The Pope and James Baldwin’s Joy of Love

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Two big things happened last Friday. There was the obvious one: Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitae, “the Joy of Love,” his exhortation on love, sex, marriage, and the family, and a follow-up to the two-year Synodal process he inaugurated in October of 2014. Maybe you missed the other one: Literary Hub announced that the near-unanimous winner of its “Tournament of Literary Sex Writing” was James Baldwin, for a passage from Giovanni’s Room.

Those might seem unrelated to you. But try reading the end of Baldwin’s passage next to the words of Pope Francis.

First, Baldwin:

I started to move and to make some kind of joke but Joey mumbled something and I put my head down to hear. Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

Now Francis:

A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to the pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a ‘pure, unadulterated affirmation’ revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable.

What’s more, Francis writes that sex is “a kind of spontaneity” in which “the human person becomes a gift,” an “interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity,” leading to the kind of joy that is “an expansion of the heart.”

Is there a better illustration of Francis’ vision than Baldwin’s words? For Baldwin, sex is filled with spontaneity, wonder, joy; it’s both spiritual and frankly physical, an occasion for humor and vulnerability. It calls us to something better, even if we usually fall short of that call. In short, it’s an encounter of the most human kind. Exactly as Francis describes it.

Of course, Baldwin’s narrator, David, is remembering an experience with his (male) friend Joey, while Pope Francis dutifully recites the Synod Fathers’ insistence that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plans for marriage and the family.” But Baldwin’s writing echoes the examples of so many of our LGBT friends and neighbors, and, in Amoris Laetitae, Francis tells us that the examples of our friends and neighbors—more than general rules—are what precisely what we should be paying attention to.

It’s pretty easy to see why William Saletan writes that when Catholic teaching on homosexuality collapses, even if that’s centuries from now, “the church will quote passages from ‘Amoris Laetitae’ and documents like it.” Next to examples like Baldwin’s, the Synod Fathers’ words are weak as straw.

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Emotional Labor in Literature: On “How to Make Collard Greens”

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NOTE: I’m treating this very poetic essay as a piece of autobiographical nonfiction, since that’s how it’s framed in the Introduction to Number 4, Volume 15 of New World Writing, where it was published. Bergman writes both fiction and nonfiction, but this piece is not listed as either on her website. I found it through this essay by Nick Ripatrazone, who also treats it as nonfiction. Bergman’s fiction, including the story “Housewifely Arts,” deals with similar themes.

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On New Year’s Eve, I mentioned Megan Mayhew Bergman’s essay “How to Make Collard Greens.” In my last post I wrote about gender and emotional labor. Today I want to tie those two things together, because while I think Bergman’s essay is worth reading  on its own, I also think it’s a great illustration of what we mean when we say “emotional labor.”

Before I start, though, let me confess my personal attachment to the piece. In one of my favorite passages on writing, Gaston Bachelard says:

Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘reading a room’ leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. You would like to tell everything about your room. You would like to interest the reader in yourself, whereas you have unlocked a door to daydreaming. The values of intimacy are so absorbing that the reader has ceased to read your room: he sees his own again.

Basically, according to Bachelard, good writing is when you describe your childhood home and in doing so cause your readers to think about their childhood homes.

The thing is,  “How to Make Collard Greens” rhymes so fully with my own life that it sometimes feels like Bergman’s actually writing about my house, just with some of the furniture rearranged. I found the essay last fall, when I was looking for nonfiction to teach my new class. I was immediately drawn to the title, because, as I’ve written, collard greens are an important symbol of continuity in my family—to me, and to my grandmother, who passed away last April. What made me catch my breath was one of the ingredients that Bergman’s grandmother uses in the piece: hog jowl.

My grandmother also insisted on using hog jowl (she pronounced it hog jole) in her New Year’s Day hoppin’ john. Ham hock wouldn’t do, nor salt pork. Definitely not bacon. In case you’ve never tried, hog jowl isn’t easy to find in every American city. It was not easy to find in exurban Tulsa, where my grandmother was living during my mom’s last years.

I can still see my mom rolling her eyes at her mom, in those hectic days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, for adding one more errand to her list. The way she could turn into a 50-year-old teenager: Yes, mother. We’ll get the hog jowl. 

Mom wouldn’t even eat the hoppin’ john. Like Bergman, my mom turned her nose up at the dish. I don’t know why, exactly. Bergman claims that she didn’t like the smell of the pot, and that she thought making collards on New Year’s was a “superstitious and country” tradition. I suspect my mom would have said much the same, but I also think there was some underlying stubbornness behind it, some attachment to an ancient rebellion.

My mom died of cancer in 2009. Bergman’s evocations of the ugliness of chemo and radiation reminded me of her last years, which my grandmother also witnessed. And Bergman writes about saving her mother’s voicemails: I did that, too.

In other words, I picked up this essay to read about my grandmother, found myself reading about my mom, and even more than that found myself enmeshed in the relationship between the two. In any event, I’ve been reading this essay—for months—to remember. In that reading, the collard greens mean continuity, and the theme of the essay is loss.

But now that I’ve been thinking about emotional labor, something that should have been obvious has become much clearer to me.

In “How to Make Collard Greens,” the greens aren’t just an emblem of continuity; they’re also an emblem of care. The author hopes (against hope) the dish’s vitamins will cure her mother-in-law; another part of her hopes its good luck will protect her family in the coming year.

This realization has re-centered the essay for me. It’s no longer (for me) just about my mom and my grandmother; it’s about the woman who held me together when I was falling apart from both of those losses. It’s about my wife. She’s the woman who asked my grandmother for her collard green recipe, delighting her. She’s the woman who made sure I called my mom and grandmother when they were alive.

Somehow, the first few times I read “How to Make Collard Greens” I glided right over the fact that the author was taking care of her mother-in-law, not her mother. The husband in the story is not exactly absent—the piece is addressed to him, in fact—but, rereading, it’s striking how much of the work of family-making falls on the author. And Bergman’s essay makes clear just how devastating that work can be. Here’s an early passage on the decision to have kids:

I would like grandchildren, she said one night over dinner.

What I couldn’t say was this: it is strange to make love in the face of grief.

Another thing I couldn’t say: I am not ready.

And another: I may never be ready.

There are so many layers to that: the work of grieving acting against the responsibility the author feels for providing grandchildren, which in turn acts against the author’s personal fears about pregnancy (“I was afraid of babies and afraid of miscarriage and afraid of everything,” Bergman writes).

Passages like that illustrate the complexity and pervasiveness of the emotional labor typically expected of women. As a result, the piece offers a powerful literary complement to a quickly-expanding conversation on the subject. It’s also great—if anguishing—reading.

A Ralph Ellison Essay for the 4th of July

[America, may God thy gold refine.]

If you’re looking for some 4th of July reading to fill the time while you wait for fireworks, I recommend Ralph Ellison’s “Going to the Territory.”

It was published in his 1986 book of essays by the same name; originally, it was a speech Ellison gave at Brown University in honor of Inman Page, the first black graduate of Brown, who had also been the principal of Ellison’s segregated high school in Oklahoma City.

Why do I like it so much? And why should you read it today?

Well, it’s an argument for Ellison’s complicated, sometimes contradictory vision of America, which I would say is the dominant theme in all of his writing. It’s at once a conservative view—fully embracing the “irrepressible force” that Ellison says our Founding Fathers “set in motion over two hundred years ago with the founding of this nation”—and a radical one. “By seeking to move forward,” Ellison writes, “we find ourselves looking back and discovering with some surprise from whence we’ve come.” To know where to go from here, Ellison tells us, we have to look back—but when we do, we need to prepared to be surprised by we see.

“Going to the Territory” surprises us by giving us a glimpse of early-20th-century black culture where we don’t normally expect to find it: the prairies of the American West and Southwest. Ellison lovingly describes his Oklahoma City teachers (including Page and Page’s daughter, his music teacher Mrs. Zelia N. Breaux), and the ways those teachers sought to prepare their students for entry into mainstream society by inculcating them with bourgeois values. At the same time, Ellison describes the fertile, anti-bourgeois jazz community—he went to high school with Charlie Christian and grew up hearing Jimmy Rushing’s voice ringing through the neighborhood—that developed in a sort of (loving) opposition to those teachers.

By focusing on Oklahoma City and the communities that developed around black migration into the West, Ellison takes an American myth—westward expansion—and places black culture at its center. What’s unstated in the essay is that Ellison’s father, Lewis, served in the 25th Infantry Regiment of the US Army, one of the so-called “Buffalo Soldier” units that paved the way for the “taming” of the western territories. In other words, Ellison understood that placing blacks at the center of American myth was no mere conceit: it’s a fact of our history.

It’s dinner time here, but there’s so much more to say about this essay. I love the way Ellison makes jazz into a metaphor for the American experience; specifically, Ellison talks about jazz as “antagonistic cooperation,” a phrase that I think is worth keeping in mind now that half the country is talking about civil war. I love the way the essay expounds on the themes Ellison suggests in “Living with Music” (1955), my all-time favorite piece of Ellison writing; most of all, I love the way Ellison finds a way to be proud of his country while holding it accountable for its flaws.

The Presence of the Past on my Grandmother’s Bookshelf

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“Against the South they planned still darker fates / By bill iniquitous, styled ‘Civil Rights,’ / To force equality ‘twixt blacks and whites.”

I found this book, which seems to have belonged to my great-great-grandfather, while going through my grandmother’s things after she passed in April. It’s Joseph Tyrone Derry’s The Strife of Brothers, an epic poem about the Civil War published in 1904.

It’s a really interesting artifact in light of the conversations flying around the internet about the South and its history. Derry was a confederate soldier; after the war he started a “Select School” for boys in Augusta that enrolled future president Woodrow Wilson and future Supreme Court justice Joseph Rucker Lamar. He was a historian, too–though his epic poem seems mostly forgotten, I did find some citations of his 1898 historical work The Story of the Confederate States. When the poem was released, its New York Times review mercifully overlooked its mediocre verse and focused instead on Derry’s historical knowledge.

I bring up The Strife of Brothers because it perfectly illustrates Adam Serwer’s great column on the legacy of the “Lost Cause” notion in the Southern imagination. Serwer argues that the idea that the Confederate flag is a benign symbol of southern pride comes from a revision—a “propaganda assault,” says historian David Blight—of the historical record that took place in the last years of the nineteenth century, in which a war that was explicitly started to preserve slavery was turned into a fight for freedom. Serwer writes, “In this interpretation, popularly known as ‘Lost Cause’ mythology, the Confederacy was fighting for some vague conception of liberty, not the right to own slaves; its soldiers were unparalleled warriors defending their homeland who were only defeated because of the Union’s structural advantages; and the postwar subjugation of black Americans was a necessary response to lawlessness.”

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Derry’s long poem is part of this propaganda assault, and all of the elements Serwer identifies are there:

-Derry minimizes the importance of slavery to the Southern states, but when he does mention the institution, in Book III, he emphasizes that black slaves stood by their masters during the war:

The master’s home they guarded true and well

And safely did its honored inmates dwell.

The Southern lady walked where’er she would,

As safe as if a queen ‘mid guards she stood.

Her life and honor ev’ry slave did prize,

As if a goddess moved before his eyes.

The mistress’ children were the ‘mammy’s’ pride

Who for these cherished treasures would have died.

-Rather than discussing the actual issue that started the war, Derry dedicates most of the poem to the courage of Southern soldiers. As The Times puts it, Derry weaves in “with the more illustrious names many humbler soldiers whose deeds (perhaps) came under the poet’s own eye–his companions, fellow Georgians.”

-As favorably as Derry depicts blacks living under slavery—trustworthy, loyal—they morph into monsters after Emancipation. In Book VII, about Reconstruction, blacks are “ignorant dupes” who, in voting, “stupidly obeyed” “whate’er the carpetbaggers bade them do.”

Worse, they’re marauding menaces and, probably, rapists. In a section on the virtues of Southern womanhood, Derry relates a shootout between black members of the 136th Infantry Regiment and two white families. In Derry’s telling, it’s a harrowing, Alamo-like siege in which “forty negroes came / Breathing out threats of slaughter and of flame” while “Miss Lizzie Freeman [took] her stand / having a loaded pistol in her hand” and “little Annie Martin knelt and prayed / With childish faith that God would send them aid.” To read the passage, with its lines like “Now to the housetop thwarted negroes climb / Thinking to thus break through in speedy time” is to understand James Baldwin’s description of the “great shock” in watching Gary Cooper killing off the Indians in the movies: “[A]lthough you are rooting for Gary Cooper, … the Indians are you.”

-Finally, Derry positions the book as a gesture towards reconciliation with the North.

But, as Serwer points out, this reconciliation comes at the expense of black citizenship. While Derry does seem to concede that slavery may have been bad (“If holding Africans as slaves was wrong / Then to the North did equal guilt belong”), one issue on which he is unwilling to budge is white supremacy. For Derry, Reconstruction is hell, and he specifies two crimes imposed on the South by federal government after the war: 1) the denial of post-war power to former Confederate officers and 2) the “pretense” that African Americans are equal to whites. Derry treats these crimes as two sides of the same coin, since he argues that the punishment of Confederates never would have been democratically enacted had blacks not been given the vote.

And Derry fully expects to find agreement on this issue from his Northern readers.

Railing about the Reconstruction government in the section titled “The Battle-Storms are Hushed, the Banner’s Furled,” Derry seethes:

Not satisfied with what they’d done to States

Against the South they planned still darker fates

By bill iniquitous, styled ‘Civil Rights,’

To force equality ‘twixt blacks and whites.

Blacks, Derry says, were “made citizens by law of might, / against all principles of sense or right.” This is a recurring theme in the poem. In its first chapter, Derry writes that Reconstruction carpet-baggers “into our temple holy brought a race / That under no condition e’er could grace  / Those honors which to citizens belong.”

Here is how Derry depicts the end of Reconstruction:

At length the mighty North, at heart aye kind,

Knew fear and prejudice had made her blind,

Saw what oppressors she had raised to power

And to our rescue came in needful hour.

In east, in west, in center ballots showered

At last the foes of Liberty o’erpowered,

And brothers’ shouts in Massachusetts heard

With rising hope the joyful Southland stirred.

Then Love began to claim once more his own

And Hate dismayed leapt from his tottering throne.

Note that, in Derry’s figuring, preventing black men from voting is “Liberty” and “Love,” while allowing them to vote is “Hate.”

There’s so much more here, like when Derry praises “white-souled Wade Hampton,” a man elected governor of South Carolina after a campaign of intimidation by his “Red Shirt” partisans, including the Hamburg Massacre, which left seven men dead. Justice and fraternity, amirite? And there’s Derry’s kind words for Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, grand wizard of the KKK, and John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Klan in Georgia.

And that’s just a start—I haven’t made it through all of the poem’s anecdotes and references yet. But the point is, if you want to understand Serwer’s argument that the national reconciliation between North and South  occurred  “on terms that sacrificed black freedom to white supremacy,” The Strife of Brothers is a pretty striking illustration.