I dare you to come up with the name of an American woman in politics who’s more admirable or more impressive than Barbara Jordan — that leader of civil rights and feminism. So how good is this news: Viola Davis has announced that her new production company will adapt Jordan’s biography in a new film, starring Davis herself.

Due to Jim Crow laws in Texas, Jordan could not attend the University of Texas, so instead graduated from Texas Southern — where she became a champion debater of the first rank. After developing a law career in Houston, she became the first African American to be elected to the Texas State Senate, and the first Black woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives from the South. Her speeches remain masterpieces of American literature.

I can’t imagine what she must have experienced as a Black woman in Texas and national politics during an era when most white men had no problem expressing their racism and sexism openly.

One time I met a professor in Texas who had known Jordan. They were close in age had something else in common: they were both gay. Jordan never came out publicly about her sexual orientation — according to this guy she believed it was too soon, even in the 1990s, for gay rights to gain traction in the public eye. Yet some of her eulogies in 1996 made mention of her life partner, Nancy Earl, such that it has become common to speak of her as a gay woman in the intervening years.

Now that’s what I’m talking about: Viola Davis uses her newly rising Hollywood star to make a film about a groundbreaking Black gay woman. Am I dreaming?

The love letter

1 November 2010

One day way back in high school I left my late-afternoon sports practice and found an anonymous love note pinned under the windshield wiper on my car.  I was 16.  I stood in the nearly empty parking lot, reading it and wondering if it was a joke – if perhaps someone was laughing at me from a perch on the bleachers or giggling while skulking in another car.  It was a note designed to provoke my fledgling vanity and make me love its author.  I no longer have it (a fruitless search has confirmed this), but it said something to the effect of:  You are different than the others, and I have noticed you.  I love you, but I am afraid to approach you.  You know who I am, but you haven’t really noticed.  I wish you would notice me too, as I’m different like you.

I never found out who wrote that note and never will.  And I probably would have forgotten it but for reading Cathleen Schine’s 1995 novel The Love Letter, which made me dig around in a box I haven’t opened since approximately 1990.  Funny how the book has made me wonder all over again about that now-ancient note, and marvel at what Schine does in this absolutely delicious literary novel – a novel akin to some kind of soufflé, a berry trifle … or rather a tiramisu, with something dark and rich and devilish mixed in with the fluff – she shows us that love letters are at least partly about the love of reading, the attempt to pair a meeting of the mind with the frisson of bodies touching, the fantasy of the unknown, pining lover.

My high school note is not nearly as delicious as the one Schine’s heroine, Helen, finds in her mail one day.  Hers begins:

How does one fall in love?  Do you trip?  Do you stumble, lose your balance and drop to the sidewalk, graze your knee, graze your heart?  Do you crash to the stony ground?  Is there a precipice, from which you float, over the edge, forever?

I know I’m in love when I see you, I know when I long to see you.  Not a muscle has moved.  Leaves hang unruffled by any breeze.  The air is still.  I have fallen in love without taking a step.  When did this happen?  I haven’t even blinked.

I’m on fire.  Is that too banal for you?  It’s not, you know.  You’ll see.  It’s what happens.  It’s what matters.  I’m on fire.

No wonder Helen re-reads it frequently, lavishes over those passages, delights in half-sentences in the middle of the day.  No wonder it turns her on, makes her experience her ocean swims with a new intensity, injects a new pleasure into her daily interactions in her little bookshop.  No wonder it makes us feel, as readers, that physical pleasure of immersing oneself in a book too clever and wordy to leave you alone.  How did it take me this long to read this book?

one of Keats' letters to Fanny Braun

Yes, it’s about a bookish woman – a woman who finds herself reading anew all those collections of letters that we read to dream of the romantic connections between people.  Keats and Fanny Braun; now there are some letters.  Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  Those epistolary moments in novels by Austen or George Eliot.  Somehow few films can capture the intimacy of a love letter.  And oh, how much a letter, a real letter, seems romantic now, even more so than it might have in 1995, when Schine’s book was published.  In an age of email, do people still get anonymous love letters?  Do high schoolers still go to dances and imagine that a tall dark stranger will emerge from those shadows to pull you close in an unexpected slow dance?

I really ought to have read this book during the summer (it’s set during a lazy New England summer, and is designed for that kind of reading, when you allow yourself to stay up half the night to finish it).  Instead I’m reading it during that part of the fall semester when temperatures are dipping, my reading load is intense, we’re trying out our sweaters again, and we hardly have time for indulgences like this.  In fact, I spent all day reading it, lusting after its passages, feeling the almost visceral sense when reading about a character brushing against someone’s skin or licking another’s arm or feeling the summer sun heating up our hair.

Isn’t it a pleasure to read these paragraphs?  That’s because reading the love letter is partly about our love of reading – the letter indicates how often love and attraction emerge not from our genitalia but our frontal lobes.  The love letter toys with our expectations, with conventions – even as it adheres to those conventions.  Our eyes grow soft as they read such passages.  My fingers tickle as they write them.

The love letter is just for you – it’s secret, it’s personal, it’s intimate.  It’s not a mass-produced paperback like The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine, that item I spent all day with; yet the book somehow had the same feel, the same trickster quality of tweaking one’s mind and nerve endings.  Somehow Schine wrote that book just for me, to turn me on the same way the love letter turned on her heroine.  Can a love letter arrive in your inbox?  or even more improbable, via a widely-available website entitled feminema.wordpress.com?  My great regret is that you will read these paragraphs not via smooth paper and ink touching your fingers, not from underneath a warm duvet, but from the glum blue light of a screen.  (It’s no wonder that 1938’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” with its delightful anonymous epistolary love affair between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, worked so much better than 1998’s crass, commercial “You’ve Got Mail.”)  Letters are about words; novels are about words.  Movies are more about images, beauty, marvel.  One does not cuddle up in bed with movies, nor with websites — but websites are about words, and I want to caress you with words.

So this is my love letter to you, gentle readers – to our mutual love of love, our love of words.  Let’s pretend an anonymous blog can spark the same frisson.  Let’s pretend that I am reaching out to you, just you, and that for the rest of your day you will experience a special charge, a rush of desire, as you wonder what else I might whisper in your ear.