Of Fantasy & Fortune

As of January 24, 2014, the fourth homeless person this year succumbed to frigid cold in Philadelphia. John Smulligan Jr would have turned 31 today, according to an Inquirer, Philly.com article.He was a graduate of New York University, down on his luck after tragedy and illness entered his life. Proof, one might say, that unspeakable things might happen to any one of us given the wrong eventualities in life.

Would that Mr. Smulligan’s tragic fate were an isolated event. This year (still in its first days) in the U.S. alone, the media brims with reportage of the ravages of homelessness and hunger, unemployment and illness. Often these reports rest in glossy magazines above heart wrenching photographs of people aside glistening images of sumptuous foods, romantic seascapes or superfluous products.

As has been said so often one must fear it will soon become the stuff of another political cliché without result, we indeed live in two economic realities. All our cities and towns boast well landscaped, expertly tended homes with well designed vistas, quaint shops and efficient services. Often merely yards apart, decay and disinterest ruminate through the structures and institutions which serve the people who are of lesser financial means and political power.

The central myth which permits coexistence of these two realities is actually quite simple: the belief that unforseen fortunate things might happen to any one of us given the right eventualities in life.

Perhaps, this myth is the fantasy which fuels the embrace by so many of the television series “Downton Abbey”

A costume-period soap opera, with a glacial and weak narrative,Downton has, nonetheless, inspired all things Downton, from mugs and tee-shirts, tea sets and jams to museum shows and travel tours. This is, of course, in addition to the series garnering a mass audience and much media attention. While at first this strikes one as somewhat curious, upon reflection, this might be entirely proper in our economic and political climate. Downton is, quite simply, at the heart, a glittering and lavish ode to the capitalist myths and mantras held most dear in our culture.

In the current season, the grand English estate has survived the unspeakable horrors of World War I. Not unscathed has the family remained. Loss of life, health and sanity touched even the Grantham family and fellow gentry. The gruesome violence was a great leveler at the stage in warfare when those in battles included the grand as well as more of the ordinary. Nor did the health hazards of modernization, the influenza outbreak, such as, leave the family without scars. Indeed, even the darker risks arising from the hallmarks of modernization (the Titanic, the motor car) deeply wounded the family.

Still, the Granthams who survive remain largely fixed in their traditional world view. Unquestioning, they are dressed and undressed, pampered and served by a battalion of staff who live below the stairs in unadorned quarters without privacy or the dignity of being addressed, with rare exception, by other than a family name. Intimate family matters are discussed in front of household staff as though no other human being were present. Ladies lounge in luxury eating full breakfasts in silken robes in rooms filled with sunlight and crackling fires. As the staff, dressed in subdued colors, toil and serve, the aristocrats daily don formal dress, women wearing fashionable brilliant hues and elbow length gloves. This detailed ritual is precisely executed for the simple purpose that a family may sit around a dining table together and eat a meal.

Of course, among the staff, there is never harmony. The man in charge, though sometimes evidencing wisdom above his station and a human heart, largely growls at the personnel to remind them that they are inferior. Footmen compete with each other for the affection of kitchen maids and scuttle each other’s confidence. Women fear electrical appliances beyond reason. Servants evidence ignorance of city life, ambition, morality. The viewer is invited to accept that it is unfortunate for the staff that modern times will eliminate traditional service jobs. We are asked to believe that a man who does not immediately accept a demotion in a service position is foolhardy indeed.

Most significantly, the gentry at and around Downton still cling to the Colonial power of England. Despite the fact that a son-in-law is a former Irish Republican, within a few short years, he is no longer at home in the land of his birth. Such must be the seductiveness of the life of the Upper Classes and the lure of the Colonial Power that a man recently willing to sacrifice his life for his country now doesn’t even take his daughter home to visit the country of his birth. Other colonial natives, from India, Australia, Singapore and the African colonies, such as, are rarely seen. A black jazz musician is celebrated when he remains appropriately in the background. Yet when seen by the gentry as exceeding his “place” and dancing with a young, white Lady, he is quickly removed from her company. The distaste and censure are shared by all. Not even the turncoat Irish Republican experiences class solidarity with the talented man.

It is not that the Grathams and their kind are immune to the moral duty to give unto to others. The commoner mother of the late son-in-law of the Earl is the Conscience of the family. She indefatigably promotes the welfare of the villagers in various health initiatives and in efforts of individual patronage. But what is most telling, for the Granthams: one must be secretive about generosity.

When a tenant who has been “lawfully” evicted seeks reinstatement, the Earl smiles approvingly at the bold suggestion of the tenant that the families had worked the land in question for generations “in partnership.” (A suggestion which undoubtedly, five years earlier would have evoked the violent ire of a true Irish Republican who would have witnessed or inherited countless tales of the ransacking and destruction of many tenant homes.) With a sense of true generosity, the Lord arranges for the tenant to resume the farm by himself making a loan. But no one is to know! Of course, the tale requires that family members discover the fact of the Earl’s good heart. Alas, decorum requires that this too remain a secret. Indeed, the good Earl should not be shamed with the fact that others have discovered his empathy and generosity.

In the world of 1920’s England, the ruling class of many centuries, exhausted and traumatized as was the western world by the horror of World War I, perceived an uncertain future. The upper classes sought to consolidate their wealth. For some less privileged, even some of the working class, modern times brought new opportunities. Most, however, were left not able to reach the fabulous riches of their day.

Today, we hear calls of the socially aware, of the politicians, in the State of the Union, even, to beware income inequality. We turn away in mass numbers to enter the world of the fabulously if fictional rich. If only we stay mindful that the ultimate fiction is the fantasy that is pedaled: the chauffeur does not really become a member of the family and the frog will never become a prince.

Realizations in Black and White


I love film.  I love watching films in a nice theater with deep comfortable seats and equipped with an audio system that will allow the soundtrack to encircle me.  I have found films healthy food for my intellect, enhancing for my literary sense, challenging for my mind, directing for my reading.  But I can recall few  films that can begin to meet the power or the challenging intellectual and emotional impact of   Fruitvale Station.

If you had asked me before I entered the theater whether I was aware of racism in our society, I would have said, quite reflexively, in fact,  “of course.”

However, driving home after watching the power of this film, I recalled what had seemed to me at the time an embarrassing, but not so important incident. Leaving a medical facility while under the influence of anesthetic after a medical procedure, I was assaulted by a man, although not injured.  When I reported the incident to the facility staff, the first question posed:”Was he black?”

I did not realize then that because I did not query back, “Why, does it make a difference?” I was complicit in a racist exchange.

In many discussions, in many places, at many times, I might have posed as a person who had special insight into “the race question.”  I might have told you that I learned about white privilege early when I attended a 1% white elementary school in West Philadelphia.  I probably would have shared how it was through the indiscriminate brutality of the nuns towards the children of color and their simultaneous treatment of the white children as “special,” that I saw the ugly face of racism and the embarrassing privilege of being white in the U.S.   I possibly might have   recounted my early experience of friendship with black children, exchanging and sharing snacks, believing this represented my own surmounting of our society’s racial divide.  Or I might have opened up about the magical friendship which I shared with my best friend in college, Sheena.  Sadly, this friendship was lost in those politically charged days of the late 1970s  when  identity politics was such a personal struggle.  Measuring identity as a black woman and its room for friendship with white women took a terrible toll,  yet this was one of the tasks which could become paramount in our young world where we claimed, “the personal is political,” convinced that we understood.

If you had asked me about racists, I most likely would have told you about my family of origin:  Irish immigrants and their offspring who spouted hateful statements as the civil rights struggle, the assassinations, the legal changes unfolded before our eyes as I grew up in the 1960’s.

Yes, I  was quite comfortable with that my liberal credentials allowed me understanding of the “race question” in the United States.

Not anymore.  Not after experiencing Fruitvale Station.

The film has been criticized by bastions of conservative propaganda as “whitewashing” the factual life of Oscar Grant, who was executed by a white Oakland police officer in 2008.  This criticism is almost the point.

Fruitvale Station bases its plot on the life of Oscar Grant the day before he was murdered.  It is implicit in the film’s action that we cannot know whether every word uttered, every embrace exchanged, each flash of anger, each moment of kindness is “real” or fictional.

We have learned that fifty people can witness the same event and report it entirely differently.  Do we not understand at the very least that one person’s honest statement of fact can differ dramatically from that of another?

What matters in this film is not that this WAS the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, but that this could have been the experience of Mr. Grant or any one of the young black men sacrificed on the United States’ altar of racism.

As I watched the film, I slowly traveled a path of new awareness as to how white supremacy infiltrates the life of a young black man, his family, and his friends.  From the fear he sees in the eyes of a white woman whom he addresses without knowing her, to the realization he accepts that for an unconnected, disrespected young black male, there will be no second chances, I saw reflections of myself, my family, my friends.  The search for a greeting card with black faces, while perhaps a cliché, in this film is a moment of transcendent understanding.  The image of a dead pit-bull is heartbreaking as we  comprehend that we are often easily aroused to sympathy for abused animals even as we are reluctant to engage in a conversation about the depth of the racial divide.

Perhaps most stunningly the film moved my consciousness from the screen to the theater.  Here, the audience for this film in an upscale art house theater was at least 50% people of color. Never before had I shared a film experience with such a diverse audience in this cinema generally populated with white, urban film buffs.

Ultimately we are left with a true image, that of Oscar Grant’s child.  It is this achingly poignant image that testifies to the truth of this narrative.  In the child’s face, we see pain passed on to another generation that will struggle in a society ravaged by a humiliating racial history.  The natural movement of her eyes escaping the camera affirms that it matters not whether Oscar Grant in fact decided to “go straight” the day before he died.  It matters only that, as real-time video captured in this case, a young black father was targeted to the exclusion of any white train riders. He was accused of crime based on the color of his skin, what that skin color means to whites. What matters is the brutality that was witnessed and tolerated by hundreds of onlookers who lacked the courage to intervene.  What matters is the shot that ended another life which had limited chances to change the narrative he entered at the moment of his birth.

I left that theater with a sense of shame. Shame at my skin color, shame at my middle class life, shame at my education, and shame at my foolishness believing I could even begin to understand.

(This post was first written in January, 2013 when the film appeared in theaters.  The film is now available on DVD.)