Michele Wallace on Her Two Primes
When Personal Milestones Coincide with Political Upheaval
Michele Wallace read from the following essay at her retirement celebration at the City College of New York this fall.
I have had two primes. The first was in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution and the fall of Iran. My first book was published. The Shah of Iran was deposed and Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. The United States was chased out of Iran, Jimmy Carter was President, and there were hostages. I remember having met Carter, when he was campaigning years before, on the set of the still very new Saturday Night Live (it never occurred to me then that this show would have such a long run) because somebody I was dating was a field producer for the show. We stood in a circle and shook his hand.
My second prime—and neither time did I realize I was in my prime, or even what a prime was, or that it could end—was 9/11, when those planes hit the World Trade Center Towers and the United States went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. I was 49. I had separated from my husband and finished my Ph.D. in 1999, and was living in our family apartment in Harlem on 145th Street on the 14th floor with an unimpeded view of the entire city, and I was sleeping around with a variety of guys, carefully chosen. Or perhaps I should say I was carefully chosen, because when you are a 49-year-old dark-skinned African American woman, have written three books (depending on how you count them), and have a Ph.D., you don’t have the choice to date just anybody. Most black men, for instance, will barely talk to you. I no longer have a preference for black men, but it doesn’t really matter what my preference is. Nobody ever asks.
That was it: my second prime. It was so much fun it was scary. Or was it 9/11 that was scary? It all kind of melds together now, like the Iranian Revolution, Michael Jackson’s Beat It, the publication of my first book, and everything that happened in 1979. In our Memoir class reading Art Speigleman’s In The Shadow of No Towers, dissecting the pictures and the text (his paranoia and interpretation of events and their meaning speaks to my own experience on the deepest level), I am reminded precisely of what that moment and that experience and, at the same time, being in my prime was like for me.
That was 14 years ago. It feels to me now like 14 minutes ago! And it’s gone. It is never coming back. Granted, the 1999 prime wasn’t as magnificent or as stunning as the first prime in 1979, but it was a moment—and I still had what it took to have a moment, although I didn’t get that at all at the time. Only in retrospect, in the light of the 14 minutes-14 years, can I see this. What a disaster.
In any case, this evening seeing my illustrious colleagues, writers Salar Abdoh and Emily Raboteau, at a meet-and-greet for new graduate creative writing students sent me catapulting back into the two very different but now connected moments in my life. In the first I was 27, a published writer, about to make my mark but still having to find out who I was. Meanwhile, something had happened—the Iranian Revolution (I try to explain to my students how momentous this was, how it felt exactly like 9/11, though I’m not sure why—the hostages? that we were protecting the Shah?)—that would forever change the world I lived in. The Soviet Union hadn’t fallen yet, and it had not occurred to many then that it ever would, or what the results would be in terms of their relationship to the Middle East. But the seeds for what would follow were already planted and growing, including Osama Bin Laden, 9/11, and the new Hot War against Terrorism further fueled by a social media and internet I could have scarcely imagined.
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A few years after 9/11, I retreated to the provinces of Ithaca, to Cornell University at their invitation, which I dearly loved despite the fact that there was no sex to be had up there, and despite the fact that I didn’t get much love of any kind from anybody there, which my mother will never believe because she thinks every move I make is motivated by a man. What I loved is that it didn’t have a view of the World Trade Center. My skin begins to crawl just to think about the World Trade Center. Still haven’t been back down there yet. I think some of us were driven mad because of it and will never be the same.