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The movie reviewers were uncertain and conflicted in their assessments of The Better Angels. Quoting from the Roger Ebert review

“There aren’t a whole lot of dyed-in-the-wool art movies that take North American history, let alone United States history, as their topics and/or inspirations. …. … (The Better Angels), pictorially beautiful and emotionally evocative as it is, is so bereft of conventional narrative momentum that you have to consider it a miracle it got made. … The minimalist dialogue contains questions such as “Where’s your spirit? How do you know it’s there?” and that’s in keeping with a certain inchoate Transcendentalist philosophy the movie’s perspective seems to strive for, but seekers of a (simple) Lincoln story are likely to find the enterprise frustrating … There’s much to admire in this genuine American art film, but in some respects the things that are most daring about it wind up undermining its mission.”

From The Washington Post – “ … visually stunning and often poetic, but also leaves too much unsaid. (The story) begins in 1817, the year Abraham Lincoln turned eight. Through the narrator — Lincoln’s cousin — and black-and-white images of wilderness and day-to-day life, we get a somewhat impressionistic understanding of the 16th president’s upbringing. His father (played by Jason Clarke) was the strong, silent type, always chopping wood and looking stern. Lincoln was closer to his mother (Brit Marling). In nearly every scene, she’s surrounded by light, all beatific smiles and far-off gazes. She picks flowers, cradles a baby bird and strokes her son’s hair while lovingly surveying him. She dies early in the movie, of milk poisoning, but Lincoln’s father finds another bride, a widow played by Diane Kruger. And she is just as perfectly angelic as her predecessor.”

To understand the movie’s title I turned to the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association for an explanation and found there a broad-ranging discussion of the film by scholars of Abraham Lincoln and his life. “Better angels” is taken from Lincoln’s first Presidential address to the nation, his plea for Americans to come together, to avoid a civil war between the free and the slave states.. From the sociologist Jackie Hogan  —  “No matter how imaginative or outlandish the depiction of Lincoln, he invariably embodies all-American ideals and virtues. He is a determined, practical, self-made man; he is brave, compassionate, and self-sacrificing. He embodies, in short, “the better angels of our nature.”

I’ve quite forgotten why I decided to watch the movie. Probably it had to do with praise for the artistic value of the filming rather than for Abraham Lincoln’s childhood, which is just as well, as the boy representing him does not convey any of the extraordinary presence certainly possessed by the real Lincoln. I enjoyed the poetic scenes of woods and fields while the anthropologist in me wondered at this portrayal of the original American Midwest, the country of my childhood. Fortunately, the Director and film team had sought authenticity in presenting the visual, material side of Lincoln’s early life.  I observed and questions that came to mind sent me in search of answers. What I learned is fascinating.

The United States, 1802-1804

The movie is set in Indiana, in 1817, the family having moved there from the new state of Kentucky where they had farmed land they owned and lost through a legal dispute. Indiana was the newest state in the Northwest Territory, an area Great Britain had ceded in 1776 to the new American government, a government that, still at war with Native American tribes in the Territory, had the land surveyed, regulated the sale of land and planned its settlement as free states where slavery would be illegal. Eventually, the Territory turned into six States —  Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, part of Minnesota. Kentucky had become America’s 15th state in 1792, a slave state.

The Lincolns were among the first settlers in Indiana, living and farming in isolated frontier conditions, soon followed, however, by thousands upon thousands of other families from the original thirteen states, families traveling in covered wagons and by horseback across the Appalachian mountains to farm the Territory’s rich soil and to set up businesses in its growing towns.

A tavern in a new frontier town

By 1830, Indiana had almost 350,000 inhabitants and Illinois more than 150,000. (Ohio, at 1,000,000, was the largest of the new states.)

Abe Lincoln was a boy and teenager in the wilderness. In his early twenties he moved to a town in Illinois, New Salam, where he worked as a boatman, a soldier in the Black Hawk War, a general store owner, postmaster, surveyor, rail splitter, and lastly was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. In his late twenties he moved to the state’s capital city, Springfileld, becoming a lawyer and an elected official.

The first feature of this Midwestern culture set in the wilderness that caught my attention was the method of farming. We see a plow being pulled by a bull break soil and seed being dropped in its wake, then the father giving Abe a hoe, but not much of how the boy works with it.

The Three Sisters growing corn. squash and climbing beans

I was surprised to learn elsewhere that the father, Thomas, would have been growing, at least initially, corn rather than wheat and oats. The indigenous crops that supported Native American village life had been adopted into American culture. (Here for a description of the Native American agricultural base.) Iron tools the settlers brought with them were the plow, the hoe, the axe, and surely, knives, the latter probably being an important item to trade with Native Americans still in the area. A Native American man is shown building a fence for the family. Thomas and the older boy with the family must have hunted in the forest for game but we are not shown their guns. Pigs, chickens, sheep and at least one horse would have been added to the farming complex. Abe, at his tender age, is sent on a three or four day walk from the house to take animal skins to a tanner for processing.

Not shown is the woman keeping a vegetable garden, and milk being a regular part of the settlers’ diet, caring for the family cow. Cattle were creatures newly introduced into the environment, a fact that led to a serious problem. In its grazing around the house and into the woods, a cow all too often fed on a plant unknown to its owners, ingesting the toxic white snakeroot plant that poisoned its milk and its meat. Many thousands of settlers, including Nancy, Abe Lincoln’s mother, died from “milk sickness.” Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, called Dr. Anna on the frontier, is credited today by the American medical community with having identified white snakeroot as the cause of the illness. Told about the plant’s properties by an elderly Shawnee woman she befriended, Bixby did testing to observe and document evidence. She wrote up her findings to share the discovery in the medical world. The Shawnee woman’s name has been lost to history.

Log cabin at the Lincoln Living Historical Farm

Lincoln’s birthplace

The most dramatic object of pioneer life we see in the film is a log cabin built with the tools and skills the settlers had brought with them. The first decision to take was where on their plot of land their house should be located. It needed sunlight and good drainage for the earthen floor. As the first Europeans there, they could choose the best logs from old-growth trees that were straight and had few knots, logs that did not need to be hewn to fit well together, easing the work of filling the gap between them with stones, wood chips and mud. (Thomas was a carpenter. Their final log cabin, at 18 feet square, may have been larger than most.) The cabin roof was made of saplings covered with birch bark. A loft for storage and for the children to sleep, and everyone else during cold winter nights, could be added by laying a floor of poles on a level with the eaves, to be reached by pegs pounded into the walls or by a ladder built from tree limbs. A door and at least one window was cut into a wall, the window covered in cold weather by skins or cloth or paper soaked, possibly, in linseed oil to admit light. I imagine the settlers brought nails and some hardware with them for making the door. A stone fireplace was added. After Sarah arrived, bringing furniture from her home in Kentucky, the level of comfort in the Lincoln household improved. After some years in the house, she insisted on Thomas installing a wood floor.  Here for more on log cabin history.

Two very attractive women play prominent roles in the movie, Abe Lincoln’s mother and stepmother, both of whom he loved and who loved him dearly. They both saw him as an admirable, highly intelligent child.

Lincon reading by the fireplace

Nancy, who had been trained as a seamstress, read to him from the family Bible. Sarah was illiterate but wanted Abe to be educated and persuaded Tom to send the boy to the few schools that were irregularly available. In the movie a teacher is shown leaving a skeptical Thomas with two books for Abe, his remarkably talented student.

“From traditional schoolboy texts like Nicholas Pike’s New and Complete System of Arithmetic and Thomas Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue, to classic works we know today like Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Robinson Crusoe, the young Lincoln read whatever he could get his hands on. He borrowed books from all his neighbors, until he could truthfully tell a friend that he had “read through every book he had ever heard of in that country, for a circuit of 50 miles.”

I puzzled over the clothing. The women and girls wear long dresses, seemingly made of cotton cloth and hand stitched, as are the shirts worn by Thomas and the boys, but cotton fabric was still imported from England, very expensive and most likely unavailable this far from a city market. Sarah is shown working a loom that looks right for the time and place but nowhere is the necessary spinning wheel evident. And what sort of cloth is Sarah weaving? Sheep are not shown but they probably had several, mostly for the wool. The alternative fabric surprised me – linen woven from flax they could have grown and most likely did grow. Flax yarn and linen cloth had been spun and woven in the colonies for centuries. “…. the pioneers had to make their own clothing. The most common material in the early years was deerskin, which they fashioned into moccasins, shirts and breeches. Later, they used wool and flax, a plant with a long fiber that could be spun into thread and loomed into linen. Wool yarn and linen thread could be woven together to produce linsey-woolsey, a hardwearing, coarse cloth from which most clothes were made. Combing, carding, and spinning wool was a continuous chore for the women and girls. …”

Do watch these two wonderful videos on growing flax in the Midwest, the men working it, the women spinning and weaving, all of it, except for the division of labor, not greatly changed from ancient Egyptian times. In my own peculiar manner, I was reminded of an ancient Egyptian depiction of the very same  process for growing the plant, processing it for fiber and making linen cloth.

I have no idea of how shoes and hats were made. Perhaps for these they had to wait for a town with a cobbler.

During the colonial period, hemp, the marijuana plant, was also grown and processed for fiber that women spun and wove into cloth. The reasons for that practice to cease is fascinating and important enough for another, separate blog post.

A large number of scenes in the movie are devoted to the children at play. Only one of the games, hide and seek, is part of my childhood. I assume that boys in my time wrestled and fooled around like those pictured here, but as a girl I ignored boys’ silly games.

Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip

Children’s Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Other games played came from their European heritage, games such as Snap the Whip and one in which boys, each with a girl on his back, race one another. The latter may be like a game in the Bruegel painting where two boys are carrying a girl. Here for a comment on Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip and a similar game pictured in a Breughel painting.

Abraham Lincoln

While living in Springfield in the mid-1840s, Lincoln returned to his childhood home for the first time after moving to Illinois in 1830. He wrote “My Child-Hood Home I See Again” in early 1846.:

My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-tones that, passing by,
In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar—
So memory will hallow all
We’ve known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, to mind again
The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.

 

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Loving is an exceptionally well-made biopic of a courageous couple in the state of Virgina who allowed two lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union to take the injustices they suffered under Virginia’s laws against their marriage as a case to the United States Supreme Court. The resulting Supreme Court ruling, Loving v. Virginia, 1967, was a landmark decision, meaning it established a precedent, a new legal principle that struck down all laws in all the 50 States that banned interracial marriage.

In the Chief Justice’s opinion for the unanimous Court: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. … To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Arun, my son, included Loving in his blog post on the 2017 Oscars. He wrote – “Loving: A well-done, understated film, about a SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) ruling everyone knows but the details of the personalities involved I will admit to not having known, which is to say, I did not know that the felicitously-named Loving couple were just simple, rural folk. I would have liked more of a courtroom drama but understand why director Jeff Nichols chose not to do this, focusing instead on the couple, who were not political and did not seek to politicize their case. They just loved one another. An effective choice. Ruth Negga’s best actress nomination is merited.”

Reviewers in the newspapers and other media have been unstinting in their praise of the film. For the Roger Ebert review, Brian Tallerico presents a sensitive, insightful take on the movie. He has high praise for Jeff Nichols, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for Loving. “Nichols’ approach is careful, reserved and deeply considerate of the human story he’s trying to tell. ,,, What’s most important to Nichols’ vision is how much trust he has in his two leads, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred, and what they give back to him in exchange for that trust.  …  two of the best acting turns you’ll see this year … …  One appreciates a story well-told and having been allowed a brief, believable window into the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, two people who changed the country just by falling in love.”

The Wikipedia article presents the movie’s plot and analyzes the five leading persons in the story, along with how the actors came to portray them. The actors believed in the importance of the story. Each studied the person s/he was to embody and discovered ways to move and speak to convey his/her life situation and personality and how these changed through time and from place to place.

From Joel Edgeron as Richard, a man of few words, skillful with machines, a bricklayer who carried the essential tool of his trade, a spirit level, with pride: “… The importance of the story itself, not to treat it with kid gloves but to maintain a reverence for the truth, for the responsibility we felt toward these real people. And conveying so much with so few words was one of the biggest challenges. …”

On Ruth Negga as Mildred: “She’s my hero. But what’s important is that people are coming out of this movie genuinely moved because what they see is kindness. In many ways, [Mildred] would have been uncomfortable [by the attention] but their legacy is important … I think school children will know their names.”

Carolina County Courthouse

On Marton Csokas as Sheriff Brooks: In Csokas’ view Sheriff Brooks was a stickler for the law, a man who considered himself an adult dealing with two wayward children who were born and raised in a part of the South that didn’t necessarily see the lines between color, lines that God had put there. Colin Firth, the film’s Producer, interviewed Sheriff Brooks’ daughter and respected that “She thought [her father] was misguided but he was still a human being. And she made that stipulation. There’s a real sense even among the locals to want to address that side of their history.”

The discussion of Nick Kroll as Bernie Cohen, the young ACLU volunteer attorney, is fascinating. And Michael Shannon is convincing as Grey Villet, the freelance photographer who created a photo essay on the Lovings for LIFE Magazine.

The article’s following sections on Production, Cinematography, etc., etc. are important and well worth reading.

Quoting the Producer of Loving: “…  questions about the authenticity of the ways in which various characters and events were depicted in the film; in nearly every case, [Peter] Saraf described the film as true to life. Richard Loving was indeed as stoic as Nichols and Edgerton portray him; the small rural Virginia community in which they lived was (and is) highly racially integrated; Mildred Loving really did write directly to Robert Kennedy, and her letter is still in the Kennedy collection; and the Loving’s lawyer really did, per Richard’s request, relay his words before the Supreme Court that “I love my wife.” One of the remarkable things about the film is the way Nichols elicits tension with the mere threat of violence, rather than its actualization; this too is authentic to the Loving’s experience. While they were never assaulted during or after their trial – no physical attacks, no burning crosses – they did spend many years living in fear of such retaliation.”

A phrase in the article, “small rural Virginia community in which [the Lovings] lived was (and is) highly racially integrated”, surprised me. I learned only recently, counter to what I would have expected, that in a North Carolina rural/small town community near the border with Virginia, racism against Black people was milder than in the North Carolina city where I now live. I had assumed that city people would be more liberal and open-minded than rural folk but discovered from studies done and from friends’ experience that this does not always hold. In an excellent article, Heather Killelea McEntarferan describes the hell a Black family in Raleigh, NC went through when the couple, in 1957, tried to enroll their son in the White middle school down the street from their house instead of in the one middle school for all the city’s Black children, a long bus ride away from home. To protect their son from the consequent White anger, they sent him for the summer to family in rural eastern North Carolina where the father grew up, to a community where White folk lived among the Blacks, if not too close. There a Black man could address a White man by his first name, not Mr. This or Mr. That, an informality and hint of equality not acceptable in Raleigh.

In Loving, we see scenes of Richard being friendly with young Black men in different settings, the first being a lively crowd of people having fun, mostly guys who had gathered in the open countryside for a drag race. We watch Richard and his Black friends timing and racing his beloved car, winning, then the White guys leaning in a row on their car, arms crossed, staring at Richard. In this and other social events, all mixed-race, Richard and Mildred are obviously a couple and everyone accepts them as such. We see them after their marriage living with her family in their home in a manner that seems natural and ordinary. In the past Richard’s father had worked for a wealthy Black man and his mother is a midwife who delivers babies for both White women and Black women. She initially disapproved of the marriage but eventually accepted it and her grandchildren.

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

In the movie Mildred was surprised by Richard’s proposal of marriage, and clearly it made her father uneasy. One senses that in this community it was more acceptable for a White man/Black woman couple to simply quietly live together. My grandparents, who were from small town Appalachia mountain country, spoke of “common law marriage,” i.e. a union without the legal certificate. In this Virginia community, in a mixed race family the children, no matter how they looked, would be considered Black. In 1662, when Virginia was still a colony, a law was passed and remained in force designating a child, regardless of who the father might be, take the mother’s social status. Under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 every resident in the State of Virginia was recorded at birth as being either white or colored (“colored” meaning African and/or Native American descent). It defined race by the “one-drop rule,” one drop of Black or Indian/Native American blood making the individual non-White. From the earliest times, the three races had mixed and mated, if not married. Mildred differed in how she considered herself, sometimes as part White, part Black and part Indian, even as Indian and White. On their D.C. marriage license, she is Indian, which is how her grandson identified her.

The authorities in Caroline County could ignore a White man/Black woman common law marriage. What incensed them was the Lovings’ proudly framed marriage license hanging on their bedroom wall, an open, if unintended, challenge to the system of racial inequality. (The White guys in the drag race may have informed on Richard.) When the couple was arrested and held in the county jail in different cell blocks, Richard was soon freed but not allowed to bail out Mildred. She, as a Black woman, had to be bailed out by her Black family. The White sheriff used local law to preserve the fiction that White people and Black people lived in two different and separate communities.

Quoting from an article written by Brent Staples for Mildred Loving on her death –“Like many rural areas in the Jim Crow South, Caroline County was governed by two competing racial ideologies. The impulse toward segregation was of course etched in law. But Central Point, which had been a visibly mixed-race community since the 19th century, was home to a secret but paradoxically open interracialism. The community’s story goes a long way toward explaining how the Lovings thought about race and why they behaved as they did.

“Virginia slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson, were notorious for fathering children with their slaves. The 19th-century diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut could easily have been speaking of Caroline County planters when she wrote: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children.”  Inside Caroline County, Virginia’s strict laws on segregation applied. But when they ventured beyond Caroline County — where no one knew them — many of Central Point’s residents found it a simple matter to “pass” as white. …”

Race relations in Virginia as depicted in the movie are new to me. I grew up in the American Midwest, in Ohio, western Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Black and White neighborhoods were sharply segregated. I had few contacts with African-Americans, and those individuals I did come to know were up from the deep South, part of the Great Migration I wrote about here. They came to the North from cotton plantation and sugar plantation country, not from the land of the early plantations, those in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina where tobacco was grown as a cash crop for European buyers.

I wrote here and here about the South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations worked by slaves brought from the “rice coast” of Africa, from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia, from lands where rice cultivation originated, was developed and supported a civilization. The enslaved Africans, not their White owners, possessed the knowledge and skills for growing the crop that made these plantation owners among the richest people in colonial America. As with tobacco plantations, the slaves’ work was organized under a task mode, i.e. each day’s work to be done was decided and after it was finished, the slave’s time was his/her own. The work was heavy and, of course, unpaid but the slave was allowed a certain degree of autonomy for a private and a family life.

Cotton, grown on plantations with a gang mode of slave labor overseen by a supervisor, often with a whip in hand, became, after the 1794 availability of the cotton gin, the dominant cash crop throughout the American South. See here for a series of maps showing the slave and free states from the colonial period until the Civil War.

I’ve wondered if the different exigencies of the four different plantation cultures — tobacco, rice, cotton and sugar —  affected race relations differently and if so if they have any lingering effects today, if the cruel consequences of the cotton plantation overwhelmed all else. But those are questions to be asked and explored in another essay.

 

 

Watching Glenn Close may be reason enough to sit through The Wife. The Critics Consensus: The Wife relies on the strength of Glenn Close’s performance to drive home the power of its story — and she proves thoroughly, grippingly up to the task.

This, finally, might be the movie to win Glenn Close the Oscar that has eluded her over the course of six — count-‘em — six nominations. … (She) delivers a breathtaking performance … As crafty as “The Wife” is as it wends its way through its own shifting dynamics, it is through Close’s performance that the story’s emotional arc is made manifest.  …  (Her character, Joan,) is a paragon of self-possession and quiet but steely will. … That veneer will ultimately crack, but in Close’s finely calibrated portrayal, the fault lines are just barely visible. The film’s climactic scene features the actress sitting completely still, her face a mask of almost imperceptible anger that gives way to engulfing rage before our eyes, seemingly without Close doing a thing. This is screen acting at its finest. With “The Wife,” she has been given the perfect platform to declare that, like her character … she will not be ignored. ,,,”

The story — “Joan appears to be a traditional helpmate — she reminds Joe to take his pills, carries his reading glasses, manages his schedule, smiles blandly at acolytes who ignore her — but there’s something slightly off in her expression; something both careful and angry. We learn that Joan once wanted to be a writer herself — she was, long ago, a promising student of Joe’s — but her dreams faded away, like that smile. Their son (Max Irons) is desperate for his father’s approval, not his mother’s; Joe’s both dependent on Joan and indifferent to her.

“Though undeniably chilly, “The Wife” is enjoyable on many levels, not the least of which is the bird’s-eye-view of what it’s like to win a Nobel Prize. (Apparently you get called quite early in the morning, and have to go to a LOT of receptions.) But Close owns this movie, from beginning to end; it’s a performance of such intelligence and subtlety that only when the movie is long over do you start wondering about whether the plot holds up. I’m not sure that it does, but I don’t think it matters. Just look at Close, late in the film, as grief slowly pools in her face; it’s the best kind of movie magic.”

This story time-line from Wikipedia contains the information I need for explaining my reaction to the movie –

“In 1958, Joan Archer (played by Annie Starke) meets Joseph Castleman (by Harry Lloyd), a handsome young married professor at a women-only college.  …  Joan meets a published alumni authoress (by Elizabeth McGovern), whose cynical views on opportunities for female writers disheartens Joan. Two years later, Joseph has been fired for having an affair with Joan, his marriage is failing, and his first attempt at writing a novel turns out very poor.

“Joan, a secretary at a publishing house, observes how the all-male editors dismiss women writers. … Joan agrees to fix Joseph’s novel for him. The work, titled The Walnut, is published and becomes a bestseller.

“By 1968, Joseph and Joan are living in a large seaside home in Connecticut. Joan is hard at work writing a novel, to be published under Joseph’s name, …”

“By 1992, an elderly Joseph (now played by Jonathan Pryce) has become a celebrated author. He wins the Nobel prize in Literature, although Joan (by Glenn Close) seems less than happy about the honor. … … Nathaniel Bone (by Christian Slater), a biographer with a taste for scandal, tries to insinuate himself into the Castlemans’ lives. Joan’s unhappiness worsens as adulation is heaped on Joseph. His attempts to publicly thank her for supporting him only embitter her further.”

I saw the movie with my son, Arun, and we both found Glenn Close and Jonathon Pryce too old for the roles they play in the movie. Glenn Close is 71 years old and looks to be in her mid-sixties. Pryce, also 71, looks his biological age or older. Annie Starke is 32, far from the age of a college freshman or sophomore. The marriage, according to reviewers, is one of forty years but let’s look at the dates. Joan and Joe met in 1958. As a college student she would have been between 18 and 21 years old, most likely 20, at most 21. He would have been, at the youngest, 28 years old. Two years later they are living together and they publish his/their first book. By 1968, they are married and have enough income from his published books to be living well. By 1992 they have been married for 32 years. In 1992 she would be, at most, 54 years old and he, maybe 62. She would be at a point in life when she could imagine a writing career for herself, and when she asks Nathaniel Bone, the biographer, if he is flirting with her, we could take it seriously. When the very young woman photographer is sexually interested in a creaky 71 year old Jonathan I simply did not believe it.

I thought April Wolfe’s comment in the Village Voice particularly interesting. —  “Director Björn Runge’s slow-burn marital-implosion drama The Wife stoked an anger deep inside me. In my three years as a Master of Fine Arts student of fiction writing, again and again I’d heard through the whisper network how so-and-so’s wife was actually the real talent, plucked as she was as a young writing student herself by her instructor-cum-husband. I’d watch as the tight-lipped wife lingered on the periphery of craft conversations, never asked her opinion, while young people clamored for her partner’s attention.

The Wife, scripted by Jane Anderson and adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, explores this literary cliché from the perspective of the talent behind the talent. This is a portrait of a decades-long partnership coming to a head but also of the American literary community reckoning with what so many know to be true: Women are still not seen as “serious” writers or contenders for major prizes. And men can’t keep their hands off their young students. … (and in her last paragraph)  … …  it is almost as though the film is acknowledging its premise’s tired shortcomings and asking us to focus on the art and feeling in this woman’s mundane life — which is something Joan also instructs Joe to do at one point when he criticizes a passage of her work that details a woman’s quotidian chores. “That’s the point,” she says. A woman’s life is all the work and none of the glittered glory.”

From Glenn Close’s acting we know, or think we know, what Joan is thinking and feeling but information on the Joan & Joe relationship through time is confusing and reviewers differ in their take on it.  “The plot reveals may not always be convincing, but the emotions certainly are.”

The emotions, yes, but in putting together the movie’s pictures of Joan and Joe together and of the dialogue, especially in the flashbacks, I arrived at my own interpretation of their relationship, at a scenario based on decades of observing marriages, beginning in the 1950s.

The movie begins with Joan and Joe in 1992 as an elderly couple, and that is the dominant image we have of them and their relationship but a flashback shows Joan as a twenty year old in a meeting with Joseph, her professor. He is holding a copy of a story she has written and he has read twice, praising her writing. When he points out a weakness in her story’s characters, she tells him why she developed them as she did. It struck me that instead of offering a teacher’s, or fellow writer’s, appropriate response, he relates to her as a girl, asking her to babysit for his family. In another flashback, the cynical published alumni authoress tells Joan that she should forget being a writer because the men who control the publishing industry discriminate seriously against women writers. Joan responds that she loves to write, and her professor, Joseph, has told her “a writer must write”. We learn that Joan has fallen in love with Joseph, and after meeting his wife and baby-sitting his infant child she wrote, for a classroom assignment, an exceptionally insightful short story based on his marriage. In the flashback scene where Joe agrees to her rewriting the book that will be their/his first one published, it is the story’s characters she works on, not so much the plot or the setting. At the Nobel award ceremony, the speech that accompanies the award gives fulsome, elaborate praise for the Castleman novels’ brilliant, affecting portrayal of character and personality.

Joan describes herself, on several occasions, as a shy person. From her student days we see she has no need to assert herself; she has it all. She is White, a pretty, bright girl whose proper, comfortably situated family has sent her to an elite girls’ college that serves as a finishing school while also providing an excellent liberal education that enriches her interest in and talent for psychological analysis. She may be shy and unassertive but she does subtly arrange situations to align with what she thinks they should be.

Joe is charming, handsome, socially adept, at ease with people, has a knowledge of literature and quotes from it in a way that engages the listener, but apparently cannot compete in academia and lacks the talent for writing publishable novels. After losing his position in the girls’ college he is desperately afraid for his future, afraid that the only career open to him is small college teaching, which he considers far too poorly paid for a good life. When Joan discovers at work that publishers are looking for novels by a Jewish writer, she and Joe slide into becoming partners. She writes the novels and he, with a persona well-suited for the publishing industry and literary bookstore environment, markets them.

In the first years of their marriage Joe takes over running the house and caring for their first child. Joan has what she would have wanted under any circumstance. She has her own space each day behind a locked door. She has the freedom and privacy to think and to write, plus source material from Joe’s interesting Jewish origins and his active life. Within ten years, as a couple and a team they are wealthy from the sales of their novels and are living comfortably. They love one another, and both being agreeable individuals with interests and a life in common, and children they love, they get along, although his philandering embarrasses her, even hurts her feelings. As his health deteriorates with age and his appetites, he becomes deeply dependent on her and she falls into taking care of him.

Under this scenario, when the movie begins in 1992 Joan is in her early middle fifties, not yet quite middle-aged. She is naturally angry with all the praise going to Joseph and the dismissive wifely role assigned her, plus finding his glorying in it galling beyond what she can tolerate. She is sad when he dies but also ready to begin a new life. She will explain their publishing arrangement to the children but not make it public. Instead, she will continue writing, and since times have changed for women writers, will publish under her own name or a pseudonym. She has three decades or more ahead of her to live and be herself as a writer and an individual.

It’s been several years since I was first aware of having entered into my fourth stage of life, the last of the four stages Ravi, my Indian husband, had defined for me. I was in a new state of being and coped with it by writing about it, initially here and later in nine other blog posts on Growing Old, the most recent a year and a half ago.

I’ve changed since that August post. Tire more easily. Heart still functioning but with irregularities. A problem with balance but can still walk about. Arthritic pain in the morning and increasingly during the daytime, too. Still able to care for myself, to cook and keep house with my daughter and adopted son. I function reasonably well today but it’s possible that tomorrow I may not. Thus far my mind survives, although my memory can fail me in embarrassing ways, as in a conversation when I simply cannot recall a name or a key word in time to finish a thought. I stay informed as an observer rather than a participant on matters concerning America’s chaotic political scene, increasing inequalities in income, terrible damage to the environment, the technological revolution that’s transforming societies everywhere. No longer go to meetings or demonstrations but do donate to good causes.

And I write. My mind is filled with images and memories of the distant places where I lived and visited and of the people from different cultures I once knew, forming the background against which I relate much of what I see, hear, read. In my present day world, however, few individuals, other than my children, have been to those distant places or lived in other cultures. In an ordinary conversation with a stranger my initial thoughts would be unintelligible to that person. I feel as I have felt all my life, like a closet foreigner, different from nearly everyone other than my children. I used to quote Nehru about being at ease everywhere and at home nowhere, but now feel ill at ease and would like to be at home somewhere. I’m not unhappy, just, at my age, still unsettled.

A recent event heightened this feeling of unease. The three of us were deciding what we would do for Christmas day. Until this year we always had friends with us. In my well-equipped kitchen I prepared the traditional holiday dishes we would enjoy together, along with conversation and a glass or two of wine, at our dining table set with Limoges china, crystal glasses, silver flatware, pretty napkins and candles flickering, all on a linen tablecloth. Wherever we lived, in whatever country, Christmas was a day to invite in friends and acquaintances who were alone, without or away from family, but this year was different. Our friendship circle of the past decade has fallen apart; we three faced having an every-day dinner at home or going to some unfamiliar restaurant with me feeling sad.

Then my daughter remembered that the Unitarian-Universalists of our city not only holds the Thanksgiving Day potluck dinner we’ve attended for the past four years, they also do a Christmas dinner. We could be at table with agreeable people to share food, fellowship and common values in a setting comfortingly similar to the church environment I knew when young, and even better because today’s congregation includes, along with the original British isle descendants, persons representing the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity. The dinner and the day was a delight.

I am comfortable with the UUs. They recognize the traditional Christian Protestant creed that so discomforted me those many decades ago but do not hold to it. Instead, they follow something that catches my imagination — a liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and a search for spiritual growth. I reflect on this and it occurs to me that my unease and what I seek may exist close to, if not quite in, the realm of religion where this secular church is located.

When Ravi and I met he was a religious agnostic, the first person I knew who had been raised as such, believing that whether a god exists or does not exist is essentially unknowable. He was perfectly comfortable with having no religion in his life while I, in my early twenties, was still struggling with uncertainties that had been with me for years. In my mid-teens I had attended a Protestant church calling itself the Christian Church, a denomination that held to the doctrine of adult rather than infant baptism, which meant committing to one’s faith through baptism after the age of twelve, the age of reason. I learned of this at age sixteen, while active in the church’s youth group, and decided that I, too, should be baptized, like everyone else I knew there.

It was my undoing. When the church Minister, a man educated in theology, in his pre-baptism teaching spoke of the Virgin Birth, of God, the Son and Holy Spirit, the church’s fundamental doctrine, I listened attentively and had to confess that it made no sense to me. I asked how these mysteries fit in with what I was learning in my science classes at school and he had no answer I could understand. The poor man spent considerable time with me, talking, listening, explaining and finally, unable to convince me, said that the one belief I had to accept was the divinity of Jesus. American Protestantism is essentially about Jesus. I accepted and was baptized but slowly, bit by bit, as I read history and of other religions, came to think of the Jesus story as mythology, leaving me with questions no one I knew could answer, puzzled and feeling alone with my doubts. Additionally, that was the year I moved from this ordinary town to a major university campus, away from the church community and my supportive, good, kind Assistant Minister, as I gradually, one disturbing step after another, rejected religious beliefs, arriving uneasily at atheism.

Finally, Ravi’s agnostic position seemed reasonable to me and I could live with it, so we raised our two children as he had been raised, with a set of humane values and believing in social justice but with no religious affiliation. We raised them on a university campus, then in Mogadiscio, Ankara, Chicago and Paris. Our adopted son came into our family when he was twelve, attended American schools and lost contact with his Shia Islam. My three agnostic children know me simply as a non-believer; they do not share my early history or my feelings about the UUs.

We live in North Carolina, in the American South, a region different from the Northern, Midwestern America where I grew up. People here speak of their “church home,” meaning a church in one’s neighborhood, an organization with services and meetings a person attends regularly, where s/he is known and where other members care about her/him. Religious beliefs are simply assumed; it’s the community that matters. When we retired here from Paris in 1995, neither Ravi nor I could imagine joining either a church or the local Indian temple. Our social life together centered on our mixed India-American relatives, a political education group in the Indian temple-centered community and with three wonderful young Indian couples. I became involved with the local Alliance Française. Importantly, I also found a true friend, an artist, and as part of what she and I did together, saw something of the local art scene. For civic involvement, Ravi joined two international organizations concerned with political matters and was active with them until his dementia set in.

I became active in various civic organizations, mostly health care and urban planning related and through them became friendly with a number of persons belonging to the UU congregation, then out of curiosity attended several Sunday morning services. Their practice of following the format of a Protestant church Sunday service somewhat annoyed me but the good part was their addressing issues of social justice rather than of theology. One such Sunday morning theme, for example, was on marriage for homosexual couples. I was so pleased with the general social and intellectual atmosphere that I persuaded Ravi to come with me for a meeting/social event and that ended it all for me. He was extremely uncomfortable, even angry enough with me for taking him there that I gave up on UU membership. As usual, I did not push the issue and we never discussed why he responded this way.

Beginning in 2003, caring for Ravi in his dementia took over my life. He passed away in 2010, the year I turned eighty. By then all my organizations had changed, the individuals I had worked with had moved on, mostly into retirement, and I had taken to writing, a necessarily solitary occupation.

Our Christmas dinner has me remembering my past involvement in things religious.

Unitarian meeting house by Frank Lloyd Wright

Until recently I had not heard of the Universalist church but had discovered the Unitarians . It was in Madison, Wisconsin, 1946, on a Sunday morning. I was walking on State St., on my way to the university campus, and heard voices coming from inside a shop that normally would be closed on Sunday. The door being slightly ajar, I went in to see people seated on some ten rows of folding chairs, dressed in their Sunday best, children in the front row, everyone watching older children acting out a drama. I sat down in a back row and discovered they were telling the story of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. The Madison Unitarian congregation was holding its Sunday morning service in this rented space while their new church/meeting house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was being built.

My being in Madison needs some explaining. My mother lived there. She had raised me until I was five years old, until my father and grandfather came to take me with them, and I hadn’t seen her again until that summer between my tenth and eleventh grades of high school. (In the last three paragraphs of this blog post, after having described where and how Ravi grew up, I outline my own childhood. Included is a photo of me with Grandmother, taken by Ravi.)

My father placed me with families, in a sort of foster care, with one family after another. Then he remarried and I lived with him and his wife for a year or two. When he was drafted during the Second World War, his father and stepmother took me in. I was thirteen, maybe fourteen, at the time. In 1946, when school ended for the summer break, I took the train, west to Chicago and north to Madison, to visit Mother, 550 miles from my grandparent’s eastern Ohio town. As luck would have it, and good luck for me, Mother lived within a fifteen minute walk from the University of Wisconsin campus, the sort of school and lifestyle I had never imagined could exist. At the end of the summer I returned to my grandparents, did eleventh grade in high school with them, then back to Madison, living with Mother for my senior year.

Unfortunately for our relationship, Mother was a devout member of a fundamentalist, evangelical church. She was furious with me when I spoke approvingly of the Unitarians, as if I were threatening the very foundations of Christianity. I attended her church meetings a good number of times, watched and listened. The people were generally kind and well-meaning but I could find no way to identify with them. I had been accepted into the university high school, on the campus, had moved into a sophisticated intellectual environment antithetical to the evangelical mode of thinking.

On graduating from high school and beginning classes in the university, I moved out on my own, to a rented room, paying for my living expenses and tuition and books by waiting tables on weekend nights and all day Sunday in a restaurant near the campus, too overwhelmed by my new worldly environment to be concerned with religion. Only in later years, while in the States on a visit or a consultancy, did I meet Unitarians, always appreciating the fact that they shared many of my views on life.

During the Christmas dinner I again, fleetingly, wanted to belong to the UUs, to have its Fellowship as my church home. I thought of joining in at least a few UU activities but arranging to do so would be inconvenient for my kids and probably only mildly interesting for me. At the dinner I had pleasant exchanges with several individuals and a delightful conversation with a woman in her forties, after which she returned to her group at her table. I’ve discovered it’s difficult to maintain ties with younger persons; our lives take us in different directions. At the UU dinner only one other person was even near my age but she and I had no interests in common. I’ve written before of age grades and how they structure our lives. My being elderly would not matter so much if I had been with the congregation’s members for many decades, had shared experiences with them, knew them well and they had known me as a full, functioning person. The time for that is long past.

I may still try out a UU activity that meets my need for thinking about religion from a safe distance.  It is a series of lectures on religious history, that of the Christian Bible. It begins a month from now. Who knows what my health and my stamina will be a month from now. We shall see.

A note — I found, on reading articles concerning religion and religious philosophies, that any illustrations accompanying them are of elderly white men looking profound. This painting by Gauguin was the exception. The questions he asks are answerable only by religious faith. His explanation of the painting is here.

Paul Gauguin 1897  Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

 

 

 

42, based on the life of Jackie Robinson, an American baseball hero, is the second movie I’ve watched since Invictus, a Movie on How Sports and Politics Became Intertwined, the story of Nelson Mandela using the loyalty to a sports team, bringing White and Black South Africans together, to save his government.

In 1994, a year after South Africa’s first multiracial democratic election and Mandela being elected as President, the country hosted the Rugby World Cup, the White Afrikaners’ sport that ordinarily had the majority of the people — Bantu, Colored, Asian — cheering for the opposition. But Mandela befriended the Springboks captain, Francois Pienaar, and persuaded him to take the players out into Black communities and be in contact with people other than Afrikaners. Fortunately, the team had one very popular and visible Black star player.

The Springbok

From The Guardian, quoting Francois Pienaar,

“During those six weeks (leading up to the final game) what happened in this country was incredible. I’m still gobsmacked when I think back to the profound change that happened. We started obviously with a great leader with a fantastic vision who realised that sport is important for the Afrikaner white community and to earn their respect and trust … … On the other side I have such a respect for what (Mandela) had to go through in the African National Congress because the springbok was a symbol of apartheid. The majority of South Africans never supported the Springboks, … (but) he asked them and we Afrikaners came to the party in terms of playing good rugby, building a nice momentum towards the final, (and) things happened in South Africa that were just magical.”

For the final there were 63,000 people in the stadium and 62,000 were White. With a stroke of PR genius, Mandela appeared in the green-and-gold Springbok jersey and cap: “It’s well documented that Mr. Mandela walked out into Ellis Park in front of a predominantly White crowd, very much an Afrikaner crowd, wearing a springbok on his heart and how they shouted, ‘Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!’ because what he’d promised he delivered. And when the final whistle blew this country changed forever. It’s incomprehensible.”

I needed to get my mind around the fact that people actually identify that strongly with a sports team, care that much about a ball game. I also wondered what the consequences for national unity would be when players on the team come from different, often antagonistic parts of the society. While pondering this, 42 somehow came to my attention and I decided to watch it as a way into understanding how sports fans deal with incorporating society’s diversity into the team. I also wondered how individuals from different sectors of the society, different social classes, essentially different cultures, could play the game together. By definition, each game has its own set of rules and each player in the team has a role, a set of behaviors in relation to the other players. The rules and roles are explicit, known to everyone, to be followed and enforced. Winning or losing depends upon it. A player must be judged by how s/he performs in that role; nothing else about that person should be relevant to the game. So – what happens when society’s rules about the players’ relationships to one another in everyday life contradicts the simplicity and purity of the rules of the game?

I know absolutely nothing about team sports and never watch ball games. My husband, Ravi, came to America as an adult, so I suppose as a boy he followed cricket but he never talked about it or any other sport. Not until I was in my mid-forties did I hear talk of team sports, not until the mid-1970s when I returned to school for an MBA, to the Kellogg School of Management, into an academic environment quite different from that of my anthropology/sociology school days. In the business school classroom students discussing any aspect relating to management used a vocabulary drawn from sports (mostly football, I think) that was totally unintelligible to me, and they carried sports magazines around with them, some of them keeping a magazine open inside an upright textbook on the desk, reading it while the professor lectured.

Then recently, in a long conversation with Arun, I told him I had intended to write a blog post on 42, which is on sports and racism with political implications for our time, but found the movie too upsetting and dropped the idea. At which point my dear son reminded me that in grade school he had been a baseball fan, and I vaguely recalled his keeping statistics on the Milwaukee Braves team, the way he systematically collected information on anything that interested him. He said he had gone to baseball games with his buddies, taken there by one of the boys’ father, that Hank Aaron had been his hero, and one of his classmates

Babe Ruth

from those years had written “Me & Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-five Years Later.” He continued reminiscing, telling me that in 1973, when Hank Aaron was baseball’s greatest hitter and coming near to surpassing Babe Ruth’s 714 career home runs (even I had heard of Babe Ruth) Aaron and his family received death threats and an enormous amount of hate mail. Many Whites refused to accept a Black man surpassing the long-standing record of their beloved White player. Aaron was a generation later than Robinson and the racism in sports had continued. I decided to reconsider and write my thoughts on 42.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson, track star

I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of the movie  “… 42 is competent, occasionally rousing and historically respectful — but it rarely rises above standard, old-fashioned biography fare. It’s a mostly unexceptional film about an exceptional man. …  and that is fine with me. It is still very much worth watching for what it teaches us about the history of racism in America. The exceptional man is Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player in the all-White national leagues. In the leagues, each player has a number stitched onto his uniform shirt and 42 was Robinson’s number,  the number since …  universally retired because he broke baseball’s shameful color barrier. For this reason alone,42 is a valuable film — a long overdue, serious big-screen biopic about one of the most important American pioneers of the 20th century. …”

A true baseball fan might wish to see the 1950 film, The Jackie Robinson Story in which Robinson plays himself. Richard Brody considers it superior in many regards to 42. Whatever its quality, the man and baseball are important enough that the movie is easily available on YouTube as a documentary. I watched Moneyball, with Brad Pitt, on the transformation of baseball into a profitable business. It is highly informative and a good movie, too, but not my thing. The one sports movie I actually cared about is A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna, based on the All-American Girls Baseball League that became popular with sports fans while the men were away fighting in World War II.

I discovered, through all the reading I’ve been doing, that baseball is an American game, thoroughly American. It evolved in the northern states of the country, especially in New York, from older bat-and-ball games already being played in England by the mid-18th century. It evolved in the American mode of the players organizing into clubs that set rules of the game, then into larger associations that improved the rules, managed relations between the clubs, and having found audiences, into businesses with players as employees. In 1871 the first professional league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was founded. Five years later, the National League was created, followed by the American League in 1901. The first World Series between the champions of the two major leagues was held in 1903, and by 1905 it became an annual event. In the 20th century the rules of the game were standardized.

The American dilemma – White people believing that all men are born equal while still being prejudiced against, and accepting social injustice toward, African American men – became part of baseball’s evolution. (This was in the northern states. In the South, both tradition and law dictated that all White Americans are superior in all ways to all Black Americans.) Participation in White organized baseball by African Americans had been precluded since the 1890s by formal and informal agreements, with only a few players surreptitiously being included in lineups on a sporadic basis. The major leagues had a color barrier that lasted until 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his debut, the theme of 42.

In the mid-I800s African American baseball players had their own leagues throughout the country, mostly in the northeast and Midwestern states, apart from the all-White Majors. By the late 1800s a few Black men played on integrated teams or on Black teams that com­peted in integrated leagues, but by the 20th century segregation was almost absolute. I encourage you to watch this marvelous, funny film of The Clowns entertaining the crowd before the game began. They were great athletes as well as popular entertainers and twice won the league’s Eastern Division title.

Watching 42 and being continually upset by the rude, nasty treatment Jackie Robinson, his wife and Black sports writer Wendell Smith received in dealing with White people in ordinary life situations, by the all-White team’s personal rejection of Robinson and the injustice perpetuated against him during the games – I cannot revisit the movie. Instead, I quote this from Steven Jonas: “As is well known, Robinson was chosen by the Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey as much for his potential to be able to stand up — in total silence — to the racism that Rickey knew would be hurled at him in that first year, as for his intelligence and his projected baseball ability. The movie shows: the racist taunts from the stands that greeted Robinson in every ball park he played in (including in the beginning, the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field); the whole team being thrown off a plane in the South by a reservationist because Jackie’s wife, Rachel Robinson, had the nerve to use the “white” rest-room at the terminal; Enos Slaughter’s intentional spiking of Robinson in a play at first base; Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, standing in front of his team’s dugout hurling racist slander at Robinson when he was at bat; Dixie Walker of the Dodgers, who started a petition trying to get other players to boycott the game whenever Robinson played (the petition got nowhere and Walker, who happened to be a fine outfielder, was traded away by Rickey the following year); Fritz Ostermueller, a pitcher for the Dodgers who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates during that first season by Rickey in part because of his racist attitude towards Robinson, and then as a Pirate went on to bean Robinson long before any baseball players wore helmets.” And that’s far from all of the nastiness shown.

Here for an intelligent comment by Dave Zirin on the film and on Jackie Robinson as a civil rights leader.

The photograph is of Jackie Robinson with civil rights leaders Thurgood Marshall, Justice of the Supreme Court, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Rachel Robinson, a strong ally for her husband, went on, after his untimely death, into a distinguished career in health care, begun with a UCLA bachelor’s degree in nursing before they married, followed later by further degrees and high positions held, as well as establishing a business and using the proceeds to further children’s education. Her accomplishments and the honors she received are many and varied.

What has changed since the White response in 1973 to Hank Aaron’s outstanding performance? For this I turned to the National Football League because American football has replaced baseball as the nation’s favorite team sport. In the NFL some 70% of the players are Black, but it has only eight minority men in the key role of head coach, and that thanks in part of a diversity mandate called the Rooney Rule. Among the thirty-two NFL teams, thirty are owned by White men, two by men of color. None of the team owners are Black.

Consider this fascinating psychological analysis from the Scientific American of the widespread anger and coverage in newspapers over the action taken by one Black player who in 2016 bent down on one knee at the beginning of the game during the national anthem ritual to silently, peacefully protest the frequent acts of violence against Black men taken by police officers across the country.  “It matters that most of the athletes are Black and much of the audience is White, that the ancestors of one group were brought here as slaves and the ancestors of the other were their owners. That’s why, when Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the locker room as the anthem played, one Pennsylvania police chief called their coach a “no good n*****” on Facebook, amplifying the racial themes of the debate. That’s why Michigan’s police director called them “degenerates.” (n***** means nigger for a Black person, a word so hateful that people should not say it.)

From the New Yorker — A year later, in a game in London, twenty-seven players from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens dropped down and took a knee on the field as “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to swell. According to the Guardian, “there did not appear to be any White players taking a knee.” Standing above the downturned heads of the kneelers, a number of players and coaches interlocked arms. Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jaguars, who donated a million dollars to President Trump’s Inauguration, threaded himself between the tight end Marcedes Lewis and the linebacker Telvin Smith, both of whom are Black. “Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms—race, faith, our views, and our goals,” Khan said later in a statement. The sports commentator Art Stapleton tweeted that the image of Khan among his men was “powerful.”

Trump openly bullied the Black players who joined the protest by taking the knee, called on the National Football League owners to fire them and encouraged fans to walk out. His language was unbelievably crude, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!” Furthermore, as if the athletes were our modern gladiators, he claimed that new NFL safety rules meant to protect players are ruining the game, and this despite research indicating that NFL players are at high risk for concussions and for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),

Enough on sports teams and political implications. Clearly, integrating Black athletes into professional sports is a positive change in our social order but I have no idea of its overall meaning, other than providing better jobs for talented athletes. Despite important advances having been made in civil rights our communities remain racially segregated and still far from equal in income, wealth or status. As for the Invictus story, it is heartwarming and Mandela did pacify the Afrikaners, bringing them into the government while holding his coalition together, but I doubt that the rugby team’s activities really changed for very long the way Afrikaners and Bantu felt, still feel and act toward one together.

A note – I have a second personal connection with baseball.

I remember my grandfather in the 1930s and ‘40s listening to baseball games on the radio, knowing all the teams, all the players and all the game statistics. When twelve years old I lived in Canonsburg, the town where I was born, and twice an older man, on seeing me, recalled Granddad and told me he had been a great baseball player in the town’s team. (Do towns still have their own sports team? I know of none.) The story was that the Pittsburg Pirates had recruited Granddad but Grandmother said that if he became a professional player she would not marry him, so he stopped playing baseball altogether. The photograph is from a 1918 newspaper. Granddad is in the second row, second from the left.

 

 

 

After posting my thoughts and observations on Invictus I could not stop thinking about South Africa and all I had read of its history. Then my son, Arun, called and we fell into a long conversation on Mandela and the three blog posts he had written. In the first post he wrote of himself in 1974 (my boy grown tall, towering over me).

Nelson Mandela 2008

“… I first heard about Mandela in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. …”

In his second blog post on Mandela, he wrote of a documentary film, Plot for Peace, that “… tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end. …” Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website   …     ”

His third Mandela blog post is on a biopic, Mandela, a Long Walk to Freedom,which he considered “ … acceptable. It’s engaging enough and with its strengths, though is not perfect. Squeezing the high points of a life such as that of Nelson Mandela into a 2¼ hour film would be a challenge for even the best of screenwriters and directors. …” He liked the review by Uris Avnery, as did I.

During our back and forth on South Africa I told Arun that reading about the Afrikaners had me thinking about “nationalists.” It bothers me that our President calls himself a nationalist. The American alt-right political groups call themselves nationalists when in fact they are White Nationalists, racists protecting their White privilege within our racially and ethnically diverse American nation, citizens committed to the Constitution. The Afrikaners who devised and enforced apartheid were 19th century nationalists. They believed then, and probably still believe, that the world’s people are naturally divided into nations, each nation being people who share a language, a culture, a history, physical traits, and excluding all other peoples, own a territory in which they self-govern. i.e. the nation-state. (It’s an up-graded form of tribalism.)

Routes of the largest trekking parties during the first wave of the Great Trek (1835-1840) along with key battles and events

When the Dutch, the future Afrikaners, arrived in present-day Cape Town in the 17th century, they saw the land as empty, as theirs for the taking, to farm with slaves brought in from S.E. Asia. When the Cape came under British rule in the 19th century and slavery was outlawed, up to 14,000 Afrikaners choose to make a Great Trek north, a difficult movement of families in covered wagons that ended in Natal with settling on land taken in war with the Ndebele and from the Zulu. An Afrikaner religious holiday celebrates the 1838 Trekkers victory over the Zulu.

Beginning in 1886, farming ceased being the country’s main industry. Diamonds had been discovered near Kimberly and the world’s largest gold rush ever began, the Witwatersrand gold rush, followed by the mining of minerals, of coal and iron ore, all of which created jobs for a very large number of both White and Black workers. It meant the growth of cities and urbanization of the Bantu people, of their taking on a South African identity beyond their tribal identities.

In 1934, the country became a dominion within the British Empire. In 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated government instituted apartheid, the enforced separation of races, using all means of persuasion and violence to convince the Black majority that they were separate nations and must reside in, become citizens of, several self-governing territories, the Bantustans. In cities, residential segregation was strictly enforced, with Africans living in “townships.” The British remained separate from Afrikaners but were accepted within the ruling affluent White upper caste. In 1961 the country became the Republic of South Africa. In 1994, Mandela was elected President and apartheid ended.

I liked the way Arun ended his first blog post on Mandela. He wrote that the level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime, that the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it, and quoting from an expert on South Africa’s apartheid, he continued with —  “An organized group of Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, were hostile to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. They were heavily armed and ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. However, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.”

Cry Freedom gives an authentic picture of life under apartheid during the late 1970s – of the Afrikaners’ pride in their history, of the British White subculture, of how apartheid affected the lives of both Blacks and Whites who protested, of police violence and the people’s suffering. We see Kevin Klein as Donald Woods, British South African family man in his forties, Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper critical of the South African government, and Denzel Washington as Steve Biko, Xhosa, a charismatic anti-apartheid activist, tall, handsome, fearless, brilliant, unusually gifted, a writer and highly effective speaker. The Director is Richard Attenborough.

Roger Ebert reviewed the movie in 1987 and complained, as did other reviewers, that the movie promises to be an honest account of the turmoil in South Africa but focuses instead on White people. “ ,,, Whites occupy the foreground and establish the terms of the discussion, while the 80 percent non-white majority remains a shadowy, half-seen presence in the background. Yet “Cry Freedom” is a sincere and valuable movie, and despite my fundamental reservations about it, I think it probably should be seen. – and — Although everybody has heard about apartheid and South Africa remains a favorite subject of campus protest, few people have an accurate mental picture of what the country actually looks and feels like. It is an issue, not a place, and “Cry Freedom” helps to visualize it. …”

Here for a detailed account of the movie’s plot. Additionally, excellent background information is provided on Biko uniting Black community organizations, student groups and unions under the Black People’s Convention, and his social work approach to resisting apartheid. It is noted that the reviewers praised the acting and the crowd scenes but considered the movie, negatively, as a White man’s story. Some discussed it as a White Savior film, but I would not include Cry Freedom in that genre. The movie is, after all, based on a book written by a White South African journalist on how the apartheid government acted against him and his family as well as against Steve Biko. Woods the journalist is naturally in scenes that show the Afrikaner political framework, political personnel and policy, that present Afrikaner history and Afrikaner mindset, but most of the movie is about Woods and Biko, two men of equal stature from opposite sides of the society becoming friends, both influenced and aided by the Catholic Church. (Bishop Desmond Tutu at that time was a priest in the Anglican Church based in the independent states of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, formerly British Protectorates.) Biko and Woods are shown working against apartheid while each is under house arrest, each banned from meeting with more than one person at a time, each being guarded and spied upon by government agents to prevent him from writing, from publishing anything he had already written. The police murdered Biko and were arranging prison or worse for Woods.

Unfortunately, the movie’s ending, while based on what actually happened, is over-long, gets lost in the complexities of South Africa’s unusual governmental structure, and is all about Woods. He and family had to escape from South Africa but a more fitting denouement for the story could have been devised.

Invictus had me puzzling over the nature of South African society and its history, over Afrikaner nationalism, the current rise of nationalism and White nationalism. Cry Freedom touches on another issue that has become part of life today in the U.S. – a serious concern for freedom of the press and the future of our democracy. It was the press getting information about South Africa out to the world that finally brought apartheid to an end. While watching the movie I wished for more emphasis on the role a free press played in fighting an authoritarian police state, in rallying moral outrage internationally to bring down apartheid and pave the way for Mandela to become President of a democratic government.

Regarding Steve Biko and the importance in his life of a steady flow of information from the outside world — South Africa today has one of Africa’s worst school systems. Under apartheid schools for Black children were few, nearly non-existent, but Biko was fortunate. He attended the Church of Scotland’s Lovedale education and training institute in Eastern Cape Province, Xhosa homeland and near East London. He continued on to study medicine at the University of Natal and there joined the National Union of South African Students, an organization dominated by well-intentioned White liberals who were polite with their few Black members but, as Biko realized, could never understand the experience and needs of the Black majority. He left the organization and became a leader in the Black Africans Students’ Organization, (“Black”meaning Bantu, Coloured and Indian) whose official ideology was Black Consciousness, known to South African students from the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois, an American scholar.

By the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation.

Biko read widely and was influenced, as were many revolutionaries, by Frantz Fanon, the famous physician, psychologist and philosopher from Martinique who lived and worked in France. (Ravi and I were familiar with one of Fanon’s many books, his 1961 The Wretched of the Earth.) In the movie, Biko is shown in a trial setting using the words “Black” and “White” to designate South Africans of non-European and/or European descent, and states that Black is Beautiful, a phrase from the African-American Black Power movement, which he obviously had been following, all without any indication in the movie that he was knowledgeable about what was happening in race relations across the world.

Biko is known as leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, so I tried writing its meaning in a brief statement, in a sentence or two, but found the ideas it encompasses too complex for that. Biko’s Black Consciousness did entail, though, the Bantu people and other non-Whites in South Africa taking pride in their own identities, feeling equal to the Whites, taking charge of themselves and their communities and letting the White society and government know they planned to peacefully bring about change. Most Afrikaners and some British saw it as a threat to their way of life.

Part of the Biko-Woods friendship evolved from their sharing and discussing the philosophies that underlay their opposition to apartheid. For example, from an obituary of Wendy Woods, one very much worth reading, “ … Wendy went to visit Biko during one of his terms in prison – this time for “defeating the ends of justice”. On being told that “whites never visit blacks in jail”, she demanded to see the commandant. Biko was brought in, angry and withdrawn. His face lit up on seeing Wendy, but with the jailers in the room he adopted his usual stony approach of drawing a veil between himself and his interrogators. Wendy handed him George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and left.”

Biko’s coffin featured the motif of a clenched black fist. Many in the Black Consciousness Movement used this fist as a symbol.

Steve Biko. Stained glass window by Daan Wildschut in the Saint Anna Church, Heerlen (the Netherlands), ca. 1976. One of 12 modern saints and martyrs.

A trailer for Cry Freedom has the Woods-Biko friendship as the movie’s theme. I think about how the story could have been structured with freedom of the press and democracy as its theme. In the movie, Wendy questions her husband about writing a book on Biko, and I cannot remember his response. I can, though, think of what it should have been. I am struck by the religious nature of both the men, both affiliated with a church and each grounded in humanitarian concerns. The ANC was political, a fight for Blacks to participate in government; the Black Consciousness Movement insisted on the equality and the equal rights of all persons, no matter what their race or ethnicity, and that this be recognized and officially accepted. Equality and equal rights are the very basis of a democratic government. Biko led a moral crusade and was made known to a world-wide public through Woods’ writing and international advocacy. For Black South Africans, Biko died as a saint.

Perhaps the press as an instrument for democracy in this setting would be difficult to write into the movie’s action and dialogue, but a knowledgeable and skillful screenwriter could do it. In Marshall, the screenwriters, Michael Koskoff, a lawyer, and his son Jacob, a professional screenwriter, dramatized the action and dialogue of that movie in such a way that I learned from it as well as being entertained.

 

 

Nelson Mandela 2008

Recently, while browsing through movie reviews, I discovered Invictusmade when Obama was in office, and decided I must see it, just to take my mind off our current egotistical, demented President and our painfully, increasingly divisive politics. I needed the comfort of watching a noble President actively bringing factions of his divided society together, beginning the formation of a united nation. And the movie worked for me. Watching it changed my mood, at least for a while. Nelson Mandela was such a wonderful human being and the incidents in the story actually happened. For me Invictus is a feel-good movie.

Robert Ebert called Invictus a very good movie, a great entertainment. Do read his review. It is Ebert at his best. He gives Clint Eastwood high praise as a Director, considers Morgan Freeman splendid as Mandela and Matt Damon effective as the rugby team captain, Francois Pienaar, who is Afrikaner, the son of an ordinary racist family, totally loyal to his team of White men with their one Black player, Chester Williams, while still considering Mandela “the greatest man I’ve ever met.” The rugby team and the rugby matches become a metaphor for the important principle underlying a truly critical institution of that era, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like restorative justice body that Mandela was instrumental in assembling after Apartheid ended – but more of that below. Significant, too, were scenes showing how the security guards covering Mandela, a unit of tough Afrikaner cops and hard-line activists from Mandela’s ANC, learned to work together.

The background given in the movie for understanding the plot is fairly minimal. Filming began in March 2009 in Cape Town. We see city scenes, poverty-ridden rural townships and the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The game was filmed where the actual game was played, in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. In one sequence, we watch Pienaar and the team visiting the prison on Robben Island where Mandela was kept for 18 years in an 8-foot by 7-foot concrete cell with little more in it than the straw mat he slept on. He had been arrested and imprisoned for life in 1963, at age 45, held in that cell, isolated, controlled, alone except for prison guards and other prisoners, then shifted to other prisons for an additional 9 years and released on Feb. 2, 1990, at age 72.

And what was Mandela’s crime? He was a leader in the ANC, the African National Congress, an organization peacefully protesting Apartheid, the Afrikaner government’s elaborate and extreme system of racial segregation and White supremacy begun in 1948 and continued into the early 1990s. A South African friend of British background and approving of Mandela still felt he had to point out to me that the ANC had committed acts of violence. In 1960, in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, after being banned from South Africa, the ANC had organized a militant arm, the uMkhonto we Sizwe, the MK. Its mission was to actively fight the government’s violence against Black Africans. An account of Mandela’s role in the MK and the bombings is here. Politically significant, as well, for government officials jailing Mandela may have been that although he was not a communist he had worked with the Communist party in certain protest activities. At the Rivonia trial held for him and his fellow activists in 1962, he stated, at length, his political philosophy, basically the same as that under which he later governed.

Watching the movie, I knew little about South Africa other than what I had learned from my first conversation with Ravi (noted here in an earlier essay). It was on Satyagraha, nonviolent protest, developed by Mahatma Gandhi and used in 1906 to protest the then British colony of Transvaal compelling Indians and Chinese to register with the government. (Mandela adopted Gandhi’s non-violent protest.) During the years when Ravi and I were living abroad and traveling extensively, we never considered visiting the Union of South Africa; under Apartheid, mixed marriages like ours were illegal.

To understand what Mandela had accomplished I wanted to know more about South Africa so I first, as is my way, turned to discovering the country’s ethnic groups, their histories plus the relationships between them, and after that looked for basic information on what South Africa is like today. It has been fascinating. The nation is unique in the way multiple and very different ethnicities came together within historic times to become the Republic of South Africa.

 

The San

Of course, the San, hunter-gatherers, were the indigenous people, the first human inhabitants ever of South Africa, eventually to be pushed into remote areas, such as northern Botswana, by peoples at the end point of a southward movement from Central Africa, from in or near today’s Nigeria, begun in about 1000 B.C.E. The first of these migrating peoples to arrive in the present South Africa, in about 1000 C.E, were the Khoikhoi, hunter-gatherers related linguistically to the San but also keeping cattle, sheep and goats.

By the 1500s pastoral farmers were established on the land. They were tribes speaking a Bantu language, with an Iron Age technology for tools and weapons, the women growing millet and sorghum, the men keeping herds of cattle. They are the dominant ethnics today, of whom the Xhosa and Zulu are most familiar to an outsider like me. (Mandela is Xhosa.)

The Dutch and Khoikhoi meet

The first migration in of Whites, the Boers, European farmers, encouraged by the Cape Town based Dutch East India Company, began in 1652. The British farmers came in 1820. Other recognized ethnics are the Cape Coloured (mixed White-African-Malay), the Cape Malays and the Indian South Africans.

The World Bank classifies South Africa as having an upper-middle-income economy and being a newly industrialized country, the only such country in Africa. However, poverty and inequality remain widespread, with high unemployment. Blacks are now 80% of the population and the Whites, concentrated in the cities’ higher income areas, about 10%, maybe fewer. Over 65% of the people live in the modern cities, with poor people on their outskirts still lacking a sewage system, clean water, electricity, access to health clinics. Nevertheless, there are schools. The adult literacy rate is 95%. Another statistic I use for insight into a country’s modernization or general well-being is its total fertility rate, broadly the number of children the average woman will have. In most developed countries, the number is under 2. For most countries in Africa, the numbers are high, dangerously high for economic development and quality of life in general.  In 2017, in South Africa it was 2.29, still high for a country of that development level. It would be lower if the country’s wealth were more equally shared among its citizens, but at least it is approaching the number of children per woman in developed countries.

I tried summarizing more of what I learned about South African society, reading and reflecting to understand how and why it holds together, but found the writing too time-consuming and the essay that would result too lengthy for a blog post. I can only state in conclusion that Invictus is well-done, enjoyable and presents a fair view of South Africa for the time in which the story is set.