I’m taking the week off of serious blogging, or at least I’m trying to, mainly by escaping into books. I tend to read books in bunches, often matching fiction and non-fiction covering related subject matter. This week’s reading list is no exception.
Among my books is a collection of poetry by Robinson Jeffers. I picked up the collection at the recommendation of John O’Neal, a brilliant playwright of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the architects of the historic Freedom Schools. He seduced me into reading Jeffers by describing poems written about Tor House and Hawk Tower, Jeffers Carmel, California home, built by hand around the turn of the last century.
Back then, Carmel was still wild. Lacking electricity and the usual stonemason’s tools, and without roads to bring in bricks and mortar, Jeffers built the house by piling rough stones up into walls, matching their contours so that their very roughness is their strength. Because he carefully made “stone love stone,” they grip one another more securely than mass produced bricks laid flat against each other.
Mr. O’Neal used that phrase, making “stone love stone” as a metaphor for the kind of people-centered education he promotes through Junebug Productions, the New Orleans-based theater company he founded. Junebug doesn’t smooth the rough contours of the stories that are shared there into uniform shapes that fit conveniently together. Instead, they help storytellers match the contours of their experiences with those of others, making stone love stone in the hope of building unifying narratives that strengthen communities that have been broken and fragmented by oppression.
This process of gathering people to tell their stories, and then turning those stories into intersecting narratives about the lives of the communities we share, is one I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to, in places as far flung as Hawaii, Appalachia and the Deep South, rural Mexico, and now New York. Over the years I’ve had to accept how difficult and painfully slow that work is, and view the process not as an obstacle to creating necessary changes, but as the process of change itself. To me, this is humanization – the never-ending journey to wholeness in the face of fragmentation.
And we truly are fragmented and at war with ourselves, aren’t we? You can see this in communities as diverse as Chicago’s South Side and rural Morristown, Tennessee. In Chicago we are killing each other on the street, providing a justification for the police repression that is a keystone of our oppression, while the conflict between white Appalachians and Latin American immigrants in Morristown over low-wage jobs in conditions so bad that workers complain they’re losing their eye sight on the production line is the very definition of giving up on ourselves and settling for crumbs when we deserve so much more.
Years of oppression weighing down on us has created deep fractures. Those fractures run through us and between us. Their edges are dangerously jagged. But each broken edge has it’s mate, if only we can find our way to one another and engage in the careful dance required to fit sharp edges together. I believe poetry can inspire us to take the necessary risks in finding our way back to wholeness. Some of us may be more inspired by the poetry the Blues Scholars than that of Robinson Jeffers, but to me it’s all the same. Poetry is the story of the world we tell when we allow the rhythm of our heartbeats drown out the noise in our heads.
I’m also reading Lost in the City, a collection of short stories by Edward P. Jones, the writer of All Aunt Hagar’s Children and The Known World. These books together make Jones one of my favorite authors. I’m also rereading parts of The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, a book I loved as an example of remarkable, popular (as in, for the people) scholarship and beautiful writing.
For me to really love a non-fiction title, it has to read well. This one does. And Lost in the City a great complement to Wilkerson’s history, imagining in fiction the personal histories of those who joined the massive migration of African Americans who fled from Jim Crow in the early-mid 20th century that The Warmth of Other Suns documents.
It’s all about refueling, reading, and learning – things I do by escaping into books and movies, and not just history books and documentaries that tell us of the world as it is, but fiction and feature films that speculate about the world as it might be.