White Girl Dancing

“At first (when she was not yet Miss Tee but Auntee) she was mostly the one who always came to cuddle, kiss, and oopdedoopdedoodle you saying some brown sugarboy lips and some sugarboy brownskin cheekbones and some brown sugarboy foreheadbone and some sugarboy brown righthand knockout knucklebone…” – Albert Murray

Until I really got into the cadence of Train Whistle Guitar, I felt like whitey out on the dance floor, unable to keep time, incapable of following Albert Murray’s rhythm. Like his characters, guitar player Luzana Cholly and pianist Stagolee Dupas, Murray beats and bobs with his prose, tapping out struts and riffs and tempos and rhythms that left me flailing, out of sync and out of time.

As I struggled through those first fifty pages or so, I pictured a brown-skinned, white-whiskered man, eyes closed, shaking his head to an internal beat that I could not hear. He extemporized, improvised, riffed rhymes and repetitions to a foot tapping, knee-slapping beat, and while I could feel a pulse there, I got lost in phrases I could not decipher:

“Me my name is Jack the Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the briarpatch.”

What does that mean?! I puzzled over that sentence. I came back to it again and again. I worked at dissecting the “also in the also and also of” until my brain hurt. Finally I gave up on it, quit trying to figure its meaning, and surrendered to the rhythm of Murray’s phrasing. Once I did that, once I stopped trying so hard, once I stopped trying to be so cerebral, the tempo took me and I enjoyed the book for its purcussive pacing and delicious depictions. I savored his sentences, his descriptions of making love to a girl in the woods,

“What she mostly smelled like was green moss. But that first time it was willow branches then fig branches, then plum leaves. Sometimes it was sweetgum leaves plus sweetgum sap. And sometimes it was green pine needles plus pine trunk bark plus terpentine-box resin. But mainly it was live oak twigs which she chewed plus Spanish moss which she used to make a ground pallet.”

of parts of speech,

“A preposition is a relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.” (!!)

of the coastal forest,

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

and the bayou,

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

of woodpeckers,

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest of the sunshine.”

and of course, the jook joint as young Scooter saw it from his hidden perch in a tree:

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

When I finished reading Train Whistle Guitar, I felt flustered by my initial inability to jibe with Murray’s swing, and I didn’t think I liked the book all that well. Despite two index card bookmarks I filled with quotes, I only gave it three stars on Goodreads, writing in my review that I couldn’t get over our rhythmic differences. Train Whistle Guitar is one of those books – you know the kind – that when I first finished it, I only thought it was okay. But it has caught me, like a complex tune that you’re not sure you like the first time you hear it, and my mind keeps coming back to it.

And the more my mind comes back to it, the more I remember his beautiful descriptions of brown skin –

honey brown finelegged frizzly headed woman

sugarboy brownskin

chocolate brown dimples

as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like

May your Anne Tee have some pretty please help herself to some of all this yum yum sugar and all this yum yum honey plus all this buster brownskin pudding and pie.

  • and my toe taps, til I feel like I could close my eyes, and shake my head, and groove in a smoky jook joint, “doing the shimmieshewobble and the messaround.”  The more I hear Murray’s phrases, the more I relish them, just like those complex tunes that grow on you even if you’re not sure you liked them the first time, and I’ll turn him up and sing even if I don’t know all the words, and dance even if I look like whitey out on the dance floor.

I have since upgraded my Goodreads review to 4 stars. I keep thinking of things I loved about this book. Another favorite aspect was Murray’s deep respect for his characters, revealed through his tender descriptions of brown skin. 

This was originally published December 11, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

Atticus Finch is my parenting role model

left to right: Scout, Atticus, Jem from To Kill A Mockingbird movie, black and white photo, on andreareadsamerica.com

“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine, too.” – Scout, from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

My most recent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird was my first reading as a parent – at least as a parent with children old enough to talk – and Atticus Finch is my new hero.

Atticus, father to Jem and Scout, the children from whose perspective To Kill a Mockingbird is told, is one of the fairest men I’ve come across in literature.  He has always been a hero: for defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1940s Alabama; for his calm in facing a mob of his own friends and neighbors; for his reluctance to claim the title “One-Shot Finch” dispite his marksmanship skills, and for subsequently laying down his weapon because “he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things.”

He has always been a hero for these reasons, but now that I’m a parent who struggles with equipping our children to navigate their world, with knowing what to talk to them about and when, with gentling them into the inconsistencies in human nature, with teaching them to treat people with respect and fairness, and most importantly, with how to model right behavior to them, Atticus Finch is my hero all over again.

Atticus respects his children as individuals and as equals. This is not something we normally do as parents. We often put ourselves above our children, trying to make them mind, to do our bidding because “we know best.” Atticus, though. Atticus knows that sometimes the children know best.

“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?… Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.”

Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus respects his kids by talking straight with them. He answers their every question without flinching. When his eight year old daughter, Scout, asked “What’s rape?” Atticus “sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” He did not dodge. He did not shroud the topic in mystery and discomfort. He defined rape for her, and if she’d had any follow up questions he would have answered those, too.

He reacted with similar equanimity when Scout started swearing. When at the dinner table Scout said, “Pass the damn ham, please” to her uncle, Atticus told him, “Don’t pay any attention to her, Jack.  She’s trying you out. Cal says she’s been cussing fluently for a week, now.”

But the thing I love most about Atticus as a parent is that he not only respects his children and their right to be themselves – he allows Scout to read the newspaper even though her teacher prescribes against it, he permits his kids to hear the verdict in Tom Robinson’s case despite his sister’s wailing protests, he allows them the freedom to be children rather than forcing them to respect their “gentle breeding” by making them “behave like the little lady and gentleman” they are –  no, not only does Atticus respect their right to be themselves, but he encourages their exploration and independence because he recognizes the preciousness of children, and what a great gift they are in teaching us, as grownups, how to be humane. When Jem struggles to understand the injustice served to Tom Robinson by his own friends and neighbors, people he thought were good folk, he says to Atticus,

“How could they do it, how could they?”

“I don’t know, but they did it.  They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”

Now, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a parent, I have been humbled by yet another layer of its wisdom. Now, when I am struggling as a mom, when I’m not sure what answer to give, or which battles to fight, I will ask myself, What Would Atticus Do? And then I’ll know what’s right.

This was originally published November 13, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

When I covered my around-the-US reading project on my Butterfly Mind blog, I was reluctant to publish posts of favorite quotes. I thought, “Those aren’t my words – they don’t fit here.” Now that Andrea Reads America has its own site, I am breaking that silence. The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this new addition to my Andrea Reads America coverage.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Scout:

“Pass the damn ham please.”

“North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

“The class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms.”

“Looks like if Mr. Arthur was hankerin’ after heaven he’d come out on the porch at least.”

“The usual crew had flunked the first grade again, and were helpful in keeping order.”

“Miss Maudie’s old sunhat glistened with snow crystals.”

“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine too.”

“Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”

“He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

Calpurnia:

“That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him you hear?”

Atticus:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

“I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town.”

“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’ve been licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

“They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump

“Mos of them writer fellers got it straight – cause their idiots always smarter than people give em credit for.”

“‘The Romantic Period,’ [the professor] say, ‘did not follow a bunch of ‘classic bullshit.’ Nor were the poets Pope and Dryden a couple of ‘turds.””

“Bubba an me, we has got us a plan for when we get outta the Army. We gonna go back home an get us a srimp boat an get in the srimpin bidness.”

“Somewhere in all this, I got myself shot, an, as luck would have it, I was hit in the ass.”

“When the srimp bidness first started up, I kind of enjoyed the work, an goin down to the ponds an puttin up the nets an then harvestin the srimp an all… Now it aint nothing like that. I got to go to all sorts of dinner parties where people servin a lot of mysterious-lookin food and the ladies wearing big ole earrings an shit.”

“They was a nice breeze blowin off the bayou an you coud hear frawgs an crickets and even the soun of a fish jumpin ever once in a wile.”

“At night I would set out on the porch of the shack an play my harmonica an on Saturday night I would go into town an buy a six-pack of beer an me an Sue [the male oranguntan] would get drunk.”

Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest part of the sunshine.”

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

“And as he talked, his voice uncle-calm and his facts first-hand and fresh from the getting-place, he kept reaching out every now and then to touch the guitar.”

“A preposition is relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.”

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

“All he ever drank during the daylight hours was black coffee, but now he was holding the fruit jar of whiskey that he called his percolating juice, and every now and then one woman would take it and help herself to a sip and then hand it back and give him a kiss on the cheek.”

“Stagolee moved over to where the piano was and put his fruit jar on top of it and stood clapping his hands and snapping his fingers with the women around him doing the shimmieshewobble and the messaround.”

“Deljean McCray… was as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like.”