Life Magazine, a Veiled Widow, and the End of Innocence; April 1968.


dickand Jane

Think of every stock photo and stereotype about 1950s and 1960s suburban America. Think about Dick and Jane reading books, gingham aprons, milk served in pitchers and cookie jars.

Think about kids lined up for polio shots, Ed Sullivan, and service station attendants wearing well-pressed uniforms.

It was not a complete fiction. I know. I was there.

But also – while you’re at it — think of whiteness, of blocks and blocks of white families doing white things, opening mail boxes to find magazines filled with stories about patio furniture and backyard BBQs and vacations in station wagons. And think of house after identical house, where any internal emotional turbulence or troublesome external social ferment could always be neatly hidden beneath the veneer of Cub Scout meetings, bake sales, and summer vacations.

Think of a whiteness so relentless that it was both everywhere and nowhere, pervasive yet so taken for granted that it could hardly be noticed. Imagine a place where you could come of age without ever seeing a black person in the flesh.

And I then I remembered the day that this issue of long-defunct Life Magazine arrived in our mail box.

Martin Luther King had been assassinated two weeks before. The event stunned and horrified us. I was fortunate to have parents who had taught my sisters and I about racial injustice. I still treasure the memory of one of my father’s finest moments when, hearing me utter an offensive racial remark at the age of eight, followed the charming fashion of the day by filling my mouth with a bar of ivory soap.

But we lived where we lived, and this magazine arrived like a live grenade. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.

I know that sometimes, in our zeal to construct compelling life narratives, we look back and overstate the significance of events. But I also know that nothing was the same after that magazine arrived. Our comfortable world had been pierced by the reality that rifles could silence a man’s passion and indignation.

There is no dramatic or profound ending to this story.

Nothing magic happened.

Miraculous revelations of tolerance were nowhere to be seen.

There was no justice and nothing was flowing like a mighty stream.

Our neighborhood stayed the same. Most people remained remarkably skilled at maintaining a willful blindness that obscured the anger and ferment brewing in distant places.

But never again could we claim, at least not with a straight face, that we knew nothing of that other world where guns were fired and justice denied. It arrived on the cover of a long-defunct magazine, and somehow we sensed that the dream deferred, festering like a sore yet so invisible in our blindingly white world, would soon explode.

President Tough Guy Readies Rifles to Face Kids With Rocks: Esequiel Hernandez and The Perils of a Militarized Border

So, our President – a barely human mixture of evil, ignorance and cruelty – has now issued his instructions for the troops being sent to our southern borders to meet the sinister immigrants he is using to mobilize his xenophobic supporters.

What sayeth our master of military strategy? Rocks are to be considered firearms and met with appropriate force. And while it is unclear if these are actually the rules of engagement given out by military leaders, his statement does send a confusing and completely unhinged signal to troops entering such a fraught situation.

If this “rifles against rocks” strategy  is something you find acceptable, you can stop reading here and switch to a site more comfortable with the perverse idea that deadly force makes perfect sense in the epic battle between privilege and human suffering.

But if the thought of armed troops in battle against rock-throwing children makes you sick to your stomach, stop whatever you are doing and see Kieran Fitzgerald’s shattering and cautionary film The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez. Released in 2007 and originally broadcast on POV, PBS’s premier showcase for award-winning documentaries for 30 years, the film details the 1997 killing by US troops of an 18-year old US citizen herding his sheep near the border.

My point? All manner of tragedy is possible when the lethal tools of excessive force are locked and loaded and under the direction of a maniacal, narcissistic commander in chief who actually seems to enjoy terrorizing the desperate, the hungry, the homeless.

Mr. Tough Guy. Pathetic. Despicable.

Subway Comics, Foto-Novelas, and a Plague: Remembering the Saga of Julio and Marisol

For more than 10 years starting in the late 1980s at Hunter College, I taught a course called HIV/AIDS in Media and Culture in Hunter College’s Department of Film and Media Studies.  Speakers included Maria Maggenti, one of the founders of ACT-UP and outstanding filmmaker, Bree Scott Harland of the PWA (People With AIDS) coalition, Rodger MacFarlane, the first paid executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and Craig Davidson, one of the founders of GLAAD and its first Executive Director from 1987 – 1990. Students in the class were among those attending Craig’s memorial service at St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Ave. when he died of HIV-related symptoms.

We examined many of the first attempts to make sense of the plague in theater, talk television, film, art, and print and television news. Highlights included Terrence McNally’s brilliant television drama Andre’s Mother, Keith Haring’s posters for ACT-UP, and the early episodes of the Phil Donahue Show that gave activists like Larry Kramer, Peter Staley, Ann Northrup and others some of their earliest wide exposure on national television.

One day in 1990, taking the #6 train up to Hunter, I discovered that the New York City health department had begun to use comics, drawing on the foto-novela tradition, to deliver public health messages about safe sex, condoms and more.

Perhaps some of you recall the saga of Julio and Marisol, whose love life amidst a plague played out in the NYC subway system. Beyond the brilliant use of comics, the series was especially important given that it was accessible to Spanish speakers and that the risk to Marisol was dealt with so prominently.

Risk to Marisol? It’s hard to believe, but in the early days of the plague all sorts of self-appointed and media-anointed “experts” were appearing on television talk shows minimizing the risk of HIV to women. Even more problematic was the fact that these “experts” often included conventionally trained physicians and scientists who were making inferences from data that were both astoundingly wrong and incredibly dangerous.

Those who don’t know the story of Julio and Marisol might be interested in these articles. The whole campaign ended suddenly, about 5 years later, in a sad example of what can happen when commercial considerations come up against an urgent public health concern. The new MTA policy of allowing advertisers to buy every available slot in a single subway car largely eased them out.

Like most early HIV-AIDS culture, people of color were latecomers to the dominant media narrative. This negligent invisibility, grounded in racist notions of whose lives mattered the most, is also part of the context in which Julio and Marisol surfaced.

But before their story ended, Julio and Marisol served as frontline HIV-AIDS educators, and even – around the time the series was about to end in 1995 – confronted death without flinching.

Damn, those were nightmare years.