Friday, March 28, 2008

anybody want a peanut?

I started crushing on George Washington Carver right around the time I developed a thing for Abe Lincoln and Madame Curie -- somewhere in that shapeless divide between elementary school and high school called middle school. I’m pretty sure it stemmed from the “great people in history” biographies that were spooned to us as social studies reading.

All three of them had a solitary bookish quality that felt like family to a little girl who’s favorite illicit act was to sneak out onto the dormer roof outside her bedroom window to read in the sunlight that baked down on the shingles that smelled like tar. Images of Abe reading his books long into the night in front of the fire and glances of Marie and George locked away in their labs, captivated by questions, felt like home to me.

They all three had an awkwardness about them, something I knew a lot about (uh, still do); something strange and singular that mostly comes off as peculiar.

The other night at the Field all those shy familiar feelings sprouted up when we took a pass through the George Washington Carver exhibit. His is an extraordinary story -- enslaved child, abducted with his mother by slave raiders and left for dead before he was found again (mother gone forever), emancipated at 9 months and then a lifetime of learning in spite of being told that a black man couldn’t have what he wanted: An education.

He got his education. And from all that learning he gave. The achievement he’s known for, of course, is giving the South something to grow besides soil starving cotton -- and the Field’s exhibit does a great job of underscoring all his other gifts as well. Including the Jessup Wagon -- a “movable school” that he designed at Tuskagee to take education -- most of it agricultural and vocational -- into the community.

The exhibit also speaks frankly to the heat that he took from the African American community and folks like W.E.B. Dubois who thought he dodged the issues surrounding racism too much and that his dreams for the black community were too small.

The most curious aspect of the exhibit is how it handled Carver’s sexual orientation. George Washington Carver never married, and from 1934 until his death in 1943 he co-habitated with a fellow named Austin W. Curtis, Jr. I didn’t know this going in to the exhibit, and I certainly didn’t learn it from middle school social studies -- I googled it just today.

But I wondered enough to google it because my gaydar was on high alert from the moment I walked in the door: Carver was an impeccable dandy, beautifully decked out in all the photographs on display, and he had a life long passion for needle craft which made me crush on him even more -- his knitting, crochet and rug making are on exhibit -- not that fiber arts makes a man gay. I’m just sayin'.

The sirens went off when I approached one of the interactive displays and fired up an audio recording of an interview with Carter. His voice was high-pitched, with unique intonations. But that’s not what made me decide I would google the gay question when I got home. The deal that sealed it was the curious apologetic placard that accompanied the recording -- the Field Museum’s editorial on Carver’s voice, including a warning that the listener might be surprised by it, and the consolation that it may have been the result of a childhood illness.

Which is when I thought: Someone at the Field is extremely uncomfortable with the possibility that this great man of history, this extraordinary American, a man who stepped out of slavery and created a tremendous legacy for himself, for African Americans, and for our country -- that this great man may have been gay. [1]

Which made me wonder if Dr. Carver may have taken his conciliatory approach toward combating prejudice because he was saddled with the dual discrimination of being both a black man and gay in America -- the latter for which there still has been no Civil Rights Act.

[1] And I say "may have been" because I need to go deeper, of course, to know for sure -- one Google hit doesn't a truth make. If he were straight, and married, that would be called out in his biography and mentioned in the exhibit. As a gay man with a partner we have no convention for designating that partnership in polite society.

We should do something about that.

& on a lighter note: 10 pts if you get the movie allusion in the title. ;)

Update: Received an email from a straight friend shortly after I posted this that warned my use of gaydar might be offensive to some. Which was of course exactly what I was worried about when I posted: how to write, as a straight person, with sensitivity about being aware of others' sexual orientation.

There are few safe places in America if you're gay or lesbian, and it's been my experience that new acquaintances will take a good long while to come out to me -- months, sometimes -- even if I know almost immediately that they're gay. (There's that gaydar again.)

It's not my business what a person's sexual orientation is. But I am interested, from a human rights perspective, in creating an environment where everyone I encounter feels safe and welcome and accepted for who they are. If you're gay in America you learn very quickly that that's not always true, and you're frequently walking on eggshells.

'Cause baby, we're still lynching gay folk, after a fashion. See: Matthew Shepard. And I recently heard a group of gay high school students speak about the intolerance they encounter at our local high school because they're Out. It shocked me anew about the depths of discrimination that gays and lesbians encounter, just for being gay and lesbian.

I still remember with shame being present, years back, when someone in the room expressed intolerance for gays. I was there with a gay friend. He said nothing, and neither did I. I won’t be forgiving myself for that anytime soon.

It's not easy being gay. We straight folk need to do what we can to make it easier.


Kenneth said...

Heh. I "crushed" on George Washington Carver and Luther Burbank. Guess what my major was in college?

I really enjoyed the book Unshakable Faith: Booker T. Washington & George Washington Carver by John Perry.

Lolabola said...

didn't know about him at all, nice post.

up really early, might have some toast.

stop this rhyming now, I mean it!

suttonhoo said...

kenneth: I'll betcha got all giddy reading about Mendel and his pea plants too. ;)

lolabola: 10 points!

[ tyler curtain ] said...

Well, As an officially gay person and one who professes all things queer in a university setting, I hereby declare this post beautifully written, funnily drawn, and wonderfully, acutely sensitive to just what's going on in the Field Museum exhibit. I love it.

And, yes, Virginia. Straight-identified folks have gaydar too. Especially those souls who love teh gays, but just as often the folks who don't!


Anali said...

From your post, I realized how one dimensional GWC is seen in history. We associate him with the peanut and not much else.

I was intrigued and remembered a cookbook that I have. It's called "The African-American Heritage Cookbook" and a fair number of the recipes are from GWC. Plus there are quotes from him sprinkled between the recipes. He didn't only cook with peanuts! There are salad recipes, other things too. I'll have to do a post with a recipe from this cookbook.

Kenneth said...

I had exactly the same reaction as [ tyler curtain ] to your addendum about gaydar.

I've come to be suspicious of any warnings about "sensitivity" that come from a third party. While speaking up for those who are silenced or unheard can be the act of an ally, in my work environment (religious magazine editor) I've seen how often it is not helpful or not accurate.

suttonhoo said...

many thanks for your officially gay gut check on this one, Tyler -- 'preciate your checking in. :)

& anali: I'm gonna hold you to that. yum.

mrtn said...

I have been obsessed with seeing that movie again for months now, but it's not on DVD in Norway. Inconceivable!

I, Rodius said...

I believe (because I think I may have seen it on TV) that Carver's work with peanuts got the most attention in grade school history books, but he's also the father of the vastly varied uses for soybeans, from faux cheese and meats to paint to fuel to plastics. If I recall, that documentary said that he said that he never married because what woman would put up with him, would understand his need to be out in the fields and the gardens so much. They didn't mention any male companion. I guess they figured why complicate a good black history hero tale?

Anonymous said...

Why do you make the connection between having a high-pitched voice, like Dr. Carver's, and sexual orientation?
All indications are that were physiological reasons for the quality of Dr. Carver's voice ranging from childhood illness to castration during his childhood in slavery.

suttonhoo said...

hi Festus. I thought it mostly curious that the Field 1) noted that his voice was "different" and 2) made an effort to offer a socially acceptable explanation.

I agree that a high-pitched voice is not necessarily indicative of sexual orientation, although some notable gay men -- like Truman Capote -- have had high-pitched voices.

I find it interesting (& sad) that to be gay in America is still problematic. That was the sucker punch that stuck with me from my experience of the exhibit.

by posting on this issue it wasn't my intention to state that "George Washington Carver was gay." I meant instead to call attention to how the exhibit handled the question of whether or not Carver was gay.

Anonymous said...

What would have been an appropriate caption for the voice interactive in the exhibition?

suttonhoo said...

hi there Festus.
The issue that I hoped to call attention to can't be remedied by rewriting the caption.

In a nutshell, here’s what I was trying to get at: There's an historical question regarding whether or not George Washington Carver was gay. I became sensitive to this question as a straight person who has been exposed to gay culture -- I picked it up from some of the artifacts in the exhibit -- and then sought verification re this supposition on the Internet.

The Field Museum is in the business of treating historical questions, and they chose to mount an exhibit on the life of GWC in which they avoided addressing the question of his sexual orientation at all -- except to dismiss the unspoken question, awkwardly, I thought, with the caption that you asked about.

That an important institution like the Field Museum avoided addressing the question of GWC's sexual orientation says to me that we still consider "gayness" to be unseemly, and not appropriate for public discourse. And I find that unfortunate, sad, and oppressive.

That's the only point I'm trying to make.

I asked Tyler Curtain to stop by and apply his critical eye to the matter because he's a scholar of queer theory and understands the way these things work much better than I do. If you're curious about this issue I highly recommend his work.

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