyster, a bloody mary martini garnished with an oyster and lots of black pepper. The attraction during that visit was a special menu featuring local foods. Those items seem to have disappeared with the arrival of cold weather, but the fish shines on.

Max’s Fish, though, has topped the others. First, it’s much quieter. Our waitress said it was smaller than the Oyster Bar, but it still looked fairly huge. There were two rooms with white linen table cloths for elelgant dining if one makes a reservation. Walk-ins are consigned to a bar area or a section that resembles a sushi bar set up but with linen. It wasn’t as crowded as the Oyster Bar, either, maybe because we went on a Tuesday or maybe because the economy is tanking. But the folks who came in looked like they were all in a festive mood, celebrating birthdays and what-not. While we were waiting to order, a server walked by with a globe, probably two quarts, filled with ice cream, bananas, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and I don’t know what all else. I said, “I hope that’s for two people.” He heard me and smiled and said, “No, miss, just for one.” Larry and I both groaned.

Larry wanted steamers but they’re not in season, our waitress said, so he started with the six biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen. I refuse to use the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp.” And oh, happy day, I had four Connecticut Blue Point oysters. Sweet, plump, and perfectly balanced with a terrific hot sauce and a mignonette sauce made with grapefruit instead of vinegar. Heavenly! Then came dinner. Larry ordered Atlantic salmon with risotto and a port wine reduction, which he said was “different” but good. I had lemon crusted sole served with artichokes, roasted tomatoes, and baby onions. Most of the time when I order sole it arrives overcooked, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. This baby was perfect, with delicious accompaniments in just the right size portion. I finished the entire meal without feeling as though I needed to carry my stomach out in a wheel barrow. And no, we did not order dessert. Altogether a memorable birthday.

What I’m Reading Now

December 16, 2008

Another in an occasional series. At the moment I’m deep into “The Narrows” by that amazing writer Ann Petry. It’s going to be part of my lecture at Grambling State University in January, so I thought I needed a refresher. Every time I read it I marvel at my mother’s versatility and talent.

As a bit of spirit lifter from the tragedy of Link and Abbie and the rest of the denizens of The Narrows, I was balancing it with a gift from my friend Nancy, “When Washington Was in Vogue: A Lost Novel of the Harlem Renaissance” by Edward Christopher Williams. Set in D.C. shortly after World War I, it’s a series of letters from the southern-born Captain Davy Carr to his friend Bob Fletcher in New York. When I first started it, I thought the novel had been written by a woman because of the descriptions of clothing and furnishings, as well as the refined sensibility I associate with the likes of Jane Austen. Then I realized that Williams had acknowledged his inspiration in the original subtitle, “A True Story of Colored Vanity Fair.” Both this and the original “V.F.” had been first published in serial form in magazines, and both explored the issue of class in their respective societies, though William Makepeace (love that name!) Thackeray wrote about the poor as well as the rich.

The first thing that struck me as odd about “When Washington Was in Vogue” was that these wealthy, well-educated black folks of the 1920s could function completely away from the white world. They went to their own theatrical performances and of course held their own dances and parties. But not once does a “whites only” sign enter their world. No one hurls the “N word.” No one pushes anyone away from a cab or off the sidewalk. I could see it if they didn’t venture past the few blocks where the black elite lived, but they went to school, to work, and even to the zoo. How did they manage to avoid whites there?. Was there a separate entrance? Restricted visiting days?

Modern readers will find this work (and the original “Vanity Fair”) woefully old fashioned in the morality department. In the era of Jamie Lynn Spears, Paris Hilton, etc. no one will be shocked that Davy Carr’s fellow lodger tries to seduce his landlady’s younger daughter, or that one of Davy’s friends is in love with a married woman. I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more bootleg liquor in the story.

These observations aside, I did learn a great deal from Mr. Williams. This book was the first place I’d seen the word “dicty” or “dicties” in print, though I had heard it. And I had to look up a reference to the “pie belt.” It seems to refer to the Mid West where folks made pies from mid-summer through late fall and manufactured the pottery and tin pie plates to bake them in.

Over the course of two pages Williams mentions seven books or authors. I’d heard of one book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and one author, Charles W. Chestnutt. The others were Stribling’s “Birthright,” Shands’s “White and Black,” and Clement Wood’s “Nigger.” Then as a throw away line, he drops the names Octavus Roy Cohen and Hugh Wiley, who had been read “out of the human race altogether.” So who were these folks? A bit of digging around on the Web revealed that Stribling’s novel concerned a Harvard educated mulatto who returns to the South with tragic consequences. Henry Louis Gates said it was the first novel by a white person to feature a black hero and heroine. “White and Black” is an account of black and white families trying to coexist in the Texas cotton belt. “Nigger” portrays the struggle of a black family to find equality in Alabama before and after the Civil War. While these white southern writers tried more or less successfully to portray blacks in a sympathetic manner, the comic writers Cohen and Wiley were apparently deliberate exploiters of the stereotype of blacks as lazy, stupid, and incompetent.

Williams ends this list of works with a prediction that “a small army of writers … will soon lay hands on the unusually dramatic material which has been lying so long unused within the borders of our Southern civilization.” Limiting the observation to white writers, it is possible but unlikely that William Faulkner read those words when they were published in the mid-1920s. It is less likely that Eudora Welty laid eyes on that idea, but both mined that dramatic material and brought the world’s attention to the “civilization” molded by slavery, the war, Reconstruction, exploitation, poverty, and the other ills visited on blacks (and a goodly number of whites).

So while the plot is utterly predictable, “When Washington Was in Vogue” reveals a world that until now I never knew existed. It was a joy to know that at least some black folks were able to escape the plantation mentality of our nation’s capital.

Update: And there’s another addition to the coincidences department. See November 10’s “Coincidences” and November 14’s “More Coincidences.”  Just after I had started drafting this post on Monday and wrote about Thackeray, I changed gears to read some of the ten or so ezines and other stuff I’ve downloaded that are piling up on the ol’ laptop. The first one opened with a quote from … William M. Thackeray: “Life is a mirror. If you frown at it, it frowns back; if you smile, it returns the greeting.” Oh, so true!

Posting early to get ready to take Larry to dinner for his birthday!

Go Huskies!

December 15, 2008

A bunch of fans of the UConn Women Huskies traveled to Madison Square Garden on Sunday to see them play Penn State. It was part of the third annual Maggie Dixon Classic. I had not heard of her until yesterday, but she was the women’s basketball coach at Army and died suddenly of a heart attack about two and half years ago. Since heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, her death wasn’t surprising. What was shocking was her age: She was 28 years old.

She was in her freshman year of coaching when her team won a berth in the NCAA playoffs for the first time. A month later, she was dead. An autopsy revealed that she had an enlarged heart and a heart valve that did not close properly. This problem may have led to arrhythmia and ultimately cardiac arrest.

Along with two women’s basketball games, the Garden had its expo center filled with information about staying heart healthy. There were free EKGs and blood pressure screenings, CPR training, information about organ donation, and a basketball hoop for the young folks to practice their shots. The C.A.R.E. Foundation, which funds education and research on heart arrhythmias, received part of the proceeds from ticket sales. C.A.R.E.’s statement in the game program makes it abundantly clear that young people are very much at risk for the kinds of problems that killed Maggie Dixon.

Then it was in to the arena. The first game of the Classic featured Rutgers vs. Army. Rutgers, which someone called Don Imus’s favorite basketball team, is one of UConn’s biggest rivals. A couple of years ago one of the players and our beloved (and very handsome) coach Geno Auriemma got into some sort of nasty verbal exchange, and things have been rocky ever since even though the two said they patched things up shortly afterward. But we won’t face RU until conference play starts after the first of the year, which is probably a benefit for both teams.

As of yesterday, neither Big East powerhouse looked as though it was ready for primetime. Rutgers flailed around and finally beat Army 59-38, but Maggie Dixon’s scrappy team was able to make a good run toward the end of the game.

After a moving ceremony to honor Maggie, UConn and Penn State took the floor. Our Huskies couldn’t seem to get their shots to drop until well into the second half. (Power point guard Renee Montgomery only sank two of 12 three pointers, while Penn State began knocking them down right from the opening buzzer.) Geno has a habit of firing up the team at half-time – stories abound about the bad language and insults he hurls if he doesn’t think team is living up to its potential. The players obviously took this to heart and scored a bunch of points late in the first half. And the fans were looking for a completely different team to come out of the locker room after halftime. It was not to be. The players acted as though they hadn’t played a game for nearly two weeks, which they hadn‘t. The Hartford Courant called the effort “rusty.” In the end, though, they were saved by the massive number of fouls Penn State racked up and Tina Charles’s more massive 29 points. The Huskies finally pulled it out 77-63 and retained their No. 1 national ranking.

Aside from watching the Huskies play and win, I revisited little Babar before he leaves the Morgan Library. My first visit had to be curtailed (November 3’s post “New York, New York”) for an appointment. Yesterday I had time to study Jean deBrunhoff’s sketches and completed drawings that showed the little elephant’s beginnings. My friends Nancy and Harvey had been to the Morgan before, and we took a quick trip up the stairs into a couple of the rooms of J.P.’s vast library, which retains his ponderous mahogany desk, surrounded by some alarming red wallpaper and truly frightening and elaborate ceilings. At first it was a shock to walk into the space from the bright display rooms showing Babar where the only furniture was a couple of backless, unadorned benches made of blond wood with magazine racks on the side. Among the items that Harv and Nancy wanted to show me in the “as it was” section: a Gutenberg Bible, along with floor-to-ceiling book shelves filled with other Bibles. I do believe J.P.’s version is more impressive than the one at Yale’s Beinecke Library. In honor of the season the Morgan curators have also pulled out the original draft of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

Both deBrunhoff and Dickens seemed to know exactly what to insert and what to remove to make their initial drafts sing in the finished product. It was a humbling experience to gaze upon the creation of magic in art and words!

Clarification: I did not mean to imply in Friday’s post, “Loot,” that under every circumstance should American and European museums be forced to return antiquities to the place of their birth even if they were removed by theft. It would be pure folly, for example, to send items back to Iraq or Afghanistan now or at any time in the foreseeable future. And I wouldn’t trust the Iranians with anyone’s stuff for fear the zealots would destroy it in the name of Allah. On the other hand, I do think the claim of right trumps pretty much everything else when the entity seeking the return is a (more or less) stable government – Italy, for example. Or when the items involve human remains as is the case with the Native American holdings at the Smithsonian. So as the legal beagles like to say, each claim has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.