Meridian: 6.(a) a place or situation with its own distinctive character; (b) a distinctive character

John Lewis’s funeral and the civil rights novel dedicated to him

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Neighborhood John Lewis memorial, Atlanta

I was just finishing John Lewis’s three-book graphic memoir March when on July 17th John Lewis died. The representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District (Atlanta; ours) for 33 years was expected to die of pancreatic cancer but he had also just been elected to a 16th term starting in January 2021 and so the timetable was unclear. Memorials sprung up instantly on our street, made out of still warm election signs. One was draped in black tulle with sunflower vase and flag offerings. Another featured a metal rooster, referencing the chickens Lewis would preach to growing up in Troy, Alabama.

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Neighborhood John Lewis memorial, Atlanta

Reading March prepared me for Rev. James Lawson who, among many, eulogized Lewis  at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30. Book 1 champions Lawson, former director of the Congress of Racial Equality and leader of the first workshop on nonviolence that John Lewis took in Nashville, TN, in 1958. Lewis impressed on the reader the depth of the non-violence philosophy and the rigor of its practice, with students taking turns trying to “break” each other into violence and steadfastly resisting. The training prepared them to face violence without returning it when forcing desegregation of lunch counters, fast food restaurants, cafeterias, and bus lines throughout the south. It prepared Lewis ultimately for Bloody Sunday in 1965, when he and Hosea Williams led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, towards Montgomery demanding the legal right for black people to vote without obstruction and Lewis, beaten, nearly became one of the casualties on the way to the Voting Rights Act.

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John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book One. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2013. Page 77.

“John Lewis called what we did between 1953 and 1973 the Non-Violent Movement of America – not the CRM [Civil Rights Movement]. I think we need to get the story straight because words are powerful. History must be written in such a fashion that it lifts up truly the spirit of the John Lewises of the world.” – James Lawson, eulogizing John Lewis

However personal Lewis’s funeral was, it was also, from its beginning to its culmination with President Obama’s impassioned address, also a plea, alluding to those who died to win the vote in the 50s and 60s, to use the vote in the 2020 national election, the vote being the ultimate non-violent action. As reported by the Pew Research Center, the vote was underused in the last election.

Registering people to vote was also what Meridian did – the main character of Alice Walker’s 1979 novel of the same name which Walker dedicated to “John Lewis the unsung” years before he was first elected to Congress. Meridian is about a young woman finding her way in the Movement in the period after Lewis stepped down as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, after alternative philosophies of violence entered the mix, and after a number of its leaders were killed. Much of the novel is set in Atlanta, where Meridian goes to college, devoting herself to marches for justice and voter registration drives across the south. Some of the best chapters near the end are vignettes of Meridian and her companion Truman interceding in the lives of  hard-to-reach black folks to registered them to vote; nothing is straightforward when poverty and sickness are in the way.

John Lewis memorial
“Don’t Give Up! Don’t Give In! Keep the Faith!”by Marc Merlin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Walker’s text leaps off the page, fresh and bright, despite being published 41 years ago. Meridian herself moves with the fits and starts of a young determined person, charging forward and then collapsing (epilepsy?), asking questions about how much she can give and if what she can give is enough. The pressure to embrace violence comes up a lot: “Is there no place in a revolution for a person who cannot kill?” she asks. Truman turns cynical in the chapter “Questions,” questioning what is left of the Movement: “The leaders were killed, the restless young were bought off with anti-poverty jobs, and the clothing styles of the poor were copied by Seventh Avenue. And you know how many middle-class white girls from Brooklyn started wearing kinky hair.” Meridian, in contrast, is not cynical. She keeps moving to apply pressure for change, even if she doesn’t have all the answers.

This sound clip from the chapter “Camara” read by Atlanta actor and edutainer Charlotte Ford of Charly Ford Entertains, highlights Meridian’s tortuous perseverance:

The novel explores the theme of social justice as fashion, particularly directed at white sympathizers and especially the character Lynne Rabinowitz. Lynne is a white northerner journeying south to join the Movement, romanticizing it: “To Lynne, the black people of the South were Art.” Lynne and Truman take up, marry, have a child, deteriorate, all the while intersecting Meridian’s life, circling around her, trying to draw her into their dramas and provoke jealousies, but this plot seems there to highlight Meridian’s contrasting focus. This kind of distraction fails to break her, and she marches on.

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John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book One. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2013. Page 82.

As a white person, it is interesting to read about Lynne’s descent from middle class suburbia to welfare poverty and exile, deeper into the raw and real (which she doesn’t renounce), becoming pathetic and ugly. It raises questions about white participation in the ongoing march for social justice and what real risks one is willing to take. To what degree is marching fashion and to what degree is it backed by staying power?

I ponder this because of a cherished photo of John Lewis and my husband on the day of the 2017 solar eclipse. Lewis was free with photos, happy to oblige with his staff. And now is a good time to ask: What exactly does this photo represent? Is it fashion, a wish to be seen as being on the right side of history? Or is it a display of a deeper commitment as an ally? John Lewis was an accessible entry point, perhaps offering white people a means to acknowledge societal guilt and release some of it, or to diffuse racial tension that so often marks our lives here.

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Leslie Leighton and John Lewis, with permission of the former

But I think it was something deeper, having myself encountered John Lewis on a path once and experiencing the thing about him that people wanted to touch. Here was a person who had done the unthinkable, moved into violence without reacting, with lifelong damage to his body, persisting over decades of public service to speak out and push for change. Wanting to touch him could have been a primitive attempt to become infected with some bit of that same courage, hoping to have it pass from his being into ours. With the tangible being of John Lewis gone, we have to do it the harder way ourselves.

So I pledge to serve at least one get-out-the-vote phone shift (and I hope many more) for the coming national election, highlighting the absentee voter process as a safe option during the pandemic. Although applications were mailed automatically during the Georgia primary election, making it very confusing, this will not be the case again unless you’re age 65 years or older. I’m looking forward to my training to find out all the nuances of application and vote casting. Remember the requirement in the Georgia primary to place the absentee ballot inside the “inner envelope,” the one that did not exist?  (yes, it was supposed to be wrapped in that folded piece of paper, which you probably threw away, instead). Remember voters purged from the rolls when signatures didn’t match their IDs? I’ve learned since that your driver’s license signature is the key to that match. I’ve learned that you can check your voter status, ensuring that you are still active, and apply for an absentee ballot through Georgia My Voter. Through this site you can also monitor potential irregularities. Ignore any information on the Internet that tells you it’s too late to request the absentee ballot. March on.

Love in the time of coronavirus

Timely contents of a Little Free Library

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The music goes on

Coronatime is transforming everything, multiplying the many forms of love. We are clinging to those we take for granted. Many of us are reaching out to long-lost friends and family members. Across the world people are singing in solidarity from their confined apartments in adjacent buildings. Others are cheering for exhausted healthcare workers who are risking everything. Healthcare workers are applauding patients coming off ventilators. Citizens are appreciating all the suppliers along the food chain. Some of us are venturing to shop for the frail. Over and over we are seeing the meme of love expressed through window panes. We are dreading the grieving love of passing life. At the same time, people are falling in love. From isolation to the dance of facial masks in public space, the thrill of fear and danger, it’s a Mardi Gras unlike any other. Symptoms are timeless: rising temperature, shortness of breath, and a nervous cough. Continue reading Love in the time of coronavirus

The never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha

An egomaniac on the loose in the US and Spain

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“Don Quixote head” by sanzibar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for spurring me on to read Don Quixote (1615) – Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation in particular. Your New Yorker story “The Little King” and the recently published novel Quichotte seduced me by showcasing Atlanta and made an offer (to read and compare Cervantes’ classic to contemporary times) that I could not refuse. Continue reading The never sufficiently praised Don Quixote of La Mancha

A Californian in Atlanta

Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill evokes Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970)

Beach by South Fork Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve Atlanta
Beach along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve, Atlanta

After living in Atlanta for 14 years, I remain convinced that as states go, Georgia and California are about as far apart, physically and culturally, as you can get. The sweltering humidity of Atlanta in July is completely unknown in California, where heat is dry, plunges at night, and reappears in the morning only after the fog lifts. The ocean is a long four-and a half hour drive away from Atlanta compared with minutes away in my native Bay Area, though I’ve recently discovered the sand beaches hidden along our copious creeks. California has “Cal” (University of California at Berkeley), the ghost of hippies past, while Georgia has “UGA” (University of Georgia, Athens) where students even today actually wear what appear to be Chanel dresses to football games. California speak may be vague, dude, but Georgia speak is intentionally indirect and veiled, bless your hearts. California has Hollywood, but Georgia has … Hollywood of the South. Finally! One point of state-to-state connection. Continue reading A Californian in Atlanta

Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn comes alive in music

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The Meridian Chorale performing in Southern Folk Passion, with Brenda Bynum on April 14, 2019 (photo courtesy of Meridian Herald)

I owe my budding awareness of Sidney Lanier entirely to Meridian Herald’s Southern Folk Passion this past Palm Sunday at the Church at Ponce and Highland. But for stumbling upon Lanier on the group’s website before the concert, I might have always assumed that Lake Lanier and the other Lanier monikers around Atlanta were named for a great engineer or politician. Knowing that they are named after a poet laureate from Georgia, one who was commissioned as a southerner to write the words (along with Dudley Buck, a northerner, to write the music) for the cantata for the 100th anniversary of the United States in 1876, deepens my understanding of Georgia as a literary place. That makes a difference to me. Continue reading Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Not like one of the family

Seeing and hearing black nannies

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Robert Frank, “Charleston, South Carolina,” from Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit Framing Shadows features 22 photos of African American nannies of white children from the 1840s to the 1920s, a family photo type found during these years in the eastern United States. It also displays novels that feature the mammy-child relationship such as Gone with the Wind, which Dr. Wallace-Sanders has written about in Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. The juxtaposition shows a progression in Dr. Wallace-Sanders scholarship from the fictive mammy character in narratives, images, and artifacts to the real African American taking care of white children in historical photos and biographical accounts. The exhibit previews her upcoming book on this work Nannies, Mammies, and Love Slaves: Portraits of Black Women Taking Care of White Children 1850-1950. Continue reading Not like one of the family

In and around the oak

In honor of Earth Day

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“Hank Aaron” white oak in Connally Nature Park, East Point

What are the significant trees in your world?

Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication. Continue reading In and around the oak

Majestying in Buckhead

Out to dinner at King + Duke

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Restaurant at the corner of Peachtree Road NE and West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.” Continue reading Majestying in Buckhead

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Till it reaches the city of the sun

 

Reading Ovid in winter

There’s something very wonderful about the coming of winter, cold, and darkness. It allows a person to burrow in, curl up with the dog or cat, bask in the warmth of the hearth, and read things like Ovid. Culturally it’s the Season of Light. Falling close to the winter solstice, the Season of Light marks the darkest part of the year. Winter celebrations involving light date from the Stone Age if not before. The Romans had two winter celebrations:  Saturnalia, sometimes depicted as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, and Sol Invictus, the festival of the sun God. Saturna, another pagan festival during the eight days up to the solstice, is depicted in the Jewish Talmud. The feast o Yule was celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples. Some of the old pagan rituals are similar to those in Christmas traditions. The Season of Winter, therefore, transcends any one religion or creed.  So does most mythology, which is so distant in time and place from our world today. In reading it, you simply disconnect from the present time and watch the struggle of larger-than-life characters play out in your mind’s stage. You bring the stories back to our world.

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House in December, Druid Hills, Atlanta

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) rewrote Greek myths for a Roman audience. For example he retells the myth of Persephone as the myth of Proserpine (Book V), and it is a myth that explains winter. Continue reading Till it reaches the city of the sun