Tribute to Ann Petry


mom

My mother died on April 28 nineteen years ago. I still miss her as much as I did that first day. Here’s a brief tribute to her, from material that didn’t make it into At Home Inside.

Public appearances

Mother disliked lecturing and loathed “pressing the flesh.” She showed her displeasure by paraphrasing an anecdote from Arnold Toynbee. In response to an invitation to lecture, he is said to have responded, “If I just talk my fee is $1,000, but if I have to have tea with the ladies it’s $1,500.” She never told the people making the request about the premium for social interaction, but she adjusted her fees accordingly. More often than not she just declined the invitation.

When the mayor of the city of Philadelphia issued a proclamation in her honor, a reception followed in the rotunda of the public library. Mother was terrified. She asked for and received a chair, and got one for me, too. Then she grabbed my left hand and continued to grip it as people filed by to congratulate her. She pressed so hard the back of my hand began to hurt and my fingers went numb. I finally told her I had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn’t let me leave until I found a substitute protector. So I rounded up my friend Eric, who was tall and athletic, to take my place. They began to chat and by the end of the conversation, he had joined the Ann Petry fan club. They corresponded for years afterward.

Causes

Mother was generous with her time and her money. She remained a member of the NAACP until her death, I think partly because her good friend Judge Constance Baker Motley had been so active in pursuing the cause of integration in Brown vs. Board of Education and other cases.

Her other great cause was Planned Parenthood. She had been an advocate for a woman’s right to choose because she knew that banning abortions would condemn poor women to death while rich women would hop a plane to the nearest friendly state or country. Her support was personal: She had watched her father try to help frightened young women who arrived at his pharmacy nearly dead from botched abortions. Her motto was, “Never again.”

Professor William Dawson

At Home Inside mentions her great admiration for the composer, conductor, and arranger William Dawson, who had retired from the faculty at Tuskegee for some years before they met. Mother wrote extensively in her journal after their conversation.

He said that he knows every part, has sung every part of the music he conducts, has committed it to memory, needs no score in order to conduct, has a blueprint he carries in his mind[.] … [He] always wanted to go to Africa, when he was a boy [of] 14 he worked on a farm (Tuskegee’s farm?) with an African boy – the boy taught him a song, and Dawson all those years later could still sing it – sang it or rather hummed it sitting on the sofa in our living room. [W]hen the boy learned to speak English Dawson asked him what the words meant. he said it was a war song, and the African war song resembled, was related to, one of the American Negro spirituals.

The Art of Tea

Making and consuming and reading about tea occupied a great deal of my mother’s time and thought. I did include some information but feel the need to round out this aspect of her life. I gave her products from Crabtree & Evelyn because she loved the tissue paper that accompanied their gifts, and at one point I gave her some of C&E tea. She thanked me, writing,

I don’t think I’ve told you how very much I’ve enjoyed the Crabtree & Evelyn Darjeeling that you gave me – ah, it’s a pleasure to drink it. Like Samuel Johnson I am ‘a hardened and shameless teadrinker … who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.’ Well, I don’t go in for all that evening and midnight tea drinking, but I do welcome the morning with it.

And she amused the afternoon with it, too. She approved of a comment in an NYTimes review of The Consolations of Tea, quoting a Japanese master of the tea ceremony that “tea has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”

Family Matters

One of the few anecdotes about the Lanes that Mother omitted from her short stories concerned her father who fought an Irishman and bit off the man’s ear. The circumstances remained vague but punctuated a discussion of how the Lanes despised the Irish, while the James family had an affinity for them because an Irish family had helped Sam James escape slavery in Virginia. The neighborhood where he bought his house in Hartford was mostly Irish, and when I read Mother’s notes I came to understand why we ate hot-cross buns every Lent and Irish soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day.

My mother was so talented in so many respects that I assumed she could do just about anything. I was eleven when I learned otherwise. Or at least I learned that she lacked the confidence in her abilities. We had an old Home brand sewing machine that had most likely been converted from treadle to electric. The motor sat on the outside, and the whole business had a minimum number of moving parts. One day I discovered that the thread on the reverse side of the fabric was no longer tight. I cadged one of Daddy’s screwdrivers and felt around until I found a small bolt that was loose. After I tightened it, the machine worked perfectly. Mother came in to tell me the machine wasn’t working. I showed her the seam I’d just finished. She stood and looked at me for a long minute. The expression on her face said, “Is this my child?” as if she could not believe someone carrying her genes had the capacity to accomplish such a thing. She asked, “Well, how in the world did you ever do that?” I explained and assured her that she could have done the same thing. She walked away, shaking her head, muttering, “Never in a million years, never in a million years.”

‘Collecting’

Mother waged a lifelong and mostly losing battle against clutter, but she maintained a sense of humor about it. She sent me the following (probably from the New Yorker) because we’d had a similar experience. “Father, ‘obviously a knowledgeable scavenger,’ and son pass a Dumpster full of building materials. ‘… the man’s interest fixed on four large red-plastic paint-bucket lids. Just as he was reaching for the found treasures, the boy cried out: ‘Pa! Resist! Resist!’ They left the scene without the lids.” Mother added, “I had to send you this because it reminds me of you saying, ‘Mother! Don’t!’ at Vassar. Very difficult for a ‘knowledgeable scavenger’ to walk past good stuff that’s being thrown away without acquiring some of same.” I don’t remember that episode, but I do remember a similar incident when she came to visit me in Philadelphia and stood longingly in front of a chair that someone had abandoned on the street. I finally dissuaded her from taking it by pointing out that she wouldn’t be able to carry it on the train and that I wasn’t about to ship it to Connecticut.

What I’m Watching Now

carmen

In the midst of reading, I took a break to watch a couple of movies. Netflix has weird ideas about what I might find appealing. But it suggested Carmen Jones. I hope it’s not because I watched What Happened Miss Simone? and Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Carmen Jones epitomizes dated brilliance. Here is Bizet’s music from Carmen with Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics in “Negro speak.” Gershwin had license with Porgy and Bess in the 1920s. It doesn’t work with the candy-apple colors and lighting of musical comedy in the 1940s setting.

The performances captivate, and the film offered star turns for an ensemble of black actors who had no chance in Hollywood. Harry Belafonte looks so young, and his voice just encompasses all that is painful and gorgeous and inspired. Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones (with the voice of Marilyn Horne) matches him and multiplies the passion and beauty. I was surprised to see Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Carmen de Lavallade, and Max Roach – all supporting a terrific effort.

Despite all this talent and glamour, it’s not worth the hours. Netflix needs to check its algorithm.

What I’m Reading Now

dying

Bowie made an obvious choice with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s macabre, funny, and tragic, in other words true southern gothic by the best of the best. I found it over the top. Reading it felt like eating too much of a too rich, too sweet cake. The body rebels, but the taste buds scream, “More, more!” Dying tells the story of the members of the Bundren family, who begin construction of the “matriarch” Addie’s coffin well before she dies. Each person contributes to the harrowing misadventure as they travel over miles and days with her unembalmed corpse so they can honor her wish to be buried in her hometown. The shift in viewpoint can be confusing, but it’s worth the effort. The best comes from Vardaman (love those names) who recreates his mother as a fish and mystifies his sister and brothers with his imagination.

Having just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I marveled at how much all southern writers owe the Bard of Oxford. The Bundrens and the Ewells are cut from the same moth-eaten patched up cloth. Faulkner writes better horror, too. I had to stop reading when they were about to drop the coffin with the ripening body into the flooded river.

Faulkner pulls off a masterstroke. A perceptive reader can foresee the patriarch Anse Bundren’s outcome – but  Darl’s  serves up the unexpected shock that Mother achieved with The Street. (Based on her library, she read everything Faulkner wrote.)

Since I was reading this novel to find the American “voice,” I asked what it contributed. This voice is pure American – actually pure American South, and in this case a south devoid of anyone of African descent except for a few slurs. It epitomizes all that is negative about humanity. There is no uplift here.

Please Vote

vote

It’s primary day in Connecticut on Tuesday. Usually primaries are ho-hum affairs, and the turnout hovers around twenty percent. I’m hoping that the hot contests on both sides will improve that number — but not counting on it. Please make yourself part of this process.

I always vote because of family members who couldn’t. Until 1920 my grandmother and my great aunts had to watch from the sidelines. Reports are that Anna Louise James was one of the first women to register in Old Saybrook.

Once the law allowed, they were never denied the opportunity to participate. That wasn’t true for my grandfather, Walter Elijah Petry. He was born a slave in Louisiana. As a young man, he was able to serve on juries and so forth. By the time he moved to New Iberia in 1900, the state had disenfranchised black men.  I remember my dad saying with great bitterness that even though he owned property and paid taxes, my grandfather wasn’t allowed to vote.

At that moment I decided I will vote at every opportunity, and I will think of Grandfather Walter when I do.

Please vote.

What I’m Reading Now

kafka

In the midst of the challenge to find the American voice, I picked up Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage. A perfect David Bowie favorite, I thought. The chameleon of Britain would of course appreciate essays by the man who became a brilliant NYTimes’ book critic and hid his African heritage from the world. I wonder if Bowie knew or suspected?

This brief (160 pages) volume contains multitudes: flavors of the South, of European immigrants, the frenetic scene of NYC after World War II.

Since he mentioned his military service, I wondered, did he serve in the white or the black Army? He was white in the Army but black in the U. S. census in 1930 and 1940.

Early on, Broyard writes a long passage on the reasons for going into analysis: “I was aware of something like static in my head, a sense that part of me was resisting, or proceeding under protest. There was a dissonant hum or crackle, a whispering in my molecules. … it was as if my brain had something stuck in its teeth.” My response: You were passing. Don’t you think that “something stuck” might be your African blood?

Self-loathing may be at work when he writes, “… jazz was just folk art. It might be terrific folk art, but it was still only local and temporary.” Is he kidding?! He compared jazz to the drumming and chant- ing of a man in New Guinea trying to sway his fellow villagers.

Some of the best insights arise in the years before he began to pass.

Though I was a good student, I knew I could never be as smart as those Jewish boys who were strangled by their smartness. They were bred to it—their minds had the quickness of racehorses. They had another advantage too: While I was essentially cheerful, filled with a distracting sociability, there was a brooding sadness in the most brilliant of the Jewish boys that turned them inward and made them thoughtful. I saw them as Martians, creatures from a more advanced planet. Next to them I would always be a southerner, a barbarian.

And later: “Just as Negroes knew about jazz, Jews were expected to know how to write reviews.”

I thought of my father when I read those passages. George Petry also revered Jewish people (while hating pretty much every other group) because of their respect for education.

Both men felt doubly inferior in the eyes of New York society because they were southern and black. Of course by the time Broyard wrote Kafka, he had stopped being black — at least to everyone besides himself.

This tension crept in more often than he realized at the time. He talked with Delmore Schwartz and Dwight Macdonald about “the primitive,” which to them included Picasso, D.H. Lawrence, and Hemingway.

I was a bit uneasy because my piece [“The Hipster”] was about jazz and the attitudes surrounding it, and I didn’t want to be typecast as an aficionado of the primitive. I wanted to be a literary man, like them. I felt too primitive myself to be talking about the primitive.

But he’s not too primitive to spend hours in Spanish Harlem. He can “pass” there without fear of exposure.

Kafka serves up the occasional pretentious dish: “I used the word stridulation, and as Dr. Schachtel was not familiar with it, I treated him to a dissertation on galvanic sounds.”

stridulation = a shrill grating or creaking sound, chirp

galvanic = as if produced by an electric shock

As if to balance the condescension, he offers this from a friend, “I can’t tell this particular story—I can only edit it.”

What ever his disabilities, Broyard could write.

Bravery

posit

The world can send messages in many forms. I first watched the veterans — a woman and two men — at Las Positas College read their stories a couple of weeks ago, thanks to my friend Harvey Goldstein, whose blog had come to the attention of Professor Jim Ott.

The first time I saw the video, I was devastated. These were young people describing assault, death, privation. One said people who haven’t been there can’t understand. After hearing their accounts, I can sympathize even if I can’t empathize.

The second viewing, with the veterans’ writing group, caused me to reflect on how eloquent they were both on paper and in person. In different ways, each demonstrated how writing about their experiences had brought them back from dark and ugly places. They vindicated me, too, with the message that the more one excavates with writing, the more detail comes to the surface — bringing yet more detail. For these veterans, this process brought relief.

Please watch these amazing writers.

Mother Is Smiling Now

harriet

Like many, I was surprised and skeptical when reports began to surface that Andy J. was off the front of the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman appearing in his place.  The expectation until recently was for Alexander Hamilton to leave the $10.

Before surfing the web, I wondered would the outcome have been the same if Lin-Manuel Miranda hadn’t stormed Broadway with Hamilton? Apparently Business Insider had the same thought and concluded absolutely not.

Of course there’s more to the decision than a bunch of rapping founding fathers. Andy J. fell from public regard despite Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.

  • there’s that matter of enslaving some one hundred humans
  • there’s dissemination and promotion of the “spoils” system, which endures to this day, giving jobs to party loyalists
  • and then there’s that years’ long genocide inflicted on called the Trail of Tears in which Native Americans left the blood, the bones – and their tears – in the long march from places in Georgia, Alabama, etc. to the desolate waste of the Oklahoma territory.

aj

Politics aside, it’s time for A.J. to leave center stage. The current fathers did him no favors when they gave him a makeover that included what looked like hair by mega stylists April Barton or John Barrett. Plus there’s that weird angle with the jacket that gives him the Quasimodo look.

I hope and pray that no one tries to do the same to the image of Mrs. Tubman. She and my mother will no doubt return from the great beyond and wreak havoc on whoever tries it  — and probably anyone who so much as touches any prettified version.

Here’s the section on Harriet Tubman from the Wasch Center lecture. I had talked about how Mother wrote her books for young people about survivors.

More notably, of course, there is Harriet Tubman, who escaped from a plantation; returned South over and over to escort bondsmen and women to freedom; and served as a nurse and spy for the Union army during the Civil War. It still amazes me that Mother – indeed most of the rest of the world – had not heard of “Moses” in the early 1950s.

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad came about because Mother attended a Book and Author luncheon and was seated next to Carl Carmer. He wrote Stars Fell on Alabama, which described the brutality and beauty of the state. He also wrote a series about the eccentrics and outcasts of New York State. Mother admired Dark Trees in the Wind. “I said, ‘You’ve got quite a farm here. ‘It’s good land,’ he said. ‘It lies nice to the morning sun.’ ”

Carmer mentioned a woman of whom Mother knew nothing. “He told me that he had known Harriet Tubman when she was an old lady in Auburn, New York. He asked me why I didn’t write a book about her – a book for young people. Once I began reading … I don’t think anything could have stopped me from writing about her because of her courage and her enormous strength of character.” [From notes] After Harriet Tubman was published, accounts of this iconic woman began appearing in American history textbooks. This work and excerpts from it consistently outsell the rest of Mother’s books combined.

And soon she will be in the hands of everyone in the country and many other parts of the world. At last.

Card ‘Dipping’

visa

 

Since I’m in deep with the next presentation, here’s a quick hit on charge  card chip readers. The chip arrived in October. I’ve been able to use it exactly twice. Most places in central Connecticut didn’t even have the new machines until the last month or so. Now the machine with the slot sits there, but the only option is to slide when the little blue lights flash.

The two occasions when I did “dip” as opposed to “swipe” did not go well. The first time I pulled the card out before the clerk could say don’t. I had to do it again. Then we waited. By “we” I mean the clerk, the people behind me in line, and me. I know my fellow customers thought my card was being turned down and that the clerk would seize it and cut it in two. Those in the know say the wait is “only” about fifteen seconds. It felt like fifteen years both times. The second time I knew not to jump the gun on processing.

Now Visa plans to go from “dip” to “quick.” I think I’ll give up rewards points on the card and switch to Apple Pay.

What I’m Reading Now

herzog

I considered titling this post “What I’m Recovering From Now” but will spare readers the horrific details of the stomach bug that invaded Friday, left me flat until Sunday mid-day, and still has me feeling light-headed.

So here’s the first installment from the Bowie reading list.

Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog tells the story of Moses Herzog, who has failed at pretty much everything – work, marriage, home repair. He writes letters in his head to console himself. He is far better off than Lutie Johnson, the heroine of my mother’s novel The Street, but the two share a great deal. As oppressed minorities, they struggle against allowing their circumstances to limit them. She strives for good – he seems to fight it. Both suffer the consequences. They try to live like their “superiors,” though Herzog is far more guilty about his choices than Lutie. As a result, Herzog is replete with outrageous humor as well as a depressing sense of the inevitable.

Both he and she live on the cusp of major change – Lutie during World War II and Herzog in the mid-1960s. They could not have existed without the upheavals occurring in the outside world. And in some ways they have shaped the America that came after them.

While Moses wanders the landscape (in the desert?) from the Berkshires and Martha’s Vineyard to Manhattan to Chicago, Lutie’s world is circumscribed by the streets of Harlem. She has one brief foray into the countryside where she works as a servant in a thinly disguised Old Lyme, Connecticut. In both cases, though, the protagonists are seeking to escape oppressive surroundings. Hers are far more straitened of course. Much of his escape has to do with running away from himself and the world he has created.

I tried to figure out why Herzog made Bowie’s list. Of course the novel is wild and brilliant. It won a National Book Award. Besides its genius, I believe it (like The Street) gave an Englishman a portrait of alien worlds before the Starman evolved.

 

What I’ve Been Reading

herzog

A few weeks ago my friend Steve asked me to be on a panel for the Mark Twain House’s writers’ conference. I tried to figure out what I could contribute to a discussion of the “American voice” in literature. Panic ensued.

I began my searches by reading from David Bowie’s list of 100 favorite books. Who better to explain American lit than a Brit ex-pat? Plus he included The Street on that list, so his taste was obviously impeccable. I eliminated the Europeans and quasi-Europeans (Nabokov) along with the music related works.

Had made my way through Herzog (Bellow), Kafka Was the Rage (Anatole Broyard), As I Lay Dying (Faulkner). As the day approached, I cut out nonfiction and forged ahead with Passing (Nella Larsen).

Steve then mentioned that it was the American voice in contemporary fiction. Yikes! A quick mental review produced only Gone Girl and California as works of recent vintage. I grabbed Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which quickly left New Jersey for the Dominican Republic, so I picked up Wonder Boys by Michael  Chabon.

Then a reprieve! The conference will occur in September instead of this weekend.

Reviews will follow, as will the reading. So far, I understand Bowie’s every selection, all but for Passing. It seems terribly dated and must have been when he read it.