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 [book] things: 12/28/16

Before I get to the three things, my hideous headache is gone (and hallelujah for that because I felt like blowing my head off to get relief) and I’m just so numb to the pain with my son that it’s not hurting at the moment. The comments you left on yesterday’s post were so comforting, whether because you know the pain and can commiserate, or whether you simply love and support me. Thank you for that, so very much.

click the picture to go to the Amazon page

1) Book thing #1: I have a brand new book club (and we call ourselves “We Really Mean It” because we absolutely will be talking about the book dammit) and our first book is The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. It’s everything the reviewers and prizes have said it is, although it’s not a perfect book (but that’s OK by me). Sometimes the research is worn too heavily, but I don’t mind. I know so little. One thing I learned is that North Carolina (during the time the URR was so active) abolished black people. They didn’t abolish slavery, they used Irish immigrants instead, although they did pay miniscule wages so they were slaves in a different way. But they abolished black people from the state. It didn’t matter if they were free black people, they were abolished — lynched if spotted, and left hanging in the trees to rot. It’s easy to see that very thing, the underneath of that, still alive in North Carolina as they enact one hideously regressive law after another. (And I live in Texas, the King of Regressive Laws, so I can point fingers.) The white people were so scared because there were more Africans than whites, and they knew how terribly they’d treated them, so they were afraid of retribution . . . as well they should’ve been. South Carolina instituted a sterilization policy on the Africans in their state, destroying the future in a different way. It’s obviously intended that I see parallels in today’s America, because I see them all so easily. Between reading this book and watching the gutting documentary 13th on Netflix, it’s hard to see how I or any other white person in America can do anything but fight to make things as right as possible, at this late date. According to a recent dissertation I found, 80-90% of all black people in the United States are directly descended from slaves. EIGHTY to NINETY PERCENT. That shit has long, long ripples and don’t you think for a moment that severe trauma doesn’t last for generations. Read The Underground Railroad and watch 13th on Netflix. (I realize that we who give a shit about social justice — i.e., not people who voted for Trump — have our hands full, and there is only so much time and energy, and where do we start. Just getting knowledge is a good place to begin.) And if your heart can bear it, here’s a little piece on a gift made by a slave mother for her daughter who was sold and taken away. Fifty-six little words of love handstitched on a cotton sack.

click the image to go to the amazon page

2) Like me, like Karl Ove Knausgaard, or other Norwegian writers? (I happen to adore Per Petterson and recommend everything he has written.) This page lists other Norwegian writers not named Knausgaard that you might like (though Petterson is not, and should be, on the list!). I can vouch for Hamsun’s Hunger, personally. It was first published in 1890 and it’s amazing. Like other places, writers from Norway have a specific sensibility, the elements of that place soak into the language and you can feel it, whatever you’re reading. (But if you haven’t yet read Knausgaard’s epic series, My Struggle, I recommend it heartily. Here’s Book 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. We’re still waiting on Book 6 to be translated.)

click the image to go to the amazon page

3) Here is a list of 26 books to get you started, January through March of 2017. I want to read all but one — less than zero interest in reading anything by twit Ivanka Trump. Yeah, no. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and I found several I definitely want to read. Paul Auster, George Saunders, Sam Shepard, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and not on this list, but on my own, is Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante. She wrote the Neapolitan series (Books 1, 2, 3, and 4, which I read at the same time I read all the Knausgaard books, a miraculous experience of synchronicity), but she uses a pseudonym. Her real identity was a great mystery, and most readers were happy for it to remain that way, although it was a hot topic of conversation. My favorite guess about her identity was that she must be female, because no male writer could have that degree of success without pinning his name and face to it. Well, a male journalist uncovered her identity, even though no one wanted to out her — there was a kind of respect for her wish for privacy — and he got a LOT of well-deserved backlash. This book, Frantumaglia, is at least in part about her experience as a woman writer.

I’m just so relieved not to have that headache today, I keep exclaiming over and over, “Gosh! It’s wonderful!” Gosh. It’s really wonderful.