Letter (from a Milwaukee jail of my mind), to Louisa Loveridge-Gallas, on the state of our nation and her own psyche

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, Washington, DC. Courtesy The Travel Channel
E-mail from Louisa-Loveridge Gallas on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 17, 2021:
Dear friends.
I’m sending on a link to this famous Vietnam speech by MLK I go back to on MLK day, so pivotal in his career. Stunning that he was assassinated a year to the day after. And so brave as he found that he angered and disappointed a number of activists and allies for his stance against the war who felt he should stick to civil rights in the approach and focus he had been taking.
Also I’d like think out loud with you. In a very different way and historical context, I just want to add I am beginning to experience that Biden is being attacked at times, in ways I find irresponsible, for speaking out eloquently and clearly for the moral high road of history in his Georgia speech. I refer not only by Republicans but to comments by prominent Democrats like David Axelrod, Obama’s consultant, on CNN; NYT commentators like Maureen Dowd, and even top legislators like Nancy Pelosi. To name a few. Cheap shots, reaching for a way to insult on minor points, calling out strong opinions disagreed with as unbridled ‘rhetoric’ to name a few.
Of course reasonable, fact-based analysis has to go forward. May everyone be generous and informed as we precede with our critiques even in informal conversation. I know I’m not alone in witnessing that these are perilous times where a compassionate approach to each other and in the political realm is at risk in the zeitgeist of the need to one up, demean too easily and thoughtlessly These are such times of anxiety that inflame disagreements and difference; or enhance compassion fatigue.
I certainly don’t count myself out. I’ve been writing some pretty snarky op Ed comments. And make an occasional fevered phone call, as I did to Axelrod’s office. My fur can rise along with a hiss if a friend or relative isn’t on the same page with my take on all the complexities we are living within. I fail. I’m working on myself. I welcome any thoughts you may have to help me along and no pressure to respond, of course, as so many influences and responsibilities call upon us.
So them’s my thoughts and a link to his speech.
Take care. Be safe.
Sincerely,
Louisa *

Full speech text:  King speech

***

 

Dear Louisa,

How I love your caring, your awareness, your intelligence, your passion, and activist voice. And your brave, insightful analogue between Rev. King and President Biden.
Holy moly (forgive my dated boomer utterance), we all need some empathy and psychological guidance and salve, these days. Perhaps, take some deep, slow breaths, dear friend. Take a long walk beside the empowering tide of our Great Lake, or deep into the woods. Listen to the “conference of the birds,” the way they sing to, and advise, each other. Of danger, yes. They live stressed lives, as vulnerable creatures. And yet, they sing.
If only we could truly fly. Yet we can, in our mind, and drag our lagging, embittered, mudbound spirit aloft, which brings to mind a magnificent Herman Melville quote, from the last paragraph of  Moby-Dick, Chapter 96 “The Try-Works”
Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
flickr.com 
Only slightly less poetic is Robert F. Kennedy‘s speech in Indianapolis, after annoucing the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the day after the tragic event. This video is a part of the speech but very worthy. Robert Kennedy is one of my heroes, more so than JFK.
I read the speech (2 pages) during a troubled, virtually sleepless last night, in Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, edited and introduced by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy. 1 This is a priceless paperback, to me.
Kennedy quotes his favorite poet Aeschylus, from memory: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Kennedy continues: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be whites or they be black.”
I ponder and treasure those thoughts, and rededicate myself to living up to them, to the degree I am able.
(BTW, Bobby Kennedy also had a wit comparable to brother Jack, with fine comic timing — hear his Ball State U speech, following this one on youtube.)
 

Then there’s those who would score “cheap political points” against President Biden, as you protest, Louisa — be they leftist, liberal, centrist, never-Trumpers or far-right Trumpsters.
Biden has only been any office one year, and has laid out perhaps the most ambitious vision and agenda since Lyndon Johnson‘s The Great Society. Yes, he needs to show — and effect — more fight and passion, but he’s getting there, I think. DINO Sens. Manchin and Sinema still sit on the fence like a couple of owls, saying “Who me?” as the 60-vote filibuster looms like the Sword of Damocles, over vastly important social initiatives that are very popular with Americans.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are slithering around from state to state, contriving new voter suppression laws. We need a federal oversight law on voting rights, especially to protect the rights and access of people of color and other disenfrachised citizens.
I am, for the moment, disheartened by all the clamoring special-interest factions of the Democratic Party, each of whom has profoundly legitimate concerns, perhaps most presently voting rights, and a woman’s right to determine her own body. But also the looming apocalypse of climate change… and more, of course.
But a lot of things can happen between now and November’s mid-term elections.

Dear Louisa, as Rev. King says, concluding the sacred but tough-minded speech you quote (echoing Frederick Douglass‘s famous thoughts about “struggle”):

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. The choice is ours. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I believe many tears, sweat and, yes, blood, will commingle with that mighty stream. We are psychically stained by John Kennedy’s blood, from 1963, and by Robert Kennedy’s and Martin’s blood, in 1968, and so many since.

No more, I pray and cry. May America’s profusion of inward-pointed guns desist!

But justice is a hardy soul, I believe. She can swim like a sleek yet powerful fish, or trudge, like a woman or man, long distances, in protest and dissent, which many politicans hear, if loud and pointed enough.

Robert Kennedy quotes Algerian-French author-philosopher Albert Camus as much as anyone in this Make Gentle the Life of This World collection. Camus, I believe, was then addressing the people of Germany, under the Third Reich.

Yet how his words ring on today — when Fascist demagogury and governments sprout weedlike over Mother Earth and here at home — like a great thunderous bell, clanged by mythical Quasimodo in Camus’s Paris, or his very real fellow ringer in Philadelphia, so that the big-shouldered Liberty Bill cracked. 2

Camus wrote:

“This is what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth.”

Ringing for truth, justice and love,

Kevin

_____
Louisa Loveridge-Gallas is an acclaimed poet, body-mind counseler, op-Ed writer, music lover, and activist. She’s working on a new chapbook of socially-motivated poems, and on a “jazz novel,” set in Madison, Wisonsin. She’s a former long-time resident of Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, and now resides in Michigan. 
Louisa Loveridge-Gallas. Courtesy Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets
1 Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy, edited and introduced by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, 1998, Broadway Books, 42-43
2 The crack ocurred on the Philadelphia bell’s very first test ring in 1752, shipped from a French foundry (those French!), and it was clearly a flawed casting — like the great nation it signifies.
To me, now, the crack now resembles King’s waters of justice rolling down, the mighy stream. 
.

Let’s commission or buy more historic statues of Civil War or civil rights heroes. Good ones! Great ones!

One of the more complex and fraught cultural issues arising these days is the removal of (largely) Confederate statues. Some are being toppled and at least partly destroyed. I’m all for the long-overdue change in culture, in response to our urgent times. This need is no better addressed than in this recent Op-Ed by poet and author Caroline Randall Williams in The New York Times, powerfully underscored in a dark symbolism, dwelling in the statues’ heroic posturings. Here (via Daily Kos) is a link: NYT Op-Ed on Confederate statues

The Times headline defiantly declared “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

Williams continued with the startling lead:

 I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

She went on to explain:

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists…

Poet and author Caroline Randall Williams wrote a scathing commentary recently on the dark underbelly of Confederate statues for The New York Times. Courtesy Nashville Scene.

Amen to that. However, I’m also in the camp of those who think Confederate statues should be moved to museums, and submitted to proper historical contextualization and commentary. And partly given my undergrad degree was in art, with a concentration on sculpture, I have a bias towards preserving public art of historical significance, the good, bad and sometimes even the ugly..

The issue reached a razor’s edge that bled into the absurd recently in Madison, Wisconsin, where I lived and worked for nearly 20 years, as an arts reporter for The Capital Times. So I was greatly saddened see that Wisconsin’s “foreword” statue, long situated on the Capitol Square, was knocked over, and thrown in Lake Mendota. And that the statue of renowned abolitionist and union soldier Hans Christian Heg – a Norwegian immigrant who knew the meaning of being an other, and who died fighting to end slavery – was knocked down and dragged down the street. These were acts of little more than self-righteous ignorance, or worse, perhaps racist subversion.

Several of my friends suspect this was the handiwork of a Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists infiltrating the Madison George Floyd civil rights protests. As one friend shrewdly observed, the guilty party scrawled the phrase “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” at the top of the deposed Heg sculpture’s base (see below). Here’s the thing. That phrase hasn’t been used by most African-Americans since the 1960s. It suggests this was a bogus and culturally lame attempt to place the blame on Black Lives Matter.

Base of the statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, after the statue was torn down recently. Photo by Allison Garfield. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

On a related issue, I cannot agree with student activists who call for the removal of the beloved statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, at the top of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus. The bronze sculpture mirrors the grand marble sculpture of our 16th president seated in The Lincoln Memorial.

The controversy has to do with what we now call white supremacist comments that Lincoln made before the Civil War during the famous debates with Stephen Douglas. Yes, they are troubling, but history shows that Lincoln redeemed himself through his actions many times over, and indeed was a martyr for the cause of ending slavery. He  inspired Juneteenth Day with his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves.

Such a leader should be judged by his actions, and such formal proclamations that carry great political weight, rather than by his worst comments, which reveal his racial biases (which we all have, to some degree). Remember too, it was the 1850s, upon which we can misapply our social standards begat by time. We know Lincoln realized that even he struggled at times to stay aligned with the better angels of his nature. And that he always considered slavery immoral and worth destroying with all the Union’s might.

As for what to do about politically historical statues in general, I prefer to think more constructively. If we replace Confederate statues, what should we commission or construct in their stead?

The issue of how to replace them was addressed creatively by six artists in a 2018 New York Times article, when the controversy over a Robert E. Lee statue arose in connection to the infamous Charlottesville clash of civil rights and white supremacists: The New York Times, Aug. 10, 2018, “Monuments for a New Era.”

 

But Madison and other cities could follow the example of Milwaukee, which last December purchased a bronze sculpture by the acclaimed black sculptor Radcliffe Bailey depicting W.E.B. DuBois, the great black writer, thinker, sociologist and civil rights activist. 1 The sculpture, titled “Pensive,” depicts DuBois seated in the same posture as Auguste Rodin’s celebrated “The Thinker,” and even mimics the early modernist Rodin’s rough-hewn modeling. The work was purchased as a gift to the city by Sue and Mark Irgens, and mounted this spring in its new location outside of the new BMO Tower, 790 N. Water St.

Radcliffe Bailey, Pensive, 2013, part of Sculpture Milwaukee 2019. © Radcliffe Bailey, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki for Sculpture Milwaukee

Milwaukee first experienced the quiet but indeed pensive power of the bronze figure in the 2019 MKE Sculpture exhibit mounted along Wisconsin Avenue. For me, it was the outstanding work in the exhibit, artistically and culturally, and I spotlit it in a blog posting, here:

Bronze sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois is highlight of Sculpture Milwaukee

The work’s conceptual lineage is deep, as Rodin’s original “The Thinker” depicted poet Dante Aligieri’s figure, drawing from the poet’s The Divine Comedy, and conceived as a figure contemplating Rodin’s massive tableaux sculpture, The Gates of Hell commissioned in 1880. The symbolic significance of the tableaux is not lost on our times, nor on DuBois’s, when he boldly stirred American consciousness on matters of race in the early 20th century, directly defying Jim Crow.

But the first of Rodin’s familiar monumental bronze castings of “The Thinker,” as a stand-alone sculpture, did not appear until 1904.

Works such as Bailey’s, completely in 2013, ought to be the standard we strive for in public art, especially on fraught matters as race relations or the Civil War. I would love to see Madison commission or purchase a monument to, say, the epic ex-slave biographer and leader Frederick Douglass, or the heroic Underground Railroad operator Harriet Tubman, or modern civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Or even a work commemorating the death of Emmett Till, which sparked the modern civil rights movement, sensitive as such a rendering might be.

We are in a time of extraordinary social upheaval and transformation, which may feel to too transitory for doubters of social progress. Still, I can think of few better ways we can celebrate such progress and permanently inspire its furtherance, than with bronze public sculptures that embody our history’s embattled nobility and, we pray, our future redemption in freedom and equality for all.

___________

1 News of the sculpture’s purchase, gifting and re-installation, as reported by Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee.com: https://onmilwaukee.com/ent/articles/irgens-pensive.html

“I can breathe” means I can write, about love in a time of angry protest

A protest march, including the author, against police brutality moves through Whitefish Bay Saturday. Photo for Shepherd Express by Tea Krulos

On Sunday morning, I wrote a commentary piece on the police brutality protest march I had participated in the day before.  The march had special meaning to me because it’s the first one of the current marches I know of that penetrated Shorewood, the nearby suburb where I grew up from my adolescence, and on into Whitefish Bay, engulfing the main thoroughfares of both municipalities.

What struck me first was the fact that I, in fact, could breathe — at the first protest march I’d partook of since the coronavirus, considering I’m quite at risk in my 60s and suffer from asthma. I thought the phrase  “I can breathe,” mirroring George Floyd’s, might be a headline phrase when I decided to submit it to the Shepherd Express, which accepted and published it yesterday in their online edition 1

Express editor David Luhrssen decided that a theme within the piece was a more striking headline, and I think he was right (I combine both ideas in my headline here). After seeing a protester wearing a red cap with the phrase, “Make America love again,” I pondered whether John Lennon’s famous notion about the power of love had potency and potential in our current crisis. I only wish I had added some lines from his great song “All You Need is Love.” So I will quote some rather profound lyrics from the song as I lead you to a link to my Shepherd Express commentary:

There is nothing you can make that can’t be made.

No one you can save that can’t be saved.

Nothing you can do but you can learn

how to be you in time.

It’s easy…

( my italics)

Perhaps it’s not always easy. But Lennon’s simple rhetorical assertion leads to the idea off applying love to the problem, perhaps learning to love in a Christ-like manner. Lennon’s notion that we can learn, through activism, how to be who we really are (or “praying with our legs” as Frederick Douglass put it) rather than through passive being or existence, is what strikes me.

The link to my Shepherd Express commentary on the protest

And thanks for reading, and for trying to be who you really are.

In addition, here are the two sides of the protest sign I made and used for the March including my satirical drawing of Donald Trump:

I didn’t arrange the book titles shown beside the sign, but their titles serendipitously resonate with ideas explicit or implicit in my Shepherd Express article. The small book at top is a portion of the Bible illustrated by Marc Chagall. 

This backside of the sign at top, from a previous march protesting police violence as supported by Trump, received plenty of comments during the march. Photos by Kevin Lynch.

Activism is also crucially about dialog as well as dissent. I’m also sharing images below, by Jonathan Klett, of Milwaukee Police Chief Alberto Morales. Here he’s talking, at a Veteran’s Park protest Sunday, with Nate Hamilton (in red jersey), the brother of Dontre Hamilton, who was killed by a MPD officer at Red Arrow Park a few years ago — the subject of the acclaimed documentary Blood is on the Doorstep. I allude to Morales’ defiant comments and to the film’s title in my SE article. I was also troubled by the fact that Morales lowered his mask to speak face-to-face with Hamilton. Is this a version of Donald Trump’s macho posturing about not wearing a mask during the COVID crisis?

Nate Hamilton (left, in red jersey) speaks with MPD chief Alberto Morales. Photo by Jonathan Klett.

Here is a brief video by Jonathan Klett of MPD Chief Morales being dissed away from the Veteran’s Park protest:

Morales leaving protest

I highly recommend Blood is at the Doorstep, about Hamilton’s death and his family’s effort towards justice, now available for streaming or purchase. I reviewed it in this blog:

Milwaukee film brilliantly embraces the family of Dontre Hamilton – a search for justice

Thanks to Klett for this link to the film:

https://streamingmoviesright.com/us/movie/the-blood-is-at-the-doorstep/

______________

 

1 The ceasing of the Shepherd Express print edition has forced the permanent lay-off of much SE staff, including my friends John Schneider and Rip Tenor (a.k.a. Art Kumbalek), a sad turn of events.