I cannot pinpoint a first memory of my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Gene Campbell because they didn’t come into my life, they were always there. Bettie and Gene were my parents’ friends before I was born; in fact they were the only non-blood relations at my parents’ wedding. Mom and Dad chose to do something small, in the chapel of our church instead of the sanctuary, and only their parents and my dad’s brother’s family were invited. Bettie and Gene, it seems, would not be kept away and they crashed the ceremony. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t mind.
As a little girl, the nights that the Campbells came over to our house were always special. We got dressed up, we had hors d’oeuvres and special drinks, we ate in the fancy dining room. I got to drink sparkling apple juice out of a tiny wine glass. Gene and my Dad would drink Scotch, and to this day the smell of it reminds me of those nights. The women smelled wonderful, too–these were nights for perfume and fancy makeup and staying up late.
My parents traveled with the Campbells, so many of these nights consisted of after dinner slide shows, complete with portable screen and an old school carousel projector. Though I didn’t sit through the slideshows, I used the time when the lights were out and no one was looking to flit from room to room, absorbed in fantastical adventures inspired by the castles of Scotland on the screen.
Going to dinner at the Campbell’s house was even more magical. I think it was the gold flecks painted into the ceiling in their den that made the place sparkle in my little girl’s eyes. I remember at least once classical music playing on the stereo inspired me to dance from room to room, using the architecture of the sunken den to execute a number of fancy leaps, while the grownups sat and talked. The back room contained a number of treasures close to my heart and every visit involved a rediscovery of them: a music box that played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” A wooden duck that could be pulled on a string. Book after book of Peanuts comics. Over successive visits I read them all.
When most of my Christmas and birthday presents were still toys, the Campbells started giving me books. The What Katy Did series filled my desire for more Little House books (eight is not enough!). They gave me Pride and Prejudice long before I knew who Jane Austen was. Bettie also has a knack for picking the perfect piece of jewelry for me. When I moved to New York they visited me there. When I started my own theater company, they donated to it. When I got married Bettie and Gene throw a brunch for the wedding party. When I got divorced they took me out for Mexican food. (What can I say, they know what I like.)
As I write these words, I realize these things sound so quotidian. But the smells, the light, and the words of those books take me back to those nights in body and spirit–in everything but actual time–in a way that assures me the memories are important. I think that because of Bettie and Gene, it is written on my brain that having friends with whom one shares an entire lifetime is a good thing, an important thing, a thing defined not so much by what you celebrate, but that you celebrate together. It’s a thing to get dressed up for. For lifetime friends, you get out the fancy glasses.
The wonderful family that survives my Uncle Gene is a testament to the fact that he lived a wonderful life. Today I call myself aunt to a number of children who are not my biological relatives. If I can ever be anything like as important to them as Bettie and Gene have been to me, I’d consider myself to have done alright.
Thanks so much Uncle Gene for all the books and all the magic and all the love.
Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood announced that it would stop using the term “pro-choice” to define their efforts towards creating and securing reproductive autonomy for women. Though this has led to lots of great discussion about how we should ourselves going forward, Planned Parenthood does not actually intend to replace the label with something else. Any label, they say, would discount the “complexity” of the issues.
As Ann Friedman points out at New York Magazine’s The Cut, the “pro-choice” label came into being in response to the use of “pro-life” by anti-choice activists: Somewhat ironically, it was not a word that the movement chose to define itself. Over time “choice” has, in the general parlance, come to be too closely associated solely with abortion, and therefore does not convey that we are advocating for more than the choice to have an abortion or not. We are advocating for total reproductive autonomy for women, from access to birth control to abortion, IVF, and treatment for STDs to coverage for these things under insurance. The whole shebang.
But we shouldn’t forget that to a certain extent, this widening of the movement was also a reactive move: As anti-s have become more honest about their desire to eliminate not just access to abortion but also to birth control, advocates for reproductive autonomy have had to engage in a conversation connecting the dots between those things in order to debunk specific anti-choice arguments. When Personhood advocates started claiming that the morning after pill is an “abortion pill,” our response was to explain that though in theory the morning after pill could prevent implantation, that’s no reason to outlaw it. It was months before somebody clarified that no, in fact, even in theory, it probably can’t. By then, no one was listening.
We now have the opportunity to define, in our own words and as specifically as possible, the terms of the debate and to improve our branding. Though general terms like “freedom” and “liberty” do broaden the debate to include more than abortion, I am wary of generalizing too much. As cultural catchwords, these broader terms already have connotations, and the right to own a gun or believe in God is very different from the right to bodily autonomy. The prospect of trying to shift people’s thinking enough to where they also identify these terms with reproduction seems to me like rolling the wrong stone up a very steep mountain.
We should instead choose language that expresses what it is that these myriad complex issues that the movement is advocating for have in common. Yes, we are advocating for the right to be free from government intrusion in our private lives, but it’s not intrusion into our property or our speech with which this particular movement concerns itself. We’re arguing against government intrusion into our bodies.
I am also wary of being too wonky and movement-specific. While I can happily spend an afternoon studying the implications of Personhood laws on access to in-vitro fertilization, we cannot expect to win the larger public debate solely by painstakingly delineating the complicated relationships between a broad variety of issues. Nobody signs up for a movement that says, “You’re gonna have to work really hard to make any of the things I’m talking about come true.” They sign up for “Yes, we can.”
Though it’s still a bit clunky for branding purists, being multi-syllabic, I like “pro-reproductive justice.” It both specifies which rights we’re talking about, and–as do labels like social justice and economic justice–includes reference to the fact that simply having rights in law does not always mean having rights in practice.
Then again, if we have to go broad and catchy, I’ve never quite understood why we don’t just retake the higher ground and call ourselves “pro-living.” I am pro- women who want to have children having them. I am pro- women having the freedom to live their lives without children if they don’t want them. I am pro- women living life without fear and being able to have sex without contracting a disease or getting pregnant when they don’t want to. I am pro- living women taking their own health into account before that of an unborn fetus. I am pro- children who are born having a chance at living. I am pro- vaccinations that prevent women from getting STDs that might lead to deadly diseases. I am pro- these things for all living women regardless of their ability to pay for them. I am pro- defining our understandings of pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing according to real life instead of antiquated, patriarchal social values. I am pro-living.
A Woman leans against a bar, drink in hand (gin martini, dirty, extra olives). Other Women and Men mill about, flirting. Man approaches. He speaks with an Italian accent.
Man: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. Wishing you a very lovely beautiful day as you are.
Woman: Okay. Thanks.
Leans in to kiss her. She leans back. Awkward pause.
Man: Have fun and enjoy!
Moves on. Man 2 approaches. He is a bit nervous.
Man 2: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. I think you have such a beautiful smile and eyes and that I love them.
Woman: Huh. Wow. Thanks.
Awkward pause. Man 2 moves one. Man 3 approaches. He poses several times in bicep-enhancing positions.
Man 3: Hey, rockhardabs, here. I value knowing oneself. Hard work. Accomplishing goals.
Woman: Yes. Sure, me too.
Man 3: Right on. (lifts shirt, reveals abs, points at them) Am I right? Am I right?
Woman (muttering into her drink): (Answer privately).
Awkward pause. Man 3 moves one. Man 4 approaches. He is really sweaty.
Man 4: Hello there … (peers at nametag, then just stares at boobs) … you ladies looking for a (does boob juggling gesture) threesome?
Woman: Nope. Not. Nope. Move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Man 4: Hey, that’s –
Woman: Nope. Not. Too late. Move along.
Awkward pause. Man 4 moves on.
Woman: I don’t know if this is going to work. Maybe I should update my profile.
A Bartender appears.
Bartender: What can I get for you?
Woman: Guys who like girls, Ages 30–50, Near me, Who are single, For new friends, short-term dating.
Bartender: Would you date someone who has smoked a cigarette in the last six months?
Woman: Well … smoked one cigarette? Just one? I mean I guess no, I don’t want to date a smoker, but once – it could have been for a show. Or just one night out or something.
Bartender: Yes or no.
Woman: Okay, I guess no.
Bartender: Would you consider yourself extremely honest, sort of honest, or not at all honest.
Woman: Umm, I’m pretty sure honest is a finite value, so you can’t really be extremely honest, you’re either honest or you’re –
Bartender: A, B, or C?
Woman: Jesus. Extremely honest.
Bartender: Coming right up.
Man 5 enters in workout clothes, sweatbands and all. He holds a sign that says, “tightbuns” as he passes in front of Woman. Man 6 does the same; his sign says “cute4x4guy,” but he is not wearing a shirt and is using the sign to obscure his face. Man 7: Uncle_Bob. He looks exactly like your uncle. Man 8: “Stud_27″ is wearing a gray unitard that covers his body and face.
Woman 1: Okay, okay, this is really not working.
Bartender: Perhaps if you answer more questions.
Woman (sighs): I don’t know. Why would anyone want to date me anyway. I mean look at me, I’m sitting here, friendless, helpless, hopeless, unemployed in Greenland.
Collective inhale of shock from everyone in the room. They cease flirting. Freeze.
Woman: Oh, no, I’m not. I was just quoting …
Collective exhale. Unfreeze. They resume flirting.
Woman: Wow. Good kinesthetic response.
Drums her fingernails on bar. Sips drink. Tries to fish olive out of glass but it keeps slipping out of her fingers. Finally puts her mouth to the edge of the glass and uses fingers to spoon it in as she slurps up the remaining gin. Man 9 approaches. He looks like a totally normal, very cool guy. Woman spits olive and gin back into glass as she says,
Woman: (Skip question)!
Awkward pause. Man 9 moves on.
The other people in the room are coupled off now, making out like they’re on a nighttime soap opera (open mouths but no tongue, moving their heads too much side to side, running their hands up and down one another’s backs). Except for one couple. The Woman spies them, lights focus in on them, all the other couples freeze. They are speaking to each other in low tones, looking back and forth from one another’s lips to eyes. She laughs and brushes her hair back. He inhales – you can see the effect of the pheromones on him. She touches his hand casually. He traces a line down the side of her bare arm and rests his hand on her knee. She whispers something in his ear. Again you see him smell her. During all this the Woman has been unconsciously inching forward, closer and closer to the couple. She is too close. Suddenly they notice her, she realizes where she is, the lights change back and the other couples unfreeze.
Woman: I am so. Sorry. How embarrassing. I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that–you seem so real. I mean, I don’t know, this bar, you just like really … wow. Yeah. Sorry.
Starts to walk away. The man stops her.
Man: Hey, it’s okay.
Long Pause. Woman stares at them again. They smile.
Woman: So you did it! You actually found each other this way!
Man 10: Sure! We’re a committed couple looking for a playmate. You interested?
Woman: (Softly) D’oh.
She walks slowly back to bar. Resumes position from opening. Collective inhale.
Blackout. End Part One.
… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.
A Woman leans against a bar, drink in hand (gin martini, dirty, extra olives). Other Women and Men mill about, flirting. Man wearing fedora approaches.
Man: Hi there … (peering at nametag) … TK421. Want to get a drink sometime?
Woman: (Toasting.) Well, I’ve got a drink. Thanks.
Man: WHY DON’T YOU JUST ADMIT YOU DON’T LIKE BALD MEN.
Man storms off.
Woman: Wow. How did I manage to screw that one up?
Man 2 approaches. He carries a baby.
Man 2: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. Great profile!
Man 2 offers baby to the Woman. She doesn’t take it. Awkward Pause. Man 2 moves on.
Woman: Jesus, what is this, No Exit? (Looks at audience.) Get it? No Exit?
Awkward Pause. The audience moves on. Man 3 approaches. He is small but not short, a little too young for her, but what the hey. They look at one another for a while, sensing an attraction.
Man 3/Woman (simultaneous): Hi/hey.
Woman: So … (peering at nametag) … THX1138. Hey! I get that!
Man 3: Cool.
He smiles a beautiful smile with just a little crinkle at the corners of his eyes. Runs his fingers through his hair. You see the Woman smell him. It’s nice.
Man 3: Yeah. You know, most kids wanted to be Han Solo. I’ve always felt I’m more of a Luke Skywalker.
Woman (deflating a little but hanging in there): Oh. So …
cute4X4 guy walks by, no shirt, covering face with sign. Man 3 stares at his ass.
Man 3 walks away, following cute4x4guy. Bartender appears.
Bartender: Hey! You know you’ll get more accurate matches if you answer more questions!
Woman: Yeah, I know, it’s just … accurate to what? Some fictionalized idea of the perfect person for me? Someone who on paper has no unacceptables but in reality might be a serial killer? I mean I just feel like maybe we’re doing this backward. I can’t seem to get a sense of anybody.
Bartender: Would you date someone who had ever had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex?
Woman: I mean, ever? Is that really someone’s criteria? And don’t you think there should be at least some attempt at standardization for these questions?
Bartender: Which describes you better, confrontational or non-confrontational?
Woman: That’s exactly what I mean – it’s not an either/or situation.
Bartender: How often do you smoke cigars?
Woman: I’m pretty sure that’s not a question for me.
Bartender: Is it cool for guys to wear earrings?
Woman: I don’t know, is it 1987?
Bartender (exploding): IT’S A COMPUTER PROGRAM FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST ANSWER THE QUESTIONS.
Woman: Computer program? What, like a holodeck? (Awkward laugh. Possibly with snort.)
Bartender (simmering): _
Woman (sheepishly): Martini, please.
Bartender freshens her drink. Disappears.
Woman: I am crushing it.
She leans there a moment, playing with her drink. Spills some. Looks around casually then licks the spill up off the bar. An idea.
Woman: Computer program, huh?
She begins to swish her hands around, manipulating the men around her ala Minority Report et al. She swishes a man into prominence, observes, swishes him to the side, others are brought forward. Some are compared side by side. She starts to giggle. Uses her hands to make the men dance. Poses them in positions of elaborate sexual shenanigans. Does that thing where when you pose men’s bodies like female models in fashion magazines you realize how ridiculous the positions of the female models are.
Woman: So this is what it feels like to objectify people!
Gets a little excited. Slips in her spilled martini and almost falls. The men are all crashed into each other by her waving hands. They stare at her.
Woman: It’s okay! I’m fine. We’re fine. We’re all fine here. (No one responds.) Oh forget it.
Woman returns to the bar. The Men resume circling among the women, flirting.
Woman (shouts at a passing Man): Hey you know what’s wrong with internet dating? Huh? No wingman!
The Man keeps walking. Bartender appears.
Bartender: Woman, you are making a scene.
Woman: Well, it’s what I do! (Looks at the audience.) Get it? Cause I’m (heavily slurring speech) in the theater?
Bartender: Uh-huh. So how does this thing end?
Woman (burping): Probably with a blackout. (Looks at audience.) Get it? Cause I’m dru–
The Woman passes out.
Blackout. End of Part Two.
… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.
At this sun-deprived point in the year, I wake up pretty much every morning in a big pile of animals. You see as the weather gets cooler, Lucy moves from next to my feet to on my legs to on my stomach to basically on my face. Kathy moves from plastered against the wall opposite me to directly in the other spot in my double bed to smushed up next to me with her head on my pillow. So my waking up is usually a pretty joyous event.
This morning, after enjoying a snuggle with my girls, a big stretch, an inhale of the smell of all that life and all that sleepiness, I said aloud, “Well, this is the day.”
A year ago today my husband left me. Completely out of the blue it seemed at the time, an unbelievable shock, but really it was only the first of many shocks and reckonings to come over the next year as I navigated a world entirely other than my expectations had been, deprived of my former narrative and character and therefore forced to improvise.
Luckily, years of summer camp, Sunday school, VBS, and Methodist retreats have hard-wired certain neural pathways between my brain and body, so that immediately upon saying, “This is the day…” I began to sing aloud:
This is the day, this is the day, this is the day that the Lord hath made (that the Lord hath made)
We will rejoice, we will rejoice, we will rejoice and be glad in it (and be glad in it)!
With subsequent verses celebrating,
This is the cat, this is the cat, this is the cat that the Lord hath made (that the Lord hath made)…
and of course
This is the dog, this is the dog, this is the dog that the Lord hath made (that the Lord hath made)…
And it has in fact been a pretty good day. I worked on a craft project: designing, tracing, cutting, pasting, glittering. The K-dog and I went for a walk. I had a great workout. I made myself a bowl of ground turkey, taco seasonings, spinach, black beans, and low-fat cheese. A package arrived: my costume and some decorations for my upcoming Christmas Birthday Burlesque.
This day last year wasn’t Pearl Harbor, just my own personal unexpected disaster. It happened, a year ago today, and it’s still true that I will never be the same. Yet in some of the most profound ways, I am figuring out how to be who I am and always have been despite the ongoing de- and re-construction of my life. I love my animals. I love crafts. I love that the holidays are now, as a grownup, just as magical as they were for me as a child, only now it’s because of the giving instead of the receiving. I love that I’m having a party next week.
I suppose if God found us mysterious enough that “He” had to be born and live as one of us for 33 years in order to understand us, it’s no surprise that I’m still as baffled about the meaning of life as I was 365 days ago. I mean I’m not even omniscient.
Whatever, whyever we are, I’m very grateful to be spending this seasonal celebration of God-attempting-to-understand-man-by-being-born-as-one-of-us with the friends and family that have been invaluable to me in understanding my own cataclysm his past year.
Also. Crafts. I will rejoice and be glad in them.
Cross posted at Ms.
What do you get when you combine passionate individuals determined to survive with multi-generational family drama and two key moments in African American history? A pretty great new play, that’s what.
Opening November 23 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Pullman Porter Blues, by Cheryl L. West (Jar the Floor, Before it Hits Home), takes place aboard a Pullman train headed from Chicago to New Orleans on June 22, 1937, the night Joe Louis won the world heavyweight boxing championship. Three generations of Sykes men are on the train working as porters: The eldest, Monroe, proud of the life he built for his family by working in the first paid job available to freed slaves; Sylvester, a union organizer determined to better conditions for porters and become a conductor himself; and Cephas, a well-educated young man oblivious to the hardships his father and grandfather faced and naïve as to the obstacles in his path. The men are joined on this fateful night by a blast from their past: Juba, once a maid on the trains, now a blues-singing superstar.
Starting in the 1860s, jobs created by the Pullman Train Company contributed significantly to the rise of an African American middle class. Though the history of the Pullman porters is well documented, not much attention has been paid to Pullman maids. According to Christine Sumption, the researcher/dramaturg for the show:
At the time the Pullman company was getting started and offering this incredible service to wealthy, white passengers–this meticulous service all down the train line given to them by African American men–they also recognized that it was perhaps inappropriate to have black men putting white women to bed. So they brought in African American women to serve as maids on the train, and these women literally did everything for these white women. They would do their manicures, they would take care of them when they were sick, help them get showered, take care of the children, take care of the elderly. They basically did much of what the porters did, and on a much more personal level.
Though initially welcomed as full union members, the maids were eventually relegated to the women’s auxiliaries. But without their work, the first union led by African Americans–The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters–might never have been. Due to tough economic times and changing fashions–so that women passengers needed less help dressing–by 1937 the company no longer employed maids.
Juba’s experience as a maid on a Pullman train did not end well: After being raped by a white conductor while her lover, Sylvester, stood by unable to help, she fled the trains and made a new life for herself. Now a successful entertainer, she is rich enough to rent her own sleeping car for a trip with her band. Unbeknownst to her, Sylvester and his father Monroe, who nursed Juba back to health after her attack, are on the train, bringing about a kind of reckoning for them all.
these queens of the blues who, in defiance of the time and expectations of who they were supposed to be, were out there–aggressive, independent, assertive–making their own way and claiming their sexuality and their right to be not just singers but managers of bands and managers of their own lives, with power and actual wealth.
In fact Juba’s past is more of an issue for Sylvester than it is for her. His inability to protect her in her moment of need has driven him to fight to improve working conditions, pay and promotional opportunities for porters in the union. (His long battle will end in success two months after the date that the play concludes, when the Pullman Company finally recognized the union and signed a collective bargaining agreement.)
Asked about the danger of the character of Juba serving more as a dramaturgical tool for Sylvester’s redemption than as a character in her own right, director Lisa Peterson tells the Ms. Blog,
Now it’s true that Juba had this terrible thing happen to her in the past in which she felt powerless, but in response to having had that happen she’s developed this really aggressive mask, [a] way of moving through the world. So [she's] fighting…Sylvester’s problem, his inability to help Juba, that’s his problem. That’s a guilt that he carries.
Playwright Cheryl L West concurs:
When a man is not able to protect his woman, a common occurrence for black men during slavery and post slavery, it is that type of failure that would indeed haunt him every time he closed his eyes for the rest of his life. He’s trying to get that redemption by telling her, ‘That’s why I’m fighting so hard,’ and she, of course, has no need to hear that… He wants to explain and he wants her to acknowledge what he’s been doing differently. That’s his need. It’s not her need.
E. Faye Butler, who plays Juba and with whom the Ms. Blog also spoke last September when she appeared in the Arena Stage’s Trouble in Mind, talks about playing a character who has been but is no longer a victim:
She’s always in control. She will never be out of control another day in her life. She lives in the moment. He’s still living in the past. She’s living in the present.
Though in many ways Juba’s experience of sexual violence represents that of so many women throughout history, regardless of color, Butler finds nuances that are specific to the experiences of African American women:
I think a lot of African American women are left hanging in the balance trying to figure out what happened. And we get so tired of figuring out what happened we just say, ‘Forget it,’ and we push it to the side. A lot of men leave, and they leave with their tails between their legs because they don’t think they’re good enough, they don’t have enough money, they don’t have enough education. And African American women have always had to forge ahead. We can’t wait. We have children and we have responsibilities. We have to take care of ourselves.
West hopes her intimate exploration of individual lives, family history and the history of the African American people will lead the audience to ask difficult but important questions about the effects of history on our present:
Where are we now? How empowered are we now? Where are our tools for survival? How do we express and tell the next generation our history so that they can take from that a sense of pride, a sense of purpose and even a sense of direction, as opposed to ignoring the history because we think it’s only of victimhood? …We don’t want to think about the times we had to do menial labor when we’re now lawyers and doctors and priests and everything, the whole gamut. But it is off the backs of people who didn’t have the same privileges that we became what we are today. A lot of pride, a lot of dignity, a lot of lessons can be learned from those porters, because no matter what, they consistently said, ‘I do a job and I do it well.’
If you are near D.C., get tickets now to invest in this world and listen to some fantastic blues.
Pullman Porter Blues runs from November 23- January 6. Visit Arena Stage’s website to hear the music and meet the team behind the show. Click here to read more of the interviews with Cheryl L. West, Lisa Peterson, E. Faye Butler and Christine Sumption.
For further reading, check out Melinda Chatauvert’s Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
Photo of E. Faye Butler as Juba from by Kevin Rosinbum.