On Tyranny — and Anti-Tyranny

Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images

Everybody knew one: the bully kid you couldn’t avoid; the neighborhood tyrant.

When I was six, little Beverly Ann Brooks was queen. Everybody deferred to Beverly Ann. When pushed against, she had only to say, “Well, I quit,” the ultimatum that ended any game (or whatever) unless the rest of us immediately caved. That was the usual case. One day, however, my sister Mimi – Beverly Ann’s age, they were a grade above me – reached her limit. She positioned herself in front of Our Leader, placed her balled-up fists on her hips and said, “Well, quit then, Bev’ly Ann.” You can see why Mimi was my lifelong heroine. Furthermore, the tactic worked. The rest of us figuratively turned and walked away, and leadership became at least slightly more communal for the rest of the summer.

This essay is not just about tyrants on the political front, several of whom probably come to mind. (It was satisfying though, after years of watching everything I hold dear fall to one super-bully senator who will remain nameless, to see Chuck Schumer turn out to be a modern-day Mimi. At least for a while.)

I worry that we are turning into a country of mini-tyrants. Not just about laws and masks and vaccines (whereupon no amount of authoritarian edicts seem to work very well anyway) but about all manner of other things, from who gets to go where in person to why one rule is good and another the work of the devil. The dictionary definition (a few of us still keep a dictionary on the bookshelf, just because…) of a tyrant settles on “cruel and oppressive.” There seem to be cruel oppressors around at every turn. Would it not be lovely to replace a little tyranny with some old-fashioned negotiation? Negotiation seems eventually to become either too contentious or not worth bothering with – which clears the field for the tyrant. This does not seem to bode well even for tyranny, because so many tyrants are left to preside over scorched earth and a lot of dead bodies.

So what’s to be done? The best books on the subject (which I have not read, I’ve only been studying excerpts and what do I know?) advise things like standing your ground and giving the appearance of being confident. This is supposed to work for the bullied and the tyrannized, as was true for Mimi and (briefly) Chuck Schumer. Now, if we the bullied and tyrannized could figure out how to stand our ground without punching the other guy out, that would be an excellent first step.

We are also advised to try to understand the bullyer. This may be why Mary Trump’s books are selling so well, but I’m trying not to focus on the former Bully in Chief. In fact, just a rudimentary knowledge of money and power makes understanding political tyrants too easy, so this essay will focus on the local citizenry.

After standing one’s ground and trying empathy or understanding, advice turns to walking away, and/or modeling better behavior – think kindness, humor, those sorts of quaint behaviors that came naturally in pre-pandemic times. Actually, I tested this one out a few weeks ago. Caught in a sudden heated argument about outdoor restaurants, it was two against one – I love the outdoor eateries, they just hate them all because they’re unsightly and  usurp precious urban parking spaces and should be immediately outlawed. Facing the loss of both argument and friends I came up with an alternative. “Okay, okay,” I said with my sweetest smile. “I’ll go with banning everybody unless they serve ice cream sundaes with caramel sauce and extra whip at discount prices, any hour of the day.” My adversaries may not substitute that for the ordinance they’re proposing to introduce, but at least we parted friends.

And that’s all I hope for. A little less tyranny, a little more friendship.


Mob Violence – Is it here to stay forever?

A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES

Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.

A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.  

“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.

“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.

“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.

“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”

Photo by Terri Windling

My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”

The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:

“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.

No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.

Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.

Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.      

A Jury of Our Peers

CHAUVIN’S – – AND OTHER JURIES

Twelve of our fellow citizens quietly did their civic duty in Minneapolis. Beginning March 29 and ending April 20 they listened to more details of a terrible crime than most of us could handle. They debated among themselves for what had to have been one very long day before delivering the verdict that former police officer Derek Chauvin was guilty of murder.

Sometimes the system works.

I would not have traded jobs with one of those jurors for any 5 minutes of the weeks they gave up to be good citizens, but I appreciate them beyond measure. And I am somewhat in awe of their simple ordinariness. Despite all the pundits and politicians and earnest activists laboring for justice, in the end it was the hard work of twelve committed citizens that offered this small celebration of democracy at work.

They were: A 20-something white man, a chemist. A 20-something woman of mixed race with a policeman uncle. A 30-something white man, a financial auditor. A 30-something Black man who immigrated to our country 14 years ago. A 50-something white woman, a health care executive. A 30-something Black man who writes poetry and coaches youth sports. A 50-something, motorcycle-riding white woman. A 40-something Black man who lives in the suburbs. A 40-something multiracial woman who works as a corporate consultant. A 50-something white woman, a nurse who’s worked with Covid-19 patients. A 60-something Black woman, a grandmother who said, “I am Black, and my life matters.” A 40-something white woman who works in the insurance industry. A 50-something white woman who volunteers at homeless shelters. And a 20-something, recently married white woman, a social worker. Any one of them might have been you or me, and I wonder if we’d have done as good a job. Or if we’d have found a way to avoid giving up a month of our lives for this job.

Over my very long life of trying to be a good citizen I’ve been in countless jury pools and served on a dozen or so juries in Virginia, Georgia, Florida and California. Never one deliberating anything like this. I did serve on one murder jury at which I found myself weirdly sympathetic to the defendant. He said he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t his fault. But I’m afraid the guy did commit murder and in the end we reached a unanimous conclusion to that effect. He went to jail for many years but I suspect he’s out by now. Most of the cases I heard, on one jury or another, had moments of boredom beyond belief, usually thanks to attorneys who seemed enamored of the sounds of their own voices, but I never dozed off. I fudged a little once to escape the jury pool for a corporate case that was predicted to last six months. I was so furious about those corporations ready to disrupt the lives of all those good citizens over an issue they should’ve settled themselves that I could not have remained objective about anything.

Armand Roy for Pixels

Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote a blog about what turned out to be my final jury experience. The attorneys were making their final pitches to a whittled-down group from which the jury was being chosen.

Here’s what the deal seemed to be: A woman had been abused by a guy. It wasn’t rape; it seemed to be everything else. Kidnapping with intent to commit rape. Attempted rape. Even attempted arousal for purposes of who knows what. The trial, if the judge’s overview was any indication, would turn on who you believed, and how far is too far. In the 1950s, when I had my own trials (physical/emotional, not judicial) with date rape/workplace rape of this exact sort, women had little power and less choice. Today it can come down to who has real power and who has real choice. Did she really go somewhere with him willingly? Did she say No? Did he listen?

Sorry guys, unless she’s 6′ tall and outweighs him by 40 pounds, I am going to lean toward the lady. What I wanted to say was: “You do not want me on this jury.” Handily I was caregiver for a disabled husband; I begged hardship exemption. Because I soon aged out of the Report-for-Jury-Duty lists, that was my last chance at this particular exercise of good citizenship.

But thank heaven for the good citizens who gave up a month of their lives to form a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers. As for their decision, “I don’t see how it could have been otherwise,” one observer famously remarked, “but I know it could have been otherwise.”

Watching History Eerily Repeat

Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

We’ve seen this movie before:

A newly elected president is on his way to Washington to be inaugurated. The results of the election have been certified by electors in all the states, and are waiting in two boxes to be read aloud by the sitting vice president – a mere formality. But word has gotten out to thousands of Americans who vehemently oppose the new president and they are determined their candidate should be the one going to the White House. So on they come, storming toward the Capitol to take it over and reverse the outcome of the election. Many of them are armed – and they are a determined, angry mob.

This was one hundred and sixty years ago. That president was Abraham Lincoln, the man Republicans point to when they speak of being “the party of Lincoln.”

Earlier presidential advisors

The Capitol survived that time, thanks to a vice president who protected the electoral college boxes despite knowing he would be announcing his own loss. (More than a few people were concerned he might be tempted to destroy them, or be set upon by someone who would make off with the boxes.) That vice president was Kentucky Democrat John C. Breckinridge; he was expelled from the Senate after siding with the Confederacy, which he later served as Secretary of War.

The Capitol was only lightly defended. The mob might easily have succeeded in taking it over, and lives would definitely have been lost. But there was another man who had opposed the newly-elected president and lamented the outcome of the election – but didn’t want to see the Capitol, or his country, destroyed. He was General Winfield Scott, also known as Old Fuss & Feathers (he was picky about military etiquette) and as the Grand Old Man of the Army. He was old, too obese to get on his horse, and a native of the soon-to-be secessionist state of Virginia; but a patriot. Fortunately he also happened to have his own militia, so he dispatched it to protect the seat of democracy.

Thus, 160 years ago, democracy survived a close encounter. Full disclosure: absolutely none of this came from a store of knowledge in my aging brain. Most of it comes from historian Ted Widmer’s excellent book Lincoln on the Verge. It was published about six months before history repeated itself in Washington.

We’re living through another painful repetition, with more than a few lessons to be learned:

“Hospitals unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients. Political leaders taking to their beds. The morgues overflowing. This isn’t Milan, London or New York during the 2020 coronavirus crisis. It was Paris in 1832 during the great cholera pandemic.” Thus wrote Time Magazine’s Maurice Samuels in the May 15, 2020 issue. (This was before we had a president working to address the problem.)

Others have pointed to earlier pandemics, their similarity to the covid-19 crisis and the ways they were or were not well handled. I’m old enough to have watched a cousin and several friends be stricken with polio; they would suffer the effects throughout their lives. I also remember the immense national relief when the Salk vaccine was developed. It was a painless little drop on a sugar cube; but to the consternation of government and public health officials, many Americans still feared the vaccine more than the disease. That virus was eventually eradicated in the U.S., but remains endemic in several parts of the world – perhaps as a reminder that we cannot close ourselves off and expect to be covid-free forever.

Another authoritarian leader may one day reach the White House; another virus will surely be roaming the globe. Here’s to lessons of history being learned and remembered.  

A Love Letter to Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural on U Street NW, Washington, DC USA – Artist Rose Jaffe IG:Rose_Inks
(Ted Eytan, Creative Commons)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg and I were born the same year. 1933. It was a good year for music (Willie Nelson, James Brown . . ,) the arts (Tim Conway, Carol Burnett . . ,) literature (David McCullough, Reynolds Price . . .)  Unfortunately, our birth year is about the only thing I have in common with the Notorious RBG. I would happily have given her six or eight of however many remaining months I have, if life only worked that way.

Since life doesn’t work that way, here is a post-mortem thank-you note.

Shadow selfie with chalk tribute in Lafayette Park

Thank you for opening doors for women’s education. I spent some happy weekends at the Virginia Military Institute in the early 1950s, when I could visit for dates but could not have even gotten an application for admission. Your persuasive argument in  United States v. Virginia’s 7-1 ruling (1996) changed all that. In the words of historian Richard Morris, “VMI’s story continued as our comprehension of ‘We the People’ expanded.” We the female people are grateful.

Thanks also to you (and Marty!) for demonstrating how real romance and marriage can thrive and endure. It took a lot of pioneering to get past the unwritten rule that running the home and family were strictly woman’s work, even if she also worked fulltime outside the home. I don’t recall my husband ever changing a diaper in the upbringing years of three children. And doing all the cooking? Sheesh. But that seems almost quaint to recall now.

We lost the 2014 battle with Hobby Lobby, but thanks for your blistering dissent. You spoke for women everywhere, and not a few reasonable men, in writing that “the court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” You noted, accurately, that the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act was vital to women’s health and reproductive freedom. And heaven knows women’s health and reproductive freedom will suffer your loss.

Thanks for always standing up for people with disabilities (1990 and other times.)

The environment thanks you for decisions like the one, in 2000, in favor of Friends of the Earth.

Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

We – that is, We the People – lost again with the Bush v Gore mess in 2000, in which you so eloquently dissented, observing that the “conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States.” We lost once more with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, which you noted in your dissent that throwing out preclearance “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

So here we are, facing another presidential elections, shredded umbrellas raised, in the most bizarre of times, on our own.

We sure could use you now, Notorious RBG, but thanks for showing us how to fight the good fight.

This essay first appeared on Medium.com

Give Me Your Tired . . . Your Desperate

Jose is a fresh-faced 23-year-old with a shy smile that sometimes breaks through. When word slipped out that he is gay, he began getting death threats from members of his extended family who consider homosexuality a sin and his existence a blot on the family. After one particularly scary near-miss attempt on his life, Jose left his native Colombia for the long and treacherous journey to the U.S.

Maria fled an abusive husband whose beatings had twice landed her in the hospital. Both times (and other times) she had sought refuge with family, but he had quickly found her. She said he was a member of the gang that controlled their area. After one final night of terror, she left El Salvador with little more than the clothes she was wearing to begin the perilous trek to a country where she thought she could find safety.

These are the only two asylum-seekers I personally (although only remotely) know. I would not be surprised, though, if they were in multiple ways representative of the hundreds of asylum seekers now held (many of them separated from their children) in a federal detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, or waiting under pretty terrible conditions in Mexico for the slim chance of being granted asylum in the U.S.

Our government isn’t making their path any easier, but Jose and Maria and other desperate asylum seekers do have allies. If you simply think the U.S. should get out of the asylum-granting business, don’t waste your time reading any further. But if you feel a modicum of sympathy for people like these, read on.  

In case you missed this, Virtual Advocacy Days for Asylum happened July 14-16. In brief, it was a group effort, on the part of a number of individuals – I think there were thousands of us, but I’ve not seen a final report – to do something to help the countless, nameless people seeking asylum in these United States. Something about that ‘Give me your tired, your poor – and maybe your desperate too’ idea. The effort was to advocate “for restoring life-saving asylum protections and defunding harmful asylum policies,” the website explained. “Our goal is to ensure that Members of Congress are educated about the administration’s systematic attacks on the asylum system that has resulted in a complex web of harm against asylum seekers.” Virtual Advocacy Days for Asylum were sponsored by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, a partnership of faith-based organizations “committed to enacting fair and humane immigration reform that reflects our mandate to welcome the stranger and treat all human beings with dignity and respect.”

Immediate disclosure! My part in this was so teeny as to be invisible (a few calls and letters to Members of Congress.) It just feels infinitely warmer to write “us” rather than “them.” But my remarkable friend Ally McKinney Timm, Executive Director of DC-based Justice Revival, was out there on the front lines meeting with congressional staffers and “influencers,” distributing materials, and alerting people like me that there are ways to help. There still are.

How? Lovely of you to ask. There are currently four pieces of pro-asylum legislation being considered by the House and Senate. There are also anti-asylum policies in place that you might want to help change. I do not pretend to understand all the nuances of U.S, policies or immigration laws – or even to have carefully read through the four bills. But I know innocent people are suffering. The Virtual Advocacy Days are past, but the ways to advocate remain, explained in one clear and simple page, for anyone interested.

This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a good site for ideas and information where I’ve been happy to write in recent months. You might want to check it out.

Can Anti-Racism Win This Round?

SIGNS OF HOPE TRANSCEND FAILURES OF HISTORY

Gathering on the Decatur Square, June 2020

We eye each other warily, a group of six adults: two young white women, two older men – one white, one black, one young black woman and one grandmotherly black woman. We live within approximately the same one-mile city area, but beyond a passing acquaintance with the other young white woman I have never met any members of my group. We are one of a dozen similar groups spaced out in the city recreation center auditorium. We’re there at the invitation of the city and a loosely-organized interfaith group, in response to interracial tensions we hope to calm. Perhaps even heal.

After going around the circle introducing ourselves we look at the hand-outs we’ve been given on arrival. The sheets say things like, What would you like to know about others in your group? What would you like them to know about you? Do you have thoughts or questions about the changes that are happening? Please share.

We begin with carefully edited stories of who we are. Within a very short time, though – it’s the 60-something black man who issues the first challenge – our conversations become more raw and our stories closer to the truth. My initial enthusiastic openness quickly turns into defense and self-doubt, tinged with fear. But this is the first of what will be many talks, many tears, and small victories. We believe things are changing. Not without pain, and not as fast or as far as we wish, but all of our eyes are a little more open and there’s optimism all around. Despite so much turmoil here and everywhere, the future holds promise of better days.

But this is not 2020. The above happened in 1964 in Decatur, Georgia, a decade after Brown v Board of Education officially ended segregated schools – it had taken that long for the Supreme Court decision to work its way into reality in my town. I was pregnant with my youngest child, who would go from first grade to high school graduation, unlike her two older siblings, without ever being in an all-white classroom.

In that and subsequent gatherings we eventually got comfortable with each other. A neighbor of the young black woman would become a friend and colleague, and later the first African American Mayor of Decatur. I went on with my life, satisfied that the world was getting better. I eventually moved to San Francisco where everything felt, if not exactly like the Summer of Love, at least like a confirmation that love would prevail. I joined interfaith vigils after senseless murders of young black men. My church hung a Black Lives Matter banner next to its rainbow flag and All Are Welcome proclamations; we became a Sanctuary community, with energetic fellow members going to work in behalf of those seeking asylum and refuge. Even though the federal government seemed usually to be working against what I see as justice, I was certain we were on the right path and that justice would prevail.

Decatur Protesters, June 2020

Then came 2020.

How did I get it wrong for nearly sixty years?

The answer may be in Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist. Too many people, especially white allies of black and brown justice movements in which I’ve been so comfortable most of my adult life, self-identify as “not racist,” and then figure all is well, Kendi said in a recent PBS NewsHour interview. But “the opposite of racist isn’t not-racist,” he says; “it’s anti-racist.” Kendi kept returning to the word “policy.” The need to re-imagine policy, the “striving for policies” that will indeed bring justice. I think, in these past nearly sixty years, I may have fallen a little behind in the policy area. That business of getting policies enacted at the local, state and federal level. Sixty years of good will did not necessarily equate to justice.

Ibram Kendi is an historian, a professor of history and international relations, a leading anti-racist voice and the youngest ever (at 34) winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016 for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. While I was working on this piece my very wise daughter-in-law posted a link to a podcast Kendi recently did with professor/lecturer Brene’ Brown featuring this tagline: The heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, admission, acknowledgment, the willingness to be vulnerable, and the willingness to identify the times we are being racist. In that podcast Kendi again often invokes the policy word.

I think I know what I got wrong. Maybe not the confession, admission, acknowledgment, even willingness to be vulnerable – but too little attention to what’s going on in the policy area. Policies at every level have got to change. The good news is, I believe this is beginning to happen. Abolishment of choke-holds and no-knock invasions are a step in the right direction; if Georgia cleans up its voter suppression efforts it could set a lovely example for other states where voter suppression is just another reality.

For those of us proud citizens of progressive California, the sight of police officers in Oakland kneeling alongside the protesters seemed an optimistic start. But one of the most eloquent statements of the nationwide white/black/old/young determination to change was pictured online, posted on Facebook by my granddaughter and even appeared on an inside page of the New York Times print edition last week. It’s a group of thousands of citizens of all ages and races quietly, peacefully demonstrating – in downtown Decatur, Georgia.

My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

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