Southern Shrines of (Racist) Memory

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Statue of Jefferson Davis, Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2009

MY HOMETOWN OF RICHMOND, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battlefields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its homeless outcasts.

These lessons began while I was in nursing school. The modern hospital of MCV curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former colored-only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it the almost-colored-only hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad armed guards, were from the State Penitentiary located across town. One of my patients was a death-row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him so he could be killed by the state. I wanted to talk to him, ask about his family, about his life in and outside of prison, but the stone-faced armed guard loomed over me. I knew from experience not to discuss my ambivalent feelings with my nursing instructor. She considered these to be inappropriate topics. I wanted to finish nursing school as fast as I could, so I kept silent. (From the chapter “Relics” in Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, pp. 57-58).

 

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White House of the Confederacy (right) and Medical College of Virginia (now VCU) Hospital. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2009

These words—my own words— have come back to me this week as I followed the news of contested sites of memory, of whitewashed Civil War memorials literally being fought over once again in places like New Orleans and Charlottesville, Virginia—and perhaps soon in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. In Charlottesville, white nationalists waved lit torches and chanted “You will not replace us” in front of a statue of General Robert E. Lee in a city park. (source: Associated Press, Washington Post, “Torch-wielding group protests Confederate statue removal” May 14, 2017). New Orleans has begun the removal of four Confederate monuments in the city, starting with the Battle of Liberty Place monument commemorating the Crescent City While League’s violent fight against desegregation of the city’s police force—in 1876 during Reconstruction. (source: Christopher Mele, New York Times, “New Orleans Begins Removing Confederate Monument, Under Police Guard” April 24, 2017).

Richmond, as the former Capital of the Confederacy, likely has the largest collection of statues to Confederate “war heroes” of any city. I took my driver’s test on the then still cobblestoned streets of Monument Avenue, a five-mile long stretch of tree-lined divided grand boulevard punctuated by traffic circles around five towering statues of civil war heroes. A sixth and very controversial statue was added in 1996 at the far western end of the avenue—of native Richmonder Arthur Ashe (1943-1993). Besides being an international tennis star, Ashe was also a civil rights and HIV/AIDS activist, and a champion of urban health equity work. His memorial statue on Monument Avenue portrays him standing, holding books in one hand (he was also an excellent student and UCLA college graduate) and a tennis racket in the other hand. In the statue, he faces west, away from the Confederate statues. When Ashe was growing up in segregated Richmond, he was barred from playing tennis in the city’s whites only parks—and, ironically, he also would have been barred from even walking down Monument Avenue, a whites only residential area.

Since Monument Avenue in Richmond is a designated national park and indeed, is the only national park to consist of city street, it is unlikely that any of the Confederate statues will be removed anytime soon. But perhaps it is time to rename the street Memorial Avenue. This idea comes from University of Richmond professor of philosophy Gary Shapiro in his NYT opinion page essay “The Meaning of Our Confederate ‘Monuments'” (May 15th, 2017). Shapiro points out that records of city planners of the Confederate “war hero” statues on what would become Monument Avenue, “show that they meant to legitimize and dignify the white supremacist regime that had taken hold in Virginia.” He quotes philosopher of art Arthur Danto who states, “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.”

Instructive and remarkably prescient here are words of Henry James, in his travelogue book The American Scene, in the chapter “Richmond” about his visit to Richmond in the late winter of 1905. A late snowstorm prevented him from traveling very far from the center of Richmond, but he describes his walk to the then newly developing Monument Avenue and the statue of Robert E. Lee (erected in 1890). James reflects on his visit to Richmond and writes:

“History, the history of everything, would be written ad usum Delphini—the Dauphin being in this case the budding Southern mind. This meant a general and a permanent quarantine; meant the eternal bowdlerization of books and journals; meant in fine all literature and all art on an expurgatory index. It meant, still further, an active and ardent propaganda; the reorganization of the school, the college, the university in the interest in the new criticism.” p. 374 Henry James, The American Scene (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd).

My own then budding Southern mind, educated in the Virginia public schools of Battlefield Park (named for the Civil War Battle of Cold Harbor) Elementary School, Stonewall-Jackson Junior High School, Lee-Davis High School—and then VCU/MCV nursing school—was negatively affected by that still-lingering, ardent, white supremacist propaganda. Through my father I am related to Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy. That legacy, and the work that I have done and continue to do to actively resist racism, is something I do not want to forget.

Just Say No to Nurse Angels

FullSizeRenderThe American Nurses Association has declared this National Nurses Week (May 6-12, 2017) theme as “Nursing: The Balance of Mind, Body, and Spirit” to accompany their designation of 2017 as “The Year of the Healthy Nurse.” To help nurses celebrate the week, a host of businesses are offering “freebies” to nurses, including 1,000 calorie cinnamon rolls. I have nothing against high-calorie baked goods, but to celebrate nurses I recommend books and inkpots. Books, as in real books by real nurses (my current favorites listed below). And inkpots? I explain that in the following excerpt from my upcoming commencement address to graduates of the Yale School of Nursing:

“Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you about a topic I am passionate about: nursing. But not traditional nursing—not the Lady with the Lamp during the Crimean War—and not the white uniform-clad nursing angel of Hallmark moments. About that nurse angel, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf and her similarly stifling angel of the house: whenever you feel the shadow of her wings or the radiance of her halo, take up the inkpot or whatever modern equivalent is nearby and fling it at her. Because nurses are flesh and blood people. Nurses are not supernatural beings. We, as nurses, are human beings. Today, I want to talk to you about the real life transforming and transformational nursing of which you are all a part. I want to talk to you about radical nursing. And about the radical self-care it takes to be a radical nurse.”

I have always bristled at the mention of nurses as angels and included this pet peeve of mine in a previous blog post from January 10, 2016: “Sick Nurses.” So I was delighted to run across a poem, “Killing the Nurse in the House,” by nurse and poet Cortney Davis. I had the pleasure of reviewing her forthcoming collection of poems, Taking Care of Time (Michigan State University Press), which won their Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize. This is the endorsement I wrote: “Searing and unsentimental, the poems of Cortney Davis serve as haunting and truth-telling companions. Whenever I am in need of inspiration or of reconnecting with compassion and with all it means to be human, I return to Davis’s ’stories tamed on the page.’ Although, as in her poem ‘The Snake Charmer,’ Davis knows her poems connect us with the wild, untamable places of our lives.” Taking Care of Time avoids the overly religious (to me) themes that have appeared in some of Davis’ recent writing. It will have a permanent place in my home library once it is published.

My current favorite “Real Books by Real Nurses” (and yes, I do include my own and yes, I do realize that this is not a very diverse group of authors and welcome suggestions of books I may not know about):

 

 

 

Going Public: Out of the Ivory Tower

IMG_4119Yesterday, I attended and was part of a timely all day workshop at the University of Washington Allen Library Research Commons, “Going Public: Sharing Research Beyond the Academy.” It was sponsored by the UW Libraries, College of the Environment, eScience Institute, and the Simpson Center for the Humanities/Public Scholarship program. Timely, of course, since science, climate change facts/efforts, the humanities (and arts), and even higher education in general are all under increasing attack in the United States.

The opening keynote speaker was Scott Montgomery, a geoscientist and lecturer in the UW Jackson School of International Studies and author of numerous books, including The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science (University of Chicago, 2003). For his talk, titled “A Story in 25 Images,” he practiced what he preaches by using PPT for showing a series of images to accompany a story (with a traditional narrative arc) of his journey as a communicator of science. Most of his images were abstract geology sorts of themes, but the ones that included human images portrayed only white men in suits. Yes, I was wearing my critical feminist academic bonnet, and yes, there were many women and persons of color in the audience. One young female attendee pointed out in the Q&A session that women within the academy face significant barriers, not just to entering science fields, but also to have non-traditional, public-facing and public-engaging scholarly work—barriers faced by men as well but to a lesser degree. And this is not only a gendered, but also a “minoritized” (her term and one that I like) issue.

The middle part of the day’s workshop consisted of panel discussions and break-out sessions focused on various issues of working with the media in all its varied forms—from TV and newspapers to podcasts, blogging, and other types of social media. I moderated a lunchtime round table discussion on academic freedom and public scholarship, two overlapping topics close to my heart. I didn’t share this in the session, but I have had to fight to defend my academic freedom in terms of this blog over its now seven year history. And public scholarship, such as what I do in my work on health and homelessness? It would seem that it is not deemed “nursing science,” whatever that term even means. But hopefully that is a cohort effect that will change for the better.

I was part of the final panel, “Navigating the Path from Research to Public Policy,” along with Dr. Simone Alin from UW Oceanography and NOAA; Washington State Senator Rueven Carlyle; Sally Clark, former Seattle City Councilmember and current Director, Regional and Community Relations, External Affairs at UW; and Tim Thomas, with the Urban@UW Homeless Initiative. The moderator’s question to the three of us panelists who are researchers was, “Can you tell us a little about how you’ve been involved in informing policy-making through your research.” Indeed, I can and I did, including a mention of my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, which is research-informed and is written as a policy narrative—policy narrative being defined as ” a new genre of writing that explores health policy through the expression of personal experiences” by the editors of the Narrative Matters section of the health policy academic journal Health Affairs. Narrative Matters needs better inclusion from nurse writers, but that is another story for another day.

Homeless Feet Come Full Circle

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Josephine Ensign/ foot care at Cross-Over Clinic, Fall 1986, from Freedom House brochure.

“I did a lot of foot care at the clinic… Of course, it had its Biblical roots, but there was something about foot washing that most people found comforting and even pampering…I knew that having your feet cared for could somehow make you feel better all over…Almost all the homeless patients I saw had foot problems. They had to walk around town to get to different agencies, meal sites, and day-labor pools. They walked in the rain and the snow and the heat, usually in ill-fitting, secondhand shoes with dirty, holey socks, and carrying heavy backpacks.”~ from my book Catching Homelessness: A Nurses Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, pp 86-87.

In this excerpt, I was referring to homeless patients I cared for when I worked as a nurse practitioner at the CrossOver Clinic in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the mid to late 1980s—over thirty years ago. But I could be (and indeed, am now) writing about currently homeless people and foot care here in my adopted hometown of Seattle, Washington.

There is this brief part of a haibun (prose mixed with haiku) reflection I wrote after helping with a foot clinic at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District near where I work: “Tonight in the homeless shelter a 19-year-old man from Georgia says, ‘My momma always told me not to go barefoot and I didn’t listen. That’s why my feets so bad. And I have to walk everywhere on them now.’ He reaches down and gently rubs his brown gnarled feet soaking in a white plastic basin. His feet are darkly scarred and calloused: the feet of an old man.

walking barefoot/we find our way/though cruel paths scar”

(From Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, in the haibun/chapter titled “Where the Homeless Go”).

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And there is this description of a foot care clinic I helped with at Mary’s Place, a downtown Seattle women and children’s homeless drop-in center: “The most delightful—and tender—foot clinic patient we had that morning was the petite three-year-old daughter of a young North African immigrant mother. The child pushed around a pink plastic toy shopping cart from the shelter’s playroom, and she wore a dress, bright striped tights, black Mary Janes, and a huge pink feather boa around her neck. She came and sat on a metal folding chair while one of the students washed her mother’s feet. The little girl wanted her own feet to be given the same attention, so her mother removed her shoes and tights. Baby toes! So cute!… I wanted to scoop her up and protect her from the traumas, the abuses of the world. But, of course, I knew I couldn’t do that. It made me sad to watch her toes curl up in delight as she splashed her feet in the basin of soapy water.”

(From Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, in a chapter titled “Walk in My Shoes.”

IMG_0678And finally there is this King5 TV news report on the University of Washington School of Nursing foot clinic I helped with a few days ago (“UW Nursing Students Host Tent City Welcome Party” by Heather Graf, January 13, 2017). Rusty, the homeless resident of nearby Tent City 3 (currently on the UW campus), told the nursing student working with him that he had never felt so pampered. Small things go a long way. They always have and always will.

Nursing Mile High Club Take 2

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Meliorism: The doctrine that the world, or society, may be improved and suffering alleviated through rightly directed human effort; a policy embodying this doctrine. (Source: OED) Meliorism, as in this statement by William James in his book (or really his collection of Gifford lectures given in Edinburgh) The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902): “The idea of a universal evolution lends itself to a doctrine of general meliorism and progress which fits the religious needs of the healthy-minded so well that it seems almost as if it might have been created for their use.” (p. 90) I recently re-read this book for an essay I am writing on science and religion, but it also has come in handy as I process the recent backsliding (yes, a religious term) in social justice progress in our country. Meliorism as a doctrine was, of course, dealt a serious blow with WWII and the Nazi atrocities as revealed during the Nuremberg Trials.

My own ‘belief’ in meliorism has been dealt a serious blow, but my resolve to work towards social justice is strengthened. And I look for evidence of progress wherever I can in order to bolster my resolve. Including in the somewhat dusty archives of this blog. “The Nursing Mile High Club” (originally published February 11, 2011) is one of my personal favorite blog posts to research and write. Re-reading it (and re-viewing the accompanying photo) makes me smile because it reminds me of how far nursing as a profession has come. Plus, it reminds me of how far my “real writing” career has come in the six years since I started this blog/website. Enjoy.

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Nurses are a lot like flight attendants. Imagine the modern hospital as a large flying spaceship. The physicians are the pilots, or perhaps they would contend that the administrators are the pilots. The hospital patients are mostly all the passengers packed into economy class, with perhaps a few VIP hospital patients in first class patient suites. So, of course, the nurses are the flight attendants of this hospital spaceship. They keep passengers comfortable by bringing them coffee, tea or soft-drinks, they help passengers in and out of bathrooms, they answer call bells, they ensure safety by keeping bed guardrails up, and they help to avoid a mass stampede of panicked passengers/patients running for the exits.

In fact, the first flight attendants were nurses. From 1930 to 1945 Boeing  Air/United Airlines hired nurses to be flight attendants—called stewardesses then. Nurses were hired to calm passengers’ nerves in the early days of flying, and to attend to their comfort by bringing passengers food and drink, and tucking them in at night on long flights. Perhaps they gave sedatives to really nervous passengers. They wore the iconic white nurses’ uniforms, replete with the winged nursing caps left over from the nunnery roots of nursing.

But ramping up after WWII, stewardesses were mainly hired for their sex appeal, and soon became one of the most sexualized female lines of work—even more sexualized than nursing. Until the mid-1960s and the Civil Rights movement, flight attendants were all women. They were all pretty, thin, young, unmarried and un-pregnant women. They wore designer uniforms ranging from hot pants with patent leather go-go boots, to futuristic spaceship suits. Euphemistically known as “tarts with carts,” “trolley dollies,” and ‘flying mattresses,” stewardesses regularly endured pats to their derrieres as they worked the aisles, and it was common for frequent flyer businessmen to marry a stewardess. National Airlines had an infamous and financially successful “Fly Me” TV ad campaign in the early 1970s, with sultry female flight attendants declaring “I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before.” The feminist NOW organization picketed their headquarters.

Currently, about 30% of all US flight attendants are male, and the median age is 44. These changing demographics, coupled with more enlightened cultural mores, successful unions, and post 9-11 increased seriousness of air travel, have all helped to raise the professional status of US flight attendants. In other countries, most notably Asian countries, almost all flight attendants continue to be young attractive females, although an enterprising new Thai airline is recruiting and hiring ‘kathoeys,’ otherwise known as ‘ladyboys,’ “third sex” male transgender people.

Flight attendants and nurses are both service-oriented professions with roots in traditional female roles. Flight attendants have a history of being much more overtly sexualized than do nurses. So how have flight attendants managed to come so much further than nursing in terms of gender parity—and in only eighty years? As I mentioned in a previous post “More than a few good men needed in nursing,” currently only 7% of the US nursing workforce is male. Although I was not able to find specific data on attrition rates by gender and profession, my sense is that male nurses have much higher rates of leaving the profession than do male flight attendants. So it’s not just a matter of recruiting, educating, and hiring more male nurses in the US, we also need to do a better job at retaining male nurses. Otherwise, perhaps they will all go join the friendly skies.

See also:  “Tracing flight attendants’ path from nurse to model to professional” blog post by Aubrey Cohen 1-28-11,  Seattle-PI‘s Aerospace News, about Seattle’s Museum of Flight’s display of flight attendants’ uniforms over the years (“Style in the Aisle”).

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Note: 2016 statistics on gender parity for flight attendants is difficult to find, but most updated reliable sources seem to place male flight attendants at 25-30%. For nursing, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation January 2016 policy brief “The Changing Face of Nursing: Creating a Workforce for an Increasingly Diverse Nation” states that the 2014 RN workforce was 10% men. So at least for nursing in the US gender parity—and work attire—is improving.

On Hope

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Detail from mural “Sonoran Desert:Yaqui Home” by Mario Martinez

Today was absolutely the hardest day to teach out of all of my decades of teaching. I have a class of about 150 nursing students for a course on community/public health nursing. They are a very diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, gender, and even age. Today’s topics were cultural humility and the social determinants of health equity. How appropriate. One of my students also pointed out to me how helpful it was that I had also assigned a training module on disaster preparedness, which included PTSD prevention. She found the content helpful in terms of facing the outcome of our national presidential election. This made me remember the highly effective CDC Zombie Apocalypse disaster preparedness public education videos and materials. There is a zombie-like mindset within our healthcare system, within academic nursing, and within our society that I find highly disturbing. It would be so much easier to just yield to zombie ways.

I take diversity seriously in my teaching and strive to promote a class climate of respect for all differences, including different political views. But the profession of nursing as a whole, and especially of community/public health nursing, is built on the value of social justice and health equity. And higher education at a public university is based on inclusion and social justice. To now have a president-elect whose political platform included openly racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and beyond-misogynistic-into-sexual-assault-on-women values, takes us—takes me as a teacher—into an entirely new and uncharted territory.

Today in class I tried to acknowledge this in a transparent and respectful way—and to emphasize our responsibility to do our part to make the world, to make our country and our community a better and healthier place. We had terrific trainers from the NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay survivors of abuse who helped us address some of these issues directly. And a group of nursing students are continuing a Knitting for Change community group, an idea my UW Study Abroad in New Zealand students brought back with them last year. My co-teacher for that program was the community empowerment “Neighbor Power” expert Jim Diers. And then after class today I received notification of this recent mention I made in a Seattle-area community event of the New Zealand concept of community cafes as places to help strengthen our communities. “Experts offer ideas to help Seattle area’s homeless youth” by Neal Morton (Seattle Times, November 9, 2016).

I choose to hold on to all of these examples of the goodness and compassion in the world. I choose hope and a renewed energy to work for a socially just society.

Listen, Carefully

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“Silence” by Johann Heinrich Fussli, 1799-1801

My essay, “Listen, Carefully,” was published today by Electric Literature/Okey-Panky. I love the Okey-Panky tagline, “Literary oddments for busy people.” They state that my essay (or is it really a prose poem?) is a 4-minute read. It includes a link to my 7-minute digital storytelling video of my reading of the piece, accompanied by my photographs.

“Listen, Carefully” is part of my book and digital humanities project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins. In “Listen, Carefully” I parse out some of my criticisms of the practice of narrative medicine, as well as the rhetoric of listening—and of silence.