Summarize, yes. Surrender, no.
We focus so much on what is going on in our lives often leading to an intense scrutiny of ourselves that can be exhausting.
But I do like our human ritual of looking back on the year that's almost over as a way to count up all the bruises and scrapes we've amassed in getting here. As in here we are, we made it to December, so why not take the opportunity to summarize the past 12 months, 365 days of how we moved in the world.
I am going to offer the luminous work of Henry Taylor as a guide to how I have been and still trying to take in 2023. I went to see his work on exhibit at the Whitney Museum in early November. Henry Taylor: B Side will be on view through January 28th. Don't take my word for it; see it for yourself and be moved.
The Love of Cousin Tip 2017
I wanted to offer the idea of focus as a way to be meditative and introspective versus as a challenge or as a homework assignment. The love depicted in this family portrait, The Love of Cousin Tip, is obvious in the grown-ups' physical demeanor of embracing and keeping a protective stance around the children, but don't overlook the small cat at the edge of the porch. I especially am grateful to Taylor for painting in this tiny seal point kitty, as a reminder that love is in our vicinity, and in places we may not have expected.
And yes, of course, find it where we would expect it: in the kitchen! Taylor's homage to his mother's cornbread in his playful painting, Cora, connects us to our own childhood memories of our parents cooking the foods that gave us comfort. How fun that he spells out his mother's name in the actual food he loved! On a slightly more political note, the caption explains that the hovering bottle of syrup, called Brer Rabbit (a central character in the Uncle Remus tales), represents the artist's critique of this "country's long enabling of racist stereotypes." It's interesting, because the shape of the bottle is very similar to the brand of toasted sesame oil my mother would buy as a staple ingredient in her Korean cooking.
Cora (cornbread) 2008
Some of you may not get the warm and fuzzies from the idea of eating fast food, but this painting, appropriately titled Happy Meal, stirs up some nostalgia. We were a Burger King Whopper-eating family growing up. I haven't had one in decades, but I can still recall the raw onion and yellow cheese combo atop a thin patty of mystery meat pedigree. The meat might not have been good, but the memory of going out to eat is what is good. We ate at home almost every night because that's what we could afford, and the food was usually wonderful, but there's this thing about having choices which I think about often. It's one thing to do something all the time because you like to do that thing, but it's another thing to have to do it because you really don't have a choice. We were somewhere in between.
Happy Meal 1992
I have been writing a lot about my childhood this year––my old block West 107th street in uptown Manhattan, the friends who lived nearby, the unyielding urban rot––emerging as the cruxt of my next book. The NY Times calls my old neighborhood Morning Side Heights, but we never called it anything. I might have said I lived "uptown" if someone asked me.
I found out years later that my neighborhood was considered pretty bad, even by the cops. But let not me go down that rabbit hole just yet.
The Times Thay Ain't A Changing, Fast Enough 2017 I'm Not Dangerous 2015 Girl With Toy Rifle 2015
The danger which many of us face is usually not of our own making, largely the danger comes from being in the circumstances we are in. Our circumstances, often, of being poor, immigrant, being people of color are what brings us into peril. Why can't black children play with toy guns? But really, the larger issue is that black children are not allowed to be children. They are not allowed to just be.
In an essay titled "The pervasive whiteness of children’s literature: collective harms and consumer obligations" by Brynn F Welch, Mia Birdsong observes having a hard time finding children's books that were "genuinely" about black people:
When I did find us featured, we couldn't play baseball unless we were integrating the league. We couldn't do our hair unless we loved our hair. We couldn't have dinner with our family unless we were celebrating a cultural tradition. Books about people of color just being people are particularly rare.
The Times Thay Ain't A Changing, Fast Enough depicting the 2016 killing of Philando Castile in his own car by a cop who shot him seven times, at close range, represents the artist's urge not be "immune" to the phenomenon of black and brown people being shot by the police "over and over."
I'm not gonna lie, I do want to be immune. Sometimes.
It was definitely emotional. And I don't know, because I think about the newspaper when you, because I do have a habit. I was a journalism major. Articles and things permeate. And then you say, no,I don't want to do it. So, you have this ambivalence. But it's not like I'm grabbing certain headlines.
Sometimes we become sort of, nonchalant is not the word, but when something happens over and over, we become sort of immune to it. But I think I just really reacted, you know what I mean?
Eldridge Cleaver, 2007
But then I think of Eldridge Cleaver and his struggle along with his Black Panther compatriates for the right to live in America with dignity and with the same protections that white people take for granted. Though under pressure by the Oakland police and California Dept. of Corrections to stop making speeches critical of them or any California politician, to essentially "play dead or...be sent back to prison" and the greater pernicious threat: "All that Governor Reagan has to do is...sign his name on a dotted line and you are dead, with no appeal," Cleaver chose to act/react. On behalf of fellow Black Panther Huey Newton: "...helping Huey stay out of the gas chamber was more important than my staying out of San Quentin, so I went for broke...I missed no opportunity to speak out with Huey's side of the story."
You can tell by now, this isn't my attempt at a feel good story. I am no good at those. But I don't want to keep looking back on this year as the year of peril, what kind of rabbit hole is that to go down? What will I have to gain? That is not the way to further my goal of turning focus into a meditative process, an experience that could resemble enlightenment.
And let's not force each other to extract "meaning" from this 12-month parcel of time, usually under the pretense of culture and good taste conjured by the incessantly social media driven. That would be the opposite to enlightened. How many "best of" lists can you possibly keep straight before they end up in one big pile of jabberwocky at your feet? The usual purveyors of cool culture must not be allowed to curate meaning for us. Let us remember that the only meaning-maker that matters is me (and yourself in the case of you). That is to say, don't let your focus become hijacked by any institution/conglomerate/marketing hack trying to tell you what to care about. It's up to us, as Henry Taylor says, to react.