“Sometimes you have to find a way to get in the way…or get in trouble…good trouble…necessary trouble.”
“Tell me why you are marching,” a friend said.
My heart is full of so many reasons. Crafting a poster is hard.
I have carried these reasons with me for a while.
This Saturday I will march
For integrity, eloquence, and inspiration, please see the Women’s March Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.
It was 1986 and I was asked to read at our school’s chapel. The visiting reverend had the gospel handled; I as a senior could pick an appropriate reading to share with all my classmates. I chose the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog.
To me, this scene embodies everything that is wondrous about Harper Lee’s writing. A 1930s community is at a standstill from the terror of an infected dog that could end lives. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent…” (103) An aging father is asked to take up a gun, in front of his children, because he’s the “deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106).
Atticus protests; he’s not shot a gun in 30 years. The sheriff begs him. His children and Calpurnia stand frozen, breath bated. The scene unfolds with cinematic perfection, every moment a slow motion rendering of suspenseful action and dialogue. Atticus fells the dog in one shot.
And the dog’s name? Tim Johnson. You can’t walk a foot inside Mockingbird without running into rich character, that wry and understated humor alternating with poignant, gut-wrenching honesty.
Jem is astounded his dad is capable of such things. He’s been so embarrassed by his father’s age and infirmity–his inability to play football and the like. He and Scout can’t imagine why Atticus has never bragged about his shooting skill. It’s because, Miss Maudie says, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107).
The 17 year-old standing before her peers and teachers that day chose this passage for many reasons, not the least of which was loving this book so much. But today I’d like to think it’s because this moment and many of the moments in Mockingbird are about doing the right thing, the humble thing, and the hard thing.
In our country, this book woke up a lot of white people unaware of or unwilling to face racial inequality. Though most still did nothing afterwards, for a moment they got a glimmer of understanding about injustice. It took the voice of a little girl from the Depression era to awaken a 1960s white-majority America to the fact that white privilege does indeed exist, that the drum major instinct–the superiority complex that Dr. King described so eloquently–is a virulent source of racial hatred.
It all comes down to whether your inner sphere is a raging brew of uncontested, ugly desires, or whether you are, as Miss Maudie says of Atticus, “civilized in your heart.” Jem is thrilled to discover this part of his father—the glorious, secret strength that craves no glory whatsoever.
“Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’” (107)
Harper Lee created a man whom most men and women never are and never will be. Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a tenacious fighter for justice, saintly with his patience, and self-sacrificing at the risk of his own and his children’s safety. Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a fearful old man who rationalizes and intellectualizes his racism. My guess is the truth of any Atticus who ever lived is somewhere in between.
On this day of her death, I salute Nelle Harper Lee. She did something braver than I as a white girl would have done in 1960.
To Ms. Lee, whose magnum opus was one tiny part of a much larger Movement that had been hard fought so long already.
To Ms. Lee, who hating the limelight herself, stowed herself away like Boo Radley to appreciate the finer things of life beyond fame.
Your light is eternal, a steady flame fueling itself, seeking no air or wind from others. Rest in peace after a life well lived.
“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” (296)
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia and New York. 1960.
“What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.“
— from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.
How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:
“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”
“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”
Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.
Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.
But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.
Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.
Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?
Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?
I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:
A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?
When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.
I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.
Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.
Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.
These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics?
The point is to ask.
Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.
A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.
Racism is over, right?
Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.
See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.
I’ve just released a book of short stories, and “My Grandma is a Racist” is one that means a lot to me.
It’s not personal in the sense of family history–though I did have a grandmother who didn’t like blacks, Jews, or Catholics–and another who didn’t like hippies. These very complex, loving, interesting women harbored many prejudices as many of us do today. But this is not their story.
The setting is the Bush/Kerry election of 2004, when America was taking sides on the Iraq War and Swift Boat Veterans. It’s the story of a little girl, Wendy Redbird Dancing, trying to make sense of her mother and grandmother’s daily battle over politics. And it’s also the story of what happens when no one is looking after this particular child.
Racism in the story is overt in some moments and covert in others. It’s conscious and subconscious, as much as every moment in American history is laced with hyper-awareness of whether you are black, white, brown, yellow, or some mix thereof.
Don’t think it’s so? Please do a family history and place it against a timeline of civil rights landmarks for the last 150 years. You’ll see members of your family living through some strange and terrible times, whether it touched your family directly in traumatic ways or not. Someone may have an opinion, if not fought, like my ancestor, on one side of the Civil War. If you don’t wake up aware of your particular skin tone, chances are you walk the world with some amount of racial privilege. Even in this post-racial society, we can’t deny that walking into some places as the only white, black, or minority of the particular context, that there are different permissions given. Just the other day I was told that I as a tall white woman will be treated differently in India when I travel there this February. In other words, my risk of assault is lowered for a number of reasons. One of them is the colonial history of British oppression, white on brown.
Today, as President Barack Hussein Obama is inaugurated into his second Presidency, we know that America has done something historic in voting him in once and then again. We know it is a particularly special day that his inauguration occurs on the Dr. King holiday, because no matter what your politics, Obama has that content of character that gets certain things done. There will be historic legislation and events for historians to evaluate; it’s not a do-nothing presidency. We can judge him for those actions and not for his blackness. Dr. King may not applaud today’s gun violence nor the recent wars or massive uptick in poverty, but I do believe he would applaud the fact we can judge Barack the man with a different bar than many would have back in 1968.
And back to timelines–’68, the year King was shot, was the year I was born.
“Midrift” is another story in the collection, written from the perspective of a black woman, by yours truly, a white woman. I was told back in 2004 while workshopping this story that “You can’t write this.” I did anyway, and no doubt I will offend both white and black and perhaps others, too, in taking this risk.
Good writing starts a conversation. I hope I’ve done this. And I invite you to take a chance on my characters who like to stir things up and out of the complacent daily grind. Art for life’s sake.
Today, this holiday, I will take inventory of my service to others, as King would have us do. I’ll take inventory of my prejudices and the breadth of my mind, treating this as a New Year’s Day to be a better person this 2013. I have a hand in this historical timeline, and I hope to leave a mark that helps our progress as a human race–one people, under God, and indivisible, no matter how hard we try to tear ourselves apart.
What is your mark, and what do you want it to be?
The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future is available through the Kindle select program, viewable on Kindle and with the Kindle app on iPad, iPhone, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android phones.
He was part of a Movement of hundreds of years long, yet we must always build a Monument to one Man. I wonder what Dr. King would have said about that.
He was a writer.
He was not a drum major but a peacemaker, preacher, and pavement pounder. He was an organizer and a thinker and a dreamer.
If you don’t think this speech is for you, read it and think about your car shopping and your response to advertising. Read it and think about your children. Read it and think about yourself. King’s words could have been written on the verge of our recent economic collapse.
I like that in this country, we can edit monuments.