At it again at the Ath
by John Pixley
The finger snapping was new to me. I have seen a lot of twinkling, when people raise their hands and wriggle their fingers in approval. I have seen people repeat in unison what a speaker says to make sure it is heard by all. But I had not seen an audience, or part of an audience, snapping during a speech.
A friend told me it isn’t new. He said that it was common at readings and gatherings during the period of the Beat poets. He also mentioned that it was in the same spirit as the “human microphone,” the audience repeating what the speaker says, which was often seen during the Occupy movement.
But there was something new about the snapping, something avant-garde. This was something different, something that was a change. I won’t say it was ominous or scary, but it was edgy.
Indeed, something was on edge that evening a few weeks ago at the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College. Janet Mock was the featured after-dinner speaker. Ms. Mock—emphasis on the Ms., thanks—is a transgender woman, a woman who was born in a male body. This is a concept many people have a hard time getting their heads around—not unlike, say, same-sex marriage five or 10 years ago. The author of a memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, has spent years speaking out in an effort to help people to understand it.
Perhaps her claim to fame most recently is responding to an interviewer on television who asked why she changed from male to female by saying, no, she didn’t change, she was always female and was stuck in a male body. It isn’t easy to stand up like this, speaking truth to power, so to say, and being African-American and Hawaiian doesn’t, I suspect, make it any less of a challenge.
So she came to the Athenaeum in the early days of the new semester with a strong, definite message: She was in conversation with Carol Williams, an associate professor of chemistry at CMC who is also a transgender woman. It was clearly a message that many people at the Colleges wanted to hear and many others at the Colleges needed to or should hear.
One question during the Q & A—tellingly, in an unusual if not unprecedented practice at the Athenaeum, anonymous questions written on cards were accepted if one was more comfortable doing so—had to do with whether a women’s college should accept women who were born in a male body. I had the sense that audience members who were snapping were, like Ms. Mock indicated in her response, tired of questions like this having to be asked.
It is understandable that they are fed up and impatient, even angry. I have heard plenty of these questions on some painful and wrenching occasions in the gay community. There are also groups, such as the Rad Fems, who are adamant that a woman isn’t a woman unless she was born a woman. This, of course, is on top of the general bias in society, with many people having trouble getting their heads around the idea of someone being trapped with the wrong gender. There was almost a measure—one that would be highly divisive and hurtful—on the upcoming state ballot to repeal the new law allowing people to use the public restroom that they feel is appropriate.
This was indeed a brave way to start the year at the Athenaeum, with a strong message. Just having the participation of a transgender woman professor teaching chemistry at a college that used to be a men’s school—Claremont Men’s College—was remarkable enough.
But it wasn’t that surprising for the Athenaeum. Yes, it has hosted the likes of Newt Gringich and Mitt Romney and lots of CEOs, but it has also featured the drag star RuPaul and AIDS activists, not to mention Bill Clinton, as well as such head-turning artists as Bono, Spike Lee and Ken Kesey. It has taken CMC a long way from its reputation of being a school for conservative jocks and business majors and has lately been referred to a daily salon of sorts, providing an “hour of art and culture on campus.”
The presence of Ms. Mock and Ms. Williams (emphasis, again, on the Ms) wasn’t the only sign that evening that the Athenaeum is continuing this practice. A new addition—a striking, huge painting—all but dominated the large room. It was full of tumultuous, inky, dark colors and, in sharp contrast, had two long tubes of bright neon light slashing across it.
The painting made for a bold addition to the room. As I found out the next evening, when Mary Weatherford was in conversation with Robert Faggen, professor of literature and director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at CMC, it is very much a bold addition not only to the room but also the college.
Mary Weatherford is the artist. I had seen her speak at the Athenaeum in the spring about her work, praised for its strength and use of neon light, but I had forgotten that she was going to teach at the college this fall and that the college had commissioned a work from her. This mammoth work is the result of that commission.
As became perfectly apparent during that evening, the painting came about with the college and Claremont in mind. The tumbling and swirling blues and browns show the sweep from the rocky slopes of Mt. Baldy to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This wide-ranging landscape is rough and wild, almost violent, full of obstructive rocks and brambles but, as evident with the bright lights, it has been tamed, if not civilized, with industry, commerce, culture and, yes, education. Or perhaps they just coexist.
This artwork is exciting and monumental, reflecting the Athenaeum, along with the mission and also the challenges and changes going on at CMC and the other colleges here. It was no surprise the next week when Anis Mojgani, the poetry slam champion, was at the Athenaeum saying he would “blow your mind” and doing exactly that.