That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Why I Have To Say “Relatable”

Bias Alert: 

  1. Like most English teachers, I shudder at the newly-developing word, “relatable.”
  2. My family and I LOVE the Daily Show; Jon Stewart practically raised our children.

So you might not think we’d love his replacement, Trevor Noah. But you’d think wrong. We loved Trevor from the beginning (forgiving him his occasionally juvenile humor the same way we forgave Jon his old-Jewish-guy schtick).

And now that I’ve read Trevor’s memoir, Born a Crime, I admire him on a whole new levelAnd I admire his mother more.

I only wish I had finished Trevor’s book before Christmas, so I could have given it to everyone I love. I don’t want to tell you too much about it; the book is comprised of anecdotes, to divulge any of which would spoil your joy in reading.

But I will tell you this. Although Trevor claims a different nationality, gender and race (OK, half different–but in South Africa that MEANS different) from mine, I found his story more…RELATABLE than anything I’ve read in the past year. He doesn’t just write of racial injustice–though there’s plenty of that, growing up in the last days of apartheid. He writes of topics I, privileged white American female, RELATE to:

  • adolescent yearnings to belong
  • a complex relationship with religion
  • self-consciousness over appearance
  • heartbreak (over the opposite sex, pets, family members)
  • joy in his own gifts (languages, foot speed–and you’ll see why that’s important!)
  • deep, unshakable love for his AMAZING mother

The book is also really stinkin’ funny, but that’s something I simply appreciate rather than relate to, because, alas, I am not so gifted.

And it’s shockingly sad. Something else I, thanks be, cannot relate to. But Trevor makes his family’s sadness ACCESSIBLE, and that’s close enough. Also–“accessible” is a real word.

Have you read it? Please add your review here. If not, do yourself or someone you love a favor and read Born a Crime as soon as you can.

 

White Privilege, Part…II? XVIII? Who’s Counting?

The US election of 2016 ushered me, like a lot of folks, into a new era of reading, listening, and discussion, all aimed at understanding, to paraphrase Hillary, “What the Hell Just Happened (And What Does it Mean)?”

I quickly figured out that it was mostly my fellow white people who were asking that question. People of Color (whom I’ve mostly just been reading and listening to, since leaving very-colorful Tacoma for this very-white island 7 years ago) not only sounded less surprised on the whole, but also less shook. The overall message seems to be more along the lines of, “Really? Didn’t see this coming?”

For these thinkers, Trump isn’t the blacklight lighting up the creepy-crawlies in the sofa cushions; he’s just one more creepy-crawly in a house whose infestation was built into its foundation-which some of us have been noticing only intermittently. I realized I had something to learn.

One of the most powerful passages of one of the most powerful books I’ve read this past year comes from Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between The World And Me. He writes of the Dream—NOT Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” but quite the opposite. This Dream, to Coates, is the illusion of fundamental American fairness, decency and democracy that middle class whites cling to in order to feel good about living the way we do when we know others have not been, and still are not, able to live that way.

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge those horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

Coates concludes that stark paragraph with this statement:

It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. —pp. 88-89

I think I might change that last word to “soul,” or perhaps “heart,” because I feel Coates’ challenge more there than in my mind. And for me the challenge is not to change my opinion about America so much as it is to change my focus. To think about what I haven’t had to think about. And to let new voices have my ear.

One such new voice I heard recently on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show: Grammy-winner Chance the Rapper, debuting his new song, “First World Problems,” accompanied by Daniel Caesar.

Son One likes Chance and Caesar, and urged me to listen. I now urge you to do the same. Not your style of music? It’s not mine either. But give this song—pun intended—a chance. And pay attention to the lyrics.

These lyrics especially–notice the connection with Coates’ Dream?

Now—think about what you are thinking about. And let me know. Keep the conversation going.

 

What If I Did? Four Words Away From Empathy

When I make my way through my American day, I don’t have to think about the way my skin color, or the style of my dress or hair, or my accent might be taken by my fellow Americans. But what if I did?

I don’t have to worry that someone’s phone call to authorities might lead to my deportation away from my family. What if I did?

I don’t have to fear for my sons that a chance encounter with law enforcement might kill them. What if I did?

I don’t have to worry that a friend or family member might succumb to addiction and death despite everything I did for them. What if I did?

I don’t have to think hard before choosing which bathroom to use, knowing the wrong choice could get me beaten up. What if I did?

I don’t have to check my wallet or the family budget before buying myself a cup of tea, or a muffin, or even dinner out, whenever the urge strikes. What if I did?

I don’t ever have to suffer from lack of natural beauty. What if I did?

In each of these scenarios, I can imagine different responses, in thought or action or both, from the ones that flow from my usual cushy oblivion. I can imagine more involvement, yes. More self-education. But most of all, I don’t have to imagine, I FEEL more empathy, both toward people I am different from, and toward people with whom I deeply disagree.

So what? Still working on that one. Stay with me.

White Privilege for Dummies (Like Me)

I have been thinking about white privilege, trying to articulate its meaning…then here comes this teacher who just sums the whole thing up visually:

(…with thanks to Allison Snow, from whose Facebook page I first saw this, and datniggakel, whose YouTube I used.)

As this worthy teacher/coach would probably say after a lesson: “Any questions?”

Facing History and Ourselves, Quaker Style: Indian Boarding Schools Are Our Shame Too

Facing History and Ourselves is the title of a book and a mini-course in Holocaust Education. I took the course and used the book myself in my high school teaching.

But what about that uniquely American, slo-mo Holocaust, the attempted eradication of Native culture? In grad school I learned about the Indian boarding schools of the late 19th and early-mid 20th century: the kidnapping of entire generations from their homes, and the creation of generations of people who felt alienated from both communities, Native and white. And of course I shook my head over the terrible thinking of the past, and its terrible, long-term effects.

But I never realized that people of my own religious background, Quakers, were eager perpetrators of that shameful enterprise, until a friend sent me an article in Friends Journal, by Quaker writer Paula Palmer, entitled “Quaker Indian Boarding Schools: Facing History and Ourselves.”

What’s this? Quakers, you say? But we’re the good guys! Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape! Marching for Civil Rights! Becoming Conscientious Objectors in the Korean and Vietnam Wars! 

I may not be a very religious Quaker, but I’ve always been a very proud political Quaker, the product of Carolina Friends School, the first integrated school in North Carolina.

So, with a sense of unease, I read the article. I read this:

More than 100,000 Native children suffered the direct consequences of the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation by means of Indian boarding schools during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their bereft parents, grandparents, siblings, and entire communities also suffered. As adults, when the former boarding school students had children, their children suffered, too. Now, through painful testimony and scientific research, we know how trauma can be passed from generation to generation. The multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says that for healing to occur, the full truth about the boarding schools and the policy of forced assimilation must come to light in our country, as it has in Canada. The first step in a truth, reconciliation, and healing process, they say, is truth telling. A significant piece of the truth about the boarding schools is held by the Christian churches that collaborated with the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation. Quakers were among the strongest promoters of this policy and managed over 30 schools for Indian children, most of them boarding schools, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The coalition is urging the churches to research our roles during the boarding school era, contribute this research to the truth and reconciliation process, and ask ourselves what this history means to us today.

And this:

In a letter dated May 26, 1853, teacher Susan Wood at the Quaker Tunesassa Indian Boarding School in New York, wrote:

“We are satisfied it is best to take the children when small, and then if kept several years, they would scarcely, I think, return to the indolent and untidy ways of their people.”

And this:

For a child’s view, we have The School Days of an Indian Girl, written in 1900 by Zitkala-Sa, a Lakota woman who entered White’s Institute, a Quaker Indian boarding school in Indiana, at age eight:

“I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. . . . Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards! . . . I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me . . . for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”

Modoc School, Indian Territory, 1877 (Courtesy Friends Journal and Haverford College Quaker Collection)

In these days of Trumpmerica, with its white supremacist marches (“some of them are good people!” said our prez), it’s easy to point fingers and say, “You are on the wrong side of history.” But, I am finding, it is even more important to look at the history of the people I most claim as “mine,” and say aloud: “We did wrong. We need to acknowledge and atone in order to help heal the damage we helped to do.”

So says Paula Palmer:

Native organizations are not asking us to judge our Quaker ancestors. They are asking, “Who are Friends today? Knowing what we know now, will Quakers join us in honest dialogue? Will they acknowledge the harm that was done? Will they seek ways to contribute toward healing processes that are desperately needed in Native communities?” These are my questions, too.

And mine.

Ottowa School, Indian Territory, 1872 (Courtesy Friends Journal and Haverford College Quaker Collection)

Was the revelation of Quaker complicity in Native boarding schools a surprise to you, as it was to me? Please consider passing this post–or better yet, Parker Palmer’s–on to someone else, or to any organization that might benefit from considering the attempt of the country’s most “politically correct” religious organization to face history, and itself.

Scrubbing Our American Nooks and Crannies: Racism and Other Filth

I don’t want to write about Charlottesville. I don’t even want to THINK about Charlottesville.

Last weekend I was in a sleep-deprived daze, going straight from wilderness camping to back-to-back days at my bakery job. And the Mate was out of town. I didn’t see any news, and since the twentysomethings I work with were even more exhausted than I, we talked mostly of cinnamon rolls and music.

Now the Mate is back home, the news is back on, and a weight has settled in my stomach, completely at odds with the fresh, beautiful view I see from our window.

So I’m going to write about my kitchen floor. It’s spotless again. So is the nook behind the toaster, and the gap between the dish drainer and the wall. Because–as I just mentioned–the Mate is back home.

It’s not that I’m a terrible housekeeper. I’m great fine perfectly quite competent. I keep my dishes washed and my counters wiped. But somehow, when the Mate is away for any length of time, my kitchen starts looking filthy.

It’s not that he’s a major cleaner. He’s a MINOR cleaner. He wipes a different spot each day, making the rounds. Today: behind the toaster. Tomorrow: under the fridge. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, once done at one end, it’s time to start back at the other. But it’s no sweat, ’cause each spot-clean takes maybe two minutes, max.

Gotta stop pretending this ugliness will just disappear if I don’t look at it.

We live on an island of mostly left-leaning, mostly-white people. Not all privileged, by any means, but protected by race and by distance from the ugliness on display at Charlottesville. That weight in my stomach is for my country, not for myself.

But it is my weight just the same. Our weight, whether we live near or far. The threat of virulent, presidentially-approved racism is, in fact, a threat to us all. Our community.Our democracy.

A visitor told me this week he had seen a Confederate flag flying near someone’s driveway at the far end of our island. I don’t know when or how, but I’m going to find the person who owns that flag and talk to him/her. I’m not looking forward to the conversation. But that flag is a little pocket of grime in my kitchen, and I know what happens when you let those little pockets alone.

Begone, Confederate flags. You know what you really stand for.

Huh. Guess I wrote about Charlottesville after all.

 

The Flip Side Of White Privilege: White Outrage. So Where Is It?

White folks–are you woke?

During the Vietnam War, the term was “consciousness raising.” People who weren’t directly connected to the brutality in Southeast Asia via a family member or a job found little reason to care…until somehow their consciousness was raised. Maybe it was that famous photograph of the My Lai Massacre, all those dead villagers in a ditch. Maybe it was simply the stark rise in Walter Cronkite’s nightly death count. Or those white college kids getting shot at Kent State. But once that tipping point was reached, the war became an acknowledged mistake, a heartache, a cause for redemption ever since.

Black people have a briefer term for having one’s consciousness raised: “woke.”

I’ve been pondering this term since the verdict came down from the Philando Castile case in St. Anthony, Minnesota recently. You remember Castile, right? The Black man who was shot by police?

Damn, I wish that were funny. 

Anyway. Castile was shot exactly a year ago, in his car, with his partner, Diamond Reynolds,and her four year-old daughter, watching. Ms. Reynolds captured the immediate aftermath on her phone. Those of us who watched it felt sick.

But the officer who fired those seven shots was put on trial for manslaughter. When the jury saw what we’d seen, justice would surely be served. Right?

Wrong. Three weeks ago, the jury acquitted Officer Jeronimo Yanez. He was let go by the force, but the point of the trial wasn’t punishment. The point was redemption. Instead, the not-guilty verdict left me feeling more hopeless than I can remember feeling about the future of my country.

Trevor Noah (who isn’t an American but who IS a Black man who’s already been stopped by police multiple times in his few years in this country) speaks my heart:

Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair captures Noah’s stark emotional response better than I can:

 

And then, Noah got to the most heartbreaking detail of all: for years, the hypothetical solution to murky police shootings was body cams—because in theory, video footage would resolve any lingering questions people might have. “And black people have already taken that initiative, right?” Noah pointed out. “Thanks to cell phones, every black person has a body cam now. Black people have been saying for years, ‘Just give us an indictment. Just an indictment. Just get us in front of a jury. Just in front of a jury of our peers. Of our fellow citizens. We’ll show them the video, the evidence, and they will see it, and justice will be served.’ And black people finally get there, and it’s like, ‘Wait, what? Nothing?’ You hear the stories, but you watch that, and forget race. Are we all watching the same video? The video where a law-abiding man followed the officer’s instructions to the letter of the law and was killed regardless? People watched that video and then voted to acquit? And the saddest thing is, that wasn’t the only video that they watched.”

Noah then played part of the video that Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds,posted live on Facebook soon after watching Castile get shot next to her in the car. Now, just like before, the most striking and gut-wrenching detail is the composure with which Reynolds addresses the situation, and the officer who caused it.

“‘You shot four bullets into him, sir,’“ Noah said, quoting Reynolds. “It’s fucking mind-blowing that Diamond Reynolds has just seen her boyfriend shot in front of her. She still has the presence of mind to be deferential to the policeman. In that moment, the cop has panicked, but clearly black people never forget their training.”

So, what does it say that a jury was able to watch both of those videos in a courtroom and decide that the officer, Jeronimo Yanez—who, since the verdict, has been dismissed by the St. Anthony, Minnesota police department—was justified in fearing for his own life? Noah gave his own unambiguous verdict: “Let’s be honest. Why? Why would you say he was afraid? Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black?

“It’s one thing to have the system against you—the district attorneys, the police unions, the court. That’s one thing. But when a jury of your peers, your community, sees this evidence and decides that even this is self-defense, that is truly depressing. Because what they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.’“

I started this post with a term: consciousness-raising. Here’s another: white privilege.

White privilege is the equivalent of not having to know what’s going on in Vietnam. If you’re white like me, you can afford not to know about Philando Castile (or Freddie Gray, or Alton Sterling, or…). Sure, I heard about the verdict when it came out, and I was startled, but I was also very busy. Didn’t get around to thinking about it right away. ‘Cause I could afford not to.

Now I’m thinking about it. Now I’m woke. Now I feel sickened. “In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.” 

Is that where we are? Is that where we’re going to stay? Black outrage clearly means nothing in this country. So what about white outrage? Shall we try some of that? What would that look like?

What would America look like if white people like me got woke?

If We Can’t Weed the Bad Stuff, Can We Grow Enough Good Stuff?

Usually I enjoy weeding. Yeah, it’s violent–all that chopping and yanking, and today, since I was digging up salmonberry plants, wrestling and scratching–but it’s very satisfying. Such a simple job: getting rid of bad stuff in order to grow good stuff. 

Today, though, I came inside early, and not because of the scratches. My heart just wasn’t in the violence of the job. I kept thinking about LeBron James. He’s arguably the most famous athlete in the world, and probably one of the richest and most-loved American Black men (unless you’re a Golden State fan). And yet even King James isn’t immune from our current climate of hate. Someone spray-painted racist slurs on his property.

Says LeBron, as quoted by NPR,

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, you know being black in America is tough,” James said. “And we got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.”

I know most people who voted for Trump are probably not racist, thuggish bullies. But the guy they elected has empowered racist, thuggish bullies to crawl out from under their rocks. Some say it’s good that at least we know they’re there. I say…

…what do I say? I think that’s why I’m writing now. I want to grow something at this moment, not weed it out. And my thoughts are turning to Brian Doyle, a sweet, wonderful writer who died last week in Oregon. I am thinking about how he found goodness and joy in the everyday. Like in this “proem” from his little book, The Kind Of Brave You Wanted to Be:

And Then There is This

Here is who is really cool. Here is who is really

Admirable and to be emulated and what is holy:

The few people who get up instantly when their

Sister is suddenly sick, in awful ways, at dinner.

They just jumped up and dealt with it. It’s dirty,

And there’s no advantage in it, no money or sex,

No fame, nothing but stench an bleah and eww,

And then a young woman sat with the sic sister,

Letting her rattled sick aunt lean on her shoulder.

I saw all this. There’s all this talk, and then there

Is this. You know exactly what I am saying here. 

Live another day, salmonberries.

Do you know exactly what I am saying here? Can you give me something admirable and to be emulated and holy from your life right now? I need a little of that.

 

North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill: Listen to Loretta

I don’t have too much to say about House Bill 2 of my home state, North Carolina–a.k.a. the “Bathroom Bill”. Because Attorney General and North Carolina native Loretta Lynch already said it for me:

“It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference.” — Loretta Lynch

(image courtesy wect.com)

(image courtesy wect.com)

So what do I say? I say go, Tarheels. Keep fighting this stupid, mean law as you’ve been doing. Make me proud of my home state again.