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Journal, Day Five

By Patricia Spears Jones

On July 4th, I stood on the rooftop of my Bed-Stuy tenement feeling the sweet breeze and watching the fireworks –or at least those parts that could be seen from my vantage point. The bursts looked like sparkling milkweed, or sperm swimming up towards stars, and those that were white turned blue or vice versa. When I saw them on television, I realized how little of the full picture I had seen. It made me realize that we often see only parts of things–how difficult it is to see things in all their amazing complexity.

Okay folks, I am the granddaughter of a Church of God in Christ minister, so allow me a biblical digression. I’ve been thinking about First Corinthians, Chapter 13. The link between prophecy and charity has always seen odd to me. Why would compassion lead to knowing the future? But then prophecy is not about the future but the face of God unless I completely miss St. Paul’s meaning, which is probable. How to understand the sacred in our lives through charity is what I think Paul was talking about in verses 9-12:

9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that we is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

The epistle ends with Paul saluting “faith, hope, charity” but he says “but the greatest of these is charity.” As you can tell, I am no theologian, but I know that many of us are looking through the glass darkly and we have not put away childish things. We live in a nation in the throes of great conflict, terror and sadness even as wealth and comfort increases for some.

When I went to college and told people I was from Arkansas, they always asked, “Are you from Little Rock.” The screaming, cursing, mean white folks made the Little Rock Nine heroes. Those well-groomed, well-behaved colored children who simply wanted the best education their taxpaying parents could provide. America was shocked, shocked to see such behavior from the middle-class, formerly well-behaved white citizens. But every day ordinary people do horrible things because of hatred, fear, anxiety, greed, and culture. And the people of Little Rock in 1957 were no different.

How do we talk about such awful things? I’ve always admired Gwendolyn Brooks poem “The Chicago Defender Sends A Man to Little Rock”—spoken in the voice of a veteran Black reporter. The poem ends in these stanzas:

I scratch my head, massage the hate-I-had.
I blink across my prim and penciled pad.
The saga I was sent for is not down.
Because there is a puzzle in this town.
The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
“They are like people everywhere.”

And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)

I saw a bleeding brownish boy . . .

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.

The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

While I am still find the crucifixion image a bit much to take, the depiction of that white mob in such a strict meter fascinates me. It is as if Ms. Brooks wanted to show in her measure the formality of violence—how carefully composed were those screaming girls and spitting boys. Ms. Brooks found a way to talk about this.

I grew up in a community where Black people read the Kings James Version of the Bible. Where newspapers and Ebony and Jet magazines and the daily papers were read and re-read with vigor—seeking signs of change. The names of Daisy Bates, who headed the NAACP in Little Rock and Eisenhower and Faubus who tried to keep Black children out of Central High School and Kennedy and Dr. King were spoken of either with reverence or deep contempt. Arkansas is a complicated place to grow up, especially for Black people. The Delta still had plantations; some of my relatives lived on them up until the 1950s. The New South–this multicultural America is very new, but there are many parts that remain and they are hiding in plain sight.

We are only beginning to truly come to terms with the legacy of enslavement and the Enlightenment in the country. We know that much of America’s past wealth was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, native peoples, indentured servants and immigrant labor and that in 2006, there are many who would build new American wealth in a similar way—cheap labor always has a friend in Congress. Evolution is an American characteristic, constant change, and yet, underneath, there are ideas, arguments that bedevil our ideals, lead us to leaving behind whole groups of people for the sake of power or a buck, allow us to look at only the parts we like and forget the rest. As poets, citizens, residents of this earth, we have a lot to account for, we have a lot to do. Justice is a mighty river and we cannot allow it to be dammed.

This has been an interesting experience for me. I’ve heard from friends from around the globe, many of them chastising me for my past refusal to “use email” etc. But as I said to Jan Clausen, this was an opportunity that I could not pass up. And here’s some added information from my good friend Janet Goldner, a wonderful artist and teacher who has been to Mali like a million times on the word Bogolan:

“Bogo” means clay
“lan” means the effect of
therefore” bogolan” is the effect of clay

it is also called “bogolanfini”
“fini” means cloth–
thus the effect of clay on cloth.

And it is more than a design aesthetic. It is also a form of pictorial writing. but of course most people can’t read it anymore so it becomes design aesthetic!

May all your design aesthetic: literary and any other you create connect to the earth and tease the sky.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, July 7th, 2006 by Patricia Spears Jones.