I received an e-mail announcement about an event called the Nearly Naked Mile. It was about a clothing drive for which the University of Iowa Alumni Association’s S.T.A.T. (Students Today, Alumni Tomorrow) Ambassadors sponsor an annual walk or run race (1). Donations benefit United Action for Youth (UAY), an organization whose mission is “Nurturing the potential of all youth to create, grow and lead”. Their vision “is one in which young people and adults work together in partnership to create a safe and healthy community.” Their values include:
Respect: Treating each person with Unconditional Positive Regard
Excellence: Providing quality programming
Collaboration: Building constructive partnerships to achieve our goals
Integrity: Maintaining trust with those we serve
Stewardship: Using resources respectfully
The UAY has been active in Johnson County in Iowa since 1970. They serve over 2,600 young people and parents annually. It’s a safe place where kids can go and be “…silly, thoughtful, outrageous, or sad” (2).
Anyway, running nearly naked in the Nearly Naked Mile is thankfully optional. I’m too shy to run even close to nearly naked, and I’ll be on duty anyway on the day of the event, but the announcement jogged a couple of memories loose for me.
First, when I was a resident in psychiatry early in my training at The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, I remember occasionally interviewing and trying to help a few of the UAY-mentored kids in the emergency room, some of them listed as “runaway” on the intake sheet. Looking back, they weren’t so much running away as running headlong into a bewildering world seemingly bent on wounding them. They needed so much more than psychiatric treatment. They needed acceptance, understanding, and guidance, which UAY tirelessly provided. I like to think I helped.
Second, I was reminded of my own undergraduate school mentor at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, a historically black enrollment college now called Huston-Tillotson University. As an African-American growing up in mostly white enrollment schools in Iowa, I enjoyed an extraordinary learning experience for several semesters in the mid-1970s because I was given the opportunity through an outreach drive to enroll students of color led by Dr. Hector Grant, whom I’ll mention later.
One of the first lessons at Huston-Tillotson was adjusting to the sweltering Texas heat. The glue on the binding of nearly all of my paperback books melted in the un-air conditioned Beard-Burrowes male residence hall.
Dr. Jenny Lind Porter, PhD was my professor of English as well as Classical and English Literature during freshman and sophomore years I spent there. Dr. Porter was a distant cousin or niece (depending on which source you read) of O. Henry, a writer famous for hundreds of stories, many about the turn-of-the-century West. Dr. Porter was also an accomplished writer, and a few years ago, I finally obtained an early copy of one of her poetry collections, The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems (3). It arrived with a handwritten note from the Austin bookseller:
It’s rare to find a book of this age that when you open the pages it creaks like it is unread. I guess someone liked the way it looked on their bookshelf!
It mystifies me why the book would sit on anyone’s shelf unread. One of my favorites is “I Go to Church Within My Heart”.
I Go to Church Within My Heart
I go to church within my heart,
The only one I know,
There is no door to push aside,
God hears my footsteps, slow,
Come stealing down the shadowed aisle
Until I reach His light,
And then we sit and talk of things
Till separated quite
From bone of earth and flesh of life,
I cannot find my way
Back from the chalice, wine, and bread
Into the dusk of day.
Why would the Nearly Naked Mile remind me of her? Well, it isn’t just free association, and it involves a church. Huston-Tillotson professors held an annual talent show—given by the professors. I remember Dr. Porter’s act, vividly. Wearing a lovely gown, she gracefully stepped on to the stage of the King-Seabrook Chapel to read from a volume of classical poetry. She had a beautiful voice. And even then, she was lovely in—other ways. As she read, articles of clothing seemed to drift away. It’s funny how your mind can block recognition of reality, which tends to be very well draped; that is, until it is nearly naked.
The longer Dr. Porter read her poetry, the less gown seemed to be evident, and the more creamy white flesh became visible. The unveiling of a white woman in front of an audience filled with black males even in the 1970s produced nearly naked amazement.
A verse would end. A shawl would drop. A brilliant metaphor would fall gently on my ears—followed by a brightly sequined skirt dropping noiselessly to the floor. Meter by meter, the miraculously iambic conjugated with the spectacularly revelatory, promising the celestial by successive approximations while delivering the earthly through sartorial regressions until she was—nearly naked. The strip tease poetry reading brought the house down. Sorry, I don’t recall which poem she read.
Dr. Porter was much more than courageously clever. She was inducted in 1985 to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame and was appointed Poet Laureate of Texas in 1964 by Texas Governor John Connally. She received international recognition for her work, including The Lantern of Diogenes. In 1979, she received the Distinguished Diploma of Honor from Pepperdine University, the only woman to do so. She was named one of the Outstanding Educators of America and was selected for the International Who’s Who of Poetry (4).
She was a devotee of Rosicrucianism back then, and made a valiant though futile attempt to teach me about it. She persuaded me to submit a poem to the college’s annual poetry contest. I can’t remember if it was published in 1975 in the creative writing collection students entitled Habari Gani, Swahili for “What’s the News?” or more loosely translated, “What’s Going On?” This was during a time in the United States that African-Americans were building a new identity, and Habari Gani is linked to Kwanzaa, an African-American cultural holiday created in 1966 (5).
Dr. Porter was, in fact, very supportive of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity long before it was cool. The values she espoused and cultivated in the 1970s were very similar to what UAY promotes:
Respect: She commanded respect in her classroom and from her colleagues, even when doing a strip tease down to nearly naked while reciting classical poetry.
Excellence: She inspired excellence in every student, without which Habari Gani would not have been created or published.
Collaboration: She was the exemplar of collaboration across the disciplines of humanities and science and across cultures because she could listen deeply and made sure she understood what others meant before she spoke.
Integrity: She had enough integrity as a scholar and a leader among women to stand nearly naked before a black audience in a church in the 1970s, which won both our hearts and our minds.
Stewardship: She held in stewardship classical ideas and philosophy that will forever stand the test of time about honor, diligence, acceptance, and wisdom, the last of which, after all, means skill in living.
It was easy to trust her. It remained easy to trust her even after the school aired the TV landmark miniseries Roots in 1977, based on the book by Alex Haley. It was impossible not to cry when Levar Burton, as Kunta Kinte, writhed and leapt in the transformation from warrior to slave when captured and bound in chains. And when Chuck Connors, as a slave owner, convincingly conveyed the evil of that role, one young man in the audience cried, “I’m not watching the rifleman no more!”
But we didn’t transfer any resentment to Dr. Porter subsequent to that searing revision of American history. When a visiting professor gave a speech about what Black men were allowed to do in America in that era, that we could be clowns, athletes, or noble savages—but not men, we didn’t gaze on Dr. Porter with suspicion. I thought of her while I was reading what I believe is the most important work since Roots, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, an African-American author who won the Pulitzer prize for this New York Times best seller. I wondered what kind of lively conversation these two women from different races, reared in different cultures, and born with different temperaments might have had about freedom, acceptance, and leadership. I suspect they would have had a nearly naked admiration for one another.
Whether Dr. Jenny Lind Porter is alive or dead is a mystery to me. The customer review of her book The Lantern of Diogenes that I wrote on Amazon.com in the fall of 2011 was answered by one of her former students who basically said, “Amen” to my sentimental praises and promised to get in touch with me if she discovered anything of her whereabouts. She called her “…a very bright star in the vast sky of life (6).” Amen to that, but I’ve heard nothing yet.
She accepted much that is troubling in the world, all the emotional, spiritual and physical ambiguities at large and within. She moved serenely in academia, which can be a jungle populated by brooding geniuses and impetuous dreamers.
She was tenacious and practical in her pursuit of all we know and all we need to know about truth and beauty. She taught me to be tenacious and practical in my own way, from the emergency room with runaway teens, “…the bone of earth and flesh of life…” to the church within my heart.
I admired other teachers at Huston-Tillotson, of course. Major Lamar Kirven taught Black history and sociology, and the poor devil tried in vain to teach me about patience. When I lost my patience, he reminded me, “Brother Amos, patience is a virtue.” He was the blackest man I ever saw. His voice was soft, his laughter loud and joyful—and his handwriting on the chalkboard was always comically illegible. And Reverend Hector Grant, who taught Philosophy and Religion, wrote books about his native Jamaica, and tried to counsel me after my humiliating defeat as captain of the debating team at the hands of someone who won merely by being bombastic. He told me, “Never be afraid to concede a point.” But the teacher I remember most vividly is Dr. Porter, the object of my nearly naked admiration.
What little I know of Dr. Porter nowadays are meager crumbs I’ve collected from the labyrinthine internet, though no trail back to her has appeared. These little clues melt even as I bear them tenderly “…Into the dusk of day.” I have not yet seen an obituary (although I’ve seen that of her late husband, Lawrence Evans Scott, identified in the first line as “…spouse of Texas Poet Laureate Jenny Lind Porter.”). But I’ve seen a notice about her burial plot in the Texas State Cemetery. Her birth date is entered—but the spaces after the sections “Died” and “Buried”—are blank. The mystery suits me. Even now, I sing this song softly, trying not to peek too boldly behind me to see if she is following me out of Pluto’s cavern while I try to “…charm the Lord of the Dead…” and “…bear her away from Hades,”—a fragment from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Mythology by Edith Hamilton, one of her favorite books she assigned our literature class as required reading (7). What might she say of my search, and what I’ve written here? “News of my near-nakedness and my death are greatly exaggerated?” That would not surprise me.
She should have the last word, after all. My favorite poem from The Lantern of Diogenes is the one of that title, which fits her best.
The Lantern of Diogenes
All maturation has a root in quest.
How long thy wick has burned, Diogenes!
I see thy lantern bobbing in unrest
When others sit with babes upon their knees
Unconscious of the twilight or the storm,
Along the streets of Athens, glimmering strange,
Thine eyes upon the one thing keeps thee warm
In all this world of tempest and of change.
Along the pavestones of Florentian town
I see the shadows cower at thy flare,
In Rome and Paris; in an Oxford gown,
Men’s laughter could not shake the anxious care
Which had preserved thy lantern. May it be
That something of thy spirit burns in me!
1. The University of Iowa Alumni Association. Nearly Naked Mile 2013. Accessed February 8, 2013; Available from: http://www.iowalum.com/STAT/events/nnm/ .
2. United Action for Youth. Accessed February 8, 2013; Available from: http://www.unitedactionforyouth.org/content/ .
3. Porter, J.L., The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems. 1954, San Antonio: The Naylor Company Book Publishers.
4. Texas Woman’s University. Texas Women’s Hall of Fame: Jenny Lind Porter. Accessed February 7, 2013; Available from: http://www.twu.edu/twhf/tw-porter.asp.
5. Karenga, M. Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Accessed February 7, 2013; Available from: http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/origins1.shtml .
6. Amos, J.J., M.D. Customer Review: The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems by Jenny Lind Porter. 2011. Accessed February 7, 2013; Available from: http://www.amazon.com/review/RDT4JK82XV0RN/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1258049716&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=#wasThisHelpful .
7. Hamilton, E. and S. Savage (1969). Mythology. New York, New American Library.