“Now don’t you keep going on to me about introverts and extraverts and insides and outsides,” D. H. Lawrence wrote to Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1924. Instead, he continued, she should wash the dishes until she could keep up a rhythm “with a grace.” At the time, Luhan was reading up on mysticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, and she had written to Lawrence about her discoveries. He was not the right audience. Lawrence regarded Luhan alternately as a source of irritation; as an embodiment of his bête noire, the dominating woman; and as a model for some of the most cruelly portrayed heroines he would ever write. He had vowed to destroy her, and she would come to believe, at times, that he had succeeded.
A former Greenwich Village radical, Luhan considered herself divinely appointed to “save the Indians” in order to restore the spiritual and sexual life of a white American society in decay. This vocation led her to New Mexico, where she ditched husband No. 3 for Tony Lujan, a man from the Taos pueblo. In Taos, she launched an artist colony, wrote volume after volume of a tell-all memoir, and hosted a parade of famous guests, Lawrence included. Their relationship is a central subject of two new books: Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man: The Trials of D. H. Lawrence,” a biography of the author, and Rachel Cusk’s “Second Place,” a rewriting of Luhan’s memoir “Lorenzo in Taos.”
It is a strange moment for a Mabel Dodge Luhan revival. Long the butt of historians’ jokes, she resists an easy feminist reading, and even the flowering of women’s histories in the seventies and eighties produced no unbridled celebrations. But she doesn’t make for a natural villain, either. Although, by today’s standards, her racial beliefs sit somewhere on the spectrum between troubling and deranged, they led her to support a multiracial array of artists and fight doggedly, and effectively, for indigenous land rights. Even her memoirs, which are peppered with occult vernacular and accounts of unhinged behavior, are essentially harmless—a modernist sex-and-gossip log, at high pitch. All the same, plucking her out of oblivion is a fraught endeavor: to mine the archive for characters to rediscover is to engage in a kind of revisionism, casting elements of the past as contemporary fables. Sometimes, that process is a cautionary tale all its own.
Mabel Dodge Luhan was born Mabel Ganson, in 1879, to a wealthy Buffalo family. In 1900, she eloped with her first husband, who died less than three years later, leaving her a son of questionable paternity. (She had an affair with the family doctor, who, she later alleged, was also sleeping with her mother.) Widowed and extricated from the first of many love triangles, Luhan set off for Europe, where she met and married the architect Edwin Dodge. Together they lived in Florence and socialized with the likes of Gertrude and Leo Stein and André Gide.
Eventually, the couple moved to New York, where Luhan ran a legendary salon out of her Fifth Avenue apartment, hosting socialists, anarchists, suffragists, and radicals of all stripes. One of the first of her famous “evenings” was orchestrated by the writer and patron Carl Van Vechten, who invited a pair of Black performers to dance and sing. Luhan was scandalized—it “made me feel first hot and then cold, for I never had been so near this kind of thing before,” she wrote. On another occasion, she asked A. A. Brill, the first translator of Freud’s major works into English, to give a presentation. Several of the guests, “incensed at his assertions about unconscious behavior,” walked out in protest.
Luhan knew everyone and was part of everything. She helped organize the 1913 Armory Show, the exhibition that introduced European modernism to the United States, and called it “my own little revolution.” She joined the Heterodoxy Club, a society for “tabooless” women, and wrote for The Masses, Max Eastman’s socialist magazine. She liked to be around revolutionaries like Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and her sometimes-lover John Reed, not for their politics so much as their personalities. When she got tired of them, too, she helped Isadora Duncan’s sister Elizabeth establish a dance school in Croton-on-Hudson. Around that time Luhan became acquainted with her third husband, the Jewish painter and sculptor Maurice Sterne.
Perhaps inevitably, the marriage soured, and Luhan embarked upon a series of attempts at psychoanalysis—“apparently a kind of tattletaling,” she reflected approvingly. On one analyst’s advice, she dispatched Sterne to the Southwest, where she suggested he might find a new subject for his paintings. Sterne considered the separation temporary, and in his letters home he coaxed Luhan to join him. “Do you want an object in life?” he wrote her. “Save the Indians, their art-culture—reveal it to the world!” Shortly after Sterne’s departure, Luhan had visited a medium who foresaw her surrounded by Indians. Luhan was also haunted by a dream in which Sterne’s head floated before her and morphed into a second face, “an Indian face.” The letter, the prophecy, and the dream forming a triad of signs, she resolved to travel to New Mexico.
In Santa Fe, where Sterne was staying, Luhan judged the artistic community too established—but, in the smaller, more remote Taos, she found what she was seeking. “The singular raging lust for individuality and separateness had been impelling me all my years,” she writes. Taos was different: “All of a sudden I was brought up against the Tribe, where a different instinct ruled. . . . and where virtue lay in wholeness instead of in dismemberment.” That instinct, she thought, could teach America to abandon the logic of science and individualism and revert to mysticism and communal life.
As outlandish as Luhan may sound, neither her primitivism nor her spiritualism was particularly unusual in her time. Charlotte Osgood Mason, Van Vechten’s rival for the most influential patron of the Harlem Renaissance, believed that she was using her money to achieve a “mystical vision of a great bridge reaching from Harlem to the heart of Africa.” Fellow Heterodoxy Club member Elsie Clews Parsons likewise became enthralled with the Southwest, and, declaring, “It may seem a queer taste, but Negroes and Indians for me,” began to pursue her own fieldwork. (Parsons was a student and funder of Franz Boas’s anthropology department at Columbia, which trained Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston.) And, in the nineteen-tens and twenties, much of the European and American art world was oriented around what would now be called cultural appropriation. A year after the Armory Show, the gallerist Alfred Stieglitz opened an exhibition titled “Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art.” When Luhan appointed herself the savior of the Indians, she was treading a well-worn path for avant-garde transgression. Where she deviated was in a choice that, with a century’s hindsight, appears less scandalous: marrying a man whose race differed from hers.
When Mabel met Tony Lujan, he was singing on the floor of a pueblo hut. According to Sterne’s later account, the performance was for the benefit of tourists, but Mabel was entranced: Tony’s face was the one from her dream. As she fell in love, she came to believe that “my real home was in the Pueblo.” Soon rid of their respective spouses, Tony and Mabel began work on a new house—not, of course, in the pueblo. Their adobe mansion had, by the time all the extensions were completed, seventeen rooms and three stories, along with central heating, soundproofing, and plumbing. (“Mabeltown” also comprised five guesthouses, a gatehouse, barns, and stables.) Mabel continued to praise the locals for their lack of materialism, and the hypocrisy was not lost on at least one resident of the pueblo, who, in a letter to the Taos Star, suggested that she trade places with him. “You drink muddy water which came down from the mountains,” he wrote, “and my five children will drink nice clean water from your faucets.”
By then, Luhan was no stranger to newspaper coverage. Her Southwestern adventures were duly chronicled, with reports describing her as the “first lady of Taos” and a “hostess and angel to numerous writers.” Aside from Lawrence and Parsons, her guests included Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keeffe, Martha Graham, Thornton Wilder, Greta Garbo, and Jean Toomer. Ansel Adams photographed both Tony and the pueblo. John Collier, who would go on to become the Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the F.D.R. Administration, visited Luhan and stayed on to help lead the campaign against the Bursum Bill, which aimed to privatize indigenous land so that it could be bought up by white ranchers and developers.
As for Tony and Mabel’s marriage, it was both famous and famously mocked. The writer Mary Austin told Mabel that Tony was “a joke—a good natured and occasionally ribald joke, but still a joke—to most of the people who come to your house.” When Tony accompanied Van Vechten to a Harlem night club, the event was so extraordinary that it merited inclusion in the New York Daily News’s society column. But in all the sensational press coverage, as well as in Mabel’s romantic telling of the story, Tony himself remains a hazy figure. He abandoned his wife, and lost his place in his tribe, to be with Mabel, and she later admitted that they had little in common. Tony never became conversant in Mabel’s preferred topics, like psychoanalysis and modern art, and he would not tell her the secrets of his tribe, no matter how desperately she pleaded. That he had been able to largely avoid school was part of his appeal. “He was Indian,” she wrote, “whole, uninjured, and unsplit.”
This, of course, is projection. With her descriptions of Tony’s attributes, Mabel tells us less about her partner than about the qualities she feels she lacks. In current academic-adjacent parlance, we might say that she is “othering” Tony, and intend it as a condemnation. But Mabel wore the accusation proudly: “Tony is a kind of symbol of my having gone over into an ‘otherness,’ as Lawrence would say.” Applying the term without any negative connotation, she was careful to credit the person from whom she had picked it up. As Wilson notes in her new biography, its originator was none other than D. H. Lawrence himself.
If Luhan’s politics have not aged well, neither have Lawrence’s. His sex scenes—in which any motion by the female partner is tantamount to a moral failure—will baffle the contemporary reader. But they recall the advice Luhan received from her first analyst, who told her to stop trying to assume “the male role” during intercourse, and, when she mentioned wanting to cut her hair short, accused her of expressing the intent to commit castration. Both Luhan and Lawrence were profoundly influenced by theosophy, a nineteenth-century occult movement, and Lawrence shared Luhan’s faith in the tonic properties of indigenous life. “America must turn again to catch the spirit of her own dark, aboriginal continent,” he wrote in The New Republic. “They must pick up the life-thread where the mysterious Red race let it fall.”
By the time he collided with Luhan in New Mexico, Lawrence had already published several novels, including “Sons and Lovers” and “Women in Love,” and been censored multiple times over. Sex was, for him, a religion, and he had earned a reputation for risqué prose. He had also broken up a marriage, persuading an aristocratic German woman named Frieda to abandon her husband and three children. For years, the pair had lived a nomadic existence, staying in such places as Sardinia, Australia, and Sri Lanka. The glamorous women who pursued Lawrence were flummoxed by his loyalty to Frieda: stout, older than he was, decidedly ungifted with words. Much is known about their life together because, as Wilson notes, most people Lawrence spent time with wrote about the experience.
Luhan was no exception. Written in direct address to the poet Robinson Jeffers, “Lorenzo in Taos” is dedicated “To Tony and All Indians,” but Tony and the Indians are a sideshow. The memoir’s raison d’être is the arrival of Lawrence, whom Mabel has mystically “summoned” to Taos to articulate the beauty of the Indian way of life. When Lawrence is keener on depicting Mabel’s romance with Tony, she does not object, framing it in symbolic terms. “Of course it was for this I had called him from across the world,” she writes, “to give him the truth about America: the false, new, external America in the east, and the true, primordial, undiscovered America that was preserved, living, in the Indian bloodstream.” She intends Lawrence to write a parable about her escape from a fallen civilization to an American Eden.
It is Frieda who vetoes the collaboration. From Luhan’s first encounter with the Lawrences, which she reports as a “vibratory disturbance,” Luhan and Frieda are suspicious of one another. Luhan thinks she can see Frieda picturing her and Tony in bed, and Frieda’s correspondence supports the intuition that she was shocked by the mixed-race pairing. After Luhan wears a dressing gown to her first planning session with Lawrence, and listens sympathetically as he gripes about his wife (“the hateful, destroying female”), Frieda bans their one-on-one meetings, and Lawrence’s novel is dropped.
Their relationship, though, is just getting started. Over the course of “Lorenzo in Taos,” Lawrence attends Hopi ceremonies, steals some plausibly-deniable physical contact with Luhan (fingers meeting under soap suds, thighs brushing on horseback), berates Tony, pelts Frieda with stones, and sagely advises Luhan’s son to beat his new wife. He and Frieda are in and out of Taos, eventually returning with the painter Dorothy Brett, whom Luhan characterizes as an awkward hanger-on. Whenever Lawrence is absent, Luhan feels a “psychic emptiness.” She loves him, then gives him up, then can’t leave him alone. He spreads the rumor that she attempted to seduce him, and promises to “destroy” her, then assures her that she’s no longer his enemy, and that, even when she was, he “never really forsook” her. She sends him a letter ending their friendship, because “his core was treacherous.”
Some elements of “Lorenzo” are ripe for feminist finger-wagging, but Luhan depicts Lawrence’s misogyny with a light, self-mocking humor. Appalled at her laziness—she was accustomed to spending the first half of the day in bed—he instructs her to scrub her floors and bake bread, feats she attempts to comic effect. She even agrees to forgo her flowing dresses for the fitted waists and aprons of his childhood. (“My heart sank,” Luhan writes, “but I determined to be equal to this need of his to be entirely surrounded by all sorts and sizes of persons dressed like his mother.”) She is less inclined to indulge Lawrence’s substantive critiques of her character. “I am not going to think of you as a writer,” he tells her early on. “I’m not going to think of you even as a knower.” To him, she will always be “the Eve who is Voiceless like the serpent”—or, in Luhan’s words, “that greatest living abomination, the dominating American woman.”
Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands
Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?
“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.
The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?
Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.
Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?
Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?
George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?
Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.
Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?
Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.
But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”
Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?
My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)
The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?
Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?
Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?
Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.
Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?
A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.
“Kevin Can F**K Himself” and “Feel Good” Rethink Relationship Comedy
On paper, “Kevin Can F**K Himself,” a new meta-series on AMC, is a tempting stylistic cocktail—one part Jekyll, one part Hyde, garnished with a zesty feminist twist. Onscreen, it’s a bizarro centaur with a horse’s head and a man’s hairy ass: the concept is there, but the assembly is all wrong. Annie Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a standard-issue sitcom wife living a multi-cam sitcom life in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her dopey slob of a husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen). For ten years of marriage, Allison has tolerated Kevin’s antics, which tend to involve guzzling booze, worshipping the Patriots, and evading all adult responsibility, but she’s finally had enough of the long-suffering shtick. She begins to dream of escape—stabbing Kevin in the jugular with a broken beer mug is one happy fantasy—and, as her thoughts turn dark, so, literally, does the show. The corny music drops out, and the bright studio lights dim to a bruised, greenish tinge, as if the camera had been dropped into olive brine. In sunny sitcom land, a laugh track yuks along to plots that revolve around, say, Kevin’s scheme to prank his killjoy boss at his and Allison’s “anniversa-rager.” In the gloomy grit of drama-ville, we watch as Allison Googles “perfect murder” at the public library and tries to finagle an opioid prescription in the hope that she can induce her husband to shuffle off his mortal coil by accidental overdose.
A dark pastiche of network sitcoms that avenges years of sexist sludge pumped into the American psyche by shows such as “Kevin Can Wait” (the callout is so direct that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong, had been challenged to a duel): what’s not to like? The pastiche itself, for one thing. Playing with two genres, you potentially double the reward, but you also risk winding up with a sitcom drained of comedy and a drama stripped of power, not to mention sense. Far be it from me to suggest that Kevin, a lukewarm can of Bud Light in human form, deserves to live, but why opt for murder when divorce entails considerably less jail time? Allison offers up a jumbled grab bag of justifications for her desperate behavior. The truth is that she’s a pawn, not a character, freed from one set of absurd genre constraints only to become shackled to another.
A sitcom’s breezy rhythm is exacting—one missed beat and the whole thing goes splat. Here, the thud is the point. The show’s first episode opens in the McRobertses’ living room, where Kevin is playing beer pong with his doofus neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer), as Kevin’s dad (Brian Howe) and Neil’s bullying sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden, doing a Rosie O’Donnell thing), look on from the couch. When Allison enters, carrying a basket of laundry, she disrupts the fratty equilibrium; “Mom,” as Neil calls her, can’t hang. “Neil, what is our one house rule?” she asks, hoping he’ll apologize for the neg. “Yankees suck!” the group shouts in unison. The laugh track roars; Allison is crushed, and the air is briefly sucked from the scene. A sitcom wife wields her humor as both dagger and shield, doing domestic battle with a wink and a smile. But Allison is turned into another stereotype, the tedious, finger-wagging shrew. “Women is losers,” Janis Joplin sang. Honey, don’t I believe it.
Maybe I’m not the right audience for this show, but who is? “Kevin Can F**K Himself” dissects a product that its target viewers likely already hold in contempt. The baseline of condescension is elevated, in the course of the four forty-five-minute episodes that I watched, by the show’s insistence that these working-class people—Kevin is a cable guy, Allison an employee at a liquor store—are not merely obnoxious and stupid but also bad. Kevin wages a war on the couple’s neighbors, “foreigners” whose favorite football team is Manchester United. Patty brags about getting a mailwoman deported. Presumably, we are meant to recoil in horror, not to pause and wonder at the likelihood of an undocumented person being employed by a federal agency in the first place.
Murphy had a big success playing Alexis Rose, the ditzy sister with a heart of gold on “Schitt’s Creek,” a sitcom as sweet as “Kevin Can F**K Himself” is sour. She was nominated for a slew of Canadian Screen Awards, and won an Emmy in 2020. Still, comic actors often worry about proving their prestige, and it’s understandable that Murphy, who can crack up a room with a raised eyebrow, wanted to test herself with steelier stuff. But serious doesn’t have to mean no fun. Saddled with a bad wig of a Boston accent, her shoulders hunched in a posture of perpetual defeat, Murphy seems lost. This is supposed to be Allison’s show. Why does it feel like the joke is on her?
If you want to laugh without the assistance of a track, I suggest you hop on over to Netflix, where the second season of the underappreciated gem “Feel Good” has just been released. The series, which now totals twelve perfectly paced, gloriously funny half-hour episodes, was co-created and written by the Canadian comedian Mae Martin, who based the story on her own life and plays a version of herself.
Mae, an expat in London, is jittery, wiry, and waxy pale, with the sharp features and big eyes of an anime character and a boyish swoosh of cropped blond hair that makes her look like Peter Pan crossed with a baby chick. She’s thirty but, bundled in her oversized hoodie, could pass for a preteen. A macho Dane Cook type she meets at the comedy club where she does standup pegs her as “some sort of androgynous Muppet,” though she prefers “anemic scarecrow.” Strangers call her “sir,” and her girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie), has Mae saved in her phone as “Corn.” (It’s the hair.) “I don’t really identify as a woman these days,” Mae jokes. How does she identify? “More like an Adam Driver or a Ryan Gosling. I’m still, like, working it out.” That deadpan waggishness is typical of the show’s low-key, anti-doctrinaire approach to the big questions of selfhood. “Feel Good” sends up a familiar brand of generational self-righteousness, but gently, with love.
In the first season, Mae and George meet at one of Mae’s sets. An ecstatic sequence has the couple kissing, screwing, and moving in together at the speed of a stop-motion flower unfurling from bud to bloom. The sex is hot, and often hilarious, but the intensity of the attraction papers over the pair’s compatibility issues. George has never dated a woman before, and her reluctance to come out to her snobby friend group eats at Mae’s confidence. Meanwhile, George learns that Mae is a recovering drug addict; when she was a teen, her parents (Adrian Lukis and a wonderfully imperious Lisa Kudrow) kicked her out of the house, and she wound up on the street, then in jail. Mae grudgingly agrees to join a support group, but, by the end of the season, she has relapsed, and the couple splits up.
The current season opens with Mae back at the rehab, outside Toronto, where she spent time in her youth. She has regressed, in more ways than one. Mae is suspicious of the contemporary tendency to classify feelings with a diagnosis. “I forgot that I’m a Vietnam War vet,” she tells a doctor who suggests that she might have P.T.S.D. But she can’t explain why she sometimes needs to lie under the bed rather than on top of it, or why a ten-year period of her life has been wiped from her memory. The show, closing in on Mae’s past, demands that she reckon not only with the harm that has been done to her but with the more confusing question of her own complicity; two confrontations with sketchy dudes, with very different outcomes, are marbled with ambiguity. (Self-styled good guys are in for a tweaking, too. “Here’s a chapter on the link between the male orgasm and war crimes,” George is told by a male lover, who hands her a book called “Feminist Sexuality” after she confesses to a filthy fantasy involving priests and nuns.) Beneath the surface charms of this clever, entertaining series, Martin wants to show us how difficult it is to be a moral person, and how beautiful it is to try. ♦
The Rise of Black Homeschooling
Advocates of school choice say that it gives low-income parents access to institutions that can better serve their children. Critics say that it lures highly motivated Black families away from traditional public schools and further hobbles underfunded districts. Presidents Clinton and Obama supported charters, but Democrats have largely cooled on them, and progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed curbing their growth. Michigan’s charters, most of which operate as for-profit companies, have consistently performed worse than the state’s traditional public schools. Yet parents continue to choose charters, which receive a large chunk of the more than eight thousand dollars per student that the state would otherwise send to non-charters, but aren’t subject to the same degree of public oversight. About half of Detroit’s students are now enrolled in charters, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. city.
The Walton foundation set up the National Parents Union in January, 2020, with Rodrigues as the founding president. Rodrigues’s oldest son, who has autism and A.D.H.D., was suspended thirty-six times in kindergarten alone; sometimes he was sent to a sensory-deprivation room that Rodrigues thought resembled a cinder-block cell. Eventually, a school representative suggested a charter school. “I didn’t know what a charter school was,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t know I had any options. I just thought I had to send him to the closest school. I didn’t know there were fights like this in education. All I knew was ‘Oh, my god, are you kidding me—why are you doing this to my kid?’ ”
The National Parents Union was less than three months old when the pandemic closed schools. As well-off families set up private learning pods, Vela Education Fund gave Rodrigues seven hundred thousand dollars to help people with fewer resources, like Bernita, create their own. “There was an article in the New York Times about fancy white people in upstate New York creating these ‘pandemic pods,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But that’s how poor Black and brown folks survive in America—we resource-share. We don’t call them ‘pandemic pods,’ because that’s a bougie new term. For us, we called it ‘going to Abuelita’s house,’ because she watched all the cousins in the family after school, and that’s where you learned a host of skills outside of the normal school setting.”
Last summer, the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which receives Walton funding, co-sponsored a virtual town hall on reopening Michigan’s public schools. Detroit’s superintendent, Nikolai P. Vitti, said that expanding to “non-traditional” options, such as learning pods, would hurt many of the city’s children. He warned that homeschooling, like charter schools, would undermine public education and cost teachers their jobs. Legislators were already drafting bills, he said, to take money away from schools so that children could continue learning in pods after campuses reopened.
“I don’t judge any parent for using the socioeconomic means that they have to create what they believe is the best educational opportunity for their child,” Vitti said. “We all do that, in our way, as parents. But that is the purpose of traditional public education, to try to be the equalizer, to try to create that equal opportunity.”
Bernita had logged on to the discussion from her kitchen. “Parents are not deciding to take their children out because of COVID,” she told Vitti. “Parents are doing pods because education has failed children in this city forever.”
I asked Kija if it bothered her to accept money from the conservative-libertarian Koch family, who have spent vast sums of their fortune advocating for lower taxes, deep cuts to social services, and looser environmental regulations. “I guess the bigger question is, why don’t we have enough resources so that we don’t have to get money from them? It bothers me, yes—but why do they have so much money that they get to fund all of our shit?” she asked. “I shouldn’t have to get resources from the Kochs.”
Kija and Bernita describe themselves as Democrats. Bernita said that, in another era, she “would be a Black Panther with white friends.” She said that she was “at peace” with her decision to take money from the Koch family, because they fund several of the charter schools that Victoria attended, through their Michigan-based building-supply company Guardian Industries. She is not a “poster child” for her conservative backers, she added—the Koch family has no control over what or how she teaches. In a video about Engaged Detroit produced by Vela Education Fund, Bernita states, “If school won’t reinvent education, we have to reinvent it ourselves, and our goal at Engaged Detroit is to make sure families have the tools so that choice is in their hands.”
Vela Education Fund offered Bernita one year of funding, and in April she accepted another twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant, from Guardian Industries, to sustain her group through the next school year. Rodrigues imagines a scenario in which the per-pupil funding that public-school districts normally receive goes straight to a homeschooling parent. “Instead,” she said, “you have systems that are addicted to that money.”
Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a collective of more than three hundred philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation, says it’s not clear yet whether funders will continue to invest in homeschooling after the pandemic. Most are in “listening mode,” she said. Andre Perry, an education-policy expert at the centrist Brookings Institution, suspects that conservative-libertarian philanthropists will not prop up homeschooling as they have charters and vouchers, “but they will use this wedge issue to hurt public schools,” he said.
Perry was once the C.E.O. of the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, which launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he grew skeptical of the school-choice movement. Its funders tend to put their wealth toward alternatives to the public-school system, Perry told me, rather than lobbying state governments to implement more equitable funding models for public schools or to address the over-representation of Black children in special education. “Because of the pandemic, you’ve had organizations saying, Hey, this is an opportunity to again go after public schools,” Perry said. The Vela-funded homeschooling collectives don’t address root causes of educational disparities, he continued: “When people only focus on the escape hatch, it reveals they’re not interested in improving public education.”
Perry went on, “Slapping ‘Parents Union’ on something while you’re constantly trying to underfund public education—that’s not the kind of trade-off that suggests you’re interested in empowering Black people. It’s more of a sign that you’re trying to advance a conservative agenda against public systems.”
Six months into the pandemic, a consensus had emerged that many children, in all kinds of learning environments, were depressed, disengaged, and lonely in the Zoom simulacrum of school. “It’s Time to Admit It: Remote Education Is a Failure,” a headline stated in the Washington Post. “Remote Learning Is a Bad Joke,” The Atlantic declared. For some homeschoolers who rely heavily on online curricula, an all-screens, alone-in-a-room version of school can have a flattening effect even outside of a global health crisis. Kafele Gray, Kija’s son, who is now twenty-one and studying music business at Durham College, in Ontario, liked online homeschooling because it freed him from bullying. After two years, though, he was failing his classes and procrastinating, with assignments piling up. “It got kind of stressful,” he said. “You have to teach yourself and be on yourself.” He especially struggled with math. “When I’m in school, I’m better at math, because I have the teacher there to explain it to me—I’m seeing it broken down. When I was online, I would get it wrong, but I wouldn’t know why.” Still, when Kafele returned to his charter school, in eleventh grade, he’d learned to push himself to figure things out on his own. “School was less challenging” than it had been two years earlier, he told me. “I started getting A’s and B’s again.”
When the fall semester started, Bernita and Victoria tried to replicate the course load Victoria would have undertaken in a normal year. Bernita searched for online chemistry and trigonometry classes, and Victoria decided to take dance at the charter high school she’d attended before the pandemic. Bernita wanted the Engaged Detroit families to learn about Black history, so she signed them up for a six-week virtual course with the Detroit historian Jamal Jordan. Victoria bought pink notebooks and pens and a chalkboard for writing out the weekly schedule, and Bernita set up a desk for her daughter in the den. Though Bernita spent many hours on Zoom for her consulting work, the family ate lunch together most days.
As the semester continued, Victoria faded. She stayed up until seven in the morning and slept until two every afternoon, and she stopped doing chemistry. In October, Bernita told her that she couldn’t go on a planned post-pandemic trip to Los Angeles. Later that week, during her weekly coaching session with Kija, Bernita bragged about disciplining Victoria. Kija asked her to reconsider: teen-agers like sleeping in, and homeschooling allows kids to follow their natural rhythms. Besides, Kija said, Black kids are disciplined more than enough. Rather than punish Victoria, Kija suggested, Bernita should ask her daughter what she wanted to study.
The advice worked: Victoria replaced chemistry with a forensic-science class that met the state science requirements for graduation. She pored over lessons about evidence and crime scenes for hours at a time. By spring, she was waking up early to study for the core classes she needed to pass. One cold, sunny Wednesday, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Look Momma I’m Soaring,” Victoria sat down to puzzle out the trigonometry lessons that had always confused her. She emptied a pail of highlighters onto the table. At her high school, teachers hadn’t let her write in different colors, and she couldn’t make sense of her monochromatic notes. She opened a Khan Academy lesson on side ratios, and as the instructor explained the formulas for finding cosine and tangent Victoria drew triangles, highlighting each side with a different color.
The lesson included a nine-minute video and several practice questions. Every time Victoria attempted to find the cosine of the specified angle, she got the wrong answer. In a regular class, she would have pretended to understand. At home, she paused the video, rewound it, and flipped back through her notes. Eventually, she realized that she didn’t know which side was the hypotenuse. She Googled the word.
“The longest side of a right triangle,” she read. “Oh.”
She tried the formula for sine—opposite over hypotenuse—and this time a green check mark of victory flashed on her screen. Victoria solved for the angle’s tangent, and when she got it right she smiled. “O.K., I’m smart,” she said.
The parents of Engaged Detroit meet on Zoom every other Monday night. One evening in mid-March, Bernita set her laptop on the kitchen table next to a plate of broccoli and mashed potatoes. A dozen squares popped up on her screen, showing kitchens and living rooms from across the city. The parents updated one another on their children’s progress. Two preteens had started a jewelry-making business. An elementary-age boy with a stutter was relieved to be learning at home with his mom. Victoria watched for a minute, then went upstairs to feed her guinea pig, Giselle.
A mother, Jeanetta Riley, recounted how, at the beginning of lockdown, she had discovered that her daughter, Skye, a freshman in high school, was performing two grades behind in math. After she joined Bernita’s group, she found a tutor, and now, using Khan Academy, Skye had caught up to her grade level.
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