Two Bios of Barbara
Thankfully, Rogers covers the details. It's just that she doesn't cover precisely the same ones as Austin Teutsch, a Republican who ran for mayor in Austin in 1991. On page one and throughout the rest of his slim, fawning biography, Barbara Jordan: The Biography (which ought to be called Barbara Jordan: The Panegyric), Teutsch refers to Jordan as a lesbian. Page one states in part that "[Jordan] stood up for the underdog, constantly opposed prejudice against race, religion or sexual orientation, which was commendable considering the fact that Barbara was gay and her lifetime companion was a white woman, Nancy Earl." Nancy Earl shows up in Rogers' biography, too -- she shares a house with Jordan and is one of two people allowed by Jordan to know the full extent of her tragic illnesses -- but she comes off more like a friend, a particularly close one.
In the introduction to American Hero, Rogers explains that "Jordan had the audacity to believe her life was nobody's business. ... But her penchant for privacy was often misunderstood, and it fueled a certain kind of malicious speculation. What was she hiding? The question seemed to be most intriguing to those who sought personal gain at her expense, or those whose stock in trade was unsubstantiated gossip -- particularly in the area of sexual relationships. Speculation on the sex lives of public figures is a popular pastime. I declined to do that in my work on Barbara Jordan. Yet in two years of research for this book, there was one clear fact that emerged from almost every experience or relationship in her life: Barbara Jordan was soulmates with no one but herself and her God, and even her concept of God was truly her own private territory." (It should be made clear that Rogers is not accusing Teutsch of "speculation" in her introduction; although he published his biography before she did, she stated during a recent interview on C-SPAN 2's Book TV that she was not aware of the Teutsch biography while writing American Hero.)
Readers will have to make the supposition that Teutsch didn't write a fantasy and categorize it as a biography since he cites entire conversations between Jordan and Earl but unfortunately does not document in endnotes any of his interviews or sources. For example, Jordan gives the commencement address at Harvard in 1977, and then "took Nancy's arm and together with their friends, she limped across the yard to her room in Harvard's guest house. They went inside and collapsed, amazed at the overwhelming response from the crowd. 'I want a cigarette,' Barbara said as she sank into a chair. Nancy handed her one and she lit it. Then Barbara removed her black calf pumps, vexed that she had to limp away from the ceremony. 'It was the shoes. If you hadn't made me wear these black ones to match my robe, Nancy,' she complained. 'It was the toes. They ruined my toes.'" Another passage has Jordan taking Earl's hand after a Fourth of July celebration, saying, 'Thanks for a great Fourth of July weekend. We'll have to do this in the new house, our house.'"
Who would have ever thought Jordan "worked ... hard to perfect" an "ingenue" look for herself at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston's Fifth Ward? An illustrative passage about Jordan's relationship with her stern father, Ben Jordan, reveals that "He would brag to his friends, 'I'm raising three girls in the heart of the city. And they don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't dance, they don't play cards, they don't go to the movies. I tell you it's hard, friends, to do that with three young girls in the heart of the city.'" Rogers writes that "when young Barbara heard him say things like that, it caused her to get what she called 'the squeemies of the gut.' She would wonder how he could go around bragging 'about the fact that he has three freaks.'" "The squeemies of the gut" is not oratory typical of what we associate with Barbara Jordan; Roger's inclusion of these phrases (there's also a passage in which Jordan references "the man") gives readers access to a more complex notion of her subject, someone who was vulnerable and had a fine sense of humor, who didn't always want to be "on" for crowds of admirers, and wasn't all oratorical fire and brimstone. Once in 1968 when Jordan was a Texas senator, President Johnson wanted to issue a personal invitation to her to serve on the Income Maintenance Commission, and he reached her at her parents' house in Houston: "'It upset my mother to no end,' Jordan said. 'I mean, upset her in a good way; she just couldn't quite handle the President of the United States being on the telephone at her house. When I walked in she said almost breathlessly, "The Ranch is calling." I said, "The Ranch...?" And she said, "The President is calling from the Ranch." So I got on the phone and I said, "Hello, Mr. President."'"
Jordan was fiercely ambitious and became a quick study in political maneuvering in both the Texas Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. During conference committee negotiations in her freshman term in the House, "Jordan ... had to deal with the glaring disparity between her status as a freshman, female black member of the House trying to operate with equanimity in relation to a veteran, conservative southern white senator like John McClellan, who carried the weight of Senate autocracy like some sterling silver shield from the family heirloom collection. But knowing how to shift that kind of social status psychologically as well as politically was Jordan's primary strength. ... Once that happened, she always felt she could connect with the humanity of the person -- if it was there to begin with." So clearly, the strength of Rogers' biography doesn't just rest in its detailed anecdotes but in its lucid explanations of policymaking and how Jordan became a master at it.
Rogers ably makes the case that there were reasons Jordan was silent, not only about her personal life but about politics and her debilitating illnesses as well. When she asserts that "maintaining public silence about issues of political complexity was [Jordan's] practice" the reader is apt to believe that assessment because Rogers establishes this insight early on: "What had started as a defense mechanism against her father's stern criticism was becoming a pattern for dealing with her world. Safety and success would come from keeping her own counsel." But if Jordan was a lesbian, and if her 20-year relationship with Nancy Earl shaped her life, then let's hear about it. And if she wasn't, then Austin Teutsch needs to leave biography and start writing speculative fiction. Sure, Barbara Jordan kept secrets, but she also had a way of seeking and telling the truth that made people look up to her and that should make us, lesbians and all, eager to know more. -- Clay Smith
Mary Beth Rogers will sign Barbara Jordan: American Hero at Book People on Thursday, February 18, at 7pm.