Monday, December 17, 2018

The terrible infant

It's a surprising thing to find yourself, or something you've written, as a source for part of a famous dead poet’s biography. Especially a famous dead French poet with an exotic, volcanic life. I’m speaking of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). 

I wrote an essay for a magazine about Rimbaud's time late in his life as a coffee trader in Ethiopia, about how he got there, unlikely as that was. I was thinking about writing something else about Rimbaud, so I promptly went to everyone’s convenient source of choice, Wikipedia. Lo and behold, there it is, citation number 64, a reference to the article I'd written seventeen years ago and nearly forgotten.

It made me think of how strange it is the places we end up in our lives. Here was this enfant terrible, possessed of extraordinary poetic powers, who ended up in a small house in Harar, in what is now eastern Ethiopia, having abandoned poetry forever some fifteen years earlier, counting his money, forever suspicious that local merchants were cheating him out of a few pennies, or whatever currency they used.

But that’s not the way it began. 
Arthur Rimbaud

He sprang full blown as a poet from a small city in northern France. He was writing lasting poems by the age of sixteen. Arthur Rimbaud was a poet whose life was like one of those Roman candles that goes astray and sweeps erratically across the sky with the possibility of crashing into a house or a person or you. Everything about his life was dramatic, self-destructive and extreme.
He wrote incendiary, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes fearlessly sexual, frustratingly complex and often incomprehensible poetry in the remarkably brief period he wrote poetry. Which is to say, from the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen or twenty. His most famous poems are "The Drunken Boat" and "A Season in Hell." (For pure exquisiteness, I love his early poem, "Au Cabaret-Vert".) Nothing had ever been seen like this in French poetry before, even from Baudelaire. After the age of twenty or so, Rimbaud stopped writing altogether. No one knows why. The rest of his life, he was a wanderer. He went in search of something he could never find, because it wasn't there. He looked for it in Paris, in Indonesia, in London, in Cyprus, in Yemen. And, finally, in Ethiopia.

Rimbaud by Picasso
Some artists love Rimbaud because his chaotic, fiery life gives them validation for their own self-generated chaos. Or what they would like their own to be. (I am sometimes a passenger on that ship.) And Rimbaud's life was as chaotic as any self-destructive American artist's has even been, if not more so. Typical is the affair he had with the (married) poet Paul Verlaine that ended with Verlaine, in a rage, shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. As Allen Ginsberg said, "Rimbaud seems to be a complete turn-on catalyst to every poet in small town isolated, or big megapolis, staring at the city lights over the roof."  What that means to me is: don't let those small town minds stop you from becoming the comet that you are. So you destroy a few things, or lives, along the way. You're an artist. Yes, an artist! A pass for crashing through life! But, really, Rimbaud harmed himself more than anyone else.  Verlaine, after all, was responsible for his own life and marriage.

Rimbaud in Ethiopia
The last years of his life Rimbaud spent exporting coffee from Ethiopia—an astonishingly able linguist, he learned the two languages spoken there, Amharic and Harari, quickly—and smuggling guns. All he cared about was money. In those later years, someone realized who he was (Rimbaud had become famous in Paris without knowing it) and asked him about his poetry. "Disgusting!" Rimbaud replied.
One of his last letters, written to his sister from a hospital in Marseilles, where he was soon to die at the age of thirty-seven, says, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery. Why do we exist?"   

Friday, December 14, 2018

What I learned from Ebony

I don't remember when or where I read my first copy of Ebony Magazine. It was surely sometime in the late 1950s, though. How would I have found a copy in my segregated world of Virginia Beach, Virginia back then? It wasn't until 1959 that the schools in nearby Norfolk where integrated and then just barely. I grew up in a white Southern world with little knowledge of black people beyond their roles as cooks and maids. It's almost impossible to describe the effect of a background like that had on me. No, it is impossible.

In any case, somehow I got my hands on a copy of Ebony. (I later subscribed.) Now, I would venture to say that most white people never read Ebony in the 1950s and 1960s and probably still don't. It was really Life Magazine for black people. It was, basically, a way to show all aspects of black life in America, from the heralded high achievers to the everyday ordinary man and woman. It had an agenda, and that was to always show the positive side of black life in America. It didn't shy away from speaking up about civil rights, but that wasn't its main purpose, at least as I saw it.

Later, I even read Succeeding Against the Odds, the autobiography of Ebony's founder, John H. Johnson.  It's good.  By the way, when Johnson learned that 12% of his readers were white, he wasn't especially pleased.  "I want to be king of the black hill," he said, "not the mixed hill."  Sorry, Mr. Johnson!  I'm staying!

Looking into Ebony for me was like taking a trip to a foreign land. It was absolutely transfixing. Why? Because I saw black men and women, black families, doing the same things my family did. I had never seen that before. I saw black people in advertisements--with no white people. I saw them getting on airplanes, drinking Ballentine's Scotch, using Listerine, buying Goodyear Tires, ordering a Bell Telephone, using a GE hairdryer. Only someone who grew up in the segregated South as I did would understand how powerful this was.  The simple fact is that I knew nothing about how black men and women and their children lived.

There was normally a story about a famous black person--Sammy Davis, Jr, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson and so on.

But there were many more stories that didn't make the national news, the stories of a high school baseball coach, a stock car driver, a construction foreman, a ballet instructor, the head of a reform school. My favorite department was "Speaking of People." It was a section that featured small but significant successes of ordinary people. This, more than anything, made a permanent impression on me. Here you had people who were just ordinary folks, doing well at what they did in just about every way you could imagine. I loved that part of the magazine.

Only drawback: Ebony had a disappointing recipe/cooking section, "A Date with a Dish". It was like many of the other cooking sections in magazines of that era, and that was the problem. With such an amazing tradition to draw from, the dishes were incredibly bland and ordinary. I knew how good it could be! It continued that way far into the era of Gourmet Magazine. Alas!

Well, can't have everything. The fact is, I read Ebony regularly from about 1959 to 1969. It influenced me, enlightened me, entertained me and surprised me. I don't read it anymore. I hardly read any magazines anymore. I'm glad it's still with us, though. And I wonder if there are many others like me who, through Ebony, crossed the color line when you simply couldn't any other way. And were the better for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Homage to Cazzie Russell

Bear with me, with this story of forty-five years ago.  I keep coming back to it in my mind as a way to give me direction.  Because I'm lost.

In 1963, when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, the school hadn't had a good basketball team in years. And never a great one. Not that anyone even knew that. The last time Michigan had won a Big Ten title in basketball had been in 1948. When you said "basketball" in conjunction with "Michigan," you said it with derision, as you would when speaking about a Third World airline. The mockery was particularly caustic since the football teams were always so mighty. The Michigan basketball team consistently finished near the bottom of the Big Ten, if not actually at the bottom. No one went to the games. 

I don't remember exactly why I went to my first basketball game. Probably because someone told me that the team was actually good this year. The basketball team? The main reason they were good, this someone went on to say, was a guy from Chicago, a guy from a school called Carver High, a guy named Cazzie Russell. Out of curiosity, I went. I remember I sat in the first or second row. I wasn’t expecting much, but it was better than studying. I could always leave.

Onto the floor he walked. He was tall—six feet five and one half inches tall. He was broad-shouldered, lanky and muscular. His hands were large, anyone could see that right away.  His aspect had a sweetness to it. He had sculpted, Mayan features, classical, and his skin was the color of peat. Her discarded his warm-up suit, took a basketball, and was all business. And passion. He wore number 33. Cazzie Russell. I watched him shoot his practice shots from distances I thought were unreasonable, perhaps illegal. He played guard. It's quite common now, even in college basketball, to have a guard that tall, but back then, no. He was magnificently tall at that position.   

As soon as Cazzie took the ball, I knew in that way we know all things that change our lives, I was seeing something wonderful. Just the way he held the ball when he dribbled was a revelation.  He cradled the ball as if it were something precious.  He exquisitely enveloped the ball with his palm; it seemed as if the ball, for a millisecond, refused to leave; it looked, at the apex of the bounce, as if it wanted to remain in Cazzie's palm, his embrace was so loving. With each dribble—what a lackluster word for what Cazzie did—you felt envious of the basketball, because it was being caressed and urged with such affection.

Cazzie was fluid. It was as if you could follow his game with a continuous, winding line, like Picasso drawing light in air, with no interruptions. He was liquid. Even within the chaos of nine other big bodies, he was uninterrupted grace. Cazzie shot the ball, too, of course. That was what we all waited for—the slow giant leap into the air; the ball cradled by those two magnificent hands; the barely discernible release. And, at the apex of his jump, the ball again seemed to hesitate, unwilling to forsake the warmth, the understanding of Cazzie's hands. But leave those hands it did. It sailed toward the net, in an arc as doubtless and instinctual as a hawk's plunge, and we all knew, halfway there, that there would be was the gentlest, barest shiver of net as the ball went through, and nothing more. What a soft, flawless shooter. To this day, he still holds the career scoring average at Michigan, 27.1 points.
That a young black man from Chicago, from the inner city, could do these things was new to me. So you can see how sheltered I was. Back then, well, the white world and the black world just didn’t mix that often. Not to mention—yes, to mention!—that I had gone to an exclusive (ha!) boarding school for five years. We had a few black students, but their parents were wealthy, and we had no sense of what was really out there.  I was ignorant of so many things. This tall ebony genie revealed to me that my private school education had indeed been incomplete, absurdly incomplete. I learned in that ill-lit place that I didn’t have to go to a museum or open a book to find beauty. It was there, on the basketball court, and I was seeing it being created before my eye.

You may know who he is, Cazzie Russell. You may know he played thirteen years in the NBA, including some wonderful years as a sixth man with the New York Knicks when they were champions. You may even know that he was a basketball coach at Savannah College of Art and Design for many years. If you do, can you forget all that for an instant? Can you put yourself inside a freshman’s head (remember, you’ll get your identity back) who knew very little about basketball and who had never heard of or seen Cazzie Russell, and who, as Rod Serling might have said, "would, on what seemed a rather ordinary Saturday afternoon in early December, in the quaint college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, find himself in a world he never dreamed existed."

 Michigan didn't win the National Championship any of the years Cazzie played, but they came so close. His second playing year, Michigan went to the NCAA finals. No, they didn't win the NCAA Championship, but they did win the Big Ten title, something they hadn't done in fifteen years. And they beat some wonderful teams. I came again and again to see him play. I went every chance I got. To see grace personified. Not just basketball grace—Renaissance grace, Homer grace, bird-soaring grace. I may have been a clunky college student, but I was bright enough to realize I was in the presence of perfection. Maybe I couldn’t express it—I didn’t have the emotional vocabulary or the confidence yet—but inside me knew. Deep within me, I knew Cazzie was truth and beauty.  Since, then I have sought that wherever I could.  Today, more than ever, I believe we need to seek, and defend, truth and beauty. 

That don’t teach you that in college. 

Or maybe they do.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Thief of Dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-five. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you make dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. His denial of climate change is possibly the most arrogant of his declarations.  With that, he commandeers the safety and well-being of our planet and its people.

WBUR in Boston reported recently on the growing problem of climate anxiety.  I have had conversations with younger people, some of whom have decided not to have children because of the precarious state of our future.  What about the many of us who do have children?    

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of darkness.  I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for stealing the future.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.