Week 5 – August Wilson Century Cycle – The Piano Lesson: some notes

August Wilson called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” his favorite play, but he referred to The Piano Lesson as his best play. I haven’t come across any explanations but my own observation is that this play contains a richer variety of symbols and rituals than the other plays we have studied so far, though each was unique in its display of ritualistic behavior.

The Berniece/Boy Willie interface is reminiscent of the Jacob/Esau birthright conflict as well as the King Solomon cutting the baby in half suggestion. The four men at the table drinking and singing old prison songs until they work themselves into a near frenzy reminds me of a type of communal seance where distant spirits inhabit and emerge from the interplay between the participants. The piano combines the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant mythologies (we’ll spend more time on this later in this discussion. Avery’s failed blessing of the house is a type of exorcism, again that ultimately fails. Berniece is the high priestess who finally emerges to make a sacrifice to appease the family ancestors (gods). All this richness!

I am calling the the prison work song scene the first climax of the play because of all the action and discussion leading up to it and the falling action/discussion after it. After the song was completed, all four men opened up and spoke freely together, so it was also an “equalizing” event, similar to the Eucharist with bread and wine (note: drinking had occurred, but it was whisky, not communion wine. Anyway, you get the point.). Very moving scene. The prison work song, I propose, not only identified their common experience with incarceration in the South, but, much deeper, identified a spiritual basis or background they shared connecting them to their African roots and origin. The “sacrament” was ended with Whining Boy playing on the piano (the altar, the shrine). Berniece’s arrival changes the mood completely. She will have a separate cataclysmic event.

This is the second Wilson play based on a painting. The first one was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Both were based on or inspired by paintings by Romare Bearden. So already there is an organic relationship between the two plays.

Who is the Wilson Warrior in this play? Is it Berniece, determined to hold on to the family keepsake (a shrine, altar and a surrogate archive)? Or is it Boy Willie, who’d prefer to sell the piano and use the money to buy the family plantation land down south (capitalism and wealth building)? I contend they are both Wilson Warriors per the Riley Temple definitions, characters who

  • “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. And in so doing they must have the strength and the courage – the faith – to revisit the past in all its several guises and heaviness, to set down the burdens of that past, and become free. The faith is needed to know that the outcome will be as God intends, despite the difficulties attendant to the journey.
  • “These men (and Berniece Charles) are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”
  • those who fight – sometimes foolishly as Levee has just done, and who should and will pay dearly for such a tragic mistake.
  • “like the others: Solly “Two Kings” in Gem, who freed slaves and who turned to helping abused factory workers; Herald Loomis; Boy Willie of Piano Lesson who has to fight off ghosts of the past to help his sister unlock herself….Troy Maxson, of Fences, who battles death and the compulsion to save his son from racial humiliation…”
  • “Each one had who they were right within their reach – their song was in their throats – they had to be guided to the soul’s destination to sing it.”
  • “He (Boy Willie) is, after all, one of Wilson’s warriors….(his) mistakes have been bad, some not so smart – even stupid. But he’s paid for them, he is struggling to walk upright and is determined to do so.”
  • [He] is no victim. He is a fully redeemed soul. He knows who he is and how he got to where he is. He knows his history; he has called on his ancestors; he knows on whose shoulders he stands; and he is comfortable and free. He remembers his past, and he engages in it – like the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as God directs, remember who delivered them.

Berniece is on a parallel development track. She is pursued by men and told she can’t be whole without a husband. She is pursued by fears, of ghosts, of what happened to her mother and father and husband. but she overcomes those fears when she plays the piano and calls out to her ancestors (reminiscent of Toledo’s African conceptualization in Ma Rainey) for help after her primary suitor Avery’s Christian exorcism attempt failed. Berniece is the High Priestess/Warrior in the myth story but she has developed a fear of performing her function as High Priestess. Only when she succeeds in overcoming her fear is she able to quell the Sutter’s ghost issue.

The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. The Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the  archive of the family history through the generations

Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.

I wonder if the back and forth between Berniece and Boy Willie over the piano was a sort of distraction, albeit a necessary one, to get to the real plot and character development in the play, the family united in purpose at the play’s end? In the end, the play highlights the family unit, resilient and purposeful.

7. Genealogy and provenance of the piano.

1. The first owner of the piano was Joel Norlander of Georgia.

2. Robert Sutter, grandfather of Jim Sutter. wanted to buy the piano for his wife Ophelia as an anniversary present, but didn’t have the money. He offered Norlander two of his “niggers” (slaves) in exchange for the piano.

3. Norlander chose two slaves, Berniece (Doaker’s grandmother) and Willie Boy (Doaker’s father), and exchanged them for the piano.

4. Willie Boy (Doaker’s grandfather) became an expert carpenter and woodworker.

5. At length, Ophelia began to miss Berniece and Willie Boy and decided she wanted them back. Norlander refused, and Ophelia became very sick. The Sutters instructed Willie Boy to carve images of Berniece and Willie boy into the wood panels of the piano. The carvings satisfied Ophelia’s longing for her sold slaves.

6. Several years later, on the 4th of July when the Sutter house was empty, Doaker’s brother, Boy Charles (father of Berniece and Boy Willie), who never stopped talking about the piano, took Doaker and Wining Boy to the Sutter house and stole the piano. They carried the piano to the adjoining county with Mama Ola’s people.

7. When the Sutters returned home, they assumed the theft was done by Boy Charles, so the Sutter men went out and set Boy Charles’ house on fire.

8. Boy Charles had left and taken the Yellow Dog train in a storage boxcar with four hobos. The Sutters arranged with law enforcement to stop the train, figuring Boy Charles was inside the boxcar, and set the box car on fire, killing Boy Charles and the other four.

9. Doaker moved to Pittsburgh and carried the piano with him. Bernice later joined him after her husband was killed.

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Week 4 – August Wilson Century Series – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

 

Week 4 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (notes)

  • Largest cast of any Wilson play so far. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper.
  • Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Romare Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket.
  • Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles.

Themes that recur:

  • Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil
  • Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense and practice of agency
  • The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen. A play on words.
  • Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). WD Fard. (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
  • Bynum’s (Bind them) spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes, self-realizes, self-actualizes, and self-transcends (to use Maslow’s framework).

5. Play Structure

  • Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
  • Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
  • Climax #1: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
  • Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
  • Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
  • Climax #2/Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.

6. Explaining the end of the play.

It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I proposed that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment.  Let me set the scene.

In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task.  During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,”  and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that

“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”

OK. Hold on to that thought . . .

Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a minstrel/African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,

“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”

Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.

OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia.  Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. As Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”

Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”

This is the completion the Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:

(Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,

having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.)

At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lives a life of meaning.

So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.

Week 3 – August Wilson Century Series – Fences (revised)

There is a lot to unpack in all these plays and Fences is no exception.

Late with this week’s blog post. I guess it took some time to process the play, the text I read twice, and the film adaptation we watched on TV. I want to begin by highlighting an August Wilson quote from Samuel Freedman’s foreword to my edition of Fences that I call “found poetry”:

"I found myself trying to figure out 
the intent of these lives around me.
Trying to uncover the nobility
and the dignity I might not have seen.
Part of the reason I wrote Fences
was to illuminate that generation,
which shielded its children from all 
the indignities they went through.

I have to confess that until our group discussion laid it out on the table with multiple inputs, I hadn’t really plumbed the depths of the use of the play’s title “Fences” as a metaphor. That is what I’d like to address in this week’s post. But first, let’s recapitulate the pre-class notes:

  1. Market forces that influenced the play: advisors recommended a play with a nuclear family, something “more accessible.”
  2. Wilson’s insistence that the film adaptation have a black director was not well received by the entertainment industry.
  3. Who is the central protagonist in Fences? Is it Troy Maxsom, a “big man” who “fills all the empty spaces” in the lives of everybody around him?  Or is it Rose, the constant, steadying influence, the glue that holds everything together and nudges the men around her into true manhood? Or maybe Cory, the future, the promise, the unflawed character?
  4. The name of the play is Fences, but there are only occasional mentions of fences, or even of a single fence. Is the fence something central or merely incidental to the play? A metaphor?
  5. What about Bono? He gets better as the play progresses, better at dominoes, better at being a husband to Lucille, better at being a friend to Troy and Rose. He progresses through the timeline of the play. His character develops.
  6. This week we introduce Freytag’s Pyramid. A useful way to unpack and track the development of the play’s plot.
  7. What is the play’s introduction? Does the Troy-Bono dialogue (with Rose entering part way through the conversation) at the beginning of Act 1 effectively set the scene for the entire play?
  8. Rising action: Cory’s football hopes counterposed with Troy’s laments about his failed baseball career. Troy’s efforts to get a promotion to driver at work. Troy talks about past successful struggles with Death.
  9. Climax: Troy’s announcement that Alberta is pregnant, followed by a heated discussion with Rose and Cory’s entrance and defense of Rose in what he perceives to be his father’s physical attack. Strike 2.
  10. The Falling Action: Gabe gets arrested and institutionalized. Alberta dies in childbirth. We never see Alberta, but she is always lurking behind the scenes. Troy comes to grips with his new responsibility.
  11. Resolution: Rose adopts Alberta’s daughter, Raynell. Cory leaves home and joins the Marines. Troy dies. Lyons goes to jail but returns for the funeral. Cory also returns home for Troy’s funeral. Bono organizes the pall bearers.

But back to the Fences metaphor. Bono says early in Act 2, “Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” There is only one fence being built in the play, but the play has many fences, hence the plurality of the title. Troy and Bono met in prison, where they were “fenced” in, so to speak, in a hyper-controlled environment with rigid boundaries. That controlled space is also the place that gave Troy the discipline to learn the game of baseball, a sport with an infield for base running and an outfield generally enclosed and contained by a fence. Batting the ball “over the fence” is considered a score, a home run.

Troy considers his own marriage a type of prison to which he has been sentenced, a prison bounded by a fence, but at the end of an 18-year sentence, he wants freedom from “the same place’ where he has been standing still. He says towards the end of Act 2 Scent 1, “Then I saw that girl . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand, after eighteen years I wanted to steal second. [. . . .] I  stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought. . . well, goddamn it . . . go on for it.

On the other hand, and extending the metaphor, “fencing” is the crime of buying and reselling stolen merchandise. The person who knowingly buys stolen goods in order to resell them is known as a “fence.” Troy, using baseball imagery, refers in a conversation with Rose to his adultery with Alberta as “stealing second base.” Troy himself, in this sense, is the “fence” who purchased stolen property (Alberta’s affection and attention) and resells it as his own image of himself.

We can debate about whether Troy was a sympathetic or a despicable character. Professor Shannon points out in her book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, that Troy “reverses a stereotype found in portrayals of the black family: the conspicuously absent father,” but that he is also an “amalgam of blues personalities,” i.e., a railroad man in his infidelity, a bluesman who is depressed and finally, “womanless,” and a trickster (you pick the poison). You gotta read Professor Shannon’s book.

Last but not least, Riley Temple, in his book, Queen Ester’s Children Redeemed, included Troy Maxson in a reference to the Wilson Warriors, characters who “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. . . . These men and women are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”  Temple includes in that list of warriors, from plays we have already completed, Boomer from Jitney and Levee from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Another book you gotta read!

Well, I’ll stop here because time is passing, the weekend is approaching, and play #4, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, awaits my discover.

 

Week 2 – August Wilson Century Series – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Time flies and already I am half way through my first reading of Week 3’s Fences (I am finding I need to read through these plays at least two times to really “get” it). But before getting too far away, I want to put down on paper some reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I mentioned towards the end of the session a proposal that the star of the play is not Ma Rainey. I believe the star is Levee, even though his end at the play’s conclusion is not a pleasant nor a pleasing one. Levee is the modernist, he represents the avant-garde, the next wave in musical composition, while Ma represents the old, entrenched way, the “old jug band music” to which Levee repeatedly refers.

But Levee has his own issues. He was emotionally traumatized as a child, forced to watch the gang-rape of his mother, then physically traumatized when he tried to stop the rape with a knife and was slashed with the knife across his chest. He was further traumatized when his father, seeking to exact revenge against the rapists (and successful in killing four of them), was caught, hung and burned in the woods. Wilson describes Levee in the scene-setter as flamboyant and buffoonish, as playing the wrong notes frequently, and as often confusing his skill with his talent.

Still, he is the star of the play, the archetype for Louis Armstrong, who as a young man played trumpet in Ma Rainey’s band.  See Louis Armstrong, the First Great American Modernist here: Was Louis Armstrong the First Great American Modernist?. My question is, was Wilson gently leading us to this conclusion?

We also took note of Levee’s obsession with shoes, getting into arguments twice in the play when band members “stepped” on his shoes, the final act resulting in an enraged Levee committing the knifing murder of the band leader, Toledo. We discussed in class the possible symbolism of Levee’s fixation on his shoes, although the class did not all agree that shoes may have symbolized mobility, transportation, moving out of a bad situation and moving towards a good or better one. I personally thought the shoe symbolism concept was one with merit, and I found myself on YouTube listening to Robert Johnson’s original “Walkin’ Blues” and more recent covers of the Johnson masterpiece by Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) (videos below).

Levee has yet another thematic connection to Robert Johnson. It is said that Robert Johnson “sold” his soul to the devil in exchange for his music talent. Levee mentions in two separate conversations his willingness to “sell” his soul to Satan in conjunction with his overall rejection of Christianity and more traditional beliefs. We saw that “skepticism” expressed by Becker in Jitney, and we’ll see it again with Troy in Fences. Maybe this is another conclusion Wilson himself is leading us to – skepticism as a humanist element of modern thought.

OK. As promised, the Walkin’ Blues videos:

Robert Johnson original

Eric Clapton cover

Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia) cover

Week 1 – August Wilson Century Series – Jitney

First, and before I misplace it, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

This one is also good:

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood. Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him was a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss today was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might overcome his great disappointment and be able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood.  Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

We will see more of this relationship dynamic in Ma Rainey next week.

**********************************************************************************

Week 1 of my collaborative close read study group on August Wilson’s Century Series. The first play was “Jitney.”

1. First class went well. But we jammed together introductions and close read discussions in this first meeting and we ran out of time. I had hoped for 8 group members but we ended up with 18. 25% of the members are retired attorneys who know all about unpacking language!

2. Implementing “The Community is the Curriculum” from #rhizo15 was/is a big hit. There are two high school english teachers in the group who have taught Wilson’s plays. There is a college professor who actually knew and was acquainted with August Wilson.

3. Not everybody was able to access the Google Group where I had stashed a lot of background material. We hope to remedy that by 1) getting everybody a gmail account so they can access the group and 2} mirroring the group on a publicly accessible blog site here:
https://wordpress.com/view/raymonddmaxwell.com.

4. Versioning presented a slight hiccup. Members had three versions of the play, so page # references didn’t align and we lost a minute or two in each presentation trying to get everybody on the same page (literally!).

5. It was interesting the way the group immediately seized on drawing general principles from specific instances in the play through the close reading process. (The play is about a small black community in 1970’s Pittsburgh but the group decided that the principles were/are universally applicable).

6. Next week is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Will be posting notes here weekly and thinking about ways to move the course to a bigger virtual audience.

 

Preview of 2018

The holidays afforded me some useful downtime to work on the structure of the 2018 novel. If you know me, you know the structure will be a rhizomatic, a root network, and not arbolic, or tree-like. The overriding narrative arc will be non-linear and sometimes invisible, although subplot elements will be self-referential, autobiographical almost. The snippets of my poetry that appear epigrammatically will actually be chronological, but since most readers won’t be familiar with all the elements of the underlying plot sequence, it may not be readily apparent. And it will begin and end in a library, or a museum, or archive, or some combination of the three. Where else would I take you? And what’s the difference anyway?

Still working on a way to incorporate real-time reader participation. That will require some thinking, some work.

Finally, the idea will be to make it comprehendible across all reading levels, like my two favorite novels, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ellison’s Invisible Man. I know. A tall order. But would you prefer a short order? Besides, if my 8-yr old nephew can’t read it (he’ll be nine by year’s end), I will have missed the mark.

Ok. Get your tickets early if you really want to ride!

p.s. The process will be arrangement, then description, i.e. gathering all the pieces, doing the research, etc., which will take until early March. Then I am taking a hiatus to read the August Wilson Century Series (10 plays) with a group. In May there might be a road trip to the Great Smokies, if I am lucky. Then, hopefully by June, the knitting can begin in earnest.

Ten books I have enjoyed reading on my subway commute in 2017

https://www.goodreads.com/dolphinfish

1. Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
by Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray

2. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson
by Alan Nadel

3. The Smear: How the Secret Art of Character Assassination Controls What You Think, What You Read, and How You Vote
by Sheryl Attkisson

4. The Circle
by Dave Eggers

5. The Administrative Threat
by Phillip Hamburger

6. Hooper’s War
by Peter Van Buren

7. The I-10 Incident: Book 1 in the Going Away Parties Murder Mystery Series by Kim Marie Coleman

8. Archives Power: Memory, Accountability and Social Justice
by Randall Jimerson

9. The Total Work of Art: from Bayreuth to Cyberspace
by Matthew Wilson Smith

10. Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation
by Nicholas Guyatt

AP Top News Stories of 2017

AP Poll: Sexual misconduct allegations voted top news story
Associated Press
DAVID CRARY
Associated Press
December 21, 2017

NEW YORK (AP) — The wave of sexual misconduct allegations that toppled Hollywood power brokers, politicians, media icons and many others was the top news story of 2017, according to The Associated Press’ annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors.

The No. 2 story was Donald Trump’s tumultuous first year as president. A year ago, Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election was a near-unanimous pick for the top news story of 2016.

The first AP top-stories poll was conducted in 1936, when editors chose the abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII as the top story.

Here are 2017’s top 10 stories, in order:

1. Sexual misconduct: Scandals involving sexual misdeeds by prominent men are nothing new in America, but there’s never been anything remotely like the deluge of allegations unleashed this year by women who were emboldened to speak out by the accusers who preceded them. Luminaries toppled from their perches included movie magnate Harvey Weinstein, media stars Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, and several celebrity chefs and members of Congress.

2. Trump-First Year: The controversies started on Inauguration Day, with the new president challenged over his claims on the size of the crowd, and persisted throughout the year. Trump’s approval ratings hovered around record-low territory, his base remained fiercely loyal, and his relentless tweeting — often in the early morning hours — provoked a striking mix of outrage, mockery and grateful enthusiasm.

3. Las Vegas mass shooting: A 64-year-old high-stakes video poker player, after amassing an arsenal of weapons, unleashed a barrage of gunfire from a high-rise casino-hotel that killed 58 people and injured hundreds among a crowd attending an open-air concert along the Las Vegas Strip. Weeks after the massacre, questions about the gunman’s motives remained unanswered.

4. Hurricane onslaught: In a four-week span, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria ravaged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Harvey killed more than 80 people in Texas and caused an estimated $150 billion in damage. Irma killed scores of people in the Caribbean and U.S., including 12 residents of a Florida nursing home that lost its air conditioning. Maria damaged more than 200,000 homes in Puerto Rico, caused lengthy power outages, and prompted an investigation into whether the official death toll of 64 was vastly undercounted.

5. North Korea: At times the taunts had a schoolyard flavor to them — a “dotard” versus “Little Rocket Man.” But they came from two world leaders with nuclear arms at their disposal — Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Fueling the tensions were North Korea’s latest tests of a hydrogen bomb and of ballistic missiles that potentially could reach the U.S. mainland.

6. Trump-Russia probe: Trump fired FBI director James Comey, but a former FBI chief, Robert Mueller, was soon appointed to investigate potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s election campaign. By mid-December, Mueller’s team had brought federal charges against four people, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

7. Obamacare: Despite repeated efforts, majority Republicans in Congress failed to repeal Barack Obama’s health care law and replace it with new plan. At one point, a deciding vote against a GOP replacement bill was cast by Republican Sen. John McCain. But questions remained as to how Obama’s plan would fare going forward without substantive help from the Trump administration.

8. Tax overhaul: Without a single Democratic vote, Republicans in Congress pushed through a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax overhaul that would cut corporate taxes while producing mixed results for individuals. GOP lawmakers, backed by Trump, said the bill would have broad benefits by accelerating economic growth. Critics said consequences would include higher budget deficits and the potential loss of health care coverage for millions of Americans.

9. Worldwide terror attacks: The first big terror attack of 2017 came on New Year’s Day — a gunman killing 39 at a nightclub in Istanbul. Subsequent targets of global terror included an Ariana Grande concert in England, a bike path in New York City and the historic La Rambla promenade in Barcelona. In October, a truck bombing in Somalia killed more than 500 people; in November, an attack on a crowded mosque in Egypt killed more than 300.

10. Islamic State: After lengthy assaults, an array of forces drove the Islamic State from its two main strongholds — the city of Mosul in Iraq, and its self-styled capital, Raqqa, in Syria. The defeats left the Islamic State without significant territory in either country, but affiliates elsewhere in the region, particularly in Egypt and Afghanistan, continued to operate.

Life at work

Halfway through the final pass and three quarters through the entire process, it is probably a good time to assess the work left, pat myself on the back about the progress, and start to jot down some content and scope notes and lessons learned from the project.

My involvement in the Jim Graham Papers project was an incidental event. As part of preparation for the Mayor’s late June visit, I offered to identify all the piles and rats’ nests of unprocessed collections occupying space in the various corridors and corners of the place. Then, being Navy-trained, I proposed a timetable for working through the assembly of clutter, a POAM if you will (Plan Of Attack and Milestones).

Jim Graham had only recently passed and it made some sense to me that his collection should be the first one we attacked. So there were 18 boxes in one place, and 13 boxes in another, and on and on, and before we knew it, we identified well over 200 boxes.

Late in July, I wrote this sonnet –

There are no spirits lurking in the aisles
and corners. Just cartons of documents,
​details of lives. Whether well-lived or ill,
these papers tell the story – marriage, birth,
land acquired, taxes. Death. It’s all there.
No need for the rattling sound of zombies –
ghosts of events yet to come – in graveyards.
Might this be the judgement we fear? The words
and deeds, archived records we leave behind
won’t deliver us to any heaven –
or hell. It’s just a mirage, this image
of hereafter we’ve been trained to accept
as truth, the certain object of our faith:​
​d​ried, folded, faded, in a dusty box.

By the time I finished the first pass, I had generated over 30 boxes of emptied three ring binders of various sizes that we trucked to surplus property, many with the fancy steel hinges. All together I removed a couple of boxes of office supplies that got entrained in the mix, along with a few boxes of unmarked duplicates of various documents (the marked duplicates we kept!) and some unidentified children’s toys. And there was that stack of Whitman-Walker Clinic folders and documents and AIDS-related books we separated for deposit with the GW collection that focuses that part of Graham’s life in DC.  And that was the first pass.

It is worth noting that I began the project armed only with librarian logic, but in August I began Archival Management, a CUA graduate course that met at the Library of Congress, and in late September, I began my practicum in Special Collections at DC Public Library. As I actually learned how to process a collection, I suppose I got better at it. Let’s hope so, anyway. In the arrangement phase, it appeared clear to me that the later boxes made much more sense and were better organized than the early boxes. I hope we corrected for that slight imbalance in the second pass.

In the arrangement phase, speaking of which, I initially came up with 37 categories of records and documents by subject. But I knew that 37 was too many, and as a former colleague used to say, “if you have too many foci, you lose focus.” So we consolidated categories that made sense, ending up with nine (9) general series, that included correspondence, Council service, budget approval, Metropolitan police, education, OIG reports, artifacts and plaques, photos and slides, and newspaper articles. The bulk of the collection would end up in series 2, Council service, which would include the committees Graham chaired over his sixteen years on the City Council, and which would map out both the sequence and the progression of remarkable influence he was able to establish during his ascent to and subsequent fall from local power. But we will save that for the biographical note.

Series #2 Subseries #6  (committee chairmanships) is proving to be a real challenge. I am making constant and real-time tradeoffs between original order, committee subject and chronology.  We are looking at 25-30 linear foot boxes total and so far I’ve broken it down to three overlapping tranches, 1998-2006, 2004-2011, and 2008-2014. But beyond this, it will all be downhill. Truly. The light at the end of the tunnel is what sustains me.

 

From the archives: Farewell to Luanda (the year 2000 c.e.)

Farewell to Luanda!

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place. Luanda. No place like it. No place like it in this world.

Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss. Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test. The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery. But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection.

I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil. More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our local employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.

The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest. The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces. The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads. Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty. Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth. International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow. And then there are diamonds. Diamonds are forever. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Diamonds. Y’all know the rest of that story. The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa. Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant. The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track. Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely.

Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer. Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda. Angola says enough. Angola wants peace. Angola shall win. An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra. That makes it so.

The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future. While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony. Never mind. A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).

We are coming up on ten years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002). I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak. While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!