Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

They have not got nine in Swaheli.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Out of Africa is a story wherein a Danish woman owns a coffee farm in Kenya and runs it for awhile, and then she doesn't anymore. There are lots of other people on the farm, some who just live there, some who work for her, and some who are her friends. The farm is pretty, but hard to maintain, and eventually the lady is forced to sell it. She must return home to Denmark, but feels like she has left her home in Africa.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Hi blobbists!

If that felt like a pretty short plot summary, it's because (a) I didn't like this book very much, and (b) not very much happened in it. Not kidding. Even when things did happen, it was sort of somehow not very interesting. Sorry, Isak, it's the truth.

I read the one page description of the author's life after I finished the book, and immediately thought, 'her life was WAY more interesting than this book!' Which I feel like means she did something wrong there. Missed opportunity. Ah well!

Here are my thoughts, some pleasant, some less so:

My book was full of notes, which got progressively angrier and more annoyed as I read further in the book. Mostly, there's a lot of "UGH" and "UNACCEPTABLE" and "THAT'S RELATIVE", but here's my favorite, a little running list I made in the back:

- Hunter - she hunts and goes on safari, and kills a bunch of lions, and I just was Not here for it. 
- Conqueror - I chose this book because so few 'classics' by women make it out there, but she is a conqueror through and through, and I couldn't forgive her for it.
- Fake single woman - her husband is MYSTERIOUSLY mentioned on page 274 and then never again. According to her bio, they split up (btws he was her second cousin and he gave her SYPHILIS - #somehusband), and then she started a love affair. But to be clear, there was no love obviously expressed in this book. I didn't know they were a romantic item until after I read that bit in the bio.
- Needed an editor - Certainly, there are so many other people I could yell at for this (JOYCE, TOLSTOY, need I go on?) and I'm glad that at least a woman was allowed the same rambling that white men were, but how about we just None of us ramble, and we 'be brief, say what's core', as we say in BT. 
- Does she have a name? - Apparently, when you google the protagonist of Out of Africa, the internet proudly proclaims that it is the Baroness Tania von Blixen, which would, I suppose, make sense as her married name, since her husband was Baron Blixen, but we would only know as much because on EXACTLY ONE PAGE we see the name "Tania". OK, young boy narrator-Proust-wannabe.
-Super un'woke' - I know it's not really fair to compare attitudes across periods of time, but even for someone who was sort of 'woke' for her time, she was SO SO SO un'woke', and it was just excruciating to read after reading A Lesson Before Dying. 
- Doesn't bother to learn much Swahili or Masai - She doesn't spend much time learning the languages of the area, which I found to be very condescending, imperialistic, and entitled. 
- Cares more about African animals than African people - She expresses concern at times for the people around her who are native to Kenya, but she seems to respect and admire the animals she hunts more than she respects the people of Kenya, which I found deeply disturbing.

Let's make some SWEEPING generalizations - All frogs love CHEESE!
She falls into the classic 'making generalizations about whole groups of people' habit quite a lot. Here are just a few examples:
  • The Somali women themselves had dignified, gentle ways, and were hospitable and gay, with a laughter like silver bells.
  • All Africans are the same in these rites. oh sure, ALL Somalis. ALL Africans. 
What does a book mean to you?
There were a few moments when I felt a kinship with Tania, or whatever her name was. These lines about reading books abroad reminded me of Lexie reading books in the Peace Corps houses, and how pleasant it was when a good one came around:
  • In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he ay have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.
NO peelers for me, please, knives will do just fine!
While I will not make sweeping generalizations about ALL Africans, I will say that there were a few moments that put me in mind of my brother-in-law, Lune, from Sénégal, and moments, particularly in the kitchen, we've shared. He often just peeled vegetables with a knife, and seemed to think peelers were somehow wasting the best parts of the vegetable. He also once asked us when he was trying to cut open a coconut if we had a machete, and when we said no, he just threw the coconut on the bricks really hard and was like, "no problem! No need!" 

There's a similar story about her teaching a boy to cook that I loved:
  • He scorned all complicated tools, as if impatient of too much independence in them, and when I gave him a machine for beating eggs he set it aside to rust, and beat whites of egg with a weeding knife that I had had to weed the lawn with, and his whites of eggs towered up like light clouds."
A darkness falls upon you
I almost resentfully felt a kinship with the main character when she was getting ready to leave Africa, and she described some moments of terror and near madness, mostly because they reminded me of how I've felt at certain points in my life, and especially in France at the end of my time there:
  • fell upon me like a darkness, and in a way I was frightened of it, as of a sort of derangement. On this Thursday in Nairobi, the nightmare unexpectedly stole upon me, and grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad." It's possible she was depressed, or suffered from mental illness, as her father commit suicide (according to her bio) but in any case, I rarely see people describing the way I experience life, even in fleeting moments, so it was nice to feel like I wasn't alone for once.
In case you haven't heard of the term, here's a quick definition:

intersectionality - the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Reading this book was a great reminder that while I chose many authors on my second list because they were underrepresented or repressed or oppressed in some facet of their being, they may also be the oppressor in another piece of their identity, as was the case here. Just good food for thought.

The Masai
While in general, I did not like to trust her descriptions of Kenyans or their traditions because I felt like she was trying to tell the story of their lives FOR them, instead of write a book about them, I did enjoy hearing about the Masai:
  • A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; -daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.
Shh! The little Swedish Censor is sweeping!
While this book was not what I would call a laugh riot, there were a few moments that I found very amusing, like this one, on her letters being censored during the war:
  • He can never have found anything the least suspicious in them, but he came, I believe, within a monotonous life, to take an interest in the people on whom they turned, and to read my letters as you read a serial in a magazine. I used to add in my own letters a few threats against our Censor, to be carried out after the end of the war, for him to read.
1, 2, 3, 5, 11, 18, 35, 36
This was my favorite exchange. She recounts trying to learn some Swahili (FINALLY) from a Swede (god forbid she learn from a Native speaker) but apparently the word 'nine' has a 'dubious ring to it' in Swedish, so this happened:

'They have not got nine in Swaheli."
   'You mean,' I said, 'that they can only count as far as eight?'
'Oh, no', he said quickly. 'They have got ten, eleven, twelve, and so on. But they have not got nine.'
   'Does that work?' I asked, wondering. 'What do they do when they come to nineteen?'
'They have not got nineteen either', he said, blushing, but very firm, 'nor ninety, nor nine hundred' - for these words in Swaheli are constructed out of the number nine, -'But apart from that they have got all our numbers.'
   'The idea of this system for a long time gave me much to think of, and for some reason a great pleasure. Here, I thought, was a people who have got originality of mind, and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral series." lollllllz. 

Yes, they have fireflies in Africa, folks, in case you weren't sure.
I loved the universality of this moment, because it reminded me of driving on Mine Road in the summertime at night, and my parents turning off the headlights for a moment so we could swim in the sea of fireflies.
  • Here in the highlands, when the long rains are over, and in the first week of June nights begin to be cold, we get the fireflies in the woods. On an evening you will see two or three of them, adventurous lonely stars floating in the clear air, rising and lowering, as if upon waves, or as if curtseying. For some reason they keep within a certain height, four or five feet, above the ground. It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years, are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little sticks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their small pale torches merrily.
New words for me
Eland - a spiral-horned African antelope that lives in open woodland and grassland. It is the largest of the antelopes.

marmiton - a chef's assistant, or a kitchen-boy. Actually a French word, I think.
Everyone's favorite troglodyte

troglodyte - (especially in prehistoric times) a person who lived in a cave; a hermit; a person who is regarded as being deliberately ignorant or old-fashioned. 

risibility - the tendency to laugh often and easily

Lines I liked
  • They had real courage: the unadulterated liking of danger, -the true answer of creation to the announcement of their lot, -the echo from the earth when heaven had spoken.
  • The air in the forest was cool like water, and filled with the scent of plants, and in the beginning of the long rains when the creepers flowered, you rode through sphere after sphere of fragrance.
  • But the real performers, the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on."
I'm off to Russia, to see Mr. Denisovitch, but I'll leave you with one final line, and you can guess what it reminded me of:

"In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Anyone? A little Sylvia, from The Bell Jar...

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am."

Love to you all, and happy reading! 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Daniel-ay's Blob-Along to 'A Lesson Before Dying'

Dear friends, 

I know I have been absent here of late. Many projects, both personal and professional, are competing for my time and attention, but I want to continue to make time for reading and for sharing my reading experiences with you all. 

I hope that the onset of fall is treating you all well, and that you have the chance to read something pleasurable in the coming days as the leaves fall and the wind picks up a chill. 

Here's a much-belated blob-along from my good friend Dan, who read A Lesson Before Dying with me, and then shared his thoughts.

A Lesson Before Dying…
I write these first thoughts upon concluding the book this afternoon. They’re quick and hasty, so please forgive any hasty construction or hasty development of my thoughts and words…

What is this “Lesson”? We spend so much time asking others for comfort, when we can’t learn to embrace the discomfort ourselves. And yet, in the end, the very end, we stand, more comforted, when we know that we should face the discomfort head on.
  • "I was not there, yet I was there."
The beginning line of the book. Grant Wiggins begins by recounting Jefferson’s trial. These words immediately reminded me so much of another line from another book “It was and it was not so … it happened and it never did” aka “Once upon a time.” … (Thanks to Wikipedia for the following)
- In Arabic: كان يا ما كان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان  There was, oh what there was (or there wasn't) in the oldest of days and ages and times...
- In Chinese: 很久很久以前... A very very long time ago…
- In Filipino: Noong unang panahon… At the beginning of time...
- In Polish: Za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers… 
- In Italian: C’era una volta… There was a time…  

And always seemingly implying, But not here, not now.

The things (lies?) we tell ourselves. And although the stories aren’t “true”, they are so very very true.

We live a contradiction, we (white) americans, we colonizers, we slavers. We see the past and pretend that stuff being in the past does not make it so now: “It was, and it IS NOT so.” But not here, not now, we tell ourselves.

These following cruel, painful, gross, disgusting words in the novel come from Jefferson’s own lawyer, and they sound like they could come from today. And they set in motion the whole purpose for the book:
  • Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?
  • To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to… [etc. etc. etc.]
  • Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
As heart-wrenching as this book was, and as it was to read your analysis, Meredeeeece, I was pleased to see how we both chose to highlight a couple of the same passages, a couple of the same feelings, and yet had found different moments that moved us as well. There’s such deep contradiction as a theme in this book, and I have a feeling of such inadequacy even commenting on it. But onward! I hope I can learn from these inadequacies, and so, towards the end of this post, I leave most of it in the author’s words. This book was supposed to be on the syllabus for my freshman English class when I was in high school. And we didn’t get to it. And I so deeply regret that the teacher didn’t get these words in front of our student eyes of privilege. We need more words by people of color in this country to be read and heard and appreciated and valued and celebrated.

A testimony to the brilliance of Ernest J. Gaines's writing were these delicate moments in the novel that were interwoven with humor, yet also dark humor. Laughter even among the pain. These often came between Grant and his love, Vivian. Hope among the darkness.
  • “When was the last time I told you I loved you?” “A second ago.” “I should say it more often,” I said.
  • “How much have you had to drink, Grant?” “A whole fucking barrel of commitment,” I said, and raised my glass.
  • Vivian smiled without opening her mouth. I kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Uh-uh,” she said. “Not in public. I have too much quality for that.”
And then there were moments where you see the daily pain and cruel psychological, institutional influence of racism. Where the white man Henri asserts his covert attempt to control the psyche of his staff:
  • But Henri Pichot had not thought it was necessary to tell him. At his age, he was still only a messenger to run errands. To learn anything, he had to attain it by stealth or through an innate sense of things around him. He nodded to me, knowing that I knew he knew why Henri Pichot wanted to see me, and he walked away, head down.
And where Henri not-so-covertly tries to degrade Grant:
  • … it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them. Well, I had to put up with that because of those in the quarter, but I damned sure would not add hurt to injury by eating at his kitchen table.
And still there were moments throughout the book where you could feel the tension of race pushed on the reader by the author himself… Moments when the character Grant would point out to the reader that he intentionally spoke “correctly” or “incorrectly” (n.b. from a white person’s perspective), in accordance with how Grant wanted to convey something to the white recipient, as if the author was also calling out to the white reader, “See! See! Look how you presume! Look how you also don’t know how to feel! Feel the tension within yourself!”

Here, a former teacher talks to Grant about the futility of teaching…but also of life?...of white people?:
  • “...You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away – peel – scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years.”
  • “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
Here, words that still ring true, and should call upon our society with shame:
  • Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?
  • … with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.
Meredeeece, you highlighted these passages, and I too was struck by these wounding words:
  • It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?
And the myth:
  • The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe.
Meredeece, your commentary on the afterlife/hereafter/God also resonated with me. These moments from the book jumped off the page to me….Here, the devastating, emotional spill from the minister:
  • That’s why you you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings – yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ’Cause reading, writing, and ’rithmatic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt – and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie.
And here, Grant’s own emotional challenges:
  • Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him – and I will not believe.
  • Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
To end:
“... And he walked straight, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.”

In thinking on today's America, on taking a knee, the NFL, friends drowning in whiteness, all of Ernest's words and Dan's reflectionson those words are worth revisiting, if only so we can see that we are not there yet. We are here, but we are not there, the place where we want to be, the America that I want to live in and be proud of. To get there, we have much work to do, and I hope you will do the work with me, blobbists. Love and leaves to all of you!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post is for Trayvon Martin. 
It is for Freddie Gray. 
It is for Walter Scott,
Philando Castile, 
Alton Sterling,
Terence Crutcher,
Keith Scott,
Christian Taylor,
Michael Brown, 
Ezell Ford, 
Eric Garner, 
Tamir Rice, 
Sandra Bland,
Rekia Boyd, 
Shereese Francis, 
Ramarley Graham, 
Manuel Loggins, Jr., 
Sean Bell, 
Kendra James, 
LaTanya Haggerty, those who I have failed to list because it is a traumatizingly large group, and every person whose name did not make this list simply because they died in silence and their injustice has yet to be named.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Bigger, Jefferson,
a young black man,
must die.

This we know from the start.

The question then, is not how
but when?

And in the time
before the shocking current
reverberates through his veins and brain
what parts of his humanity
will this world allow him
to retain?

Enter Grant Wiggins,
unwilling participant,
reluctant teacher, fellow black man,
staying, simultaneously wanting
to run away as fast as he can.

Cell block conversations,
family visits,
shared sweet potatoes -
even a radio makes its way
to Jefferson as if to say
perhaps this is a nightmare after all
and there is still time
for you
to wake up.

But the nightmare is the truth
and death is certain still, you see,
the time is fixed
we know it will be
some time between noon and three.

Shaken and shaking,
but firmly a man,
Jefferson does not sit but stand.

Heard for miles,
a humdrum horror,
sanctioned, legal, still - a scandal
Louisiana blows him out like a candle.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear blobbists, 
   I hope that this blob finds you well, or as well as can be, given the current state of affairs. I have been struggling to craft this post both because I wanted to honor the heft of its content, and because recent events left me wondering, yet again, whether we are in a desperate circle. But, as Dr. King reminds us, we must speak out, or our silence will be what our friends remember, louder even than the voices of the hateful supremacists in Charlottesville or Charleston. So here are my thoughts, simply put, aired without expectation, but with the hope that they will speak over the silence of others.

Narrators, not unreliable, but rather unwilling
Choosing Grant Wiggins as the narrator of this story was a fascinating choice, and one that confused me at first. Grant is sent to the jail to help Jefferson understand that he is 'not a hog, but a man' before he dies, a mission devised by Jefferson's nannan (godmother), seemingly his only kin. They are all living on a plantation in Louisiana, no longer slaves but tied to the land. Grant's interest in this task is minimal at best, and he undertakes the project under extreme pressure from his own aunt, Tante Lou.
  Grant's unwillingness to confront this effort had this ingenious way of mirroring how I felt about reading the book at all. Here are a few lines that illustrate this push-and-pull, this internal tension:

Grant, on wanting to spend time with Vivian, his lady, instead of going to see Jefferson:
"I didn't want to think about that cell uptown. I wanted to think about more pleasant things."

and later, when the time of Jefferson's execution is fixed:
"That's where you come in, Reverend. I'm going for a walk, a long walk in the opposite direction."

At several points (choosing to read this book, reading this book, writing this blog) all I wanted to do was talk a long walk in the opposite direction and think about more pleasant things. And while, for our own survival, and our own happiness, it's important to create space for those pleasant things (and for long walks!), I think it's equally important to climb into this challenging headspace, inhabit the discomfort of harsh realities, and, one labored breath at a time, turn and face the fictional demons that haunt our nation's painful past, listening closely, as their doppelgängers often duplicate and divide us still today.

So here's a long walk we can all pretend that we've just taken, during which we've thought of many pleasant things, 
"Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'"

And once you've decided whether pigs have wings (it's really up to you, you know!) we can, as a group, move on to that challenging headspace together.

Ok. Off we go!

Referents and reverberations
Some of my most faithful readers (A VERY SELECT FEW) will know that I have recently started a section where I speak about things that either feel as though they've informed a work or come out of it. This is not to suggest that I am drawing clear lines of connection (SOOPRIZE! I'm not omniscient!) but rather that the web linking these works was apparent to me, in my mind.

(1) To choke, to suffocate, to bear a burden.
Native Son, by Richard Wright (published in 1940)
Bigger: "They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in 2015)
"The [American] Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

A Lesson Before Dying (published in 1993, set in the 1940s)
Grant, to Vivian: "For my aunt and Irene it is the same. Who else does my aunt have? She has never been married. She raised my mother because my mother's mother, who was her sister, gave my mother to her when she was only a baby, to follow a man whom the South had run away. Just as my own mother and my own father left me with her, for greener pastures. And for Irene and for others there in the quarter, it's the same. They look at their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their brothers - all broken. They see me - and I, who grew up on that same plantation, can teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. I can give them something that neither a husband, a father, nor a grandfather ever did, so they want to hold on as long as they can. Not realizing that their holding on will break me too."

And later, Grant, to Jefferson: "I need to know what to do with my life. I'm needed here and I know it, but I feel that all I'm doing here is choking myself."

Television show Being Mary Jane, S2E6, aired in 2015
A conversation between Sheldon, a black man, and Mary Jane, a black woman, recounting his experience:

Sheldon: Did you know that étouffée in French literally translates to "suffocate?" To smother.
Mary Jane: What's your point? I'm guessing you're trying to make one.
Sheldon: My point is that black men in America today, like Brian Ellis, have been smothered literally their whole lives. Smothered as they clawed their way up the ranks. Smothered by corporate greed. Smothered by racism. By oppression. Smothered by hatred. Smothered by fear. Smothered by a system that truly never wanted to see them succeed. And why do you think that is? Jealousy. Obama's walk was inspired by Michael Jordan's dunk, was inspired by John Coltrane's solo, by Malcolm X's thoughts.
Mary Jane: Can you drive the car straight? Because I have low blood sugar.
Sheldon: Black men represent freedom, and that's what they're trying to squash.

What strikes me in these four moments is how aptly each one fits with the others. If you're concerned by the dates and the seeming lack of difference in sentiment despite the decades between them, then good. You should be. I know I am.

(2) To run, to sprint, to hasten away.
It's not surprising that given the state of emergency which is presented as potential inhabitable existence, the black man in literature is struck often with an urgent desire to flee, literally or metaphorically, whether it's in times of literal or moral slavery:

Jefferson, when he was witness to the robbery and knew he would be considered guilty of murder:
"He wanted to run, but he couldn't run. He couldn't even think. He didn't know where he was. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He couldn't remember ever getting into the car. He could remember a thing he had done all day."

Grant, on advice given to him about growing up as a black man in the south: "He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run."

in Beloved, when Paul D got help from a Cherokee tribe to run away from Sweet Home plantation:
"Follow the tree flowers to find north. Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone."

(3) To rain, to storm, to prevent adventures.
At one point in the novel, Grant's visits to Jefferson seem to have broken through, and Jefferson starts to make observations about life, from the food he's brought to the weather outside. At one point, he's speculating about the forecast, and Grant says, 
"I hope it's the kind of day you want, Jefferson."

I loved this line and its tenderness, and it reminded me of one of my favorite lines from 'To the Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf. The book's title is a reference to a potential trip to the lighthouse that James, a young boy, is to make with Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay officiously asserts that the weather will be wretched, and that the trip will have to be postponed. Mrs. Ramsay is devastated for James, and tries to keep a cautiously optimistic outlook on the weather to come. She turns to James and says, "Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing."

(4) To die, to sleep - to sleep, perchance to dream. 
Grant gives Jefferson a pencil and a notebook to record his thoughts, and this is one of his last:
"sun goin down an i kno this the las one im gon ever see but im gon see one mo sunrise cause i aint gon sleep tonite.
* * *
im gon sleep a long time after tomoro."

which reminded me of this line from Sydney Carton, who also faces execution for a crime he did not commit, though under rather different circumstances (and not by chair, but by guillotine):
"There is nothing to do until tomorrow. I can't sleep."

How much can one word hold?
Grant wants to give Jefferson a radio to listen to in his cell, something to call his own before he dies, but he can't afford to buy it by himself, so he asks for donations from the community. My favorite moment of offering is Thelma, the wife of the owner of the Rainbow Club, the local bar and café:
"When I was finished, she put a wrinkled ten-dollar bill on the counter by my plate.
 It was the kind of 'here' your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of 'here' that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of 'here' that said she wished you had it and didn't have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then 'here' it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of 'here' that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs 'here'?" So much weight for one syllable.

What comes after? Does anyone know?
I liked that Grant didn't believe in heaven. I don't say this to be incendiary, or offensive, or to suggest that I have any conception of what afterlife(or lives) do or don't exist. Simply that I appreciated that the emphasis for Grant was on reinforcing Jefferson's manhood and personhood before he died, not simply lining up a potential hereafter. The local reverend also visits Jefferson, and Grant is clear that he is not working to nullify or negate any of the reverend's message, just that he personally doesn't believe. Unfortunately for Grant (and for me) his disbelief is met with condescension, much as it is in my most recent books, but at least it is expressed honestly on Grant's part, and he is not deterred in allowing it a space in how he sees this present world and his work with Jefferson.

Who decides if and when we die?
I'm generally opposed to the death penalty, as I don't think it's our right to decide when life should end for other people, regardless of their crime. I know the issue is complex, so I will leave my thoughts at that, for now. If you were curious, though, 
  • The electric chair is 'optional' in AL, FL, SC, and VA - lethal injection is the go-to method, but the chair is still presented as a choice (lucky them).
  • The death penalty is legal in 31 United States and 58 countries in total. 
  • Twenty people (all men) were executed in the United States in 2016. Sixteen men were executed this year. Of those thirty-six, nine of them were black men.
Words I knew not then but I know now, in many cases because I did not grow up in Looosiana:
chifforobe - a piece of furniture with drawers on one side and hanging space on the other

sugarcane - a perennial tropical grass with tall stout jointed stems from which sugar is extracted. The fibrous residue can be used as fuel, in fiberboard, and for a number of other purposes. OK, so I knew LOOSELY what sugarcane was, but I didn't know it had so many uses, or that this is what it looked like!

filé - pounded or powdered sassafras leaves used to flavor and thicken soup, especially gumbo

cush-cush - a tropical American yam that produces a number of tubers on each plant (cmidbdis?)

It's close to bedtime for me now, and I am exhausted in my body and my brain, my thoughts and my soul. I will leave you with my three favorite exchanges between Grant and Jefferson.

"Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don't and can't do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. The white people out there are saying that you don't have it - that you're a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are." You have the potentials, I have the potentials, we all have the potentials. We do!

"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth - and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe. They're safe with me. I don't want them to feel safe with you anymore." Unfortunately, it's they who don't feel safe with us, but I echo this sentiment, and hope we can build a path to the future where all men and women stand and fight, particularly the ones we have repressed and oppressed and forced to kneel over the years.

Grant, speaking to Jefferson early on:
"It don't matter," I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.
"What don't matter?"
He didn't answer.
"What don't matter, Jefferson?"
"Nothing don't matter", he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.
"It matter to me, Jefferson," she said. "You matter to me."

I may not be able to undo bigotry with my words, or bring the wrongfully dead back to life, but I can exert power in this small corner of the world where I have created safety for all. I can use my power to say that I will fight injustice, I will do better to protect you and yours, and it and you matter to me, always. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.