A friend just sent me an article about Janis Joplin because a new biography is just out about her. She was a blazing comet on the rock music scene in the 1960’s, but, like all comets, vanished too quickly to be taken in fully. The new biography talks about how much she knew about music and how serious she was about making it. Of course, all her plans and dreams were vexed and then destroyed by her reckless engagement with alcohol and drugs. As I read the article I felt sadder and sadder because her biographer has found records of the constant abuse she endured from an early age. School mates taunted her for being a “:tom boy.” As she entered her teens, those tormenters called her vile names and subjected her to physical assaults/beatings. Her way of coping was to assume personae that cast her even farther from the stifling norms of the times.
Music was her escape hatch. From the start, she sang words in timbres that shocked or excited audiences, depending on how far we were able to travel with her down her rock road. She had a gravely voice with lower registers that distinguished her from her peers. Many of her songs were about being an outsider, a misfit, a rebel with a cause, a putatively free spirit who dressed outlandishly and wore her marvelous hair as a rich but unruly mass of curls that clearly refused to allow a comb or brush on the premise. Over time, she also was unable to disguise how high or hung over she often was until the jarring headlines announcing her death from a massive overdose appeared.
So why am I spending time here in 2019 talking about Janis? Because I came to her and her music in the throes of my own downward spiral. By the late 1960s when Joplin was turning out albums and astonishing audiences, I was teaching literature at the University of Minnesota and sliding further into alcoholism. Her lyrics mirrored how I had felt as a Southern girl, only six years older than Janis. I was a devout tom boy defying my mother’s concerted efforts to groom me into being a “belle” waiting for her knight on his white horse. In high school I didn’t begin primping and talking with girlfriends about whether the right boy to ask me to a football game or the Saturday double feature movies. Failing at all this, I escaped into books rather than music, but the loneliness and desperation I heard in Janis’ singing felt just like mine as I turned those pages in all those novels every weekend.
If I let my hair grow a little longer before having it cut, I could look enough like Janis to fool me if no one else. My singing voice left a lot to be desired but that turned out to be an asset when I sang her lyrics, memorizing one after the other and singing them all in my loudest gravely voice in front of a full-length mirror. My favorite song was not any of the ones now listed as “The ten Joplin songs you want to sing.” It was “Mercedes Benz,” one of her only a cappella numbers. Thinking back on that strange time, I am quite sure I sounded enough like her to have been able to do an impersonation at some fancy cocktail party. The words have never left me, or at least the important ones haven’t. “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz/ My friends all have Porsches I must make amends.” That came first, following by these openings of the remaining two verses: “O Lord won’t you buy me a color TV/Dialing for Dollars is calling to me” and “O Lord won’t you buy me a night on the town.” The last line of the song is “Won’t you buy me the next round.” The ad for that record shows Joplin lying on her side nursing a pint bottle of bourbon. Her brand was not mine but I look at that photograph even today and recognize that constructed face and those sad sad eyes.
So I’m very glad I was able to make a different decision from the one Janis could make: at 37, I stopped drinking Jack Daniels and began a long and sometimes excruciatingly slow journey to recovery of sanity first and by this point sheer delight in the life I’m blessed to be living. Reading about her I feel huge sadness that we lost her and even sadder that she was not able to stop her careening course of self-destruction. I just listened to her singing “Mercedes Benz” and the pain is unavoidable under that grave belting. Surely it is also worth noting that it is the “Lord” she learned about in some Texas Christian congregation where, who knows, she may have belted out hymns as a child.
If “Carla Hayden” is not a household name, I understand. And, if you don’t know a lot about our Librarian of Congress, I understand that as well. But in these days of dangerous mayhem and destructive hate speech, Ms. Hayden and her title give me hope and comfort. I only began paying attention to that job and to Carla Hayden’s execution of it when I read a couple of years ago, that our new poet laureate was,Tracy K. Smith. After beginning to read Smith’s evocative poems, I began wondering how the poet laureate is chosen. Turns out that person is appointed by the Librarian of Congress. So, then I began wondering who the Librarian of Congress was who had chosen this wonderful young black woman to be our laureate. Once I had Carla Hayden’s name in my head, I began wondering how the Librarian of Congress is chosen: Was the person elected by some group of librarians? Was s/he appointed by some subcommittee of the Congress? After a lot of false tries at “Googling”–I think I ask too long questions or something–I hit gold. The Librarian of Congress for these United States is appointed by the President of the United States, and Carla Hayden was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Finally, I learned that once someone has been named to this post, s/he cannot be removed or “fired.” Rather s/he serves until wanting not to or until health intervenes or the person dies. So Carla Hayden can conduct business as she sees fit. In my view, she has done three amazingly creative things to foster diversity around who becomes our Poets Laureate. By choosing Tracy K. Smith initially, she picked her proposal (possible candidates submit proposals for how they will spend the money they get for their year as laureate) because Smith said she wanted to go to rural and small towns where we are not hearing poetry by inhabitants in these locations. So Hayden wanted “diversity” to apply not just to skin color but to who would be found as poets. So Smith spent her year going to places like Blue Earth, MN, and delighting in what she found. She staged poetry slams near farms or in high school gymnasia, and she encouraged and listened to young people who aspire to be writers without living in a big city. So Carla Hayden decided to let Smith have a second year as laureate–totally unprecedented. When I learned this, I rejoiced for all the additional people who would be exposed to Smith’s own work while finding out their work mattered to someone with a lofty title.
Now, Ms. Hayden has pleased me for the third time by named Joy Harjo to be our current poet laureate. Harjo is a Native American writer whose work has moved and delighted some of us for decades. Sadly, she has not received the press acknowledgement she so roundly deserves. So for her to now carry this mantle is, as the British like to say, “not before time.” A new book of her poems is just out and her travels will bring her audiences both indigenous and non-indigenous. And we’ll all be the better for it..
Thank you and brava, Carla Hayden.
This past week, TV stations across the country showed us an amazing scene: Brandt Jean, the 18 year old brother of Both Jean who was shot and killed by a white female police person who went home to the wrong apartment after her night shift was over, asked the trial judge if he might hug the woman who killed his brother. When the judge understandably hesitated, young Brandt said “please” and was allowed to make about 40 seconds of physical contact with the woman. Was I watched this, I flashed to 2015 when the white man entered the A.M.E. Church in Charlottesville, S.C. and shot too many black congregants who were holding a prayer meeting. When I then listened to several family members of those just killed by the bigoted killer say they forgave him and were praying for him and his family, I thought “Wow, I profess to having some kind of faith but it’s not what these people have. Maybe in years after such a senseless murder, I might be able to forgive him but not less than 24 hours after the cruel and senseless event.” That’s how I felt watching Brandt hugging the white woman who was reduced to sobs.
There’s been push back about this recent example of forgiveness with some people asking if we could have imagined a situation where the roles were reversed, that a white family member whose beloved had just been killed by a black person who thought s/he was entering their own apartment when they were on an entirely different floor. Articles made reference to the 2015 moment in which people didn’t agree with what the black congregants were doing, convinced that the perpetrator of such racial violence did not deserve forgiveness. It seems to me these two extraordinary examples of human beings being able to practice a value system that surely turns on believing we are all better than our worst deed need thoughtful consideration. Just as no two people handle grief the same ways, no matter who devises typical phases for handling staggering losses, so something as mysterious as forgiveness will be handled differently by each of us.
When I listened to family members back in 2015, I felt sure they were speaking with total honesty and conviction, that somewhere in them was a well-spring from which it was possible for them to stand before cameras and lights and offer something other than an “eye for an eye” vengeance model to those of us trying to cope with the sheer barbarity of what the white man had done. And when I looked at and listened to Brandt Jean humbly ask and then almost plead for the right to touch the person he might well want to see dead at his feet for what she had done, I was similarly sure he was speaking from his soul and his heart, not his head.
Since I am working to find goodness around me even as I continue to reel from the latest atrocity being committed by the man in the White House, I salute someone like Brandt and thank him for challenging me to try harder to resist striking back or becoming as abusive in my own speech and thoughts as the people I find so despicable for their speech and, because they also wield power, their actions. Whatever happens to the white police woman during her time in prison, Brandt Jean and his immediate family know an inner calm that defies logic and invites reverence. They are showing me what grace looks like in 2019 and I thank them.
There aren’t many in this country, but I’ve been deciding to enter as many as I can. A couple of years ago I accepted an invitation from a good friend to travel to Washington D.C. to visit the Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Native Culture. As were standing in front of MAAHC, I realized we were in a numerical minority and that felt absolutely appropriate. Then we entered the doors, took the large elevator down to Level 1 which is three levels below ground level, and began a very slow journey through that amazing place. Somewhere into the journey I thought to myself “This isn’t white space, so how does it feel to be in it as a white woman?” The question faded because what we in front of us was just too powerful not to claim my full attention. We spoke about the question in the days following our time there, and I have come to understand in a visceral way just how few “black spaces” there are in my daily life. My grocery store employs blacks but only as cashiers and baggers. There are no black butchers or managers, though black customers certainly seem to be treated respectfully. But that space is white, just as my church is white even though the numbers of black and brown people in the pews has tripled just in the last five years and are genuinely welcomed. There they assist at the altar or carry the beautiful brass candle sticks and flags and incense pots. They hand out wafers and tip chalices for those drinking the wine. Still the space is white.
So where else am I in black space? When I saw a production in New York City of “White Noise,” a powerful play by Suzan-Lori Parks, that was black space even though there were virtually no black people in the audience. It was black space because of what the playwright was asking us whites to experience. There’s no positive or kind or respectful or regenerative place for me to stand, because the two white characters behave so miserably and in such blatantly racist ways. The plot line is severe–Leo, the lead black man, is pulled over and roughed up by police for the first time in his life. He’s so upset by this that he decides he must take drastic steps to get the “white noise” that is the whole white system out of his head so he can sleep again. With frightening ease, he convinces his best friend, a white man, to “buy” him as a slave for 40 days. Parks forces me to take in just how thin the veneer of liberal association can be before we turn another person into The Other. At one point, midway through the 40 days, the white man bounds onto the stage wielding a real iron collar (obviously on loan from a museum in New York) that Leo is forced to put around his neck. I thought of walking out since I couldn’t breathe and I wasn’t wearing an inhumane torture device. But I flashed that Parks needed me to stay in her thoroughly black space and go with Leo toward whatever resolution he might find by the end of the play.
A few months ago, my good friend and I made a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, to experience both the indoor museum filled with ten years of in-depth research into all the lynchings in this country and the outdoor installation of hundreds of dark brown rectangles, each of which stands for another black person hanged by us whites. Most of the people at the museum were black men and women in town for a conference on how they as people of faith (many were pastors) could translate belief into social justice action. In that hugely black space, I felt both deep shame for what my ancestors have done and an unexplainable but welcome sense of support coming from the group.
Finally, and so importantly, I can inhabit black space simply by reading books by and about black life today and into historic times when we white colonizers bought and sold black women and men and children as if they were cattle. While this might seem a “safe” way to experience black reality, the writers I’m thinking of are so unblinking and such ardent wordsmiths that what often is a passive activity conducted in an easy chair turns into a harrowing reminder of centuries of inhumane treatment or an equally moving affirmation of the incredible resilience of black people. My current reading sometimes forces me to put down the book and go outside for a walk because I can’t stay in the black space created by a Toni Morrison or Ta Na-Hisi Coates or Claudia Rankine or James Baldwin or James McBride or Jesmyn Ward or Casey Gerard or Terrance Hayes or Tracy Smith or Lynn Nottage–and I could just keep typing.