My mother was an artist but she died before I was old enough to recognize that. A primary location for her to practice her art was her garden. She and Daddy had bought a bigger house and the vacant lot attached, so Mamie (what most people called my mother) decided she had swatter’s rights to use it as she chose. During the last months of her pregnancy with me, she planted hundreds of iris corms and jonquil bulbs, sitting on an old pillow and sliding down the inclining slope of the yard. Her intention, which she carried out, was to turn that vacant lot into a magnificent garden of her own design.
At the very center of her garden stood a terra cotta bird bath. From that focal point fanned out a series of ever-widening circles made of rocks varying in size from near boulders to stones that could fit into her hand. Weeds were not allowed to grow around any of these border rocks. Within the first circle, surrounding that bird bath, were pinks that covered the entire ground area. The next circle was somewhat wider and contained special varieties of jonquils with multi-colored centers; these were spaced more openly to allow the best viewing and the best growing conditions for the bulbs. To maintain this spaciousness, Mamie had to dig up and discard bulbs every few years, a chore she never seemed to resent since the result of such tedium was the beauty she craved. Surrounding this middle bed was the largest circle completing the central bedding projects. Within it were planted gorgeous rose bushes in carnelian reds, egg yolk yellows and sunshine oranges.
A second bordering system, made up of long, rectangular beds in which annuals were grown from seed, ran parallel along the foundation of our house and lot line for the adjacent house. Mamie objected to buying bedded plants, I suspect not to save money but because she loved to watch seeds send up tiny shoots that she eventually separated with her own hands. Her pride of birthing and mothering was involved in this process. In one of her last letters to me, she wrote about her love for all the little grammar school children she taught when their regular teachers were sick. In that letter, she said “Wish I could have had more children–However I don’t believe my love for eleven would or could have been less intense than my love for two.”
In any event, these two long edges of her garden were quite a show at the height of summer. Seemingly at random but actually meticulously placed, every imaginable flower was in full bloom: tough zinnias with their scratchy stems; brilliant marigolds smelling acrid even before they were cut and taken inside; cosmos, dahlias, daisies of every variety; smaller things like sweet william and alyssum, baby’s breath, ageratum, dwarf marigolds, tiny zinnias, blue phlox, button chrysanthemums. At the end of the bed that ran the length of the yard along our property line grew the strangest and most wonderful of all Mamie’s flowers–or so they seemed to me. They were called spider lilies. They had no leaves and the blossom was at the top of a very tall single stalk. It was deep fuchia and oriental in appearance, with long slender tendrils, each quite distinct from the other. At the center were tiny stamen with fuzzy black ends. I was fascinated by them, partly because they had no leaves and partly because they were so airy. After I left Alabama for Minnesota, I looked unsuccessfully at every nursery in Minneapolis and found no such species of lily. Salespeople tried to convince me that there was no such variety, that I had learned a regional name for some major lily. I never believed them and was delighted to find, while touring the Duke University Gardens on a visit to my sister, spider lilies in full bloom. Their spell over me was rekindled and I felt a painful twinge remembering my mother, kneeling beside her bed of them, cultivating the dirt around them to prolong their blooming period and to make them feel more loved.
Our back yard had its own blueprint for larger bushes that also bloomed: hydrangeas in ice blue against the entire width of our house; bridal wreath along the lot line; crepe myrtle at the alley, filled to overflowing with magenta blossoms encased in tight little green pods until just the moment before springing open. Another of my favorite flowers grew in the back gardens. Around the biggest oak tree, Mamie planted snowdrop bulbs. She said they hardly ever did well for her, but a few survived the damp winters and numerous squirrels who loved the taste of their young pale green leaves. They bloomed in February as the true harbingers of spring. I watched for them all through January, going out back and turning over a few leaves my mother scrupulously kept over them both to hide them from the squirrels and to keep them warm. Finally the day would come when I’d see the first tip peeping up from the earth. When that day came, Mamie always let me be the one to remove the leaves and put the first water lovingly on the ground from a kitchen milk pitcher. When they were in full bloom, I would sit for long stretches, drawn to the perfectly-marked drop of green in the center of each scallop of each bloom. I think they felt special because they were the only flower we grew that was green and also because the flowers hung their heads in what I deemed to be shyness.
As soon as I knew about saving money, I began to reserve portions of my small allowance. Then, two months before Mamie’s birthday on September 17th, I’d look through the fancy iris catalogue, choose one specimen variety and proudly send off my seven or eight dollars to buy a single corm. She’d never bred iris until I began to give them to her. The hundreds that lived all down our hillside were plain whites, deep purples, sky blues, and lemon yellows fringed in brown. They may have been the only things I ever gave my mother that entirely pleased her. Each year my single specimen was planted immediately with full attention in a bed made specially for the collection that began with a jet black variety called “ebony night.”
In the course of growing up and coming to terms with myself as a separate person from my mother, I rejected many customs and objects dear to her. My rebellion never forced me, however, to turn away from gardening or to dampen my deep love for flowers growing in the ground. I have always put something into dirt in the summers in Minnesota, if only into large pots on an apartment porch or in a particularly sunny window. Currently, I own my own home, the front yard of which has not a single blade of grass. It’s just annuals and perennials. The back yard is all garden except for a small swatch of grass my realtor told me I needed to keep for the time when I or my executor must sell the house. Mostly my garden is untidy; I tend to put things where the spirit moves me. But when I’m on my knees with my hands in the soil, I often think of my mother and feel a preternatural connection with her because of our need to be close to flowers. And one perenniaI favor out front is spurge with its faint green blooms that come before it becomes just feathery green leaves that last till heavy frost.
Because I usually can’t get myself organized to go see movies in theaters, I’m often late to see important films. So it has been with “GET OUT,” the important 2017 film directed by Jordan Peele. I just watched it on DVD in the quiet of my own home though the movie is the antithesis of quietness. Everything about it fell on my consciousness with force and subtlety. I’m old enough to have seen Sidney Poitier’s radical portrayal of the black man invited to dinner in the white home (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” 1967). Peele’s look at white supremacy is rawer and starker than the early film, perhaps because the world into which Peele’s movie falls is in many ways more openly racist than was the case in 1967. In any event, here’s some of what I think makes “GET OUT” so important for us white people who go see it.
As the movie opens, we are lulled into thinking how lovely things are: here are a young white woman and a young black man seemingly deeply in love with one another, moving toward something more serious and permanent because she is taking him home to meet her family and their friends. But, as they are driving to this occasion, Chris expresses anxiety about his lover’s not having told her parents he’s black. Rose wants to assure him everything will be just fine, so she says of her father “He’d have voted for Obama a third time if he could have.” I sit up and take notice because I understand just how racist this comment is, thanks to reading Claudia Rankin’s poetry and understanding for myself what I consider banal racism practiced by good whites like me who’ve faced our unavoidable racism and would make an “A” on any quiz about blatant thoughts/words/actions. Later in the film, Rose’s father duplicates his daughter’s comment as he assures Chris that he’s entirely welcome into the glittering fold that is their upper class world. So one take-away from the movie for white liberals is “pay attention to tiny subtle ways we still evidence our confirmed sense of white supremacy and privilege.”
Another important aspect of the movie to me as a word person (I taught/still teach literature to people who care about language) comes from how the characters talk. Everyone, including Chris, speaks standard English–which is to say “white” English–except for Rod the TSA agent who is Chris’ best friend. Rod’s vocabulary is saturated by the f-word and the s-word, something that has often turned me away from contemporary films or books because I’ve seen casual use of these easy terms as a sign of laziness. We have hundreds of words that might express the emotions behind these two handy-dandy choices in today’s lexicon. So I have wanted characters and writers to use some of them. But in this movie, Peele forces me to understand that it’s precisely Rod’s boisterous insistence on saying them every few seconds that distinguishes him from his more assimilated black friends. And he is the single character who is never fooled by Rose’s seeming love for his friend. He cautions Chris over and over, telling him to exercise the title of the film and get out before it’s too late. And it is he who magically finds and saves Chris from the literally devouring whites who want his very being to serve their evil and sick desires. So there’s another take away for me: be less quick to turn my back on the f-word and the s-word in the future, even if I don’t choose to use them.
Surely Peele asks us to consider how slavery works in 2018 white surburbia where everyone evidences a patina of acceptance when what they really must have is complete subjugation and erasure from the black men and women they admit to their garden parties and dining rooms. So the grounds keeper and the house maid are entirely familiar to me as a Southerner who grew up in Alabama in the 1940s and 50s and who has read a lot of literature, fictional and historic, about life on plantations in the Deep South. Just think about novels like Morrison’s Beloved or Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom, or slave narratives by Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to recall the huge divide between Africans working the cotton fields and other Africans serving in the “big house.” Everything changed–what the slaves wore every day, how they were expected to act around the master and mistress of the plantation, how they themselves often came to feel about the field hands as they “bought” the seduction of assimilation into the very world that owned and abused them. The actors who played Walter and Georgina were perfect–their eyes had a blankness and their bodies a stiffness that conveyed powerfully the price exacted by their master/mistress.. They exemplified civil obedience to the finest details and so had to be destroyed by Chris as surely as the white doctor, his therapist wife, and their robotic daughter did.
So we come to the necessity for the final killings if Chris is to “Get Out” alive. Since what this family engages in is the seductive capture of everyday blacks so that there will never be any real revolution or even resistance to their own entitlements and privileges as people who believe they are “white,” accommodation is out of the question. Thinking again of the Poitier movie seen so very long ago, we are to believe at the end of that film that the white parents will try and see the young black man as a human being–strange and different on the surface, but capable of being taken into the family if everyone works at it. Or even replay episodes of “All in the Family” where Archie Bunker gives voice to blatant racist ideas only to be forced to see some of these as ridiculous; he is a comic figure with relatively little real power over other people. Rose’s parents and their friends wield tremendous power in every social, political, and even scientific/medical sphere. They are whiter than white, exemplified in the blue and white china tea cup. What better symbol of upper class supremacy and “cultivation” could Peele have chosen as the mesmerizing agent Chris falls prey to and which he must use super-human strength to resist if he is to survive. Again, Peele and company show us the banal nature of destructive racialized ideas and practices.
So though I tend to think we humans might be able to find non-violent solutions to our problems, this movie impels me root for Chris as he assaults and erases one after the other of his destroyers and their brain-washed accomplices. The final temptation, of course, comes when Rose is wounded and appeals to Chris by affirming her love for him. It’s been a long time since a movie had me saying out loud to an empty room “Don’t fall for this line; she’ll suck you under in a heartbeat; kill her.” And it’s Walter in his familiar TSA dark blue shirt who arrives in the very nick of time. Our protagonist walks away in more or less one piece and the movie ends.
In retrospect, I can see why the Academy nominated this film for several awards; doing so can be seen as an act of good faith in recognition of Jordan Peele’s extraordinary ability to tell the truth visually. And I am quite sure I know why that same Academy didn’t vote to give the film any of the awards for which it was nominated. Doing that would demand a deep recognition or admission that sometimes enough really is enough and all the old cures are useless. Sometimes a violent overthrow of a system that works consistently and subtly to trap and fool and erase whole groups of people because something about them–skin color in this instance–so threatens the very existence of that system is the only option. I’m not sure Hollywood is ready to give a bronze statuette to a film that screams this reality from almost its opening scene.
When I began teaching at the University of Minnesota, I was in my late 20s and my students were often in their early 20s or late teens. As one way of establishing myself as their “professor,” I set up strict deadlines for handing in papers. Of course a few students came to me every term to ask for extensions because of their own or other people’s health issues or because they had lost their drafts or notebooks or because they were needed for family emergencies of one sort or another. In conversations with colleagues, the subject of students’ trying to get extensions for handing in work or taking exams came up fairly often. Upon hearing that I always gave my students the extensions they said they needed, I was upbraided or just laughed at. “Don’t you know you’re just being conned?” I was asked. Sometimes older professors would insist that I was undermining my authority in the classroom in addition to being made a fool of by people of lower stations in life than my own.
The more these kinds of rebukes came my way, the harder I thought about the whole conundrum in which I found myself. Eventually, I came to a position that felt comfortable to me and that fit with my overall attitude toward my fellow human beings. I decided that it was all right with me if sometimes I was going along with the old joke about the dog’s eating my homework. So I began saying to other members of the department when this subject was on the agenda: “Even if 50% of the time I’m being suckered, the other 50% I’m helping a young person dealing with an emergency or an emotional trauma or simple exhaustion from juggling too many balls at once. 50% seems like a pretty good percentage to me.” My colleagues either rolled their eyes at my gullibility or walked away in disgust.
As I’ve aged and heard stories of terrible circumstances up against which friends and friends of friends are coping every day, I’ve been increasingly pleased with my stance in those classrooms. And in today’s political climate, when whole segments of the population are living in daily and dire fear about what may happen to them and their children or spouses, I’ve decided to extend silent empathy to strangers I pass on the street or smile at in the grocery store or watch walking back to their pews in church. I think as I look at them “I have no idea what you are dealing today. If things are hard, may you find solace and support.”
If I could speak to those academic colleagues who thought me such a push-over, I’d remind them of my comfort with the 50% margin I accepted long ago. And I’d add one more caveat that might since their negative opinion of me: “Not only am I helping the honest 50%, but I’m causing the con artists to face the fact that their ‘line’ is working, so maybe they may think twice before they spin it on someone else.” And, who knows, maybe some of those pesky dogs learned something about Shakespeare or Woolf or Baldwin by chewing up sentences about what their owners had written about the author’s work.
It was an early and violent fall. By mid-October, most leaves were down on lawns, in gutters, in the crooks of steps. The night of the 22nd, a high wind blew and rain fell hard against my face and jacket. I’d spent the evening at Karen’s apartment on Aldrich Avenue, just behind a garish SA station on Lake Street. I was in love with Karen, though sharing my house with a woman finishing her Ph.D. in counseling psychology and drinking her weight in gin. (I knew how much gin would equal a person’s weight because I’d been drinking my weight in bourbon for the past nineteen years.) I knew I had to be alert to handle this newest personal crisis I was creating–I was deeply closeted and Karen was the most publicly out lesbian in the Twin Cities.
That fall was bitter in me as well as in the weather. That woman living in my house was kept–by me. I’d paid for things like a trip to Denver and the desert to celebrate her passing her exams, and a Cordon Bleu crèpe pan so she could fix her friends elegant suppers while I was at the University working on yet another mind-numbing committee. I’d let her bring an English sheep dog into my house when I’m a cat person. That creature was locked into the basement every morning and was somehow supposed to live a decent life without walks, attention, love. Full of pity or projection, I tried to teach him to piss and shit outside. I petted him while trying to keep him from chewing up my cats who kept eyeing me in startled pain every time the dog grew another two or three inches. After all my carpets were stained and the basement had a permanent smell of “dog,” I said we’d have to get rid of the “puppy” who weighed 45 pounds and made my floor shake when he ran from kitchen to front porch.
The summer before I fell in love with Karen, my kept woman had sat in my living room drinking gin as she said calmly “I miss the excitement of our first six months because now I feel like I know all there is to know about you and we’re not discovering anything new.” I tried to suggest that I felt we’d finished with vital statistics and history so now we might get to know each other from the inside. My words didn’t register and I jumped off a fairly long wagon I’d been on. Under my drunken rage was a depth of hurt that overwhelmed me years later in therapy when I realized that I’m a fairly complex person, not reducable to a six-month discovery period. But that summer, after she slung those words at me, I tried to dig up tidbits about my past that might hold her interest when what I really longed to do was share what it felt like inside my skin–hung over much of the time, lonely, and scared silly of being found out as almost anything I really was–a Southerner, a lesbian, a drunk, a powerful woman, a writer, a passionate human being with plans for a better world.
So there I was, late at night on October 22, 1974, driving my car home from Karen’s. The wind was throwing up wet, dead leaves all over the street in front of my windshield. I slowed down to watch those leaves rise on the updraft only to sink back into a sodden heap to be driven over by me or somebody else on their way to somewhere. I decided to write a poem when I got home. I decided not to sleep in the bed with the woman who found me boring after only half a year. I decided to write her a note asking her to vacate the premises by Thanksgiving. I decided to read a book I’d had sitting on a shelf for at least a year (Sappho Was A Right-on Woman by Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love). I decided not to drink while I read that book. I did every one of those things and I’ve never been quite the same since.