A 200-page book on the untimely death of a spouse hardly seems like it would make for light summer reading. But as I’ve devoured Elizabeth Alexander‘s new memoir, The Light of The World, I’ve discovered that there’s beauty in loss, there’s sparkle in remembrance.
The poet lost her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus (pronounced Fee-kray Geb-reh-yess-oos) in April 2012, days after his 50th birthday. Their 15-year union produced two sons, Solomon and Simon, and a cozy life in Connecticut, where Alexander is a professor at Yale University. She composed “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration; a year later she won the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize.
Light does not begin with her husband’s passing, with Alexander preferring we get to know the man before we get to know the ghost. We get to peek into their daily courtship, the mundane aspects of a relationship—leaving for work, waiting up for a partner to get home—taking on a heightened importance. She paints a portrait of a man filled with pride for his Eritrean heritage and an extended family that spanned the globe. Still fresh from her loss, she decided to write this memoir to “fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”
Alexander insists that she knew she would marry her husband at first sight, confiding that she felt a “visceral torque” after laying eyes on her future beloved. But perhaps more powerfully, Alexander is able to show how much her husband loved her, how much of his life was dedicated to bringing light to hers.
Readers holding their breath for the details of Ghebreyesus’ death should know that it comes quickly. Here, the pain and uncertainty of death arrive fresh, even though we know what story we signed up to read. Alexander wrestles with the brutal unfairness of it all: “The slim one who eats oatmeal and flaxseed is the one who dies, while the plump one who eats bacon unabashed stays alive.”
Their story is overwhelmingly and achingly beautiful, with passages that elevate ho-hum Sunday dinners to love-drenched culinary affairs. (The inclusion of a few of Ghebreyesus’ best recipes only tease the senses; I’ve got my eye on the shrimp barka.) Their whole lives were art, from the music to the food to the telling of it all—it is a fitting tribute that one of her husband’s paintings adorns the cover.
“What are the odds that we would end up in the same place and fall in love?” she mused. “Once upon a time, halfway around the world, two women were pregnant at the same time in very different places and their children grew up and found each other.” What are the odds, indeed.
Marian Wright Edelman—born 75 years ago in small-town Bennettsville, S.C.—was named for the great contralto Marian Anderson. The founder of the Children’s Defense Fund still lifts up her voice.
During her third appearance at the City Club of Cleveland, Edelman peppered her talk with notions that seem boiled down over the decades:
- God did not make two classes of children.
- A nation that does not stand up for its children doesn’t stand for anything at all.
- I don’t know why we don’t do what we know.
- We don’t have a money problem. We have a morality problem.
- I want black kids and brown kids to see something in their future called college, not prison.
These were no bromides. Edelman bolstered them with withering facts, expressing her four-decade bewilderment that among the 35 richest nations, only Romania has a higher proportion of its children in poverty than the United States. In 2013, 14.7 million American children—more than the population of Ohio—lived in official poverty while 6.5 million children faced the chronic hunger and homelessness of extreme poverty.
Then Edelman brought the numbers closer to home: In 2013 in Cleveland, 54 percent of its children are poor and one in four is extremely poor. Some 4,000 students this academic year in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District were homeless or doubled-up in temporary housing, said Thomas Ott, director of assignments for the district’s news bureau.
“Let’s pray and vote and stand up and fight for those children who have never been carried,” Edelman said, echoing the Baptist tradition in which she grew up.
Wearing owlish glasses, a colorful green and yellow jacket and a no-nonsense air, the children’s crusader injected humor into her preaching, reaching for principles she said were derived from Noah’s Ark: “Remember the arc was built by amateurs and the Titanic was built by experts.”
To illustrate her message, Edelman described a young Clevelander she met last month in Columbus. Born addicted to drugs, Brittany defied a grim prognosis and grew into a student who loved and excelled in school, despite an absent father, a cocaine-addled mother and her own lupus. For ten years Brittany’s grandmother provided a loving home for Brittany, her older sister and brother until their mother became sober and regained custody. This spring, Brittany is graduating from John Hay High School of Science and Medicine determined to become a doctor.
“I believe so strongly we don’t have the right to give up on any child,” Edelman said, as some listeners wiped away tears.
Edelman acknowledged her long-time friends, Dolly and Steven A. Minter, for whom her City Club lecture was endowed. Their daughter Robyn Minter Smyers, partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office of Thompson Hine, introduced Edelman, calling her “a role model and a profound source of inspiration.” Minter Smyers interned for Edelman in Washington, D.C. a quarter century ago. A bit earlier, in 1970, another former Children Defense Fund intern began making her mark: Hillary Rodham.
Here are the remaining lessons Edelman derives from Noah’s Ark:
- Don’t miss the boat. (The U.S. military now disqualifies 75 percent of applicants for illiteracy and prior imprisonment.)
- We are all in the same boat.
- Plan ahead. (“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”)
- Stop being timid.
- For safety, travel in pairs, or better yet, in community.
Did Marvel get it right with A-Force, its latest contribution to the world of female superheroes? Not if you ask Jill Lepore, Harvard University history professor and author of last year’s well-reviewed The Secret History of Wonder Woman. In a recent op-ed for The New Yorker, Lepore called the Avenger-type squad “porn stars.”
“Maybe it’s not possible to create reasonable female comic-book superheroes, since their origins are so tangled up with magazines for men,” writes Lepore, who won a 2006 Anisfield-Wolf prize for New York Burning. “True, they’re not much more ridiculous than male superheroes. But they’re all ridiculous in the same way.”
G. Willow Wilson, one of the creators of A-Force, responded on her Tumblr: “I imagine Dr. Lepore and I want the same thing: better, more nuanced portrayals of women in pop culture. What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches, doing exactly that.”
Wilson is a writer for the best-selling comic Ms. Marvel, which features a Muslim teen with shape-shifting powers, and she objected to the porn-star characterization head-on: “None of them are in the sexually objectified contortions that have become standard issue in recent decades. They are, in other words, posed the way their male colleagues are typically posed. They are posed as heroes.”
Read Lepore’s original cultural criticism in full here and see Wilson’s entire rebuttal.
The annual Anisfield-Wolf brown bag lunch series at the Cleveland Public Library takes a twist this year with a deep dive into the Anisfield-Wolf catalog.
Doctoral student Valentino Zullo of Kent State University will introduce Cleveland to Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, both past and present. Zullo credits his mentor, Dr. Vera J. Camden, a professor of English at Kent State University, for teaching him the importance of conversation in literature. “It is through the sharing of stories that we are able to find relief from the outside world and learn to reimagine our role within it.”
Beginning Wednesday, June 10, an in-depth discussion of each book will occur over the summer. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award book discussions will take place at the Main Library, in the literature department on the second floor. Contact the library at 216.623.2881 for more information.
The Wall tells the inspiring story of forty men and women who escape the horror of the Warsaw ghetto from November 1939 to May 1943. Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and journalist, chronicles events by means of a fictional diary kept by Noach Levinson, self-appointed archivist of Polish Jewry.
A Man Booker prize finalist, Half-Blood Blues takes the reader from 1939 to 1952, and from the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, to discover the story of legendary jazz trumpet-player Hieronymus Falk. Declared a musical genius, he was a 20-year-old Black
German citizen when he was arrested in a Paris café just before the outbreak of WWII.
From the slums of Columbia to Iowa City to the South China Sea, Nam Le’s accomplished debut takes the reader around the world with seven stories and seven characters as diverse and imaginatively created as their locales.
New York Times bestselling author Walter Mosley introduces a philosophical urban hero in this acclaimed collection of 14 entwined tales. Meet Socrates Fortlow, a tough ex-con seeking truth and
redemption in South Central Los Angeles—and finding the miracle of survival.
Which black actors might best portray Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, the three real-life protagonists of Isabel Wilkerson’s groundbreaking history of the Great Migration, “The Warmth of Other Sons”?
A-list producer Shonda Rhimes likely has her pick of talent in the small screen adaptation of Wilkerson’s meticulous nonfiction classic, which won a National Book Award and an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2011.
Shondaland Productions will bring “Warmth” to FX this fall, her company’s first foray into cable programming. Writer/director Dee Rees of 2011’s indie hit Pariah will write the script.
Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, spent 15 years researching the exodus of more than six million African Americans out of the South between 1910 and 1970. If the series sticks close to its source material, viewers will come to know Gladney, who left Mississippi in 1937 for Chicago; Starling, who fled Florida in 1945 for Harlem; and Foster, who left Louisiana for Los Angeles in 1953.
Wilkerson joins a long line of Anisfield-Wolf winners to have their works transitioned to screen; HBO has optioned both Marlon James’ 2014 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings and Ari Shavit’s 2013 My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Better clear out room on the DVR.
More than 200 prominent authors—among them Anisfield-Wolf winners Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—have publicly objected to the PEN American Center’s decision to present French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its Free Expression Courage award. Gunmen aggrieved by the magazine’s depiction of Islam targeted the controversial Paris weekly in January and killed a dozen people.
The signatories of an April letter to PEN argue that power and privilege must be considered when defining courageousness in satire: “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.” One of the critics is former PEN American president Francine Prose.
Defending the decision, her successor, Andrew Solomon, co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, noting that, “Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate.” Solomon, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf prize in nonfiction for “Far From the Tree,” expressed respect for those criticizing the award, but argues their emphasis is misplaced.
“I think that if we don’t endorse people who are taking these courageous stances,” Solomon told NPR, “if we don’t recognize the enormous personal risks they’re taking and if we don’t fully acknowledge that in taking that risk they keep a public discourse alive that otherwise is in danger of being entirely closed down, that we miss the purpose of standing up for free speech.”
Charlie Hebdo editor Gérard Biard is expected to accept the award on behalf of the magazine at PEN America’s annual gala in Manhattan May 5.
“I want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Martin Luther King,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer lectured community activist Deray McKesson in a now infamous four-minute interview.
“You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” McKesson answered, contrasting property damage with the injuries that killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.
Jericho Brown, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year, recoiled at Blitzer’s distortion of King and decided to say so. His essay, “How Not to Interview Black People About Police Brutality,” is posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog.