Toni Morrison’s Beloved — My take on this iconic book

Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

The Power of Love, the Power of Memory

The novel Beloved written by Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison; chronicles a 20 year period (1850-1875) in the life of Sethe a slave women – the dehumanizing horrors she endured, the events that triggered her escape to freedom as well as events that took place after her escape.

Sethe was born the state of Kentucky to an African slave woman she hardly knew.  Her mother was pointed out to her a few times by her care-giver and an eight year old girl her also cared for her.  Memories of her childhood are suppressed and most of what she cares to remember begin at age 13 when she was sold to the Garners proprietors of Sweet Home, a plantation where a “lax” sort of slavery was practiced; because of this, Sethe and the other slaves Halle, Sixo, Paul D, Paul A and Paul F are “treated well.” Before Sethe’s arrival, there were no female slaves at Sweet Home. Former house slave Baby Suggs had been freed.  Her son Halle, the last of her eight children had hired himself out on Saturdays and Sundays for five years to buy her freedom.  Sethe was her replacement.  Sethe was the object of desire for all of Sweet Home’s men. It took her a year to make up her mind, but she chose Halle for her husband. This is in part because she admired the devotion he showed by buying his mother’s freedom.  On the eventual death of Mr. Garner, Mrs. Garner, herself ailing, asked her brother-in-law to help her run the farm.  The man, dubbed school-teacher by the slaves, along with his nephews became a dehumanizing and sadistic force turning their “idyllic existence” into a life of torture. The slaves plotted to escape.

During this escape plot, Sethe who is in an advanced state of pregnancy sends her three children ahead of her to her mother-in-law’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This includes her sons Howard and Buglar and her yet to be named young daughter. She plans to join them there later. However, the planned escaped is found out by school-teacher and some of the slaves are caught.  Sixo and Paul F are murdered, but Paul D is brought back to the plantation. A bit, not unlike that of a horse is affixed to his mouth.  Fresh from the capture of Paul D and the murder of Paul F and Sixo, the Garner boys rape Sethe in a barn. One holds her down while the other ‘stole’ the breast milk she is saving for her baby who’s is gone ahead of her to Ohio.  School-teacher watches the whole thing and takes notes. School-teacher is not the only one watching. Unbeknownst to Sethe, and her attackers, Halle her husband lays hidden in a loft witnessing the act. He is paralyzed by what he sees and it drives him out of his mind. It took her nearly 20 years to find out what happened to her husband.  Sethe still shares a good rapport with Mrs. Garner and reports her family member’s transgression to her.

Sethe is whipped within an inch of her life for talking.  Despite the open wounds on her back and being almost nine months pregnant, Seth escapes across the Ohio River.  She would have died except for the assistance of Amy Denver, a white girl on her way to Boston to find velvet, and who tends her wounds and helps her to deliver her baby. She calls the baby Denver in Amy’s honor.  Following her dangerously eventful journey, Sethe arrives atBaby Sugg’s house – 124 Bluestone Road, where she spends 28 wonderful days in freedom – “Days of healing, ease of talk. Days of company: Knowing the names of 40, 50 other Negroes…One taught her the alphabet; another to stitch.  All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day. ” (111) Tasting this freedom adds another dimension to Sethe’s already complex personality. One fateful day, school-teacher, a nephew, a slave catcher and the town’s sheriff show up at 124 to take Sethe and her children back to Sweet Home.  Sethe runs to the back shed where she attempted send them back to God.  This is what the four saw; Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other. She did not look at them; she simply swung the baby toward the wall planks, missed and tried to connect a second time, when out of nowhere- in the ticking time the men spent staring at what there was to stare at- the old nigger boy, still mewing, ran through the door behind them and snatched the baby from the arch of its mother’s swing.” (Pg. 175)  Denver is unharmed, while Howard and Buglar recover, however, her “crawling already?” baby girl did not make it.  Sethe is taken to jail.  Following Sethe’s hard-fought freedom and return to 124, a baby ghost unleashes its fury on the house.  Eighteen years later, it is chased away when Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men turns up out of the blue.   Later, the ghost, needing to be near its mother, returns in the body of a young woman, and is welcomed back into the house on Bluestone Road.  She told the household of Sethe, Paul D and Denver that her name is Beloved.  Sethe does not or chooses not to recognize that this is the name carved on the headstone of her dead baby. Denver however, recognizes Beloved as her dead sister.

 

Can a woman’s tender care

Cease towards the child she bares?

Yes, she may forgetful be,

Yet will I remember thee

            (Cowper)

The central story in Beloved around which all the other vignettes revolve, is Sethe’s murder of her baby daughter.  She demonstrates that she loved her children fiercely, but then turned around and tried to kill them. The knee-jerk reaction would be one of disgust and scorn. But faced the unique sets of circumstances, why wouldn’t she.  In her defense, Sethe and the other main characters in Beloved are broken people, broken by the circumstances of their birth. Buby Suggs bore eight children; all except Halle were traded away to other farms, never to be seen again the knowledge of that broke her.  The only family Paul D knew were Paul F and Paul A the other men of Sweet Home – not having roots broke him.  From the day she was born, Sethe has been systematically dehumanized, broken-in, she saw her mother maybe less than a dozen times, the last time she saw her mother she was a decomposing corpse who had been lynched. By virtue of the life she was born into, Sethe was broken person.

With her escape and the experience of freedom, Sethe had started to heal, she underscored this in a conversation with Paul D she once said, “I don’t have to tell you about Sweet Home – what it was – but maybe you don’t know what it was like for me to get away from there…I did it. I got us all out… We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too… it was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing of before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms, all my children could get in between.

In comparison to other slave owners, the Garners might have treated them humanely – as humanely as one treated a beloved pet. The animal treatment continued after Mr. Garner died, but his brother, school-teacher upped the anti.  Sethe and the other slaves on Sweet Home were subject to physical abuse, emotional degradation and Sethe the only female was brutally raped while school-teacher watched and took notes.  Why then would she, after experiencing freedom and self-determination, want her children to go back to slavery?  Sethe’s justification for her ultimate act of sacrifice is articulated while she explained the events to Paul D shortly after he was clued in to her act of violence.  “She was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono.  Simple.  She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the viel, out,  away, over there where no one could hurt them…where they would be safe”(192).  

Sethe’s experience of slavery is not unlike that of Jamaican National Hero Samuel Sharpe, who after organizing the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 was arrested, tried and sentenced to be hung.  The Christmas Rebellion was the last stand of Jamaican slaves and lead to the proclamation of freedom less than two years later.   Just before being lead to the gallows Sharpe famously said, “I’d rather die on yonder gallows, than live in slavery.”    The passion that both Sharpe and Sethe feels and strong, and emotion only felt every once in a lifetime – Sharpe, happy to go to the gallows, Sethe happy to end her children’s life than allowing their enslavement to continue.  

Unless you are Sethe, or Sharpe or someone who is stripped of self-determination and dignity, then you would recoil at the thought of a woman systematically cutting the throat of her children.   Indeed, witnesses white and black alike were dumbfounded by the act she had committed, and unless you were Sethe there’s no way of understanding.  School-teacher’s nephew couldn’t understand it – with legs shaking, he asks, “what she gone and do that for?  As sadistic as school-teacher was, it shook him to his core; “the woman schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left. But now she’d gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her and made her cut and run. Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think-just think-what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education (176).  It is clear then from school-teacher’s musings that Sethe’s status on Sweet Home farm was barely better than a beast of burden.  Sethe – a person; a human being with self-awareness and self-worth and newly found independence, and whose feelings are being compared to that of a horse.  Who would want that for themselves or for their children?

            Beloved, the novel is also about love, pure and simple.  It is also about maternal love, brotherly/sisterly love and self-love.  “Look like a loved them more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love them proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon – there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to [Sethe](191).”   Lynda Koolish solidifies this point.  “While maternal love is certainly a focus of the novel, the male protagonists in this novel also struggle towards a determination of appropriate loving within which they can survive.  In the absence of that stipulation, namely survivability, Halle loves too much and ends up with his face in the butter; Sethe’s companion and lover Paul D, haunted by the consequences of what he see as Halle’s and later Sethe’s ‘too thick love,” is determined to love small and suffers enormously for the consequences of his decision. (Koolish 170)

 

The novel Beloved is also about how memory of the past can be so burdensome, it holds us back like “the best Georgia hand-forged chains” keeping us from enjoying the now and looking forward to the future.  “Much of the novel explores the extraordinarily anguishing interlude of time during which virtually all the protagonist, not just Sethe, exist almost as dream walkers to expend their psychic resources keeping the past at bay (Koolish).  The specter of Beloved is her mother’s memory of her, her guilt, her shame for having killed her own child.  Beloved is also her unwillingness to let go of that memory of what Beloved might have become if she had been allowed to grow up.  Koolish points out, “That Beloved exists as the repository of unresolved feelings suggested by the fact that Stamp Paid confirms that initially Beloved is only seen by Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and himself each of whom has an enormous burden of guilt, shame, sadness, and fear.” (Koolish).  Beloved’s ghost being chased away by Paul D symbolizes a time when Sethe puts the specter of Beloved out of her mind, if only for a little time so that she can enjoy more pleasant memories with Paul D with whom she has a common past which does not include Beloved.  Her pre-occupation with Paul D distances her from Beloved, Denver is not happy with this situation, as Paul D has robbed the household of Sethe’s attention – when Sethe gives attention to Beloved, Denver benefits.  Koolish makes this point about healing and memory “For healing to take place, dissociation must give way to the full reclaiming of that wounded self, the reintegration of that denied self as part of the core of one’s being.  Each character in Beloved goes through a process by which he or she gains not only an awareness of that shadow, but an introspective awareness of the psychological origins of the split-off self.  The shattering and reclaiming of memory proceeds in similar ways for most of the central protagonists of the novel.  The memory of what has happened to them is pushed aside, externalized, repressed, planed in a box, given over to someone else, but where psychic disintegration has taken place, each character splits into a “core self” and “alters,” none of whom possess the others’ memories.”

 

As they get comfortable with each other at 124 Bluestone Road, Beloved returns, embodied in a young girl, unable to stay away, needing to be fed by Sethe’s love.  She is as needy as a baby, thriving on the love of Sethe, and to a lesser extent, Denver’s love and when Paul D becomes wary of her, symbolically forces him to give himself, the only way he could “love” her. “Touch me on the inside” she pleads “call out my name,” she begs.  As she takes more love than anyone in this house has to give, she saps their spirit and Sethe sinks into a deep depression, Paul D becomes a drunkard, living in the church basement and Denver struggles to find herself, the find her independence,  to let go off the shackled of the past and to love herself.   Love takes a lot away from 124, but love also gives back.  Lead by Stamp Paid, the community bonds together to save the family at living 124.   Neighborly love – what more can one ask for.

“Mine is an unchanging love,
Higher than the heights above,
Deeper than the depths beneath,
Free and faithful, strong as death”

                                                (Cowper)

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Cowper, William. Hark My Soul, English Hymn 1731-1800)

Koolish, Lynda.  To be Loved and Cry Shame”: a Psychological reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. San Diego State University 2003.

 

A child weaned on poison finds comfort in abuse

A child weaned on poison finds comfort in abuse

Violence in Women’s Literature

Observations from the book Sharp Objects – A Novel by Gillian Flynn

The book Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn describes a troubled girl with a dark past from a moneyed but troubled family who are the epicenter of a troubled town.  The girl in question, Camille Preaker, covers the crime beat at Chicago’s fourth largest newspaper – The Chicago Daily Post.  Thumbtacks, steak knives and razor blades are some of Camille’s sharp objects.  Camille is a cutter.  She carves negatively connoted words her own flesh, eleven of which are synonyms for anxious (60).  Random terms – kitty, curls and cupcake; wicked, petticoat and queasy speak to her moodsThe words all had one thing in common; they marked stressful events in Camille’s life.  Says Camille; “sometimes I can hear the words squabbling at each other across my body.  Up on my shoulder, panty calling down to cherry on the inside of my right ankle.  On the underside of a big toe, sew uttering muffled threats to baby just under my left breast.  I can quiet them down by thinking vanish, always hushes and regal, looking over the other words from the safety of the nape of my neck. (62)

 

Camille’s troubles are many and complex, they spring from a painfully unhappy childhood where she longed for the love and affection of her mother, and daydreamed about finding her real father.  “I’ve long since given up trying to discover anything about my dad… I can’t stand to think about him too specifically,” she laments.   Camille cut herself the first time when she was thirteen, the same year she lost her baby sister; started on her period, explored her sexuality and became Wind Gap’s most beautiful and sought after teenager.  The violence spectrum is covered end-to-end in Sharp Objects, the weapons of are both tangible and intangible.  The sharp objects to execute gruesome murders, psychological torture, self-inflicted wounds, mental torment and sexual violence.  But perhaps the sharpest objects are mothers who inflict torture upon their children taking away their ability to become normal members of society.   Camille’s grandmother Joyo made Adora into a sociopath and Adora in turn passed on the sickness to her children.   So cold an unfeeling was Adora that she was not afraid to tell Camille how she felt.  “I think I finally realized why I don’t love you,” she said.  I tried to tell myself I was intrigued, like a scientist on the edge of a breakthrough, but my throat closed up and I had to make myself breath.  “you remind me of my mother. Joya. Cold and distant and so smug.  My mother never love me either, And if you girls won’t love me, I won’t love you.

 

Camille never went back to Wind Gap after College, she put down roots in Chicago and tried making a life for herself, but it is hard to cut herself off from the memories of Wind Gap and her mother, and shortly after a stint in a Psych ward to resolve self-injury, her editor Curry assigned her to a story in Wind Gap.  She hadn’t been back in a decade, but someone was targeting little girls in the small Missouri Town.  This could make her into a sought after journalist, so she made a long over-due, but reluctant return to the town of her childhood. 

 

Author Gillian Flynn demonstrates how parental violence physically and emotionally killed three girls.  Camille Preaker and her sisters Marian and Amma bear the brunt of this violence from their mother Adora, the mentally unstable supreme queen of Wind Gap.  Amma and Camile are physically strong and are able to withstand the violence meted out to them by their mother, however, but no so much the emotional and mental pain which turned them both into damaged goods.  Sadly, Marian’s body could not withstand the violence, and it killed her. 

Adora devoted herself to making Marian sick and spent every waking hour caring for her at the expense of her oldest – Camille.  This took a toll on her, she was the daughter of the town’s wealthiest and most influential person; however, being ignored had a colossal impact on her.  “I’m here… when I am panicked, I say them aloud to myself, I’m here. I don’t usually feel that I am. I feel like a warm gust of wind could exhale my way and I’d be disappeared forever, not even a sliver of finger-nail left behind.” (95)

 

Camille’s youngest sister Amma was born while Camille was away in College, she barely knew her.  Amma longed for the same care and attention as Camille did, and in a round-about way found out that Adora would care for her and be attentive if she was sick.  Unlike Camille, she did not refuse Adora’s ministrations.   The lonesomeness which inflicted damage on both Camille and Amma’s psyche had different results.  Camille sort to self-injury, alcohol and drugs while in addition to drugs and alcohol Amma became a psychopath.

 

Mothers are powerful symbols in their daughter’s life, and often, the relationship between a mother and child shapes the child future.  Both girls acquired impairments not unlike feral children who have little or no experience with care, affection and human social behavior.   Their disorders that are in direct relation to the experiences they have survived.    Adora did not have positive role models either; her mother Joya was also a stern, cold and detached woman from whom came no open display of affection.  Children who do benefit positive stimulation, normal mother-to-child bonding and primary socialization and who suffer neglect in their formative years are incapable of living a normal life.   Just as the body needs air, food and water for optimal health ones mental and emotional health also need to be nurtured.  This idea is clear in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory developed 70 years ago by American psychologist Abraham Maslow.  Maslow explains by using a five-section pyramid which has at the bottom basic fundamental human needs such as food and water.  This is followed by safety and security needs like shelter, personal safety and health. This is followed by emotional needs which includes a sense of belonging, friendship, family a sense of being valued which helps to build self-esteem and self-respect which is at the fourth level of the pyramid.  At the top is self-actualization where each person becomes their ideal self.  Each sector of the pyramid forms the foundation of the complete person and deprivation in any area will impact a person’s ability to become their best self.  Deprivation in any area of the pyramid would be violently abusive.

Psychologist also says that humans are naturally social. Therefore, in order to develop normally, children need adults to care for them, communicate with them, keep them safe, show them love and affection.  In Sharp Objects Camille, Mariane and Amma did not benefit from a normal relationship with their mother.  Yes their basic fundamental needs were met in that they had food and shelter, but they lived in a kind of emotional isolation in which they were starved of a healthy relationship with their mother.  The pain that both Amma and Camille bear is very clear when in a drug infused haze Camille both girls level with each other, positive that they did not have their mother’s love.  What’s more, they often felt they had to compete with their dead sister.  “…It’s impossible to compete with the dead.” (64)

“She doesn’t like you.”“

“No she doesn’t.”

“Well she doesn’t like me either, just in a different way.”

“Did she like you less after Marian was dead?”

“Less.”

“So it didn’t help.”  “What?”  “Her dying didn’t help things.”

 

Adora was hateful cold and detached yet at the same time, needy.  She poisoned her children so that she could minister to them. Not to spend quality time with them as normal parents try to do, but to do seem as a kind of nursing and mothering angel.  Adora is classic textbook case for Munchausen by Proxy syndrome (MBPS).  MBPS is a rare form of child abuse that involves the exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caretaker.   The care-giver causes symptoms in the child through poisoning, medication, or even suffocation.  Typically, the cause is a need for attention and sympathy from doctors, nurses, and other professionals.   The first time we saw this in Shape Objects, was when Adora came to see Camille in hospital.  When we were alone she talked about the foliage and some new town rule that required Christmas lights to taken down by January 15.  When my doctors joined us, she cried and petted and fretted at me. She stroked my hair and wondered why I’d done this to myself.  (64)  It is also believe that it isn’t just the attention that’s gained from the “illness” of the child that drives this behavior, but also the satisfaction in deceiving individuals who they consider to be more important and powerful than themselves.  Because the parent or caregiver appears to be so caring and attentive, often no one suspects any wrongdoing.   Diagnosis is made extremely difficult due to the ability of the parent or caregiver to manipulate doctors and induce symptoms in their child.    Adora’s middle child suffered for most her entire childhood , undergoing numerous test and hospital stays, however, Doctor have never been able to make a diagnosis. A nurse working with Marion however noted.  “The child exhibits signs of illness after spending time alone with her mother, even on days when she had felt well up until maternal visits.  Mother shows no interest in Marian when she is well, in fact seems to punish her. Mother holds child only when she is sick and crying.” (226).   If only the nurse was taken seriously, then it could have saved Marian’s life.  Camille would have been given a more normal up-bring Amma, if at all born, would not have become a serial killer a girl who “enjoyed hurting.” (251)

 

 

Attribution

http://feralchildren.info/psychology/

http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sick/munchausen.html

 

 

Georgia’s Fantastic Journeys

Georgia’s Fantastic Journeys

Georgia was wearing her best dress, a striped pink pinafore with a lace-trimmed organza apron.  Her thick wooly hair was piled on top of her head and pink organza rose-buds held together with satin ribbons were threaded through her hair.  She wore Mary Jane shoes with white stockings, and her palms were sweaty as she nervously held on to her shiny little patent leather purse which carried her hanky, lip-balm and a few grubby dollar bills.  Georgia felt like a princess – like the luckiest girl in the world.  Who would have thought that she would be having tea at the palace?

Georgia felt a little like Cinderella and her heart soared with joy as she watched the grand procession inch forward in the receiving line.  Gloved ladies wore fantastic wide-brimmed hats and precariously perched fascinators, in red, blue and green and all colors in between.  They waited nervously as the line inched forward slowly.  Georgia wanted to pinch herself.  She was happy to have arrived early and among the first to meet the queen and her consort.  Because of this she had time to wander around under the huge tent erected for the occasion, and further off among the beautifully kept flower beds and the pond filled with colorful fishes, ducks and other wildlife.

Georgia was hungry, but the food appeared so beautiful, so grand, it seemed a sin to eat.   Ribbon sandwiches, rainbow cookies, fruit tarts, cakes of all shapes and sizes, fresh bread, jams, jellies, fruit platters, Crudités platters, all kinds of cheeses and varieties of butter – it was a uniform explosion of color that Georgia had only read about in story books.

 Her wandering eyes caught the fruit sculptures.  Watermelons and cantaloupes carved with intricate designs depicted various figures from Greek Mythology.  She recognized Zeus, Aphrodite and Athena; the others she couldn’t quite remember who they were. 

Georgia wandered around as the nattily dressed orchestra played classical pieces.  Above the music was the constant chatter of the aristocracy as they greeted each other shared juicy gossip and snide remarks at common enemies.  No one noticed her, although some man resembling her mother’s boyfriend Alan was following her around.  She could quite see his face, but she recognized his smell.  She was not afraid of him; let him tail her if he liked.   Someday, she was going to tell her mother what he was doing when she wasn’t home.

Georgia watched the ladies-in-waiting very closely as they ate.  Daintily, they first slathered butter and then jam on a strange pastry she heard them call a scone.  There were oh’s and awes as they nibbled conscious of expanding waistlines.  She didn’t remember having heard of a scone before; it was not on the list of items at the local bakery; however, she selected one from the high-piled crystal tray perched on one of the rows of tables.  Following the women’s lead, she first slathered butter, then jam, on the pastry. The delicious flavor of the soft, still warm scone exploded in her mouth and she smacked her lips with delight. It was sheer good fortune that she was there; If only her mother could come too, but she spent so many hours at work these days.  Her mother!   My goodness!

Georgia returned to reality with a start.  She squeezed her eyelids shut willing herself back into the Palace’s Rose garden, even just to finish her food.  But it was not to be.  She was back in her mother’s bed.  The sheets smelled like a weird combination of her mother’s cheap perfume and the herbal shampoo she washed her stringy brown hair with.  Alan was no longer in the room. She didn’t even notice when he left, but the chill on her bare skin as darkness fell over the town reminded her she needed to put her clothes on. 

She was so hungry.  She was always hungry, that brute Alan always made himself humongous sandwiches which he never offered to share.  Of the long string of men coming and going out of this house, Alan stuck around the longest.  The others were no trouble; they just came and went.  But this ghoul had taken a sick interest in her. Georgia wished he’d just disappear.  He was a grumpy and obnoxious creature who had this weird odor – much like a combination of evil, bad cologne, cheap beer and sweat.  Didn’t he ever take a shower?

Georgia’s mother, Dian, worked the cash register at the nearby farmer’s market.  Her mom liked it there and most evenings brought home left over cut fruit, deli meat and day old bread.  By the time her mom came home, Georgia was so hungry; it made her head light.  Dian often asked Alan why he hadn’t fed her, he never gave and answer and she never pressed for one.   

Thank goodness her mother would be home soon.  At least she would make her something to eat. Dinner would fill that hole in her stomach that made her constantly hungry. 

Georgia hated Alan with all her might, she kept out of his way for the most part, but he always sought her out after he watched those tapes.  She never knew what they were about, but she could tell from all the weird sounds people in the movie were making and the grunting sounds he made as he watched.  She wished she didn’t have to relive the terror she felt each day when Alan dragged her from her room. Her heart pounded as she heard him come down the long passage to her lockless door. Here we go again.

Alan knew what he was doing was wrong, but he couldn’t stop.  He’d been at it for a year already and so far he hadn’t been caught.  If the little lass didn’t tell anybody yet, then it is likely she would never speak of it.  “I’ll kill you and you stupid mama if you ever speak of this,” he’d told her over and over.  Georgia knew better than to say anything.

He liked Dian a little, but it was the shy dark-eyed little bitty of a girl that got his attention.  She was so quiet, not talkative like his sister’s twin daughters, constantly yapping about Hannah Montana, Disney Princesses and stuff.  He’d never touch them, because he knew they’d scream like a banshee.  Not Georgia; she was perfect.  She went stiff and cold, almost as if she was in a trance when he laid her on her mother’s bed each day.

Dian heard from Georgia’s father two times a year at most.  He always called on Christmas day and on her daughter’s birthday.  He had re-married and his new wife bore him two other kids; she didn’t care – as long as the checks came every month.  The child was a minor nuisance, always skulking around; always reading some dumb book.  Thank God for Alan, he didn’t seem that passionate about her, but as long as he continued to volunteer to watch the little bugger, then he could stick around.  That’s all he was good for anyway, plus he paid most of the rent each month.  He seemed to like the kid, always buying her ‘them’ dumb books about princesses too.

Despite being annoyed by her daughter’s mousy look and skittish behavior, Georgia was all Dian had.  A deadly tornado has swooped through the tiny Midwest town where her parents lived and killed four members of her immediate family.  The rest, she was never close to, so everything she did, was for the benefit of Georgia.  She only wished that she could do more.

Georgia attended the nearby public school.  She was unremarkable and did her best not to attract attention.  She wasn’t a particularly great student as she spent the entire school day going on fantastic voyages to exotic locales.  In addition to Disney World, she had been to Buckingham Palace; her trip to Washington DC took her to the Whitehouse and the National Air and Space Museum where she was accidentally locked in for hours.  That happened shortly after she watched a Night at the Museum on TV.  She had been to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, beaches in Hawaii and the Bahamas; she’d also been skydiving and deep sea fishing.

For the most part, Georgia had no idea what her teacher was talking about.  She was only able to focus for a minute or two when she was called on to answer a question which she never ever know the answer, how could she?  She was physically in the classroom, but her mind was a million miles away.  She drifted from lesson to lesson, half listening, half awake, and always dreaming.

Miss Dillon didn’t know what to make of the untidy little girl sitting near the door.  At first she believed the child couldn’t read, however, putting her theory to the test proved her wrong.  She was a good reader; her reading style was great too, except she tended to jump over commas, colons and periods. Why was she going so fast?  She was only seven years old, “she’ll learn as she gets older,” Miss Dillon thought.  At least her essays were fascinating to read, the last one on her visit to Walt Disney World was vividly and imaginatively written, and you couldn’t help being transported there while you read.

How did this quiet child end up with writing these stories? Miss Dillon thought when she read the latest saga from Georgia – The Queens Garden Party.  As far as she knew, this child had not left the United States recently. How could this reserved little seven-year-old baby write with such imagery and minute detail about a place she’d never been to?  Quite unusual.

Just before lunch break on Wednesday, Miss Dillon asked Georgia to have lunch with her.  Georgia was nervous.  What had she done now?  Georgia warmed up to Miss Dillon as she shared a most delicious and filling lunch with her.  She spoke animatedly about her visit to the palace, describing the things that she saw and did.  “They had this brown thing they called a scone and I eat it with jam and butter – at the same time,” she smiled and “I thought it was gonna taste bad.  But it was really, really good, and…and…” the little girl went quite, her eyes wide with terror as she remembered her abrupt trip back to reality.  “And what” prompted Miss Dillon. 

“And, and I was cold and I had to put my dress back on before my mother came home,” Georgia squeaked.

Miss Dillon was a young teacher who had hopes of someday becoming principal.  She was astute, well liked by the faculty and most of the students.  Some of her kids didn’t care for her as they believe she was too much of a disciplinarian.   Overall, Miss Dillon was the right kind of caring coupled with genuine hope and concern for the future of her charges.

It took all of the teacher’s willpower not to run immediately to the principal.  She didn’t want to further frighten the child.  Besides, what would she tell the principal?  She best thread lightly on this one

The wheels in her mind turned faster and faster; just how was she going to handle this.  Georgia needed her help and by Jove she was going to help her.  Whoever was creating a nightmare in this child’s life was going to pay if she had anything to do with it.

Miss Dillon took several deep breaths to calm her racing heart.  As her heart slowed, reason returned and she smiled at Georgia who was rapidly stuffing her face with food.  “Who so you live with?” she asked the little girl.  “Oh, I live with my mother, we’re divorced,” Georgia piped up.  “Is she at home now?” Miss Dillon prodded, “O course not!  She’s the cashier at that Farmer’s market on Main Street; do you know it?”   “Sure do;” said Miss Dillon, I just love getting my fresh fruits and vegetable there.  It’s lovely there and I know most of the cashiers, which one is your mother?”

The terror of reliving her nightmare behind her, Georgia continued gorging on the food Miss Dillon provided as they chatted.  “My mom’s Dian, no ‘e,’ she loves working there too, sometimes she brings me fruit and sandwiches from work.” 

“I’ve known a few Dianes but never one without an ‘e’ in the name,” Miss Dillon said laughingly, “I should say hi to her next time I go to the farmer’s market.” Georgia smiled at her teacher, “It’s unusual isn’t it?  Mom says it’s because she’s unusual too,” Georgia quipped.

The bell to signal the end of the lunch period startled them both, and as they cleared they table together Miss Dillon said’  “So, wanna have lunch with me again tomorrow?”  “Georgia’s eyes lit up, “Sure would, this lunch is the ‘bestest’ ever!”

Parking was quite a drag and it took 27 minutes for Miss Dillon to find a parking spot near the farmer’s market.  It seems as if many others wanted to patronize the businesses in the vicinity.  She would take the train, but it looked like rain, and she didn’t want to fight with commuters on a rainy afternoon, plus, if Georgia’s mom couldn’t get a few minutes to talk, then she would wait and offer her a ride home after work.  She had to find out who was hurting this precious child.

There was chaos inside the farmer’s market, there was a foul smell coming from inside, security guards were keeping customers away and there was water pouring out of the shop’s doorway.  Employees were leaving one, by one, Miss Dillon stood around for a few minutes considering whether or not it let it be for one more day.  She quickly decided against it then approached the guards to inquire whether or not Dian had left yet.  “And you are?” the burly guard asked.  “I am her daughter’s teacher,” she said with more confidence than she had.

The Farmer’s Market was having some sort of plumbing emergency and all employees were being sent home.  Sewage was pouring from the bathroom, and the handful of employees still left in the store had given up on preventing the foul smelling matter from pouring all over the floors and spreading into all areas of the market.  The manager had called in the big guns; this was no amateur job.

Dian had stayed behind to secure the days cash, and she was still putting on her jacket when she ducked through the doorway.  She looked around in confusion, the guard pointed out Miss Dillon and she stepped forward.  “I am Patricia Dillon, Georgia’s teacher.”  Dian focused on the woman and stretched out her hand to greet the teacher.  She looked vaguely familiar, “have we met before?” Dian said. “I’m sure we have, I’m a regular customer here.  I love your stuff, so fresh!”  There were a few minutes of uncomfortable silence as both women sized up each other.

Dian wasn’t sure what to make of the teachers, she seemed pleasant enough, but why was he here?  Miss Dillon was on a mission and knew the ball was in her court “I wanted to have a very private talk with you, is there somewhere around here where we can have a cup of coffee or something?”   Dian sized her up, still confused, but cooperated, “well there’s a coffee shop one block up, I usually grab cinnamon buns there sometimes, delish!”

Dian went from denial, to confusion to blinding rage as Miss Dillon explained her suspicions.  “I have to go; I have to go; I have to go; Dian whispered.  Grabbing her purse as she stood up, Dian again whispered “I have to go. I have to catch the train.”   Miss Dillon didn’t know what to do, she felt helpless, she had just delivered a huge a giant blow to Dian and she didn’t know what to do next.   “I can give you a ride home, maybe it will be quicker that way,” said Miss Dillon, clutching at straws.  Dian’s wild eyes focused for a minute, she shrugged; “Ok!”

The women navigated the city streets mostly in silence; Dian gnawed her finger-nails and gave disjointed driving directions.  She wanted to scream each time a traffic light further delayed them. She felt like she was going to explode. 

Dian literally flew out of the car the minute it pulled to a stop outside her house.  She made a mad-dash for the door nearly tripping over her own feet.  She took a deep breath to calm herself as she fitted the key in the lock, dreading what she would find inside. 

 It took Miss Dillon a minute to park the car in an approved spot and ensure the doors were locked.  Once she did this, entered Dian’s yard but opted to stay outside…she paced nervously.

She was awoken from her revere by a blood-curdling scream from Dian.  A man was begging someone to put the knife down.  “Dian, it’s not what you think.” 

Miss Dillon was still, her ears trained to the commotion in the house.  Her heart went out to the little girl who was saying “mama the blood, there’s blood on me. With trembling fingers, Miss Dillon felt around inside pocket for her fashioned flip phone, slowly she dialed 911.   There was only one ring, “911, what’s your emergency.”  She shrieked as a bloody Alan stumbled out of the house.  Weak from the loss of blood, he collapsed fell down the front steps, his confused eyes staring at Miss Dillon as she shrieked. 

Dian stumbled out after him, blubbering through tears.  Georgia was still screaming “Blood, blood, blood!  Miss Dillon took a deep breath.  “Hello, hello, are you still there?  Is this emergency?  Yes, please send an ambulance, a little girl has been raped, and there has also been a killing.”

 

Short Story: Never judge a book…

I now live in a city that by far more diverse than Jamaica.  There are multiple religions and sects, and groups and subgroups that you have to contend with.  A recent run-in with a heavily tattooed and pierced (white) chap in the suburbs of Connecticut, made me ponder personal hang-ups.  We were on our way to Young Rod’s annual Bar-be-cue when we blew a tire.  It could have been a disaster, but Joel skillfully brought the car to a stop without flipping it over. We then got out to survey the damage – it was not a pretty sight.  Our pierced and tatted “friend” was according to him driving behind us and saw what happened, stopped and offered to assist.  He looked scary, at least from my point of view. Joel didn’t seem overly concerned so I kept my mouth shut.

Our guy had all kinds of colorful artwork all over his body – snakes and dragons and whatnot.  Just the kind of a person my fertile imagination saw chopping me up limb, by chubby limb and storing in his refrigerator, or like Hannibal, he’d probably use my brain matter to make stir-fry.

I watched as he jacked up the car, crawled under it and attempted to remove the spare without much success.   He emerges several minutes later, flushed and sweating.   The tire had not been removed in so long; the nuts and bolts were rusted in place.

“I’m gonna have to go get my toolbox.  I don’t live very far, maybe ten minutes away, he said in his Connecticut drawl.  Fifteen minutes later, he was back – three cute kids in tow, one not yet and year old.  He introduced each by name, explaining it was his time to baby-sit.  His wife had to go off somewhere.   I felt ashamed, how could I have labeled this nice man – a God send not less – a serial killer?

When the job was finished and we offered  him money, he was at pains to point out that he did not do it for financial gain, but found pleasure in helping people that needed it.  We gave him a tip anyway.

NYC Musings: Q Train Cowboy

Q Train Cowboy

By Fern White

He boarded the Q Train at the Sheepshead Bay Station, and like lightening the Asian girl scooted to the other end of the seat.  He glanced at her, walked past and leaned his bicycle against the silver often used by riders to keep from falling. 

It was not long before everyone realized why the Asian girl acted moved with such speed.  He smelled like a cesspit. People turned up the noses, others muttered and moved to the other end of the car.  I continued staring.

He held my gaze for a few seconds, and seemingly misconstrued my intent, starting speaking to me.  I looked away quickly.

He must have been about 6’5” – very tall, wore faded jeans a flannel shirt over which he wore a grey T-Shirt.  He wore scuffed brown boots and a cowboy hat. The pungent odor must be from riding his bike in the sun all day, coupled with the fact that he forgot to take a bath before he left home I surmised.

As the train lurched, he held up his palm in the direction of the bicycle and said “stay, stay,” and as if it heard him the bicycle remained stationary.  He took his eyes off the bicycle and began to fight with his plastic bags emblazoned with the CVS logo. 

From his bag he removed about six slices of bread, which he stuffed into his mouth.  He’s hungry I thought.  A bottle of iced tea came out next, and he drank enthusiastically making glugging sounds even oven the noise of the train.  So wrapped up he was in eating that when the train lurched again and his bicycle landed on the ground with a thud, he didn’t even move.  The Q-Train Cowboy was too happy to be sitting and eating to care.

NYC Musings: Clearly, Jesus wasn’t a New Yorker

Clearly Jesus wasn’t a New Yorker

I like the ads on the Subway, since New Yorkers don’t talk to stranger the way people in my country do, I am doomed to reading subway ads.  The ads are not half bad, they are chock-ful of information on things I urgently needs to spend money on.  Cute luggage, men’s sneakers, a chemical peel, education at unheard of and unaccredited schools, vacations, Zip Cars and most importantly storage.

My favorite ads are from Manhattan Mini Storage – they’re all good for a chuckle. I’d like to meet the marketing team, who dreams up gems like “Why leave a city that has six professional sports teams, and also the Mets.  Storage starting at $29.  Free Move.  What a way to get noticed.

Manhattan Mini Storage’s ads caught my eyes shortly after my arrival in New York City, back then I read everything on the subway.  The ad said: “In my father’s house there are many rooms” – John 14:2 – Clearly Jesus was not a New Yorker.  Storage starting at $29.  Free Move.   

It was funny, even a little blasphemous; I still took a picture of it and posted it on my facebook page.  Manhattan Mini Storage has huge billboards all over the city; I keep pointing them out to Joel while he’s driving. Clearly he does not share the same fascination. How about this one Joel, “Hey 99’s Occupy Us.”  Or even “New Yorkers aren’t better than anyone else, we just dress like it.  Manhattan Mini Storage has a sense of humor.

Academic Paper: The Most Beautiful People in the World

The Wodaabe Tribe: 

The Most Beautiful People in the World

The people of the Wodaabe Tribe live in the deserts of Niger, West Africa.  By size Niger, it the one of the largest countries on the continent of Africa, but also one of the most impoverished nations in the world.  A land-locked Niger is bordered by Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Nigeria and Mali among and few others.

 

There are about 100,000 people who identify themselves are Wodaabe, however, by ethnicity, they are closely related to the Fulani people.  The only difference is that they are Nomadic by nature and perhaps the last of the pastoralist on continent of Africa.  They love their way of life, and value the great outdoors.  The Wodaabe people roam the land along the southern edge of the Sahara close the border of Nigeria and Chad following wherever the cattle leads them, which is usually to better grasslands and waterholes.  They value the great outdoors and the freedom that this kind of life affords them. While the tribe has always been cattle herders, their Nomadic way of life is a kind of cultural adaptation caused by several factors.  This includes displacement caused by warfare as well as by an increase in the population of the general area in the early 1900s after French colonizers ordered slaves to be freed.  The freed slaves, the Taureg became cattle herders and farmers.  The competition for agricultural space and pasture caused pressure on the land which led to environmental degradation and over time pushed the tribe further south.  Total devastation of the environment has lead to the demise of the Wodaabe way of life.

 

Their way of life has been much the same for many years, perhaps dating back to the early 20th century.  They consider themselves pure, living off the land, following the cattle.  Modern day Wodaabe are still untainted by automation, advances in technology and kind of consumerism that drive the economies of many city states.  They have come in constant contact with civilization and many migrate to the cities during the dry season to find work so that they can buy millet and replenish their herds, however, city life does not appeal to them as they long to go back to “follow the cattle”.

 

Except for their cattle – the long horned Zebu – the same cattle that have been found painted on ancient rock walls – the Wodaabe have very little in the way of possessions.  This is an intelligent move on their part, as traveling light is desired for people always on the move. 

 

Wodaabe neighbors

There are about 100,000 people who identify themselves are Wodaabe, however, by ethnicity, they are closely related to the Fulani people.  The only difference is that they are Nomadic by nature and perhaps the last of the pastoralist on continent of Africa.  There is no love lost between the Fulani people and Wodaabe tribe.  The Fulani has dubbed the tribesmen as “Bororos: herdsmen in tatters,” while others call them “cattle Fulani” as well as “the people who do not pray.”  The Wodaabe view the Fulani with equal disdain, proudly adhering to their ethnocentric views of being culturally superior to the rest of the Fulani people.  In that same vein, they identify themselves as a people who are “under the taboo of purity” and believe that their adherence to ancient traditions preserves this purity.  These traditions incorporate a code of conduct which includes modesty, patience, reserve and loyalty.  They also value beauty and charm in their every-day interactions with each other.

 

Origin Story

For the Wodaabe Tribe, there is no holy book as their language is spoken and not written.  However the beautiful story of the origin of the tribe has been told over and over for many years and in many ways.  Two children came out of the water and they made a grass house and stayed at that place.   Later, some cows came out of the water…”   One constant thread in the Wodaabe stories is the relationship with water or water spirits as well as the cattle’s continued involvement in their existence. 

 

Religion

The people of the Wodaabe Tribe are loosely Islamic.  Their treatment of religion would be similar to a westerner who was baptized as a baby making them of the Christian faith.  However, as an adult, the person no longer adheres to the rules of the church, but will invoke the name of Jesus during times of difficulty.  Along the same lines, the Wodaabe invoke the name of Allah in times of great distress as well as at births and death, therefore they are not strict or extreme in their religious practices.  In addition to their Islamic beliefs, there is a certain level of animism in their culture.  They in a spiritual realm and that certain spirits live in the trees and in wells, and that these spirits have been troubled by how they have been treated. They also believe that some spirits are dangerous.

 

Diet

The Wodaabe Tribe sticks to a strict diet dictated by religion, tradition and the requirement that they remain pure.  Their staple diet consists mostly of ground millet, for which they trade butter and sometimes cows in order to acquire.  Their diet also includes milk from their cows as well as yogurt.  Rarely, they will eat the meat of goats of sheep, and on special occasions such as a wedding, they will eat the meat of cows.

 

Wodaabe Marriage Practices

Among the Wodaabe tribe, there are fifteen sub-groups.  Membership in a group is by way of kinship whether by birth or marriage.  Your membership in a particular group also dictates who you will marry.  Polygamy is part of the Wodaabe status quo and marriages are arranged among member of the same lineage by the bride and groom’s parents while they are still infants.  Even though the wedding is conducted while both children are pre-pubescent, they normally remain with their families until they become adolescents.   There are also different kinds of marriages.  An arranged marriage is called koogal, while a love match is called a teegal.  Wodaabe married women receives a dory of cattle from her husband’s family.   This belongs to her and to her only. Therefore, if she leaves her husband, then she is free to keep the cattle as they are hers.

(Werner)

 

Sexuality

The Wodaabe are sexually liberal, young girls are free to have sex with whoever they please.  Even though this is so, members of the tribe would not dream of carrying on amorous activity in full view of everyone.  Husbands and wives do not touch each other in public. This seems to be in direct contrast with their liberal nature.   In a video taken of Wodaabe men during the time of their annual festivities, one young man who seemed painfully shy tells another that he was touched by women in plain view of everyone. This is obviously unusual.  Therefore, the Wodaabe’s concept of privacy is highly evolved even if their view of sexuality is more broadminded than that of western culture.

 

The Wodaabe Beauty Contest

One important cultural event for the Wodaabe people is the annual Geerewol; a week of festivities that takes place during the rainy season.  It is an opportunity for all the groups within a particular lineage to come together in fellowship.  Since lineage is an important ingredient in your ability to marry someone, the Geerewol is also an important marriage market of sort. Central to the Geerewol and perhaps the high-point of the celebration is a beauty contest for men.  In this regard, the Wodaabe has turned western concepts of beauty and power on its head.  For the Wodaabe, it is the men who are objectified and are left to the mercy of the women. The men participating in the contest are judged by a set rules and values which are fundamental to the Wodaabe culture.  They see themselves as the most beautiful people on earth, however, their beauty is judged by a different set of rules than that of westernized customs.  The women judging the contest look for this beauty discernible through tallness, sparkling white teeth, pronounced white of the eyes, a perfectly spherical head, a long nose, dancing ability, patience, strength and endurance.  Endurance is a particularly important part of the event, as men who are unable to withstand five to seven grueling hours of tribal dances (Yaake), would not be in the running to be chosen as the winner.  At the Geerewol, there are no runners-up.

 

Preparation for the Gerewol sometimes takes several hours.  The men help each other to get ready even though they will be competing against their friends later.  The men use make-up to accentuate their eyes, nose and paint their faces red.  Some of the make-up comes from natural sources, but their eyeliner comes from carbon of used flashlight batteries.  The costumes are bright and colorful consisting of white beads attached to elaborate head-pieces in which is stuck a white ostrich feather.  The entire clan, including the elderly and children watch the contestants are they compete.  The winner’s prize is not money or material gain, but the fact that he might find a wife, and in most cases second wife.

 

Wodaabe Migration to the Cities

Member of the Wodaabe Tribe began migrating to other are in the late 1960s because of severe recurring drought which killed off their cattle.  Some were able to hire themselves out as herdsmen because of skills with cattle, while other moved to major cities.  In the city, the Wodaabe use their knowledge of herbs to make and sell concoction.  They also make and sell craft items.  They also braid the hair of women from other ethnic groups.  The main motivation for Wodaabe migration is to find money in order to reconstitute the herd this has not been a very successful venture on their part.  Today, there is very little of purely Wodaabe people left and they continue to be marginalized by the Niger power structure as well as environmental degradation. 

 

Photo credit

German Postcard 2007 distributed by Changing World, Germany

 

Works Cited

The Holy Bible: New International Version, Genesis 1 vs 24-26: December 10, 2012

Loftsdóttir, Kristín:  The Place of Birth: Wodaabe Changing Histories of Origin  (2002)  December 14, 2012

Boesen; Elisabeth: Gleaming like the sun:  Aesthetic values in Wodaabe Material Culture (2008) December 8, 2012

Herzog. Werner:  Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989)