May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home; but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
– James Agee, Knoxville: Summer of 1915
I cannot read these the words of James Agee without hearing the voice of Leontyne Price singing the melody of Samuel Barber. In 1971, I played it again and again like an often repeated prayer, a litany of sorts, to a god of longing perhaps. I even took the recording to my classes at Lincoln Junior and Senior High School where I was teaching at the time. I already had quite a reputation among students as being a weird hippie, but in a school that was 97% Black and 3% Puerto Rican this music initially confirmed their impression: weird, hippie, queer.
Then I showed them pictures of Ms. Price as an Egyptian Queen and as a Met diva. In every class at least a few students wanted to hear her again. One boy named Barry – a boy who would later write a satire about Black people not being able to swim, a boy who would drown shortly after finishing college – stayed after school to ask about the music. A few girls came back, too. They wanted to talk about the song and the longing they heard in it.
That year in a public school, my second year of teaching, was glorious. For decades I have looked back on it with great warmth. I was in transition at the time. I was in my new career, changing my finances, finding my way as I had just gotten out of a relationship. I was wondering about my living arrangements and making new friends. There was the war over our heads, in my thoughts every day. Egregious racial violence was being perpetrated with relative impunity while huge movements of people were fomenting change. I was surrounded by young people whose lives were similarly affected, similarly altered, similarly in flux.
Every day in that second year of teaching, it felt like I could not find those young people and that they could not find me. It seemed hopeless. I can almost hear myself thinking, “Not now. Not ever.” But I find pictures in a box and in my memory that show that we did find each other. While we did not name for each other our challenges and our transitions, we did find each other. It strikes me during this transition to my new encore career that I might want to take more pictures, capturing once again that across the divide of age and the details of transitions, we do find each other.
We did not have everything we needed back then to face our divide, but we had enough.
On the face of the moon
A dark shadow in the light.
A silhouette am I
On the face of the moon
Or vivid brightness
But defined all the clearer
I am dark,
Black on the face of the moon.
A shadow am I
Growing in the light
Not understood as is the day,
But more easily seen
I am a shadow in the light.
– Richard Bruce Nugent, 1925