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 The key sentiment of Mundo wisdom upon which the novel hangs

 its plot is – " It takes only one lie to unravel the world."



  Books by Alice Walker

Why War Is Never a Good Idea  / The Third Life of Grange Copeland / Meridian / The Temple of My Familiar / The Color Purple

By The Light of My Father's Smile / Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems  /  In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose

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The Lie That Unraveled the World

The Relevance of Alice Walker, the Mundo

& By the Light of My Father's Smile

By Rudolph Lewis


There was a saying among the Mundo. It takes only one lie to unravel the world. And when our father, wearing his preacher's hat, said God had said man had dominion over all the earth, the Mundo men had declared this could not possibly be true. Perhaps, they had said, stroking their bearded chins, it is the one lie that has unraveled your world. -- By the Light of My Father's Smile (1998)


The general public, and a great number of black men, have misread Alice Walker, believing her criticism is directed primarily at black men. Many will thus take me as a madman when I speak of Walker's "relevance." I’ll go farther out on the limb and say she is probably today the most brilliant and gifted living American writer and philosopher—an artist/person of the highest ethical character. 

Until I read By the Light of My Father's Smile, the more superior novel, I believed, was her first The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a work in which the black male is much more brutal and malevolent than as he appears in any of her other works, including The Color Purple, technically an extraordinary piece of writing that far exceeds its cinematic representation. Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple is sentimental clap-trap, imaginatively on a level with An Imitation of Life, a real old-fashioned tear-jerker.

Disappointedly, I know that many religious fundamentalists and conservative-right politicians (black, white, etc.) would call me to task on the question of Walker's ethics. In that she is an avowed "lesbian," there are those assuredly who view her as immoral, especially in matters of sexuality. For instance, By the Light of My Father's Smile in its first chapter begins with an explicit (pornographic?) representation of a black lesbian (Pauline) making love to (having sex with) a bisexual married black woman (Susannah), a scene narrated by Susannah’s ghostly father!

All three characters are very middle-class, prosperous, and educated. An extremely titillating scene indeed, by any measure, yet not ethically irrelevant to the morality enmeshed in this novel and the conundrum in which we find ourselves.

By the Light of My Father's Smile is a feminist novel. No doubt about it. But it has a larger agenda, a larger social critique. And that can be said about all of Walker's literary works. A feminist does not translate anti-male. Nor anti-black-male, though her work can be easily read that way by the shallow and have been read by many indeed that way.

The African-American male is seemingly also the villain in By the Light of My Father's Smile.  Many will come to that conclusion, straight-away, as some (black and white) did with The Color Purple. They will be justified, if man is never more than his color or his race. For, in Walker's novels, race is indeed significant, but it is never the final determinant.

What concerns Walker are institutions, rituals, mores that create and replicate brutality among the earth's people.

Walker believes that the world and the culture we live in presently, a patriarchal one, is not the best of all possible worlds. Though our culture professes to believe in democracy and equality, America, Europe and also most of the nations and peoples of the earth have oppressive hierarchies ritualized and institutionalized that lend themselves to the brutal oppression of women, children, and the weak.

Walker removes herself thus from the Western landscape and the USA to find her model ethical society among the Mundo, an African-Ameridian group isolated in the mountains of Mexico often preyed upon by other Mexicans or American Protestant missionaries. They are a people of the moon and the seasons. They have no male concept of God in the Judaeo-Christian or Islamic sense. No priestly caste. One may say they have no elaborate ritual system at all. Their art is in their simplicity, one in which the world might become enlightened and fulfill its ideals of democracy and equality for all.

The key sentiment of Mundo wisdom upon which the novel hangs its plot is – " It takes only one lie to unravel the world."

The most outrageous lie is that woman brought sin into the world in the context of man having dominion over all things including woman. The Mundo felt that couldn't be right. Among them, man and woman were equal and there was no demeaning of the woman's body nor the man's body, for that matter. These people of nature, residing in the natural world, were comfortable in their skins and their sexuality. 

And they knew how to manage their sexuality and humanity for the health of the community. They practiced regulation of birth by a knowledge of ovulation (the connection of a woman’s body with the cycles of the moon) and by male withdrawal. They knew it would be harmful to the larger community to produce more children than could be fed.

In addition, the Mundo possessed an openness, a healthy transparency to their lives, to which outsiders were blind, dead certain that they themselves were at the hub, closest to the truth of things. And thus among the Mundo outsiders only hear their own voices (God) in their heads speaking to them.

The black anti-hero in By the Light of My Father's Smile, "Senor Robinson," along with his wife Langley and their two children Susannah and June, move to Mexico and for a year or so live among the Mundo. Both Robinson and his wife Langley are middle-class African Americans, anthropologists. In order to obtain the means to study the Mundo and write their books and advance their careers, they "mask" as missionaries. The public at large knew very little about the Mundo. This African-American people escaped American Southern slavery (brutality and oppression) and migrated south to Mexico and became one with an Ameridian people, speaking Spanish.

Robinson wore the "mask of a missionary," even among the Mundo, though he himself was an atheist and at best an agnostic. Trained by the "gringos," Robinson told the Mundo, "God had said man had dominion over all the earth." The Mundo concluded immediately, "It is the one lie that has unraveled your world." And indeed it was probably the larger lie of Robinson's life, though not consciously realized.

His lie (or lies) unraveled the spiritual health of his own family. This lie of man’s dominance manifested itself particularly in his brutal whipping of his older child June. A whipping with a leather belt with metal coins given to June by her lover Manuelito, a Mundo boy, a teenager. A belt that drew blood. Believing he had absolute control over his daughter's body, Robinson thrashed June righteously, mercilessly, a slave-like whipping observed through a keyhole by his younger daughter, Susannah.

Langley, Robinson’s wife, refused to speak to her husband for several weeks, but finally she relented after much knee bending and begging by her husband. And then they made love. This forgiveness was not so easy for June, the child violated. Broken by her father’s blindness and brutality, she went to her death obese and gluttonous, with a beer in one hand and chocolate cake in the other, hating her father. Of course, there was a choice here, but also a brutal event that led to limited choices.

Lies have consequences. That is indeed a novel idea for everyday life in America, from our President to our generals, to our politicians, to the ordinary Joe on the corner. Our country and its government were born and have been enmeshed in a web of lies which in over two centuries we have yet to extricate ourselves. Lies specifically regarding racial and gender superiority. Worst today, we have become more sophisticated, like Senor Robinson, in our ability to misrepresent the truth, and often only bamboozle ourselves by our sense of moral superiority believing that we are God’s representative doing God’s will.

This phenomenon—unraveling the world by lies—continues to be the horror upon which America has built her identity -- "The Land of the Free." Black folks’ response has always been with the question, "Free for whom?" Frederick Douglass wrote a wonderful July 4th oration on America's "hypocrisy of freedom." Douglass’ stately critique of American character and behavior remains relevant today, in our two-tier society in which some children are assured status and wealth whereas those perceived as slow, inattentive, and lazy deservedly, believed by many,  receive a minimum life and minimum privileges of American citizenship.

Historically, in America, the hierarchy (patriarchy) has been structured white male, then white female, followed by all other persons, black male, black female, etc. At the very bottom of all these women in the world languishes the black female, cleaning up everybody's shit, always forced to defend her morality (read sexuality), her appearance (read beauty), her intelligence (read humanity). Walker understands that life is difficult.

She realizes that "Senor Robinson" too is a societal victim. Too often the African-American male is a poor imitation of the white American male, aping many aspects of that cultural/political perspective. In effect, the black patriarch is a destructive element within the black family, dangerous to wife and daughters with the potential to replicate his depreciation of women in his sons and worse in the females themselves, replicating also the most brutal aspects of patriarchy in their daughters as well as their sons. This passing down of cruelty and brutality from generation to generation is the most horrific aspect of enforcing the lie of male dominance with violence.

This phenomenon of the oppressed replicating their oppression among themselves, especially among females, can also be seen in Edwidge Danticat's first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory in which mothers in Haiti's peasant culture are required to assure their daughters' virginity by a test, the inspection of the body by the insertion of the small finger between the legs. The result here also leads to the girlchild growing up devaluing her self worth and her own body. And, of course, exceedingly unhealthy relationships with men in their lives ensue.

In the present political arena, the lie that has led to our undoing, our unraveling is, "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." On his moral high horse George Bush convinced us that we were in imminent danger of annihilation by the Iraqi Arab, the brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. And thus we had to destroy him before he produced another Twin Towers massacre, 9/11. So we gave Bush and the military the thumbs up and sent them off to kill and die in defense of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In recent weeks, through pornographic photos taken by US soldiers defending America, we exposed to the world how hollow, how cruel we are capable of being. Of course, we now have complicated, elaborated on the lie that we told about WMDs. Now we want the Iraqis to believe that we want them to have what we have – it is something invisible that no one can put their hands on, really -- democracy and freedom.

Breaking in people's houses, kicking down doors, blowing up houses, threatening their life and their lives and forcing them to masturbate are not the proper ingredients for a recipe of freedom and democracy, neither here nor abroad. Worst, such acts dehumanize us/them, thus rendering them/us unfit for either democracy or freedom. Our brutal oppression of Iraq for the last year has produced more Mad Dogs, than adherents of American freedom.

Let us indeed be like the Mundo – open and transparent. Let us stop unraveling our world by lies that satisfy greed and sustain male dominance (white, black, or otherwise). Let us not be just "idealists" like Senator McCain, but rather let us live out our creeds and our ideals with the best of our exertions.

Presently, we are spending over $113 billion and still counting to sustain a lie and one of the worst political decisions made by an American president since LBJ. Money and natural resources needed for the education of America’s poor and working class children and the improvement of the health of its citizens are now expended in waste and destruction, and, yes, outright carnage.

Let us stop the lies, stop the cover-up, the brutality at which we are experts.  For without such expertise America could not have sustained slavery for two and a half centuries and Jim Crow for another hundred years. We are so rooted in racial and gender dominance that our domestic military (the police) prefers to further limit citizen rights and too often they violate those human rights. We have not yet seen the light.

Thus I recommend to the President, the Congress, the American people – read Walker carefully, and follow the life of the Mundo.

posted 13 May 2004

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The Banality of Bush White House Evil—Five years after the Abu Ghraib revelations, we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to “protect” us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from “another 9/11,” torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House’s illegality.

Levin suggests — and I agree — that as additional fact-finding plays out, it’s time for the Justice Department to enlist a panel of two or three apolitical outsiders, perhaps retired federal judges, “to review the mass of material” we already have. The fundamental truth is there, as it long has been. The panel can recommend a legal path that will insure accountability for this wholesale betrayal of American values.

President Obama can talk all he wants about not looking back, but this grotesque past is bigger than even he is. It won’t vanish into a memory hole any more than Andersonville, World War II internment camps or My Lai. The White House, Congress and politicians of both parties should get out of the way. We don’t need another commission. We don’t need any Capitol Hill witch hunts. What we must have are fair trials that at long last uphold and reclaim our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. NYTimes

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My parents met and fell in love in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. Dad [Mel Leventhal], was the brilliant lawyer son of a Jewish family who had fled the Holocaust. Mum was the impoverished eighth child of sharecroppers from Georgia. When they married in 1967, inter-racial weddings were still illegal in some states. My early childhood was very happy although my parents were terribly busy, encouraging me to grow up fast. I was only one when I was sent off to nursery school. I'm told they even made me walk down the street to the school.When I was eight, my parents divorced. From then on I was shuttled between two worlds—my father's very conservative, traditional, wealthy, white suburban community in New York, and my mother's avant garde multi-racial community in California.

I spent two years with each parent—a bizarre way of doing things. Ironically, my mother regards herself as a hugely maternal woman. Believing that women are suppressed, she has campaigned for their rights around the world and set up organisations to aid women abandoned in Africa—offering herself up as a mother figure.

But, while she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities—after work, political integrity, self-fulfilment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel. My mother would always do what she wanted—for example taking off to Greece for two months in the summer, leaving me with relatives when I was a teenager. Is that independent, or just plain selfish? —How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart by Rebecca Walker

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Amazon's Alice Walker Page

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Report of the Research Committee
on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

January 2000


Based on the examination of currently available primary and secondary documentary evidence, the oral histories of descendants of Monticello's African-American community, recent scientific studies, and the guidance of individual members of Monticello's Advisory Committee for the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and Advisory Committee on African-American Interpretation, the Research Committee has reached the following conclusions:

Dr. Foster's DNA study was conducted in a manner that meets the standards of the scientific community, and its scientific results are valid.

The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children appearing in Jefferson's records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.

Many aspects of this likely relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are, and may remain, unclear, such as the nature of the relationship, the existence and longevity of Sally Hemings's first child, and the identity of Thomas C. Woodson.

The implications of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson should be explored and used to enrich the understanding and interpretation of Jefferson and the entire Monticello community.—Monticello

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account 

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (1777), the third President of the United States (1801–1809) and founder of the University of Virginia (1819). He was an influential Founding Father and an exponent of Jeffersonian democracy.

Sarah "Sally" Hemings (Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia, circa 1773 – Charlottesville, Virginia, 1835) was a mixed-race slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson through inheritance from his wife. She was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by their father John Wayles. She was notable because most historians now believe that the widower Jefferson had six children with her, and maintained an extended relationship for 38 years until his death. When Jefferson's relationship and children were reported in 1802, there was sensational coverage for a time, but Jefferson remained silent on the issue. Four Hemings-Jefferson children survived to adulthood. He let two "escape" in 1822 at the age of 21 and freed the younger two in his will in 1826.

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Attorney Gordon-Reed (law, New York Law Sch.) presents a lawyer's analysis of the evidence for and against the proposition that Jefferson was the father of several children born to his household slave Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is not concerned with Jefferson and Hemings as much as she is with how Jefferson's defenders have dealt with the evidence about the case. Her book takes aim at such noteworthy biographers as Dumas Malone, who has been quick to accept evidence against a liaison and quick to reject evidence for one.—Library Journal

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Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin

By John D'Emilio

Bayard Rustin is one of the most important figures in the history of the American civil rights movement. Before Martin Luther King, before Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin was working to bring the cause to the forefront of America's consciousness. A teacher to King, an international apostle of peace, and the organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington, he brought Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence to America and helped launch the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Rustin has been largely erased by history, in part because he was an African American homosexual. Acclaimed historian John D'Emilio tells the full and remarkable story of Rustin's intertwined lives: his pioneering and public person and his oblique and stigmatized private self.

It was in the tumultuous 1930s that Bayard Rustin came of age, getting his first lessons in politics through the Communist Party and the unrest of the Great Depression.

A Quaker and a radical pacifist, he went to prison for refusing to serve in World War II, only to suffer a sexual scandal. His mentor, the great pacifist A. J. Muste, wrote to him, "You were capable of making the 'mistake' of thinking that you could be the leader in a the same time that you were a weakling in an extreme degree and engaged in practices for which there was no justification."

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The Women Jefferson Loved

By Virginia Scharff

According to historian Scharff, Thomas Jefferson’s “most closely guarded secrets, the most fiercely maintained silences, all had to do with the women he loved.” It stands to reason that in order to fully understand a man as tremendously gifted and as deeply flawed as Thomas Jefferson, one must also understand and appreciate the women who collectively formed the foundation of his life and shaped the nature of his legacy. Although Jefferson’s mother, daughters, granddaughters, wife, and enslaved mistress were all fascinating women who played distinct roles in his life and legend, they were also creatures of their time and place, living, enduring, and playing by the rules of a patriarchal, male-dominated society. By studying these women Scharff not only opens a window to the heart and soul of one of our nation’s founders but also resurrects their own contributions to our nation’s history.—Booklist

The chapter on Sally Hemings does not add much new information, but it certainly lays out the facts we know in a comprehensive and well organized fashion. Much like Professor Gordon-Reed, the author carefully explains the strange dual-family existence that prevailed at Monticello, and how servants integrated with the Jefferson family as they all lived together. As regards the two daughters, they too emerge from the historical darkness and we learn a great deal about them and their important role in TJ's life and activities. As I read each chapter, I learned all manner of things of which I had not been aware, and I have read a lot of material on TJ. So women are central to the story, but there is also an abundance of additional facts and perspectives that very much enhance the book. —Ronald H. Clark

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed


This is a scholar's book: serious, thick, complex. It's also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived.

So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves' lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.—Publishers Weekly

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Laying Down the Sword

Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses

By Philip Jenkins

Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions—all are in the Bible, and all occur with a far greater frequency than in the Qur’an. But fanaticism is no more hard-wired in Christianity than it is in Islam. In Laying Down the Sword, “one of America’s best scholars of religion” (The Economist) explores how religions grow past their bloody origins, and delivers a fearless examination of the most violent verses of the Bible and an urgent call to read them anew in pursuit of a richer, more genuine faith. Christians cannot engage with neighbors and critics of other traditions—nor enjoy the deepest, most mature embodiment of their own faith—until they confront the texts of terror in their heritage. Philip Jenkins identifies the “holy amnesia” that, while allowing scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of the Bible’s most aggressive passages, leaving them dangerously dormant for extremists to revive in times of conflict.

Jenkins lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or apology, and equips us with tools for reading even the most unsettling texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the alarming rhetoric of the book of Revelation. Teaching Genocide

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: On Almost Meeting Alice Walker   A Lie Unravels the World   Lies Truth and Unwaged Housework