Commencement, the old idea that the end is not the end but a new beginning, delivers pomp and circumstance (the actual song and the ceremony), folding chairs, speakers’ platforms, honorary degrees, family lunches, sweaty black robes, grandparents seeking refuge from humidity, diplomas and brief swaggers on stage, caps tossed in the air, reminiscence, recognition, encouragement, celebration. In a way, this ritual is a collective Bar or Bat Mitzvah in its excited anticipation of the people these youngsters have become and the older adults they will be. Commencement is excitement, hope, and love.
This year I will attend our university’s baccalaureate service, a special ceremony for some of the seniors, the formal graduation, my daughter’s 8th-grade graduation, and the high-school graduation of dear friends. That is a lot of commencing packed into three short days, and I’m looking forward to it, in no small part because I am so happy for these people and glad for their next adventures. When I was younger, I thought rituals rather silly; the predictable garb, incantations, and seasonal speeches seemed to pale in comparison to simply being with the people you loved and wanted to celebrate. My brother-in-law once reminded me that people need rituals in order to acknowledge beginnings and endings, to come together as a community, to observe the different ways in which time passes. He is right. These rituals allow us to tell each other of the respect we feel for one another. They underscore human dignity and, when done right, also nudge us towards indignation in the face of injustice. Simply put, injustice erases human dignity; it tells us that some humans are more worthy than others. Commencement should remind us that we have learned otherwise.
While the United States continues to allow, and too often to condone, the killing of black people, the country also sees the smaller indignities, or reductions of worthiness, in the acts of white people calling the police on black people and the police responding to these racist and frivolous calls. These daily indignities are the everyday bits of proof of the gigantic problem of assassination and incarceration of people of color, a problem exposed through film, fiction, academic studies, and activist organizations, including, but not limited to, Black Lives Matter. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on rarity and reporting and this one on Black Lives Matter.) We as a nation ignore these everyday occurrences at our peril, as they must form a part of our reckoning with racial injustice and our solutions to these profound problems of humanity, worth, and dignity.
Some of you may have seen the White House website’s piece on MS-13 gang members and activity. (See the horrifyingly official headline in the photo above.) Robin Alperstein’s upcoming article in Dame Magazine will treat this issue, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post addresses it here. I therefore just want to mention the MS-13 piece in the context of dignity. Calling certain groups of people “animals” does us all a disservice. The person who uses the term diminishes the humanity of the person being addressed, her or his own humanity, and that of all of us. (Of course, too, this derogatory term assumes a less than harmonious relationship with the flora and fauna that make up our world.) Ass, bitch, chicken, cow, pig, pussy, rat, shrimp, snake—when we use these animal terms against people—we are understanding those people to be less human than ourselves. Now, let’s return to the main point: the so-called president of the United States chooses to use this language on the official website of his office—of our nation–, thereby representing us to the world in this demeaning, demoralizing, dehumanizing way.
The website text recounts atrocious acts and attacks of Mara Salvatrucha, a large transnational gang known for its violent campaigns. The end of the piece states, “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.” This jarring us/them, human/animal, superior/inferior, worthy/unworthy language attempts to establish the Trump administration as morally superior saviors, at best a laughable position and, at worst, an example of generalizing, xenophobic, and violent rhetoric directed at all Latinxs. Dionne takes on the dignity question in this way: “But both of these innocent explanations underestimate Trump’s gift for using incendiary words that send clear messages to his supporters. He is brutally calculating in finding ways of casting large groups of people as undeserving of dignity. Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.” I shudder to think about the words of wisdom this megalomaniac narcissist will offer to the students graduating from the United States Naval Academy on Friday.
The “president,”—Groping Old President, paper-towel thrower, wall-builder, dictator-lover, cheater, liar, stealer, colluding election-grabber—clearly not the best choice to lead a diverse and complex nation, is also not the ideal person to express to a large group of 22-year-olds that they can choose dignity, express indignation in the face of social injustice, and commence a much-needed wave of change in a country struggling to hold onto any shred of humanity.
(Bulletin board at the university where I teach. Much kinder than the White House website.)
The Spanish language boasts its own compound noun, composed of the question word “what” (qué) and the “they” form of the verb “to say” (“decir”), formulated in the future (“dirán”). Today’s students grasp the concept of the “qué-dirán” in a blink of an eye, understanding the power of the looming “they,” the fear of the enigmatic “what,” and the social control implied by the “will say,” or the gossip. This concept, which appears as a fundamental two-by-four in Spanish-language literature through the ages, affects us all and takes hold through the scaffolding of the social media networks.
Many people of my generation (50-somethings) comment on the challenge our children face in navigating social relationships. Of course, relationships among adolescents are often characterized by strife and heartbreak, as young people experience many emotions for the first time. This hasn’t changed, but the social media environment has, increasing the number of people who form the “they” implied by “dirán,” the number of people who can engage in gossip and attempt to shape others’ behaviors. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I don’t gossip. We all do.
Before the social media era, nevertheless, wasn’t it already awkward and maybe even humiliating to be in fifth grade and find nowhere to sit in the lunchroom, or to be made fun of for an outfit you wore in seventh grade or a snorty laugh you emitted in eighth grade, or to find yourself in the midst of shifting friendships in ninth grade? To have those moments and feelings constantly and repeatedly exposed on social media, rarely with your best interests at heart, must reinforce faltering self-esteem and imposed isolation on our children. When I see mean posts and possibly even meaner shares, I am indignant on behalf of the person who was targeted, whether I know the person or not. Even if meanness and snark are a part of growing up, and they definitely are, their amplification via social media certainly must be having its effect on the young people we love.
Friends’ and family members’ perceptions of us during adolescence contribute to our self-perception, I think for life. What are the stories or phenomena of your childhood about which you’re still particularly sensitive? I have two, neither of which is anyone’s fault, but each of which likely takes turns driving the car of my personality. (*Please see this “Loving People” post , which celebrates the many positive elements of my childhood. I just realized that I wrote that piece one year ago. This time of year must have me reflecting on youth, love, and challenges. Or maybe it’s moralizing May.)
The first formative element comes from inside the home, where I grew up as one of two girls in a family of seven children. Busy days and crowded dinner tables made for some single-tracked conversations of which I (and probably my brothers and sister, too, at different times) often did not feel a part. The single focus and the resultant lack of variety in conversation topics made me hunger to learn everything I could about other things when I was at school and/or on my own. I still love the family conversations we had (often sprinkled with hilarious word play and almost always demonstrating profound affection), and I still love sports—part of my training—but I definitely like embarking upon deep conversations about other parts of our lives. My husband’s family was steeped in Philadelphia politics, a hot topic at their home, and those conversations, along with the lack of fear of disagreement or discord, appealed to me tremendously when I first started hanging out at their house.
The second item about which I’m still sensitive arose mostly outside the home. At home, my parents, sister, and brothers expressed frequent and generous praise about my interests and endeavors (how lucky to have been surrounded by people who took a genuine interest, despite all I just said above about our conversational compass). My parents also imposed what some would deem a militaristic discipline: up early; get to school; work hard; go to practice and work hard; come home, eat dinner, do chores; do homework; practice the instrument (generously provided by public school education); no television; go to bed. On the weekends and in the summer, there was no lounging around in bed and there was always a list of chores prepared for each person. We had a lot of fun, too, constantly playing and making up games and interacting with our siblings’ friends. The ethos of the house was definitely “work hard, play hard,” and the work always came first. This is how we were raised and what we were taught to expect and respect, and I think each of us kids brought it to much of what we did, and certainly into our adult work lives.
Therefore, when, especially in middle school, but also in high school, classmates decided my good grades were a result of hard work and no missed school days (ah, how I remember the ignominy of getting the perfect attendance award along with the highest grade award in 7th grade), I was unsettled in a way I couldn’t articulate until later. At the time, I did not know how to analyze these comments, and I mostly left them alone. Later, though, I thought defensively, “I do work hard, but I’m also kind of smart, I think.” It was a weird moment when I realized I had to defend working hard and assert that some academic skills came naturally to me. I didn’t go around saying these things, but I learned to confront the strange criticism that someone who works hard must not also be intelligent. Working hard to me meant, and still means, that I am serious about the endeavor before me, there are things I don’t know, there are talents I can bring to the project, and the hard work might bring joy and passion. Hard work and working hard also mean that we occasionally learn to think more critically about social justice, effecting change, and being in the trenches with others who are willing to do the same.
My husband works incredibly hard and is a sophisticated thinker, passionate about what he does and says. His strong personality makes him a force for positive change. (Hey, wait, have I been writing too many letters of recommendation this month?) My husband just recently told me, for the first time in our 26-year relationship, that he also was marked by the “you’re not smart; you just work hard” criticism leveled at him through grade school and high school. We hope that our children, whose work habits have been dictated by us but also cultivated by them, haven’t inherited this criticism, that they haven’t been the object of similar comments.
I leave you with two points today. Social media make everything more complicated. There is much to be learned in hard work—actual information and skills, collaboration, passion.
Old joke: Question: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That is not funny.
It turns out: Feminists are damned funny. This includes Michelle Wolf.
Confession: For about five years now, I have wanted to learn how to write, launch, and perform a stand-up routine. That’s why I’m fascinated with the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Rachel Brosnahan. In the show, 1960s upper-crust housewife and mother Midge Maisel learns to fashion “the tight ten,” the perfectly pitched ten-minute routine of the stand-up comic. I am not hilarious, but I am sometimes pretty good at recognizing and recounting unusual stories, which might work towards a tight 45 seconds. Gender-bending situations, misunderstandings between and among languages, and mishaps of menstruation, maternity, and menopause would have to be developed to get the other nine minutes and 15 seconds. I would want to undo some of the work of the Andrew Dice Clays of the world and celebrate the hilarity of more contemporary comedians, who are accomplished and much less overtly misogynistic, if not outright feminist. Who knows, a girl can dream, right?
Full disclosure: I think it would be funny for a 52-year-old woman to start with, “So, I went to the dentist and the gynecologist today. Only two cavities.” I can hear your groans from wherever you’re reading this, but wouldn’t the shock of a large-bosomed 52-year-old woman saying this make it even funnier? Okay. A large-bosomed woman can dream. Isn’t it funny to use the term “large-bosomed” more than once? Not a single person I know—not even the kindest and most loyal among them—thinks this dream of mine is a good idea, so that should probably tell me something.
For these reasons and more, I have been following with keen interest the kerfuffle surrounding Michelle Wolf and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD). I didn’t know of Michelle Wolf before this occasion, but I sure do now, and I would bet many people could say the same. She is really funny. Her irony and deadpan delivery slay. She is a comedian, and so she is supposed to be funny, edgy, surprising. The WHCD allowed her to display all of these talents, which she has developed over the past few years through improv classes, writing for and performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, doing her own HBO Comedy special, and now having a regular comedy show on Netflix.
If you didn’t catch the full routine or haven’t seen snippets of it, where the hell have you been? Just kidding. You can check out Wolf’s own website, which offers the night’s highlights by category: Sarah Huckabee Sanders; Ivanka Trump; Donald Trump; Democrats; the media. The website also emphasizes the ultra-serious conclusion of Wolf’s routine, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” In this piece from Cosmo (4/30/18), Jill Filipovic astutely examines the White House’s hypocritical response to Wolf’s remarks in the context of the WH hostility towards the press/media and the increased danger for the press corps during Trump’s time in the presidency. Filipovic writes, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water. That line was in the same speech as the one that mentioned eye shadow and Aunt Lydia. Only one of those things is truly offensive, and it didn’t seem to register on the list of outrages felt by members of the White House Press Corps. There are wives and mothers in Flint, too – if Michelle Wolf talks about their eye makeup, will we finally care about them? Reporters should make the powerful very uncomfortable. Their obligation is to reveal the unvarnished truth, no matter how awkward the facts are or ill-mannered one seems for delivering them. Luckily, someone at the White House Correspondents Dinner did that. It just wasn’t any of the journalists.” The beauty magazines definitely understand fashion, and it’s clear that, in the age of Trump, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan see feminist protest and humor as appropriately fashionable. (I won’t get into the multiple hypocrisies of this in today’s piece. I’m busy trying to figure out eyeshadow names, like “Smoky Ash” and “Large Bosom Gray.”)
Comedian Elayne Boosler also rises to Wolf’s (unnecessary) defense in this Time Magazine piece (5/1/18). Boosler has it right: comedians are to be judged on the quality of their humor. I would list intelligence, surprise, bite, and social commentary as key elements to be critiqued. Boosler says, “Outrage is how you know you did well.” ThisWashington Post piece (4/29/18) also claims that “Michelle Wolf got it just right.” Indeed, she did, and I love that each negative comment about Wolf makes this talented comedian more certain that her performance achieved exactly what she wanted.
In this interview (5/1/18) with NPR’s Terry Gross, Wolf says, “I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think “Oh, she’ll be nice,” and if you’ve seen any of my comedy you know that I don’t — I’m not. I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things. And I don’t think they expected that from me. I think they still have preconceived notions of how women will present themselves and I don’t fit in that box.” Indeed, Wolf’s high-profile performance allows her to remove the box, occupy a physical and metaphorical space most frequently inhabited by male comedians, give voice to funny women, and remind us of severe social ills. Those who want her to play nice have to undo their own biases, as Wolf seems to take on the cloak of irresponsibility so celebrated in the context of men comedians and so little appreciated among funny women. Of course, age-old tropes tell us that “public women” are to be feared, silenced, and placed back into the box. Wolf’s principal transgression seems to be her refusal to comply with these antiquated expectations.
Question: How many feminists does it take to turn on the lights? Answer: All of us.
Many of you have read about the resolution of a criminal case in Spain last week. The case, described thoroughly in thisThe Guardian article from last Thursday and this December, 2017, article from El País, involves an 18-year-old woman who was at the Pamplona Running of the Bulls (“los sanfermines”) on July 7, 2016, and was approached by five men in the early hours of the morning. They offered to walk her to her car, but instead took her to a lobby of a nearby building, where they raped her and filmed the gang rape on their cell phones. One man stole the woman’s cell phone before leaving the scene of the attack. The five men, self-named “La Manada,” or, “The Wolf Pack,” planned and filmed the attack.
Last week, the five attackers were not convicted of rape, but of “sexual abuse,” a decision that brought a lesser punishment of nine years in prison (five years to probation) and a 10,000-euro fine. One of the magistrates, Ricardo González, deemed that the event was consensual from start to finish. His questions and comments sexualize, rather than criminalize, the case, thus demonstrating his inability to make fair judgment and the ease with which more than insensitive legal actors can influence outcomes and retraumatize individuals attacked in violent cases. In addition to harming the survivor, the blame-the-victim line of questioning does further harm to any person who has experienced such violence. The distinction made by the Spanish law and the court, in this case, is that sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation. Upon hearing the decision, thousands in Spanish cities big and small took to the streets, in a wave of protest, to decry the utterly unjust verdict and the revictimization of the young woman who survived the brutal attack. (*See the BBC’s report of the protests here.)
Were any of you stuck in the last paragraph at the mention of “sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation?” First of all, I would think that both sexual abuse and sexual violence involve violence and intimidation and that the impulse to distinguish one from the other here is an impulse to say that boys will be boys and, well, rape just happens. Second, when a single person, armed with only a cell phone, is surrounded, stripped of her clothing, and raped by five grown men in a building lobby, we can clearly say that person is being both intimidated and violated. It is sheer insanity to say otherwise. Saying otherwise reveals the depth of our (us, our cultures, our laws, the people we know) willingness to allow violent, insecure men to take and keep control of others.
At the very least, this case is forcing Spanish legislators to reckon with these laws and is demonstrating how thousands of Spaniards are willing to protest this toxic masculinity embedded in the law. Protests of “No is No,” “We are All the Wolfpack,” “I Do Believe You, Sister,” and “Justice Now” contribute to a public display that might help to move the legislative needle in the centuries-overdue right direction. The President of the High Tribunal for Justice in Navarra, Joaquín Galve, has criticized protesters for being out of control, and yet has no comments about the out-of-control verdict handed down last week. This is yet another case of embracing a centuries-old status quo and blaming the wrong group of people—those who are appropriately protesting profoundly unjust laws. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the status quo, this one on civility codes, this one on rape as violence against a real person with a real body, and this one on gender-based violence in Spain and elsewhere.)
As were many people, I was particularly touched to see a group of Carmelite nuns from the north of Spain write and post a communiqué on Facebook to protest the decision and express support for the young woman in the case. According to this piece (the translation is pretty close to what I read in the original Facebook post in Spanish), the nuns write: “We live in closure, we wear a habit almost up to our ankles, we do not go out at night (more than to the Emergency Department), we do not go to parties, we do not drink alcohol and we have taken a vow of chastity. And because it is a FREE option, we will defend with all means within our reach (this is one) the right of all women to FREELY do otherwise without being judged, raped, intimidated, killed or humiliated for it.”
I will leave it to Spanish critics to determine the significance, if any, of the occasion of the sanfermines, a runaway seven-day fiesta that caters largely to foreign tourists wanting to drink until dawn and then run the streets with the bulls. Perhaps this celebrated tradition has a deep-rooted masculinity at its core that has dictated to young men that bulls and women are to be taunted, maimed, and killed.
No expert in Spanish law, I still believe that legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have a long way to go in terms of understanding how legal precedents based in the Napoleonic Code (think of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s tremendous short story, “El indulto” [“The Stay of Execution”], which criticizes both perpetrators and legal codes designed to allow them to keep committing crimes) dictate patriarchal power that continues to be extremely difficult to undo in the courts. In addition, lack of representation of women in powerful legal and judicial positions (*see this 2017 article with statistics) limits the likelihood that new perspectives will be introduced and taken seriously, thus confounding the initial problem of legal history and stagnation in legal reform. On-the-spot protests like we see happening throughout Spain, along with sustained protest movements like “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, must continue to gather steam, push legislators and judges, and change the deep acceptance of gender-based violence still so prevalent in this 21st century.
Rape is rape, not “sexual abuse.” Rapists are rapists, not “sexual abusers.” Let’s call it what it is, ensure there are real consequences for the crime, and effect lasting cultural change.
In four months, my partner’s and my 13-year-old daughter will start high school. She has been on a swim team since she was five, started playing soccer at 9, and has played lacrosse now for four years. She likes sports. She likes competition and challenge. She likes her coaches and teammates. I think she thrives on the structure, too. My daughter and her teammates can go to their left as well as to their right, they can catch and throw, and they get the sense of movement on the field, where to be and when. My daughter and other 8th graders are playing this season for the high school’s junior varsity lacrosse team, and the team is darned good.
When they get to high school in four months, are my daughter and her teammates destined to be the “lady” form of the team mascot? Athletics teams are still famously divided along binary gender lines, which is complicated to begin with. Nevertheless, if we work within this binary, then we should question the use of certain terms and how they shape our children’s perception of themselves and others. While the boys are referred to as “wildcats,” the girls are referred to as “lady wildcats”—not only over the loudspeaker at the games, but also in the local newspapers and even on uniform jerseys.
Check out our local newspaper’s reporting on the performance of boys and girls at a recent high school track and field meet (April, 2018). The reporting is clear, and I like celebrating the success of our young local athletes, but, once again, the boys are “wildcats” and the girls are “lady wildcats.” Even the jerseys of the girls’ varsity and junior varsity basketball teams bear the moniker “lady wildcats.”
Readers will likely fall into three categories in their response to this blog post: (1) What’s the big deal?; (2) But, the girl athletes want to be called “lady wildcats”; and (3) Why call the girls “lady wildcats” if you don’t call the boys “gentleman wildcats?”. The following paragraphs should answer all three questions.
I grew up knowing that there were Lady Vols, Lady Huskies, Lady Cavs (and a long etcetera), but never getting the chance to see any of the women’s teams’ games or competitions televised. “Ladies” trained, worked hard, refined skills, competed fiercely, but did so without visibility or recognition. “Lady” in front of the name implied “less.” In the meantime, when you heard about the Vols, Huskies, and Cavs, you asked yourself which of the many men’s teams would be featured on television on that day—football, basketball, baseball, or other higher-visibility sports? The lack of modifier for the team mascot signaled importance, visibility, success. They were the main show, the real deal, the ones to watch. The more we receive this message, the more we believe it—all of us, every single one of us, unless we learn to step back and analyze the effects of the message. This message reinforces that big-money television and stadium contracts will go to men’s team sports and that even the most elite of women athletes—especially in team sports—will have few opportunities to pursue their athletic interests and talents beyond their college years.
Title IX was passed in 1972. While many people interpreted the legislation as primarily to achieve equality in athletics in educational institutions, of course, it addresses far more than athletics: “Section 1681. Sex: (a) Prohibition against discrimination. No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (with a list of exceptions). The principal punishment for Title IX violation is the removal of federal funding from the particular educational institution. Since 1972, not one school has lost funds, and so we might question interpretation and enforcement of Title IX across the board, and especially in athletics. (*See this 2014 HuffPost piece; this 2014 MSNBC post; this NCAA Title IX FAQ post). For as much gender-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation as exist in our United States schools, the law is still stacked against any individual who comes forward.
The NCAA lists the three ways in which Title IX applies to athletics: participation opportunities; scholarships; and the “laundry list.” The Women’s Sports Foundation explains these three prongs very clearly here. On our local landscape, the questions of participation opportunities and the laundry list are the most problematic, as girls’ soccer and lacrosse compete for players, coaches, and practice space in the spring season, instead of being spread across fall and spring. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this is to protect football practice and game space from the boys’ and girls’ soccer and lacrosse teams. This becomes a Title IX issue in that football becomes the biggest sports opportunity for fall-sport athletes.
The fall-spring division also has implications for the laundry list prong, which works to ensure equity in locker room, practice, and game spaces and scheduling, equipment allocation, medical training access, travel budgets, coaching, and publicity. If we did an audit of our local high school, we might well find that locker room spaces are unequal (I don’t know this; I’m just saying that an audit would be welcomed), that practice facilities and game times are squeezed due to the protection of football in the fall, that male coaches are paid more (I don’t know this; I’m just saying that assurances to the contrary would be welcomed), and that publicity efforts might favor boys’ sports teams in a few ways. Calling the boys “wildcats” and the girls “lady wildcats,” thus making the girls less representative of the whole school, constitutes one signal that not everyone is on the same page about equity in public school athletics and, by extension, public school education.
I have made ample allusion here to boys representing the universal and girls representing the “other,” the difference. Even if some girl-power ethos has girls and women reinforcing that “lady” mascots are to be cherished, the result brings us back to that message—girl athletes are perceived as other, lesser, and therefore less deserving of proper facilities, scheduling, and publicity. This becomes universally accepted, or at least tolerated. My partner teaches and coaches at our local high school. For many years, he has raised this issue of the girls bearing this other nickname and having game times that are less inviting to fans. The administration has been more responsive to these issues this year, varying practice and game times to be fairer to all involved, but still can’t seem to eliminate the use of “lady wildcats” over the loudspeaker at games and on jerseys. This is progress, for sure. We must keep in mind, though, that the compass north always points to man=universal and woman= other, and certain habits are extremely hard to undo.
For a few days now, the word “desfasada” has been walking around with me. It is one of those words I just know in Spanish without ever thinking of an English equivalent. “Desfasada” woke up with me, telling me I felt out of sorts, went to the gym with me, telling me I was creaky, accompanied me to work, reminding me I’m cranky, and pushed me towards bed, saying, “Shh, sleep, this clanging, chiming loudness will go away.”
Yesterday afternoon, I went to a multi-school jazz concert sponsored by the Virginia Military Institute. This lovely event features jazz musicians from local middle schools, the high school, and VMI. They call it “Jazz Farm”—I’m not sure why, but I imagine the flutes singing their early-morning birdsong, signaling to the trumpets to make the rooster call, and then waking up the whole farm of trombones (are you seeing horses?), a range of stacked-hair saxophones (the honking geese), electric guitars, a bass, and a piano (all plucking and clucking, like the hens), and telling them to get that big-ass farm party started. I also imagine little piccolos and soprano saxes born with each new spring.
As I listened to the music and watched heads bopping, fingers tapping, and bodies swaying, my mind, jazz-loosened, starting translating “desfasada” into English: out of step, out of sync, out of style, out of “phase”, basically off. Damn, prepositions are the English language’s biggest challenge, aren’t they? All those semantic differences created by prepositions attached to just one little bitty verb, made periphrastic. How to distinguish between and among these?: To take in; to take on; to take out; to take off; to take up; to take down; to take around; to take over—you get the picture. The music and the community worked together to ease, for a few moments, deep sadness over the loss of young life.
In any case, “desfasada” unfolded before me as the many ways I have been feeling out of step, some due to external events, like great sadness in my neighborhood, the loss of more than several friends’ loved ones, and the ever-close Trump regime; and some due to internal events, like causing strife with a co-worker I greatly admire, feeling old, with outdated opinions, at every meeting I go to, and combatting chronic pain while still feeling real energy for life.
Nothing makes you feel more “desfasada” than joking to an 18-year-old student about how cantankerous you’ve become and having her ask you what “cantankerous” means. Or receiving an e-mail from another student who asks you if you have made available a list of all the authors and works studied in the class and having to gently remind the student that we like to call that list a “syllabus.” Out of step means wishing we didn’t always have a screen between us and longing for days with fewer apps and fewer ways to organize.
Today’s post in and of itself is desfasado—out of sync with the themes and length of most posts. A little more time at the jazz farm should do the trick.
Major Stonewall Jackson and his sister Laura had a disagreement, the Stonewall Jackson House guide tells us. Laura stayed with West Virginia, she supplies reluctantly. When I ask directly if Laura was a Unionist, the reply is snapped back, Yes, she was. Now, can you please open that door and direct us back to the foyer?
Although I’ve lived more than half my life in the United States South and my two children were born in none other than Stonewall Jackson Hospital, my Philadelphia accent and blunt demeanor usually give me away as a Yankee. The soft, drawn-out syllables of the guide remind me again that I’m an intruder, a carpetbagger. Stonewall Jackson’s home is not mine. Su casa no es mi casa, even after decades of life in Virginia.
It’s much easier to navigate the silences of other countries’ civil wars. Without a grandfather thrown inhumanely into a common grave or a great-aunt forced into exile, you read avidly about the two sides of the war: atrocities, political motivations, tremendous loss of life, depths of economic crisis, despair. You care deeply about what you read and learn about others’ civil wars, and you even take sides, but you can’t claim true blood-involvement or kin-cache. Despair—desperation—the emptying out of hope. In Spanish esperar, a loaded verb, means to hope, to wait for, and to expect. Is civil war somehow the opposite of hoping, waiting for, and expecting?
I’ve been researching, writing about, and teaching the Spanish Civil War for two and a half decades. This three-year war set the stage, in a bone-chilling way, for World War II. Francisco Franco infamously sold off a Basque town, Guernica, to Adolf Hitler and his murderous bombs, while the Republican army, supported in part by Russia, struggled mightily to get aid from the future Allies. The war inspired thousands of writers to attempt to capture the global political shift, the absurdities of warfare, and the violence and loss in one little European country. Even before the war, Dolores Ibárruri (la “Pasionaria”), famous Communist labor organizer from the northern Asturias region of Spain, was penning memorable radio broadcasts, which would later be aired clandestinely and then archived carefully by the Communist Party.
Monumental Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s life neatly frames a cataclysmic era in Spanish history—his birth in 1898, when Spain lost the last of its colonies and could no longer call itself an empire, and his death in 1936, when Francisco Franco’s forces were sweeping through the south of Spain and stopped right outside of Granada to murder an outstanding poet and playwright who was “out.” García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which debuted the same year as the Spanish Civil War, forcefully captures a society’s fear of beauty, passion, non-conformity, and change and presages the claustrophobic enclosure imposed by Franco in the early years of his regime. César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell are just a few of the non-Spanish writers who wrote so movingly of the war, during the war. No one can forget Neruda’s call: “Venid a ver/la sangre en las calles/Venid a ver la sangre en las calles” (“Come to see/the blood in the streets/Come to see the blood in the streets”). And then to think that iconic Spanish poet Antonio Machado fled to France in 1939 to protect himself from the violent reprisals of the Franco victors, only to find that France, also now complicit with Hitler, was no longer a safe haven. Some people say that Franco killed García Lorca and left Machado to die. These legendary figures reveal a nation unafraid to make heroes of its teachers and its literati. They also make it easy to understand Spaniards’ deep connections to their literary and political pasts.
The many authors who wrote during the Franco regime from the shadows and out of the silences of the Spanish Civil War float across Spain’s postwar landscape. They portray familial violence, death and loss, extreme hunger, the emptying-out of the small pueblos into the big cities, and fear, lots of fear. Their own battles with the official censor speak through and around the edges of their fictional works, so fiercely populated by armed guards and frightened, tiptoeing almost-citizens. These authors—both the ones who remained in Spain and those who went into decades of exile—are the pallbearers of the Second Republic. In the literary coffins they put into the world we find dashed hopes of the separation of church and state, the voting booths that wouldn’t be needed for 36 years, women’s rights, open education, hope for laborers. These notions lie alongside the very real skeletons of the mass graves that would be exhumed well into the new millennium, when it was finally time to excavate for DNA and silence.
As a non-Spaniard, I, too, have been drawn into this narrative of change, of grand potential for peace, love, and literature—and how it was removed from its cradle in an increasingly violent world.When I teach the Spanish Civil War to classes in the United States, I usually have students from Mexico or Venezuela whose grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to leave Spain right after the war and then forged new lives in exile. I have other students who have lived for a time in Spain, whose “madres españolas” complain of a lack of order and respect in today’s Spain and express a longing for the “order” imposed by the Generalísimo. Inevitably, the students are pulled in by their familial links (by filiation or affiliation, as literary critic Sebastiaan Faber writes), the unfortunate attraction of atrocity, the international character of the conflict, the social, political, and religious implications, and, most of all, the impact of loss, love, and silence that seems to linger through several generations.
Somehow, I’m at home with the Spanish Civil War.
Although I had studied my own country’s civil war in middle and high school, I didn’t give it enough thought until I saw, on the first day of my first year of college in Charlottesville, Virginia, a large Confederate flag hanging on the wall of a first-year student in a neighboring dorm. I am white and from Philadelphia, Betsy Ross land, and, while I had seen various versions of the 13-star flag, I had never seen a Confederate flag “live” before. Being white brings with it many spoken and unspoken privileges, as we know all too well in “this land of milk and honey” (Grandmaster Flash), and one of them must be that I was able to scoff at the Confederate flag, to write it off as a relic, a silly recollection of a loss, a weak rendering of bygone days. But then I started to realize how that flag’s weight distributed itself across the campus—in its code of civility, the Kappa Alpha tradition of the “Old South” gala, deep networks of money and power, and daily contradictions in the very figure of Thomas Jefferson himself. While I naively appreciated neoclassical, Enlightenment ideals of education for all, public libraries, and predictable architecture, I also felt beneath those Jeffersonian layers, emerging from the orderly, white columns, a Confederate embrace—something of a warm, inner-circle hug that I could sense but not join. And certainly black friends of mine were even more distanced from that white man’s embrace. Being poor kept me out of the inner circle, but being white certainly brought privilege.
Two years later, when I became a Resident Assistant in a dorm known as one of the most Southern on campus, a fellow RA and I walked down the first-floor hallway and saw not just a large Confederate flag on the wall of one of the residents, but a large Confederate flag with nooses hung on either side of it. The shock I had felt two years before shot exponentially through my body, as the starkest possible link of Confederate flag with race-based murder somehow blithely decorated an 18-year-old’s walls. I froze, staring at this scary-ass symbolism, and slowly realized that my fellow RA, a black student from Washington, D.C., had run, run away from this display and the idea that he would live for the next year right down the hall from it and its owner. Even if the display were to be removed (as it was), its ghost remained, floating menacingly through the halls and insinuating its race-based threat.
This is my country’s civil war.
Twenty years ago, when I moved to Lexington, Virginia, I understood that Thomas Jefferson’s analog here was Robert E. Lee. His legacy was everywhere—street names, yearly celebrations in his honor, the Robert E. Lee Museum in the campus chapel, quotes on fraternity t-shirts, and, again, Confederate flags decorating the “recumbent Lee” in the Chapel. I started reading the stones and placards and obelisks on and around campus—all to men who, as a friend framed it, “had gotten their asses kicked in the Civil War.” I had lived in the South at that point for a good number of years and had grappled with Mason-Dixon cultural differences and my own biases. In part, moving to the south had galvanized my own liberal sense of self—my awareness about race, religion, gender, sex—and had challenged me to sift through what could be cherished, combatted, left alone, or discarded in my new culture. I cherish the landscape and the local pride in it. I combat the blind adherence to tradition and the love of the status quo. I try to understand (and come to grips with my own hypocrisies about) why friends and neighbors love to hunt. And often I must discard—the constant barrage of racist, sexist, locally produced text whose content is morbidly predictable.
I always come back to Lexington’s hero Stonewall Jackson as a strangely compelling symbol of a politics of defensiveness. This man, celebrated as a war hero and strategist, was shot by his own troops when he had gone on a re-con mission and told them to shoot anything they saw.
I met Laura Jackson Arnold at her brother’s house on Washington Street, but barely. The guide so insisted on everything Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson that it was hard to find Laura there at the house. Laura seemed to be everything Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was not. It seemed that, while Thomas was slow to learn and dull to others’ ways, Laura was quick as a whip and notably perceptive about the world. Folks said that Thomas was always the last in his class, but that severe self-discipline and handy connections helped him to find a place in his college class, a commission in the army, and not one, but two, women to agree to marry him (at different times, of course). Thomas muddled along to prove himself competent for and worthy of the posts and spouses awaiting him, while perhaps his sister Laura was busy reading every book in the family library. I imagine her learning the natural sciences (she did become a nurse) and mastering French. Maybe she also learned to play the harp and gave serious thought to the politics of the day.
When I first encountered Laura, I saw her as the firecracker of the family, and I understood right away that no one—not Thomas and Laura’s parents, not Thomas’s teachers, not the local church preacher, not the stern family friends—would pay Laura enough mind to perceive the differences between her and her increasingly famous brother. Thomas was The One, The Chosen One, The Military Officer, The Church Deacon, The College Professor. Nevertheless, Laura watched her brother scrape his way up the ladder from 99th (out of 99) in his military school class to 17th (out of 59; can you say ‘attrition’?). Thomas also lobbied his friend the minister to allow him—finally—to read in church, as he believed was his due. Reluctant to acquiesce to this uncomfortable social request for a favor, the minister subtly told Thomas that he was a weak reader and would have to work on his style. I imagine Laura knowing the minister would give in, knowing that Thomas’s dull, dutiful voice would get its day in the sun every single Sunday in that stark, cavernous, greystone Virginia church. Laura watched Thomas give gifts that he himself wished to have—pedestrian, fairy-tale blue-sky paintings of children in school and of children praying together. He gave these gifts to loved ones, and they remained in his home for him and all to see.
Laura’s Bible seemed to be just such a gift. Thomas could have given her oilcloth, an item she dearly needed, but he insisted on the Bible. It might have been something he believed his wayward sister needed, but it seemed something she didn’t want. That extra-large, old, leather-bound holy book inscribed by her brother and intended for her was never actually delivered to Laura’s hands—yet another of Thomas’s gifts for others that was tagged for (and by) Thomas himself.
In Thomas’s house, where I met Laura, few talked of Laura. I learned of Thomas, his two wives, the infant children buried nearby, the enslaved people owned by Thomas, his teachers, his minister, his students and neighbors, even his physician, but very little about his sister Laura. Laura’s life exists in the opposite spaces of Thomas’s—not like a chessboard, where the black makes the white more visible and the white throws the black into sharp relief; not like the Ying/Yang symbol where the one so clearly relies on the other; not even like the sun and the moon, where one illuminates the day and the other the night. No. Laura’s opposite spaces are shadowy, dusty corners covered over by the muted reds of the centuries-old wall-to-wall carpeting of that house on Washington Street. Even today, 155 years after the death of Thomas and 107 years after the death of Laura, Laura’s name in that house is a whisper.
The Stonewall Jackson House foyer leads to the gift shop, where Major Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is celebrated as a sort of small-town, Main Street muse. You can buy replicas of his letters, uniforms, and photographs. You can visit the small kitchen of his house to see the plastic representations of the breads, cakes, and pies that Major Jackson was too stern, and maybe too hypochondriac, to eat. The gift shop even has a Dover Thrift Edition of a coloring book titled Famous Women of the Civil War. But you can’t find Laura—not in the coloring book, not in the house, not in most histories of the United States Civil War.
That Bible intended for Laura, the holy book that sits in the family dining room of the house on Washington Street, holds tight the Stonewall signature dedicated to his upstart sister. There exists a copy of a rather quotidian letter from Thomas to Laura, in which he exhorts her to take good care of herself:
April 16, 1860
My dear Sister,
I have been desiring to write to you for some time, but have been prevented from doing so. I am sorry to learn that your eyes trouble you so much. I wish you would try the simple remedy of washing them with cold water, lifting the water to the face in both hands and washing the face until a little water gets into the eyes and they commence smarting. Do this at night just before going to bed, and again immediately after getting up. I hope that you are improving, and that Mr. Arnold is likewise. Anna is suffering from a very bad cold. She has been confined to her bed for nearly a week, but is up this afternoon…
I hope that the children are all doing well. Anna joins me in love to you all.
Your affec. Brother Thomas
This same website tells us that a Pennsylvanian Cavalry officer recounts that Laura is saddened by the news of her brother’s death in May of 1863, but that she would rather know that he was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army. Laura Jackson Arnold: faithful nurse to the Union soldiers, mother of four, honorary member of the Society of the Army of West Virginia, affectionately named “Mother of the Regiment” of the 5th West Virginia Cavalry. We in Lexington aren’t allowed to learn of her abolitionist leanings.
The Bible didn’t even become a ghostly representation of Laura’s and Thomas’s fraternal relationship, for Laura cut ties with her Confederate brother and, later, with her unsupportive husband. One of the few women known to have formally divorced in the late 1800’s, Laura knew her mind. She would serve the Union and care for Union soldiers until the end of the war or her life, whichever came first. Her steadfast devotion to the Union was one element in her permanent split from both her brother and her husband. A local Beverly, West Virginia, attorney said this of Laura (also from the Civil War Women blog): “Mrs. J. Arnold—sister of Gen. Jackson—went off with the Yankees. Arnold stayed at home, says he is a good southern man, that his wife is crazy, but Hell he says, could not govern a Jackson.” I want to meet Mrs. J. Arnold for real, see a statue to her, know what she ate for breakfast, understand how she became a nurse, learn what her children called her, find out what kind of artwork she liked, research her religious preferences. I want her to have a grave and a statue and a celebrated horse, a museum, a biography, and a place in history. Civil war often means familial strife. The Unionist manifestations of the Jackson clan are not to be explored, much less celebrated, in Lexington, Virginia, one of the homes of the United States Civil War.
My nation’s civil war in contemporary times includes some overwhelming battles—mass incarceration of black men and women, illegal traffic stops, rounding up of brown-skinned peoples, gun violence in schools, gun raffles for sports teams, rape as a common experience in the educational environment—in sum, the diminution of existence of those rendered less important. White supremacy, the KKK, and Nazis asserting power and threatening lives. This civil war has everything to do with dignity, respect, group identification, money, power, and greed. Those silences that we thought were a part of our past—1865, Reconstruction, 1920s, and 1950s and 60s—live with and in us. They are our continued civil war. This is no longer a Mason-Dixon split. This war is the elevation of all military members to “heroes” and the reduction of teachers to lazy good-for-nothings. It is the fact that Wall Street won, even after the 2008 revelation of its deep wrongdoings. It is the glorification of guns and the scorn of peace. It is the celebration of jaded irony and the disparagement of kind sincerity. When we look back on this era, what will we say has died? What will count as a lost life? How will we express nostalgia?
I am not at home with the United States Civil War.