Brightly Shining: Stories from the Field
No grand proclamations, no long explanations. Just, these articles are about people who are getting it right, and I want to celebrate them and remember.
Here’s a guy who has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and for a damned good book. But when GQ asks him to cover fashion week in Paris, what does he write about? Not himself. Not his reflections on Judaism and fashion, or Jewish designers, or any of the things he could and be lauded for. No, he writes about his son.
Because his son’s the reason he’s in Paris at all. His son, Abe, at 13, knows more about fashion than he (or I) ever will. He loves it, lives and breathes it, plans his outfits the way his dad plans his novels. And he suffers all the insults and mockery you might expect for being a skinny, Jewish teenager in love with clothes and style, but he still shines.
He shines even more through his father’s telling–as a bold, funny, nerdy, unique, weird kid. Not once does Dad even hint at the question of sexuality that a love of fashion inevitably (and stupidly, because seriously, you have to be gay to want to look good?) raises. There aren’t even any gaps where he might plausibly be ignoring it. Nope. Because it just doesn’t matter. What matters is that Abe is a bright, shining, amazing kid.
Good job, Dad. You may not get the fashion, but you sure as hell get the kid. Good job, Abe, for being who you are and standing tall with it. I’ll be waiting for the day when I can buy clothes with your name on them as eagerly as I wait for your dad’s books.
“You are born into a family and those are your people, and they know you and they love you and if you are lucky they even, on occasion, manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough. But it is never enough. Abe had not been dressing up, styling himself, for all these years because he was trying to prove how different he was from everyone else. He did it in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody else—somewhere, someday—who was the same. He was not flying his freak flag; he was sending up a flare, hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion.”
Maybe the shout out here should be to Newsweek senior writer Abigail Jones for her bold and compassionate coverage of the (mostly) unsung women of the CIA. She sure as fuck didn’t pull any punches in pointing to Hollywood and the historical white male elite of the CIA. So, seriously, kudos.
But I think lauding Jones instead of Gina Bennett, Virginia Hall, Eloisa Page, Suzanne Matthews, Valerie Plame and their compatriots would miss her point: these women are out there. They are brave, they are real, they are doing hard, dirty, terrifying jobs, and, sometimes, they have the audacity to try to be moms (and GOOD ones) at the same time.
It’s time we knew that women aren’t just analysts and honeypots. They aren’t confined to the well-publicized counter-terrorism department. They aren’t just 11 names on a wall of 117 CIA agents who died in the field. They are human beings, with ambitions and feelings and passion…just like us.
Three cheers for the sexy spies of fiction, Nikita and Natasha Romanoff, and the less fictional Mata Hari. They’re amazing, wonderful, powerful role models–strong, smart, sexy women can be heroes. But Gina Bennet, Janine Brookner, and Maja Lehnus are heroes, too, and they look like the lady who sat next to me the last time I rode a bus, the woman behind the counter at the post office…my mom.
You don’t have to be hot to be a hero, you don’t have to be James Bond or Jason Bourne to make the world a better place. You also don’t have to be sweet, submissive, have a pleasant voice, or wear a dress. You can wear frumpy clothes, have wrinkles, get strident, bake souffles or fail at baking cookies. You can be you.
Bet you thought I was talking about Hillary. (I am, sort of.) But did you know that Julia Child used to be a spy too?
“Hollywood has convinced us all that women in the CIA belong to a sorority of badass bitches who stab by day and seduce by night. From Homeland ’s Carrie Mathison to State of Affairs ’s Charleston Tucker, we have become so accustomed to this repository of interchangeable female CIA screwups and honeypots, and their unstable, erratic behavior, that we forget that the job involves saving lives and preventing atrocities, and you must be able to compartmentalize your emotions at precisely the most horrifying moments.”
First of all, massive kudos to the founding staff of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This museum is a long damned time in coming, and, seriously, thank all the gods, they seem to have done it right. Instead of a patronizing apology (and apologetic) for the history of African Americans in the United States, we’re getting what sounds like an honest look back at the past, for good and for ill.
And her-fucking-rah for holding out until you found a spot on the Mall and not taking a secondary location. The Mall is American in miniature, and not the sanitized, Disneyfied version. This museum and these stories belong there.
Second, even more massive kudos to Mr. Bunch. I don’t know you, sir, but I wish I did. Hats off, because the story you’ve told of how this museum came to be is moving, and witty, and interesting. I appreciate you letting it all hang out in this article, your commitment to showing and not just having a massive collection, your wonder in the collection pieces that you found, and your humility in the face of their stories. If your ability to spin a narrative says anything about the museum you’ve built, it will be everything I ever imagined a museum should be.
I feel a kinship with you, as if you and I read the same collection of books about exhibiting culture and the evils of wonder lighting and the colonialism of collecting. But more importantly than that, I think I trust you. After all, you chose a picture in a working man’s uniform, a bright yellow vest and hard hat, the colors and styles of which are no one’s friend, and you look exuberant. No stuffy white dinosaurian professor here. Moreover, I’m actually excited about this museum. I’d be willing to spend money to go to D.C. in the swampy summer to see it.
The real point, though, is that you’re shining a light. Yours. African American men and women of the past and present. And your light might just help us find the way to a better future.
“The defining experience of African–American life has been the necessity of making a way out of no way, of mustering the nimbleness, ingenuity and perseverance to establish a place in this society. That effort, over the centuries, has shaped this nation’s history so profoundly that, in many ways, African-American history is the quintessential American history. Most of the moments where American liberty has been expanded have been tied to the African-American experience. If you’re interested in American notions of freedom, if you’re interested in the broadening of fairness, opportunity and citizenship, then regardless of who you are, this is your story, too.”
P.S. Many thanks to Susan Esparza for bringing all of these to my attention.