We Will Be Seen
Tressie McMillan Cottom on confronting racism, sexism, and classism.
Tressie McMillan Cottom on confronting racism, sexism, and classism.
In 1964, with “Seven Up!” Michael Apted stumbled into making what has become the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema. Fifty-five years later, the project is reaching its conclusion.
For me, country was not a look, a style, or even a conscious attitude, but a physical place, its experience defined by distance from the forces of culture that would commodify it.
How the 9.9 percent became “the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy.”
A hairdresser confronts class issues and a local murder.
"During my lunch break, I thought about what I thought about Elena Czarinsky. Honestly, I’d never liked her much. She was one of those women who flashed her electronics around to remind everyone she had a real job where she was irreplaceable. She tipped with the generous lunacy of a woman who’s had to take her clothes off for a living. Once she told me she got off bad guys just to show she knew the law better than the next guy, and it wasn’t an apology. Actually, I could have hated the woman."
A gardener unknowingly becomes a pawn between two distant neighors.
"Pat offered to shower with a bucket in her tub, a suggestion she’d read in the paper. This he accepted, and she started leaving the buckets for him on the porch. In the shower, she’d spread out her hands, thinking how the water that ran over her body was helping sustain Kirill’s vegetables."
Colliding Michigan demographics; the novelty of AOL chat rooms.
"So me and Little Tom were sitting on the couch watching television, not so much in the mood to do anything else having been witness to the worst kind of execution.'Wish you had a computer,' I said finally. 'AOL is so great. You know about it?' Pause. 'You have AOL down there?'"
A move to Los Angeles and a foray into the bourgeoisie.
Three London flatmates navigate work, identity, and class.
"Licia herself did not believe in restricting her lifestyle to her earnings, and was in the happy position of not having to. Her parents (The Parents, she called them, as if they were the only ones in the world) were forever buying her extravagant gifts and sending her hampers from Fortnum and Mason. Every spring and autumn, she and her mother went out to buy Licia a new summer wardrobe and a new winter wardrobe. If Licia were to peer from the top of a tall staircase, or teeter along a perilous rooftop, she would see The Parents waiting below, with mattresses spread out to catch her, duvets and goose down pillows. The feathers buoyed her steps; her feet, in their Italian leather shoes, never quite made contact with the pavement. She was always the one turning up the heat or throwing out two-day-old bread or buying white rum and vermouth to make cocktails."
Memories both unique and ominous surround a woman's childhood.
"I liked to visit the Moon kitchen, a grease-laden cave that stank of meat. The table had a plastic covering patterned with wagon wheels and rustic scenes. The Moons cooked foods I’d never seen before in vats studded with dumplings. At dinner the Moon men mopped up their stews with slices of white bread and guzzled cartons of milk. They had a big cat-killing dog that they had trained to sit upright on a chair at the table, and they took turns feeding it buttered toast smeared with jam. After dinner Mr. Moon sat in the kitchen when he wasn’t at the tavern, drinking beer and bluing the air with swearwords and tobacco smoke."
A middle-class father, seeking to impress his daughter, purchases an unusual status symbol.
"After dinner, strolled grounds with Emmett, who is surgeon, does something two days a week with brain inserts, small electronic devices? Or possibly biotronic? They are very small. Hundreds can fit on head of pin? Or dime? Did not totally follow. He asked about my work, I told. He said, Well, huh, amazing the strange, arcane things our culture requires some of us to do, degrading things, things that offer no tangible benefit to anyone, how do they expect people to continue to even hold their heads up?"
A woman, originally hired as a tutor for a now-deceased girl, finds herself in the middle of a wealthy couple's mournings and problems.
"At Grace’s next session on Park Avenue, Mrs. Bank does something she hasn’t done since the first session: she comes into Perry’s bedroom. Grace is flipping through online photos of kids who stuck with the theater program when she senses she’s not alone and pretends to be scribbling history cards. But when she casually turns a minute later, it’s obvious Mrs. Bank isn’t paying attention to what she’s doing at the desk. Instead Mrs. Bank is sitting in Perry’s pink armchair, the one that’s usually colonized by old stuffed animals and American Girl dolls, looking out the window at Midtown."
A family man visits his wayward, troubled brother.
"I've driven here after all these years to figure out—maybe for the first time—the person my brother is. My brother who I've known only in memory. And in two-minute phone calls and birthday cards and rumors. My brother who is sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. Kind when he brought me pizza after my accident, when, at two in the morning with an IV poking through my skin, we ate and laughed to the rhythmic beep-beep of the heart monitor. Cruel when he chased Tommy Gleeson—our autistic neighbor—down the street with a pipe, cornered him, and then stepped on his stomach until he vomited."
On Christmas Day, an elevator operator cons holiday charity out of a variety of tenants.
"On the way home from work a few nights earlier, Charlie had seen a woman and a little girl going down Fifty-ninth Street. The little girl was crying. He guessed she was crying, he knew she was crying, because she'd seen all the things in the toy-store windows and couldn't understand why none of them were for her. Her mother did housework, he guessed, or maybe was a waitress, and he saw them going back to a room like his, with green walls and no heat, on Christmas Eve, to eat a can of soup. And he saw the little girl hang up her ragged stocking and fall asleep, and he saw the mother looking through her purse for something to put into the stocking—This reverie was interrupted by a bell on 11. He went up, and Mr. and Mrs. Fuller were waiting. When they wished him a merry Christmas, he said, 'Well, it isn't much of a holiday for me, Mrs. Fuller. Christmas is a sad season when you’re poor."</p>
A whirlwind of city observations; people and spaces explored with precision and skepticism.
"On weekend nights, the building was an inferno of noise. People had parties and people fought and argued into the early hours, glass shattering, timber cracking, objects making dull thuds against the walls and floors. Wild cries of sexual pleasure, not easily distinguished from cries of distress, rang out. The police cars and the fire tenders and the ambulances wailed around the streets. Then towards dawn when everything fell silent for an hour, my thoughts became my own again, able at last to hear the chime of the neighbour’s clock."
A. M. Homes, author of the forthcoming May We Be Forgiven, trains a satiric eye on the ennui of wealthy Los Angelenos.
“I don't mind feeling paralyzed. I think I'm used to it. In fact I’m not even sure that what people would call paralyzed isn't just normal for me. I don't move a lot.”
In this fable, a selfish royal firework is unable to see the fault of his ways.
"'How very silly of him not to stay here!' said the Rocket.'I am sure that he has not often got such a chance of improving his mind. However, I don’t care a bit. Genius like mine is sure to be appreciated some day'; and he sank down a little deeper into the mud."
A troubled mother and daughter spend their first day in Los Angeles.
"I wonder what we looked like then, that day we drove over into California. My mother could probably still tell you what we wore. We were driving to California from Bay City, Wisconsin, just the two of us, so I could be a television star. We'd taken Ted's Mobile Credit Card and stayed in motels, charging gasoline and Cokes on the bills. We dug up to our shoulders in the ice chests, bringing the cold pop bottles up like a catch. We'd stolen vegetables all across America, anything we could eat without cooking. My mother spotted the trucks."
Amid rumors about her beauty, a young woman returns home from work to make a tragic discovery.
"On her way up the long flights the girl unfastened her veil. One could then clearly see the beauty of her eyes, but there was in them a certain furtiveness that came near to marring the effect. It was a peculiar fixture of gaze, brought from the street, as of one who there saw a succession of passing dangers, with menaces aligned at every corner. On the top floor she pushed open a door, and then paused on the threshold, confronting an interior that appeared black and flat like a curtain. Perhaps some girlish ideas of hobgoblins assailed her then, for she called, in a little breathless voice, 'Daddie!'"
Two working class brothers and their girlfriends dream of elevating their bleak lives.
"Growing up, we always looked up and wondered what it would be like to live in the grand homes looking down. At Christmas, our parents drove us along the overlook. Our mothers cooed at the beautiful decorations even though on every other day they cleaned those houses and took care of the children living in them. Our fathers, who worked for the grand homeowners, grunted. They said it wasn’t anything special. They swallowed the bitterness of their envy and chased it with a nip of whiskey."
At a party, two black cousins confront each other on personal identities, class status, and honesty.
"Francis had blown through a trust the size of Connecticut to establish his career as a rapper. And from what had been rumored, paid out hush money and child support to women across the Northeast. My cousin the genius. I couldn’t believe how much Suze admired him. Despite my repeated warnings about his true character, Suze still believes that Francis is a role model the poor can look up to, that he gives hope to the less fortunate. In her attempts to win me over, she even pointed out that Francis’ rapping name was actually a clever bastardization of phlogiston: an archaic, imaginary substance people once believed responsible for making things burn."
A mysterious visitor at a children's party has far-reaching ulterior motives.
"They did not play cards with him, they did not offer him cigars. No one entered into conversation with him. Possibly they recognised the bird by its feathers from a distance. Thus, my gentleman, not knowing what to do with his hands, was compelled to spend the evening stroking his whiskers. His whiskers were really fine, but he stroked them so assiduously that one got the feeling that the whiskers had come into the world first and afterwards the man in order to stroke them."
Financial workers engage in a gambling scheme that mirrors the contemporary banking crisis.
"Word spread. Other people approached us about joining the pool. At first we were angry that he told on us, but in the end it really was because of him that we got as rich as we did. Harrison and I decided to back the bids ourselves and open up to outsiders. We gave Steve partial ownership in the venture—not a whole third, of course. Our favorite sniffling over-sharer picked up the slack from our actual jobs, which let us dedicate more time to the rankings without getting fired ourselves."
Karen refugees from Burma--a mother and small child--adjust to a new life in the United States.
"Picture me following Derek, our startlingly obese caseworker, through the new apartment, trying to concentrate on his English with all of my mind. Picture me flipping a light switch for the first time and seeing the lamps blossom into electric life. Picture me flinching at the scream of the smoke alarm and the rush of water in the toilet and the wintry blast of the freezer, the coldest air I’d ever felt. My new apartment was full of traps, it seemed."
Affluent star babies, much like regular humans, experience nature and transgressions in this slightly surreal fable.
"Similar promises were made at the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls and the Hoover Dam, where unwitting star babies were brought to the edges in hopes of seeing god and instead were hurled over the edges, smashing their skulls on the rocks or impaling themselves on branches. In the Everglades, Mushroomites proclaiming themselves to be Alligatorians, walked their foes into the mouths of waiting predators who swallowed them in single bites."