In 1939, Billie Holliday recorded the powerful song about lynchings of black people in America. Its title is “Strange Fruit.” On June 15, 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth, MN. They were Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. In the past two weeks of June 2020, two black men have been found hanging from trees in California. They are Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch. These most recent deaths were initially deemed to be suicides, but both are now being independently investigated because both families who have lost a loved member do not believe that explanation.
In Montgomery, Alabama, the civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has installed an unique museum that houses several hundred rectangular boxes, each bearing the name, county of residence, and year of the lynching involved. This powerful structure memorializes a practice often conducted in broad daylight on the grounds of court houses and jails, assisted or sanctioned or at the least tacitly approved of law enforcement officers. Photographs from southern newspapers or preserved in state historical societies show whites often dressed in their Sunday best, often carrying picnic baskets or young children in their arms. There is an air of festivity and even enjoyment that permeates the paper on which the photographs were taken.
Ironically enough, it was on Memorial Day of this year that George Floyd was murdered by that relaxed white cop with one hand in his pants’ pocket and a look of quiet satisfaction on his face as he heard Mr, Floyd repeatedly say “I can’t breathe.” As several black scholars and commentators have pointed out, this is a contemporary lynching–George Floyd dies horizontally rather than the more conventional way of dangling vertically. I hope Mr. Stevenson will see many of the police shootings of blacks, mostly male, resulting in bodies prone on pavements or patches of grass as still more cases of the inhumane form of killing that just won’t stop happening in this country. He can begin constructing boxes the same size as those hanging in his outdoor museum and placing them on the grass surrounding the building.
There are no new words to be said about all this history that keeps repeating itself. A long time ago, the white southern writer, William Faulkner, who understood the awful legacy of slavery for both whites and blacks wrote in his novel Requiem For a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even pst.”
In the 12th century, many experimental thinkers tried to turn base metals into gold. This enterprise was knows as alchemy and attracted many proto-chemists and pseudo-scientists. This school of natural philosophy classified metals into “base” as in lead, or “noble” as in gold. As the pandemic has stretched from weeks to months (and probably to years), I’ve heard moving words from friends (and a few from people on television) about how this surreality feels to them. The word that keeps coming into my mind as I listen is “alchemy,” though sometimes the process is reversed, i.e., it feels to my friends like “gold” is being changed into “base metals.” Here’s an example: one of my walking companions said a month or so ago “What I thought was solid is turning into liquid.” He meant, of course, that lots of things we have been taking for granted about our lives–going to movies or plays or concerts or dance events were all vanishing from our calendars and lives. In a Zoom conversation with a very old friend, I heard her say how she was being “thrown” because the predictable was becoming unpredictable, so she kept having to adjust all her behaviors and expectations.
In the early weeks of numbers of cases and deaths kept rising everywhere, I was becoming increasingly aware that things I assumed would happen weren’t happening. The latest play at the several theaters that were always sending me e-mail announcements were writing to say they were canceling their previously advertised show. Tickets I already had for various cultural events were becoming unusable because large gatherings were considered unsafe against the invasive corona virus. And, eventually my church wrote to say there would be no more real-time services until further notice, and my YWCA informed me that they were closing their doors until who knew when. As a result of all this cancellation, I was stumbling into feeling what I considered a part of the fabric of my life was unraveling at an alarmingly rapid rate. And the worst part was no one could predict or discern when things would “get back to normal.”
So we all began to fathom that the “gold” of our lives, whatever forms that might take, was becoming unrecognizable. For me personally, only when I was walking my usual early morning route through my neighborhood did I feel at all “normal.” But that was not entirely true either, because there were no school buses picking up children on street corners where I expected to see them standing in line to board as their parents waved friendly good-byes. And fewer and fewer cars passed me as I added blocks and steps to my Fitbit. I began increasing the length of those walks by a block this week and another block next week, trying not to look at the corners now sending me no social echoes because they were barren. And I tried to figure out how to maneuver “links” sent me by a friend who was finding the earliest examples of virtual dance performances or operas or musical events. And, because I have found marvelous ways to keep talking about books with wonderful adults, I even let a very patient employee at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum teach me the fundamentals of Zoom meetings so I could keep talking about books about flowers and gardens and nature.
It’s now several months since we all began speaking about this melting and fading away of things that enhanced our lives–the “gold” of our existences. As I am trying to find ways to keep physically fit in my own home and to keep spiritually attuned to the universe and my idea of God, I understand what may have motivated those medieval thinkers to experiment in their laboratories. And what I’ve found is this: the most “noble” and valuable things in my life turn out to be connections to friends, the birds of spring in my neighborhood who have stepped up their song as they searched for and found their mates, words in books both new and old that catch my breath as they create worlds beyond my imaginings, the magical purr from Patches my companion kitty, and the gift of solitude where I can connect with forces so much larger than I.
And I’ve recently decided to stop wishing for that “normal” I so missed back in March because a clear-eyed black woman writing of The New York Times after the brutal murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis cop said all the talk from white people about restoring the “normal” left her cold, since that very “normal” was what black people were saying keeps them from breathing and thriving. Now, when I’m walking or gardening, I think “I feel saner” or “I feel more in touch with the universe” or “I feel calmer” or even “I feel light-hearted.” That’s real alchemy, I believe.
The first day of May has several public meanings attached to it. In Mexico, it is Labor Day, though I suspect that most Mexicans who “labor” won’t get the day off to celebrate themselves. In the world of leftist politics, it’s a major day in which many countries remember those who have struggled to get human rights for the oppressed or marginalized or forgotten. For me personally, the day floods me with a specific and happy memory. Since I grew up in Alabama, by May 1st we were in the middle of spring, well on our way to another hot summer. That meant flowers were blooming galore, so the huge garden my mother created as she was carrying me inside her was on full display.
I slept under a canopy bed that usually kept me from jumping on it when very small or, later, from playing “conductor” of whatever classical record I might be playing on my 45 rpm box player. If I dared be that active, one of the little pine cone posts that held the canopy in place was dislodged and the whole anachronistic contraption fell onto my head. But on May Day, when I waked up, what I saw hanging from the curved frame was a big basket full of blooms from my mother’s garden–snap dragons for sure, tiny yellow daisies, usually a single pink rose bud, two or three baby zinnias, and if I was lucky, a single bloom from my favorite flower–a spider lily. She would have gone out in her night gown and light-weight robe, very early, and picked these. Then she would have found just the right sized wicker basket into which she put the glass jar holding all the beauties. I felt special.
When I waked half an hour before the alarm was to go off, I registered that it was May 1st, so I lay quietly in my bed and thought of Mamie’s yearly gift all those years ago. Somehow that clean positive memory of being loved by my mother is a special gift as we all work to stay connected with those we love while the corona virus works its will on the world.
When I see the name Vermeer, I think of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter (1632-1675) who focused on the play of light in interior scenes depicting middle class life in Delft. His most famous painting is “The Girl With the Pearl Earring.” That painting became the subject of the 2003 movie by the same title, thus propelling the painting itself into contemporary consciousness. Another well-known painting of his is called “The Milk Maid,” and employs the same mesmerizing shade of blue as found in the head scarf worn by the girl with her pearl. Vermeer’s paintings are displayed in museums all over the world, but the Riijsmuseum in Amsterdam houses the most under one roof. Vermeer was fascinated with the play of light across people’s faces and around the locations where they sat or stood or worked. Interestingly enough he most often painted women–reading or writing or playing musical instruments or adorning themselves with beautiful jewelry. While that last choice conformed with traditional roles for middle class Dutch women of his time, the rest clearly did not. And even in “The Girl With the Pearl,” he invests his subject with an inner complexity far more evocative than the brightness of the pearl.
So, imagine my puzzlement about a week ago as I was walking my usual early morning route down one street of my neighborhood for about two miles before going over one block to return on the next street over. I noticed a group of workmen in their bright yellow vests working on and in a large hole they’d just dug, a process that had involved tearing up several sidewalk slabs and dumping the concrete shards into the street for later collection, I assumed. As I looked past the actual workers at the massive machine that had clearly done the digging, I saw written on its metal face in giant letters “VERMEER.” For most of that morning’s walk, I worried over that name on that imposing and ungraceful contraption, remembering most of what I’ve just written about the evocative Dutchman with the same name. At one point, the title of a book written long ago by a man who taught in the English Department at the University of Minnesota where I used to teach came into my mind: The Machine In the Garden (1964). Its author, Leo Marx, wrote convincingly about what it meant to American literature when the Industrial Revolution came across the Atlantic from England and rapidly erased whatever idyllic notions might have been floating around in the American psyche about this country’s being Edenic. He’d have understood my dismay over the name on the large yellow and black machine that could chew up concrete as it it were mashed potatoes.
Once I was over the shock of this expropriation of the painter’s name, I Googled “Vermeer machine,” and got lots of entries extolling the virtues of their main contribution to present-day urban life. The thing parked in my neighborhood was called a Vermeer vacuum excavator, and the Vermeer people, located in Pella, Iowa, were eager to tell me why their version of this item was the very best way to handle close and deep work in our cities. Certainly the hole in question was both small and deep and had been made no wider than the sidewalk slabs it demolished. So clearly Vermeer excavators do what they advertise themselves to do, just as Johannes painted image after image of comfortable Dutch people carrying on most often in their small rooms .
I don’t have any simple moral to offer; I just know a few days later when the Vermeer machine had moved to the next block to make the next cavity that is going to house 5G installations, I chose to picture the profile of that elusive girl with her little pearl, letting my painter take pride of place over the digger carrying his name.