black

Without pointedly intending to do this, I’ve been heavily focused on race in America for the last few months. Like everyone in this country, for the last few years I’ve watched black people being slaughtered and their white murderers walking away with no consequence, and with the tacit approval of the institutions they belong to. I’ve listened to white people insist that “no, all lives matter” when black people assert that black lives matter.

I’ve read three books — Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines, and Between the World and Me — and I saw the extraordinary documentaries I Am Not Your Negro and 13th. Here is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro:

The movie is quite powerful, in large part because of the forceful brilliance of James Baldwin, who was spontaneously eloquent and thoughtful and indicting and willing and able to name the truth of things no matter what was happening, or where he was. I want to read everything he ever wrote.

I grew up in Texas, among very racist people. I was not allowed to invite my best friend to my 6th birthday party in 1964 because “it’s not done.” Rhonda was black, and she attended my school most likely because her mother worked in the cafeteria. It made no sense at all to me, and no fuller explanation was given. My paternal grandmother, a nurse her whole working life, told me when I was an adult that black people “aren’t like us, when they die, gallons of oil pour out of their bodies.” WHAT??? She saw them as truly not human beings as we are. My stepfather and mother regularly called black people niggers, and I flinched when I heard the word, as much from a response to the venom they seemed to spit when they said it as from any real understanding of the potency of the word. (They were equal opportunity haters, and had only venom for Mexicans too, and for Muslims—I remember my stepfather calling Benazir Bhutto a cunt—and for gay people.)

My first two years of college were at the Huntsville, Alabama campus of the University of Alabama. Huntsville is interesting; it’s got a very educated population, and the campus feeds engineers to Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s in the far north of Alabama, butting up against the Tennessee border. In most of my classes, the majority of students were white but there were usually a small handful of black students. In my Philosophy 101 class we talked about racism and all the white students piped up saying it doesn’t exist any more. Nope, no more racism. That was then, it’s all gone now. After class, I walked alongside a couple of the black women who’d been silent in class and asked them what they thought and they busted out laughing. Right.

Like everyone else who was old enough at the time, I watched the OJ murder case unfold, from the very beginning with the slow car chase all the way through to the verdict. I was shocked and terribly upset, because it seemed so clear to me that he was guilty, that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and how could that jury let him off? Celebrity, I muttered. I remember so clearly how I felt. I remember seeing the split screen on television when the verdict was announced: white people in shock with their hands over their mouths, and black people rejoicing. I was bewildered. Then last week my husband and I watched The People vs OJ Simpson and I saw it so differently. I still believe he is guilty, but I completely understood why the jury made the decision they did. And I had to sit in the complexity of it, with no easy corner to sit in: I believe he murdered those people, and I understand why they let him off, why they probably even believed truly that he didn’t do it. A guilty man was set free, and the community was understandably and righteously thrilled that he was not convicted.

Those white kids in my philosophy class said that because they probably didn’t think they themselves were racist, and so therefore there was no more racism. WE ARE ALL RACIST. It’s the very dirt of this country. It’s the reason for the war we fought against each other. We are all racist. Period. If you can’t start by owning that, you are the problem. I am racist (but I am not racist). I was trained by racists in my childhood home, and I grew up in a racist society. How could I be anything but racist? I do not have to follow those ideas, implement them in behaviors, allow them to bloom or grow — be a racist — but they are in me as an American, without a doubt.

You have to start somewhere, and you cannot go wrong with any of the books or the Baldwin documentary or 13th. I have no idea how to fix the problem, how even to begin. The intransigence of so many white people in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, their complete unwillingness to give up insisting that no, all lives matter, leaves me bewildered. I’ve started replying that when black lives matter, then all lives will matter (but that leaves out Muslims and gay people and refugees and immigrants and all the others who are being shoved out by the Republican party that’s in power, and by far too many straight white people). When I attended a Black Lives Matter rally, and when I read pieces written by black writers who are addressing this issue, their anger is obvious and understandable, and I struggle when they aim it at me standing there trying to do better, trying to start changing whatever I can. It’s not their job to teach me anything, or tell me anything, and at the very same time I don’t know how to move forward together with them. I just don’t know.

This is not a sophisticated or in-depth post about such a huge topic, and I’m not claiming that it is. It’s a quivering start, and a hand reached out, and a plea for help. I welcome advice and other recommendations.

three things: 2/4/17

FEED: Franz Kline is usually thought of as a black and white painter (and in fact, one of my favorite of his paintings is black and white, I’ll show you after I show you this one), but he did some magnificent paintings with brilliant color. This one just dazzles my brain cells and makes me so happy.

I can’t find the title of this painting anywhere

See how important the grays are to the success of that painting? The brown slashes, the spits of charcoal? And the potency of those primary colors, the pureness of that red, that yellow, colors unresolvable to anything but themselves. Prime colors, I guess.

And here is the black and white one I love so much — it hangs at MoMA, and I took a selfie with it last Wednesday. I’m honestly not sure why I love it so much, but that doesn’t matter. Whenever I see it, my pulse quickens.

“Painting Number 2,” 1954, Franz Kline

SEED: SO! Anchoring the idea of ‘slow’ in my mind has been very helpful. I had just become so tizzified, so terrified, so frantic in my mind, and while I was extremely active during that period and not simply frantic, it was hard going. It was draining, exhausting, and I worried that like so many of my friends, I would get sick because of it. Because it’s true: so many of us are getting sick. Not just susceptible to colds, etc., and not just drifting into despair, but full-on sick. Unable to get out of bed, or to stay out of bed for long. I worried that would happen to me, too, given the intensity of my frantic tizzy.

What we’re doing is having an effect. Learning that has helped, too. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of a tyrant and his administration who are willing to overturn all the rules to do whatever they want, and who are fed by a man whose stated mission is to destroy the country, but what we are doing, we in the resistance, is having an effect. That helps.

June 28, 1969

I’m making three phone calls a day. I’m monitoring the actions of Congress and following exactly what our elected representatives are doing, how they’re caving or resisting, and keeping notes because we are going to have to elect new representatives, that has become clear. I’m reshaping my social world to include more women who are fighting alongside me, and letting go those whose votes have brought this world into being. I’m noting and scheduling into my calendar every possible march and protest, and attending them. Today, for instance, is the LGBT rally at Stonewall, which is the birthplace of the gay rights movement in this country. Read the history here. I can’t wait to stand alongside everyone at that rally. Those experiences energize me and keep me able to fight and persist.

I’m going on Facebook only in the morning, for no more than half an hour, and my posts are now more pointed. Less hysterical. And I try to include at least one thing to give us a smile, we in the resistance who need a smile so desperately. Fight on, sisters, we will prevail. Slow news, slow thoughtfulness, slow reshaping of your world to help you fight.

Required reading for every American

READBetween the World and Me is as good as the reviews and press have claimed, and it’s very hard to read. Not in the sentences — the sentences and prose are quite good, evocative, clear, powerful, hard. But it’s very hard to read because of the truth of it, and the resulting overwhelm. I have participated in Black Lives Matter marches and rallies, and I’ve stood there knowing that I don’t and can’t know what it is to be black, but ready to try to know, and to fight. I’ve fought with people who tell the lie that “all lives matter,” always with bewilderment. WHEN black lives matter, THEN all lives will matter. And right now black lives don’t matter. The thing that is so difficult about Between the World and Me is that he does such a good job of showing the complete pervasiveness of racism. The murderous cops aren’t even the problem; it’s the society that invests them with the right, the history that endows them with the purpose. It’s like dropping some ink into a vessel of water, and when it’s completely dispersed, trying to pull out the ink. You can’t. The water is permanently changed. Our very ground is built on the racist murder of black bodies, our wealth, our heritage, our worldviews, and I’m left having no idea how we change this. I’m about 60% of the way through the book so I hope Coates offers some ideas, although it’s also up to me to find ideas.

One point Coates makes so poignantly is that slavery is not a thing, it is personal. It’s a specific woman who had a specific life, and who had hopes and thoughts. It’s a specific man, a specific child, a specific family, all with names and bodies. (Eric Reidy makes a similar point about refugees in this must-read piece.) It’s easy to paint with a flat brush and talk about the “institution” of slavery, but that erases all the lives of those enslaved people. In this country, we enslaved black people for 250 years. They have not yet been free for that many years.

At the giant march and rally last Sunday that started at Battery Park, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, I stood among tens of thousands of people of all hues of skin color, most of whom were holding signs about the anti-Muslim ban. And I stood next to a black woman. I wondered if she felt betrayed, because where are the crowds of this size rallying against the ongoing murder of black people for the crime of being black, for driving, for walking, for holding their hands up in the air when demanded? Yes, some white people march and rally, but in small groups, and only after the most egregious of murders. But innocent murder is innocent murder is innocent murder, and we just aren’t responding the same way for black lives — because we shrug. And we too-quickly think well, the police force has problemsThe problem is with police training, etc etc etc. Maybe we allow ourselves to think that because at some level we know how vast the problem is and in the face of that overwhelm, it’s easier just to point at the symptom.

As I’m reading, I find myself thinking Yes, this is terrible and we have to do something but right now the whole place is going up in flames and so for right now we just need to….. X….Y…..Z. And that’s not completely untrue, but at the same time it’s a part of the complexity of our country, a country filled with enough nasty voters to bring the new administration into power, and so it’s another piece we need to understand. Read Between the World and MeYou will be uncomfortable, and we all should be.

I agree with Bannon about one thing: this country does need to be destroyed started over. We do need to do that. Of course I differ with him completely on the methods and what the reboot would look like, but what we have become—and it’s a direct arrow from where and how we began—is deadly and terrible.

BONUS: Check out this link, a crowd-sourced collection of relevant books, movies, TV, podcasts, and other things (including some under the category of “escapism”) that will help us all at this particular cultural and political moment. I found lots of good stuff, and I imagine you will, too.