Saturday, May 31, 2014

Quaker "Ponies" part I

Let’s say that every summer Roger and I go to a Quaker “camp.” Every summer, “George,” let’s say, greets me with a smile and big hug. He remembers the names of my three children and asks after them. Then he sits down with me in one of the pairs of  colorful Adirondack chairs scattered around the camp’s lawn and asks how I am doing—and I tell him. He listens intently, nods sympathetically.

Naturally, I like George. But by year three at this camp, I begin to notice something: George’s friendly greeting seems, well, canned: same smile, same hug, same exact question about my three children and same period of seemingly intent listening in the Adirondack chairs. Everything's fine, but our relationship seems just as distant as it was when we first met, as if George is using all his friendliness to try to keep me at bay. 

That year, George invites a popular group of people to go into the nearby mountain town to listen to a talk about poetry. I am standing there too—and George, after all our conversations, surely remembers I am a literature person—but he pointedly doesn’t invite me after carefully inviting everyone else by name. Does he not want me to come or has he forgotten after all our conversations that I would love to go to a talk on Auden? Either way, I wander off.  

A week later, back at home, over breakfast, I ask Roger about George, knowing that Roger has always instinctively veered away from him. “He’s so friendly to me at the camp," I begin, "but I also start to get the impression he could care less if I lived or died. He always wants to hear what I have to say—and even got me an alternative to blueberry muffins the first year  [I am allergic to blueberries]—but he doesn’t seem to see me as a real person. Why does he do this? Why does he always act so glad to see me, almost overjoyed, if he doesn’t care about me? Why bother? I am no power. I am a nobody. I am not a weighty Friend.”

Roger stares at me as if to say, “how could somebody so smart be so stupid?” “Don’t you get it?” he asks.


“George is a word that rhymes with pony.”

A word that rhymes with pony. “Oh. That word.”

“Yes. A Quaker pony.”

It all falls into place. George is a good guy, but ultimately, at least in relating to me, he is a  … pony. And I realize he is not the only Quaker pony I've met. 

I think about this for a long time because I wonder why it is so hard for me to connect Quakers with  … ponyness. I wonder if I, too, am unwittingly, a pony.  It occurs to me that perhaps this is especially a concern for Quakers to grapple with, as “professing what you don’t possess--” another formulation for being a “pony”-- is particularly at odds with the Quaker testimony of plain speaking and plain dealing. So why do we do it? Why aren't we more honest? And yet ...

I think back, however, to a few summers ago at the same camp, when a cosseted young birthright Friend responded to a new Friend by stating “You know what? I don’t like you.” This new person, although good-hearted soul, had a nervous habit of saying borderline mean things as “jokes.” The Friend was right to be annoyed, but telling him she didn’t like him, if honest, was hurtful and not helpful. (It might have been better to say I don’t like it when you tell those ”jokes.”) In any case, an awkward few seconds passed, everyone as riveted as if she had slapped him, until he saved himself through abjection, saying, “You wouldn’t be the first one not to like me.”

So, “letting it all hang out” can also be destructive to community. Civility, gentleness and compassion matter. Surely we want to avoid being brutal, cruel and thoughtless.

But as I think back to “George,” I wonder, if, as is clear, he was fairly indifferent to me—which is fine, as we can’t all love everybody—why he went out of his way to pretend otherwise, to offer what might be deemed an excess of civility?

More next time, but any insights are welcome.

End of part I

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thee or Thou continued

Ask and ye (or you) shall receive. Not only have Micah Bales and Marshall Massey offered wisdom, Gerald Grant provides a link to a 1938 article by Kenneth Morse that seems the definitive word on plain speaking grammar at:

Kenneth Morse in plain dress 1944.
HT: Quaker Jane, who also provided the link to his article.
Morse taught at Olney Friends School.

The consensus--or unity--position seems to be that Quaker plain speech derives from a northern English dialect that never used thou as a subject. As do plain speaking Quakers today, the Yorkshire people used thee for both subject and object and conjugated the corresponding verb in the third person singular. So, the phrase "Is thee going to the meeting?" is entirely grammatical within the context of this dialect.

Yorkshire, where "thee" reigned supreme.

The "thou art" formulations of the King James bible derive from the Midlands dialect.

The King James bible does not use Quaker plain speech.

I found Morse's article quite interesting.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Belle, racism, Quakers, Austen

In Amma Asante's movie Belle, as in history, Dido Elizabeth Belle is the mixed-race daughter of a white English admiral. A relative, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of Britain, raises Dido as a lady, and almost, but not quite, an equal to whites. (Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship, the book documenting that ambivalent relationship of white abolitionist Quakers in America to blacks comes to mind as one watches the film.) I find Belle an important movie.

A portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray,
portrayed in the movie as Dido's cousin, inspired Asante to make the film.
The portrait depicts both Dido and Elizabeth dressed in silks and jewelry,
posed as equals, unlike most depictions of blacks gazing adoringly at whites.

On a discussion list I participate in, WomenWritersthroughtheAges, one person commented that she found the film a whitewash: it presents an individual act of compassion toward a black person in a way that shows whites off well and glosses over the systemic horror of slavery.  At times, I too felt I was peering through the looking glass into a Wonderland that never existed, a place too good, the  "picture of perfection" that Jane Austen said in a letter to her niece, "make[s] me sick and wicked." 

Dido with Lord Mansfield at his almost impossibly beautiful English estate.

And yet the movie doesn't exonerate whites on the issue of slavery, for central to the story is the horrific reality of the Zong, a slave ship that carried too many Africans with too little crew. Realizing that much of the "cargo" was diseased and might die or be unsaleable, the ship's captain had the blacks chained together and thrown into the ocean to drown. That way the stakeholders could collect the insurance money, which would be unavailable should the Africans die or be too sick to sell after landing.

This illustrates the Zong, though here the captives are not chained together. The movie never depicts the massacre.

The insurance company, however, refuses to pay, asserting the ship's crew had no business throwing out a valuable cargo to collect the insurance. The ship owners counter that drinking water had been in short supply and the crew had to jettison the Africans to save themselves. A lower court decides in favor of the ship owners and the insurance company appeals, leading the case to land in the hands of Lord Mansfield, Dido's guardian.

Thus, an immoral act, perpetrated in pursuit of profit, supported as legal by the lower courts, becomes central to the movie. The uncertainty about whether or not justice will triumph over a legal system weighted to protect property rights emerges as the core conflict of the film. As soon as the legal case enters, it becomes difficult to retreat from the horror of systemic injustice into the rarified world of the English upper class, for the horror is at the core of what supports the wealthy and leisured. 

The film highlights systemic racial injustice, for it never suggests this mass murder is a rogue incident, as was the case, say, presented about the Abu Ghraib torture: Belle emphasizes that the drowning incident emerges from a larger system of injustice. Further, the drowning incident ties racism explicitly to the profit motive. Never does the movie leave us in any doubt that pursuit of money motivates the unspeakable cruelty that occurs. And going even further, the movie explicitly states that not only is  pursuit of profit a goal of the ship owners, as well as the insurance company, but the nation as a whole. We do not witness a case about a greedy shipowner versus a greedy insurance company, but glimpse a narrative about the basis of Britain's wealth. The movie makes explicit that many found it justifiable to ruthlessly drown hundreds of innocent people to support Britannia's comfort and prosperity. Thus, the movie ties racist ideology to a pursuit of profit that knows no humane bounds. We have racism, the movie says,  because it is profitable. This is important to note, because we often are led to believe that racism is either inherent or something that fell out of the sky. It bears repeating that money is behind racism.

Belle and Elizabeth lead a beautiful life supported by the slave trade.

Quakers are actually mentioned once in the movie. During the court scene in which Lord Mansfield decides the Zong case, someone worries that Quakers will "infiltrate" the courtroom. While that was unlikely, the 1783 case was important to Quaker history for it finally inspired London Yearly Meeting to formally oppose the slave trade. The meeting presented an anti-slave trade petition signed by 273 Friends to Parliament that year. One wonders what took the British Quakers so long, but as Howard D. Weinbrot outlines in his book Literature, Religion and the Evolution of Culture, the English in the eighteenth century feared the Quakers, along with other Dissenters, Jews and Catholics as the kind of "infiltraters" the movie alludes to, ready to subvert the British order and substitute an alien social system. One can imagine the Quakers spending much of the eighteenth century trying to convince the general population that they were not plotting the next revolution, and only near the end of the century--at least, before the French Revolution--being ready to jump into the abolition cause.

American Quaker Benezet travelled to England to campaign against the slave trade. 

Getting back to Belle, the domestic drama mirrors the national drama. On the domestic scene,  as on the mercantile, money is what counts, and the movie likens the marriage market to the slave market.

Belle has a large inheritance: despite being black, she gets a marriage offer from the second son of a landed, aristocratic family almost immediately upon coming out. In contrast, the white, and not just white, but fair skinned, blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth is rejected by the older son of the same family when it becomes clear she has no dowry. As soon as money comes into the picture, comically, the mother of the landed family immediately becomes not a racist. 

However, race speaks too: clearly, the family Belle proposes to marry into will treat her as second class. Like the slave traders, the landed family is out to strip Dido of her wealth and the movie strongly suggests that the older son will brutally rape her as soon as the opportunity arises.  Money, whether through the marriage market or the slave trade, draws darker and lighter skinned people together, and yet, as long as exploitation is the white person's motivator, blacks will get the worst of it. The domestic drama works tightly to underscore the national story. Only as Belle meets someone, who like her, wants something other than money can a better domestic future be imagined for Belle. Systemically, only as Lord Mansfield, albeit for ostensibly non-idealistic and narrow reasons, sides with the insurers (though the movie strongly implies he is influenced by moral concerns) do we get cracks in a system of legal injustice.

The movie strongly suggests that the older brother of Dido's fiance will brutally rape her, given the chance. The older brother is the shorter figure on the left. The fiance,  on the right, will marry her for her money.

The movie has been likened to a Jane Austen novel, and we can see the parallels, especially to Mansfield Park, in a young girl adopted into a wealthy family as a not quite equal. We can see too the concern for money, especially on the marriage market, as reminiscent of Austen. More importantly, Belle suggests Austen in all the ways minute domestic injustices can be read  as stand ins for larger social injustices. This movie be viewed as a feel good costume drama. It can be understood as a comforting, familiar narrative, in which whites, good and compassionate and moral, overturn the evils of racism on both systemic and personal levels. Or it can be read as troubling drama in which the profit motive is, both in the marriage market and the larger markets in which capital flows globally, the root of human misery. 

This profit motive still reigns supreme in the world today and continues to lead to ideologies that distort human relationships and community in truly grotesque ways. As with Austen's novels, Belle can be understood as much more subversive than its placid surface suggests. Unlike in Austen, however, Belle does explicitly (rather than implicitly) have a horror story at its heart.

As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the Gothic, for what could be more of a horror story than mass drowning the blacks, and I wondered to what extent eighteenth century Gothic expressed unspoken unease about the black Other. 

I was reminded too of Amazing Grace, the movie about Wilberforce, and of Spielberg's Lincoln. Lincoln and Belle seemed similar in depicting a dramatic moment in black emancipation within the context of a domestic drama, including the influence of blacks in the domestic environment. (If, as both movies posit, it takes a direct relationship with a person from an oppressed class for dominant class people to be influenced to do right thing (a premise I don't necessarily agree with) then let's bring on desegregation.) 

 I found the idealism and emotional intensity of Dido and Davanier compelling. Davanier is a young, poor law student who falls in love with Dido. Davanier is not a Quaker--in fact, he looks like an American minuteman in his blue coats with rows of brass buttons and unpowdered ponytail, but in his simplicity he suggests a Quaker-like alternative to the grander and more lavish upperclass life supported on human misery. His presence speaks to the importance of the simplicity testimony.

Davanier, who cares about people more than money, provides an alternative vision of what life can be.

I take away from this movie the need for an understanding of the context that supports unjust ideologies and the need to fight to change systems that perpetrate cruelty, no matter what the logic (and there always is a seemingly immutable logic) that justifies them. I also support the need for individual action. We need both: saving Dido from slavery was an important act of compassion, though no replacement for abolishing the slave system. Often, I hear that "personal" charity should replace systems of charity or conversely, hear that personal acts have no value; however, the answer is not either/or but both/and.

A question, however, arises. The movie is very Austenian in putting everything on a knife point. While the horrific drowning of the Africans lies at the center of the movie, we never see it enacted--we don't witness the chained slaves thrown overboard. The movie stays in England. The horror is thus both central and yet cerebral. The question becomes: does the movie make its point about the connection between greed/profit and horrific cruelty better by not showing us the image--would we tend to isolate the image from the larger context?--or would showing the image reinforce the movie's point?  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thee or thou: Which is it?

Since moving to Barnesville and joining Stillwater Friends, I have been exposed to plain speech, which involves the use of  thou, thee and thy. People will approach me, for example, and ask, "Is thee going to the movies?" At first, I was surprised, but I have come to deeply appreciate being addressed in plain speech as a sign of inclusion.

Last week, I needed to write a letter on behalf of a Quaker committee and thought it time to cross the Rubicon into using plain language. As I wrote, however, I realized I really didn't understand the grammar of thou, thee and thine. Thy is clearly the possessive form, but what of thou and thee? I looked them up on two different websites and each concurred with the other: Thou is the subject form and thee is the object. In other words, Thou gave thee a kiss, and not vice versa, if thou wants to be grammatically correct.

But that doesn't accord with what I hear, as I can't remember plain speaking Friends using "thou." It seems  that "thee" is pronoun of choice, for either subject or object: "Will thee be at the meeting?" and "Does thee have the minutes of the last meeting" are what I recall, not "will thou" and "does thou."

To make certain the websites I visited for the conjugation of thee and thou were not wrong, I looked up the marriage vows in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The vows confirmed the website: the wording is "Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife ... Wilt thou have this man..."

Here is the perplexity. Contemporary grammar tells us that grammar rules exist, but that grammar, like language, is ever evolving. Eventually, how most people speak-- most people in the dominant class-- becomes the correct grammar. So, if most plain speaking Quakers have dropped "thou" and are using "thee" as both the subject and object form of the second person singular (much as we use "you" for both subject and object in modern speech) then is "thee" correct as a subject form? (This is the equivalent of asserting "Him is going to the meeting" as grammatical--but perhaps that is OK.)

I am assuming too that I am at the center of the plain speaking Quaker universe here in Barnesville. Am I? Or are there other places outside of the Conservative (for my non-Quaker friends, this does not mean politically conservative; it is simply an appellation) Friends that use plain speech, and if so, what forms do they use? Also, is written plain speech different from spoken? In other words, would you--or thou/thee--use the "correct" form in writing but the colloquial in speaking? Further, if part of the purpose of using thee and thou is to preserve an archaic form, does a special charge exist to adhere to the formal usage? If so, should we not be using "Art thou" and "Wilt thou?"

I hope people who are more knowledgeable than I will provide answers.