Matisse’s Icarus: Fall From the Sun

I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago that my student Courtney sent two postcards, and the second arrived before the first. I received the first postcard today!

It appropriately detailed (as much as can be squeezed onto a postcard) her early musings about her life in France. And it features one of my favorite French artists, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse.

Henri Matisse, “La Chute d’Icare”

If you’ve been following my blog for at least a few years, you might remember my sharing the work of 16 little Matisses that imitate his collage style.

La Chute d’Icare [The Fall of Icarus], from Matisse’s “cut-outs” period of his late career,  illustrates the tale of Icarus, the son of Daedalus who ignored his father’s warning and with wax wings flew too close to the sun. Matisse masterfully captured Icarus’ fall through the sky to the sea.

Courtney might know I have a ‘thing” for Greek mythology (re)interpreted in art and literature. Here are a few Icarus poems worth reading:

I think I’ll write a poem this weekend that recasts the story of Icarus in my own way. I already have a title, “Fly, Baby, Fly.”  I’ll include it in my reply to Court.

Plutôt la Vie: Choose Life Instead

I heard from Courtney, one of my wonderful students. She is studying in France the 2018-19 academic year, and we promised we’d write to each other months ago!  According to her note, she sent two postcards at the same time–the one below was actually number two, written four months after the first. (I haven’t laid eyes on the first one yet). I’m so excited to hear from her and know that she is well.

Here’s the image that evokes many words:

Édouard Boubat (1923-1999), Paris, May 1968

This postcard was the last one of its kind on the rack and the “perfect reminder” to Courtney of me. If she were here, we’d have a long, long conversation about the postcard–the photography, the words, the poem written by French Surrealist poet/novelist/theorist André Breton that inspired the street art turned fine art by French photographer Édouard Boubat.

I asked Louise, my French blogging/penfriend, about the meaning of the phrase, Plutôt la vie. I was suspicious of the “rough” translation, “rather life.” Louise translated the phrase, “Choose life instead.” As with translation, typically, I’m pretty sure there’s still some nuance (in meaning)  that can’t be transferred with the substitution of one word for another. We can get pretty close, but we don’t always hit the mark.

It seems almost unfair to share the art without the poem, so here it is:

Plutôt la Vie: Choose Life Instead
André Breton

Choose life instead of those prisms with no depth even if their colors are purer
Instead of this hour always hidden instead of these terrible vehicles of cold flame
Instead of these overripe stones
Choose this heart with its safety catch
Instead of that murmuring pool
And that white fabric singing in the air and the earth at the same time
Instead of that marriage blessing joining my forehead to total vanity’s
Choose life

Choose life with its conspiratorial sheets
Its scars from escapes
Choose life choose that rose window on my tomb
The life of being here nothing but being here
Where one voice says Are you there where another answers Are you there
I’m hardly here at all alas
And even when we might be making fun of what we kill
Choose life

Choose life choose life venerable Childhood
The ribbon coming out of a fakir
Resembles the playground slide of the world
Though the sun is only a shipwreck
Insofar as a woman’s body resembles it
You dream contemplating the whole length of its trajectory
Or only while closing your eyes on the adorable storm named your hand
Choose life

Choose life with its waiting rooms
When you know you’ll never be shown in
Choose life instead of those health spas
Where you’re served by drudges
Choose life unfavorable and long
When the books close again here on less gentle shelves
And when over there the weather would be better than better it would be free yes
Choose life

Choose life as the pit of scorn
With that head beautiful enough
Like the antidote to that perfection it summons and it fears
Life the makeup on God’s face
Life like a virgin passport
A little town like Pont-á-Mousson
And since everything’s already been said
Choose life instead

Of course, the poem deserves a more in-depth reading, but on first glance, Breton seems to call on us to see “life” and beauty in the commonplace, in the mundane, and the unexpected, to live a life beyond the dictates and definitions of society, and accept pain as a beautiful inevitability.

Boubat’s photograph masterfully captures the intention of the poem.

Plutôt la vie

The 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of the King of Love: “It Is Not a Day to Celebrate”

“I Have a Dream,” the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Riverside California, depicts King leading a Civil Rights march. The back of the statue reads: “Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace.I was a drum major for righteousness.” Statue designed by artist Lisa Reinerston. Photo by D. Williams on Pixabay

Be wary.
Be wise.
Stand far away from anyone who suggests
that you celebrate anything on April 4, 2018.
It is not a day to celebrate.
It is a day to remember.
Remember how thoroughly dead the King of
Love is dead.
Listen to Nina Simone.
Teach our young to remember.
Remember how thoroughly dead the King of
Love is dead.
April 4, 2018 is a day to remember.
It is not a day to celebrate.
Stand far away from anyone who suggests
that you co-opt yourself with celebration.
Be wary.
Be wise.
Listen to Nina Simone.

Poem by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Written February 25, 2018

More Sister Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Johnson, Larsen, and Bonner

I am a little torn about today’s “Focus on Black” post. I want to continue sharing the wonderful cards in the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance collection, but each woman deserves much fuller treatment than I’m providing here. As I’m typing I’m reminding myself that this is my blog (aka a breakaway from the heady stuff) and not one of my courses. As much as I love the authors and texts I teach, if my blog begins to feel like a course, I might not find blogging so attractive.

Now that I’ve convinced myself…I’m back today with three more sister writers.

Georgia Douglas Johnson ( ca. 1877?-1966)

Georgia Douglas Johnson gained recognition as a poet of “The Genteel School” of writers prior to the Harlem Renaissance. Because some of her major works were published during this historic period, some historians saw her as “definitely of it, but equally definitely not in it.” She did have, however, an impact on the literati of the New Negro Movement through her “Saturday Soirees,” which she hosted regularly at her home on “S” Street in northwest Washington, DC. Born in Atlanta, she was educated at Atlanta University and at Oberlin College [in Ohio]. She moved to Washington, D.C. when her husband, Henry Lincoln Johnson, was appointed recorder of deeds by President Taft in 1909. The Johnsons immediately gravitated toward literary, political, and human rights activities along the East Coast. The abundant and kaleidoscopic nature of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s creativity is apparent in her books of poetry, her plays, and in her first love, her music. Johnson’s works appeared in books and journals from 1905 until her death.  –Winona L. Fletcher

See some of Johnson’s work here: Georgia Douglas Johnson.

Note: There is some inconsistency regarding the year Douglas was born. The Sisters collection reports 1886; other sources report ca. 1877 or 1880. Since her graduation year from Atlanta University was either 1893 or 1896, it is doubtful she was born in 1886 at the age of 7 or 10.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

Nella Larsen is one of three known Black women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. The daughter of a Danish mother and Black West Indian father, Larsen attended Fisk University, the University of Copenhagen, the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses, and the New York Public Library Training School. Her first novel, Quicksand (1928), follows Helga Crane from the South to the North, to Denmark, and back to the South. It includes themes of biracial parentage, sexuality, and class. Her second novel, Passing (1929), adds to these themes the difficulty of relationships between women, and the ability of light-skinned Blacks to “pass” for white. Both novels contain grains of autobiography; both mock superficial “race uplift” projects. Larsen’s projected third novel, for which she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, was never completed, perhaps because she was accused of plagiarizing her short story “Sanctuary,” which appeared in Forum (1930). She denied the accusation, but did not publish under her name afterward. She worked as a nurse from 1941 until her death.  –Jeannie Phoenix Laurel and Erlene Stetson

To read more about Larsen’s life, see the New York Time’s Overlooked Obituary;  Black History Now; and the Gale Group’s Biography in Context.

Marita Bonner (1899-1971)

Marita Bonner was born in Boston, attended local schools, and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1922. One of this century’s most versatile authors, Bonner published essays, dramas, short stories, and serial fiction in Opportunity and The Crisis, and won awards for both literary and musical compositions. Her collected works were posthumously published as Frye Street and Environs (1988). Although Bonner knew and worked with editors and authors of the Harlem Renaissance, she never lived in New York. She lived instead in three other cities important to African-American literary production in the early twentieth century: Boston, where she spent her childhood; Washington, D.C., where she worked for eight years and was a member of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “S” St. Salon; and above all Chicago, where she settled with her husband William Almy Occomy in 1930. Bonner’s innovative fiction about Chicago set a model for other writers, including Richard Wright, to follow.   –Joyce Flynn

For more on Marita Bonner, see Harvard’s extensive digital archives of the Marita Bonner Papers.

In my next Sisters post, I’ll wrap up the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Until then…

Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance: Dunbar-Nelson, Grimke, Fauset, and Spencer

One of the things I miss about our move from New Orleans to Alabama and to another university is facilitating courses in African American literature, particularly 19th and early 20th century literature. A friend recently gifted me an amazing set of postcards that exacerbated my desire to teach the literature.

The postcard project, Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance: The Found Generation, coordinated by Sona L. Chambers and edited by Gail Cohee and Leslie Lewis, features 26 photographs of African American women writers, scholars, entertainers, artists, and political thinkers of the 1920s and 30s. The collection “uncovers the personal and political conflicts” and “remind us of triumphs as well as ongoing struggles of African American women” from 1920-1932, “a time during which Harlem was the focus of a new spirit of race consciousness and pride, embodied in a veritable explosion of artistic, literary, political, and intellectual activity.”

At the mention of the Harlem Renaissance, most people quickly identify writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, who were all men. Even though there are quite a number of women writers, we hear of few of them outside or inside the classroom. In fact, Zora Neale Hurston is typically the only woman writer of the era with which some are familiar.  And with the exception of Ethel Waters, many are unfamiliar with the many women entertainers of the era.

Today, I’m using the postcards to introduce you to (or maybe, reacquaint you with) four women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I will introduce other writers, singers, and entertainers from the collection over the next several weeks.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, one of the first African American women to voice the “lyric cry” of the Harlem Renaissance, was unique as both a precursor to and central participant in the movement. The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, edited by her and dedicated to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to whom she was briefly married, was the movement’s first anthology. Educated as an English teacher at Straight University (now Dillard University) in her native New Orleans, she found early success as a writer of short stories exploring the lives of the region’s Creoles and Cajuns. Her careers included public lecturer, parole officer, suffragist, politician, and civic worker. She headed the Anti-Lynching Crusade in Delaware and helped to draft the Black club women’s 1920 political manifesto, A Platform of the Colored Women of America.  Although certainly best known for her still-uncollected poems, particularly, “I Sit and Sew,” and now for her remarkable diary, Dunbar-Nelson was known during the period as a prolific journalist whose essays, book reviews, and stage reviews appeared regularly in such magazines as The Crisis, Opportunity, and Colliers. –Sharon G. Dean

See some of Dunbar-Nelson’s poetry here: Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson.

Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958)

Angelina Weld Grimké was a gifted poet, dramatist, and teacher. She was born in Boston to a former slave father and a white Bostonian mother. Although primarily reared by her father, Grimké was also influenced by her famed abolitionist-feminist aunts, Sarah M. Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld. After graduating from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902, Grimké began a long teaching career in Washington, D.C. She became a regular member of the African-American artistic circle that gathered around Georgia Douglas Johnson. In the 1920s, Grimké’s poems began appearing in Opportunity and The Crisis. Her works also appeared in several Harlem Renaissance anthologies, including Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro. Grimké’s poetry tended to avoid racial subjects, but her three-act play, Rachel, was an angry and painful drama about the personal impact of lynching. The vast majority of Grimké’s poetry remained unpublished during her lifetime, perhaps because of its explicit “woman-identified” voice.  –Eric Garber

See some of Grimké’s poetry here: Angelina Weld Grimké.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)

Jessie Redmon Fauset, the first Black woman to be selected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor fraternity (Cornell 1905), also earned advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1919, after fourteen years of teaching French at Dunbar High School, Washington D.C., Fauset left teaching for New York City and the offices of the NAACP’s publication, The Crisis. As literary editor  from of The Crisis from 1919-1926, Fauset was one of the people who “mid-wifed” the Harlem Renaissance into being by publishing numerous writers who later became well known. She was also an accomplished writer, publishing four novels between 1922 and 1933, and hundreds of poems, essays, articles, reviews, and children’s works. Many of the latter appeared in the twenty-four issues of the children’s magazine she also edited, The Brownies’ Book (1920-21). –Carolyn Wedin

See some of Fauset’s poetry here: Jessie Redmon Fauset.

Anne Spencer (1882-1975)

Anne Spencer was hailed by critics of the Harlem Renaissance as its most technically sophisticated and modern poet. Born Annie Bethel Bannister to newly freed slaves in Henry County, Virginia. Anne Spencer (as she was “pen-named” by friend and mentor James Weldon Johnson) was, like many of her Harlem Renaissance sisters already 40 and a working mother of three at the movement’s outset. Strongly influenced by Olive Schreiner, Spencer’s poems are more about gender than race, about rebellious wives, male fantasies, muses, and washerwomen. Yet she founded her hometown of Lynchburg’s first NAACP chapter, spent 20 fitful years as librarian at that town’s Jim Crow library, protested segregation, wore pants as an adult, founded a suffrage club, and cultivated a renowned garden that became both the metaphorical center of her poems, her “soul,” and the centerpiece of what is now an historical landmark–her home and writing cottage. Anne Spencer is the most consistently anthologized woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance. –Sharon G. Dean

See some of Anne Spencer’s poetry here: Anne Spencer.  Also, check out the Anne Spencer Museum site.

I hope this feeds your literary soul this weekend…

Until next time…

 

On Books: A Poem in Honor of Dr. Seuss

Thanks for picking up the hat for me, Butterfly. My own cat has outgrown his hat, but he’ll pick it up again, some day–after the self-conscious tween years, or when he has his own kids. 😉 Photo by Meli aka Butterfly’s mom.

It’s been years since my last Dr. Seuss birthday salute. Gasp! How did that happen? When I was finishing up a Dr. Seuss swap way too early this morning, I ran across a couple of Dr. Seuss items that had been hiding in my clutter. I’m sure I intended to blog about them, but well…things get buried in the “to be blogged” pile.

I rescued  a poem to celebrate “Dr. Seuss Day.” The poem was written by swapper Kate Mc (KateKintail, a swap-bot ambassador) for a “celebrate Seuss” swap two years ago .

“On Books”

Sometimes you get bored
and there’s nothing to do.
You stare at the clock
And nudge stones with your shoe.

You flop onto a couch
or a chair or a bed.
You watch infomercials
or do nothing instead.

And just when you think
life isn’t all that,
why, who should arrive,
but the Cat in the Hat!

I’ve come for your boredom.
I’ll take it away.
I’ll bring in the fun
and cheer up your dull day.

I’ve got boxes and bins
full of toys and what-not.
You’ll be amazed
by the stuff I have got.

But for you, my dear swapper,
I’ve got just the thing.
Though not covered in glitter
or tied up with string.

It’s something you’ll like.
Come here, have a look.
I’ll show you what fun
you can have with a book!

Now, don’t make that face.
It’s not what you think.
Don’t rip up this letter
and throw it in the drink.

Books are jam-packed
with bushels of fun.
I really should know–
I came out of one.

So suspend disbelief.
Without further ado,
I shall outline the things
a good book can do.

Open one  up and
fold it just right.
Put it on your head,
and like that, you’re a knight.

With a couple of books
you can make a band.
Clap covers together
with one in each hand.

Or riffle the pages
for a different sound.
Even when its quiet
music can abound.

Find a table or desk
and prop one up on its side.
Grab your favorite food
and behind it you can hide.

You’ll be absorbed
while the world goes on by.
Hidden in knowledge,
new tastes you can try.

Or go to your bookshelves.
Collect a whole stack.
The green, white, and brown ones
the little ones in the back.

Pile them all up
up higher than high,
and pretend to climb up them
all the way to the sky.

Imagine the scenes
you’d pass on your walk.
The places you’d visit
and characters who’d talk.

One foot on Great Gatsby,
another on Dune.
After Gone with the Wind
you’re halfway to the moon.

But maybe climbing
ins’t your cup of tea.
Don’t run away;
please stick here by me.

Put a book on your head
for a balancing game.
Hop on one foot.
Repeat your own name.

Put one underneath
a table’s unwobbly leg.
Then set up a race
with an orange an egg.

Stand many on end
for a fence or a fort.
A beach chair and mai-tai
make it a resort.

An old book is great
if you’re in a craft stage.
Make a purse of the cover
and ATCs of the page.

But the very most fun
can be all in your head.
The best thing is that
a book can be read.

Designed using papers and elements from myfuninvites.com

Be sure to do some reading this weekend in honor of Dr. Seuss!

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938. Poet, novelist, statesman, civil rights leader, lawyer. Artist, Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Pastel on artist board.

The song dubbed “The Black National Anthem” should need no introduction, but I learned last October–moments after I posted an article focused on the University of Florida’s playing the song at the arrival of white supremacists on campus–that many Americans are not familiar with the song. In fact, one (Euro-American) friend uncharacteristically responded by declaring UF’s actions “racist.”

[We’ll save discussion about how that action could not have been “racist” for another time].

My friend’s judgment was based on the title of the article. She had never heard the song.

That surprised me. I’m pretty sure I initially learned the song at the majority white elementary school I attended, so I assumed it was standard for elementary kids in the U.S. Not so, I guess.

So what is the “Black National Anthem?”

The  “song,” actually entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was written as a poem by African American poet James Weldon Johnson to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It was later set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson.

The song gained popularity, was adopted by the NAACP, and was dubbed “The Black National Anthem.” But if we pay close attention to the lyrics, we’ll find that even though the song resonates with African Americans, it speaks to a broad American experience, one that in spite of its “informal” title, celebrates our collective history, freedom, and unity, one that speaks of faith and hope. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” feels more inclusive than the official national anthem of the U.S.A., “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I invite you to read the lyrics.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Then, listen to this amazing arrangement sung by the “Choir of the World,” the Aeolians of Oakwood University:

See the Poetry Foundation for a a brief biography which references James Weldon Johnson’s extensive bibliography. A favorite for many is God’s Trombones.