Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Life in Color

I was once a Monet:
All soft and loose around the edges,
A still pond reflecting
    and dissolving colors of afternoon picnics
As elegiac as a Cather novel.

When the boy falls down
the blood is too red;
Tears spring to my eyes as
I grab at my own knee.

     **************

Now a Vanmeer, crystal clear
Recalling light the eye cannot see:
The shiny black of cockroach carapaces,
The primal red of childbirth,
A camera obscura, with the image upside down.

When the boy falls,
I am first on the scene
For I know no one else will come.

      ******************

Pushed and punished, flattened and greyed,
I am a Picasso of triangle tongues and disembodied limbs
An ache of winter and broken promises.
Two eyes peer out but cannot see

So when the boy falls down
I cannot hear
him over my own lament.

      ****************

Warhol at last, all candy-colored shine,
Carbon-copy gestures in all the right postures
As still as life inside
While seasons kalaidescope beyond.

The boy falls.
We watch with dead eyes
And smile still.

Looking at Race: A Reflection After Reading "Between the World and Me"

  Ta-Nahisi Coates writes about what it is like to be black in America in Between the World and Me.  He does so while recounting his own life, raised in a black neighborhood in Baltimore, going to Howard, moving to New York, and then, finally, freeing himself from the "Dream" altogether,  as he puts it, by living in another country entirely.

 While I read, I admit I had flashes of insights of what it must be like to really be black, or at least what it must be like to be Coates, and not just project my own assumptions and limited knowledge onto an entire race.   I felt like there were moments of true insight into why the heritage of slavery still reverberates today; how the racist acts of a few (ok, many) especially law enforcement, impinge on the freedom of every black boy with a hoodie or a stereo; and how fear can turn to hatred of those "who call themselves white".

Growing up in a predominately (like 99%) white school, in a predominately white city in a predominately white state, I grew up without thinking or wondering what it must be like to be black.  This isn't to say I didn't hear racism from time to time, even from my own grandparents, and slightly less overtly, from my own parents.  But being the educated person I thought I was, I dismissed these off-handed comments as ignorance and clung to the belief that we--all of us, black, white, yellow, whatever--we're all the same.

I marched to the state capitol to protest that Martin Luther King Day was not yet a holiday in my state. When, as an adult, we moved East and then South, I had plenty of black acquaintances and friends and never thought anything about the color of their skin.  When my daughter pointed out her friend Kate in kindergarten, she described her as "the one with the pink coat", not the one with the dark skin. So there were times I felt unnecessarily penalized in Coates book for being a person "who believed they were white"

.Coates talks a lot about being fearful. "When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.  I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such."  Coates goes on to blame this fear on the building up of the Dream.."I have seen the dream all my life.  It is perfect houses with nice lawns.  It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways.  The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts...And for so long I wanted to escape into the dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket.  But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies"."Our current politics tell you that should you fall victim to such an assault and lose your body, it somehow must be your fault.  Trayvon Martin's hoodie got him killed.  Jordan Davis's loud music did the same...Without its own justifications, the Dream would collapse upon itself."

He quotes John C. Calhoun, a senator during the Civil War, "' The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black....And all the former, the poor as well as the rich belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals'.  And there it is" Coates goes on to conclude,"the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality.  And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.  You and I, my son, are that 'below'....There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.  And then they would have to determine how to build theri suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle tier jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism."

 I will admit that those words stung, and I want them so much not to be true.  But it did make me look harder at my own experiences and perceptions.  The first black guy I got to know was at a leadership conference I attended in high school.  He was from Maryland.  He was tall, walked with a swagger, and man, could he dance!  I enjoyed our long talks, not only because our lives were so different (not because he was black so much as because he came from a city whose population was greater than the population of my entire states), but because I liked the rhythm of his words, his lingo that I didn't quite understand, and the emotion that seemed to ooze from him.  I enjoyed his pick up lines, but I never really took them seriously; I didn't like him like that.  Was it because he was black, because we were too different?  Or was it because we knew each other a week, were in high school and we had a continent between us?

So then I think, if I were alone at night, on a strange street, and I encountered a black man with a hoodie, would I be wary?  Well, of course.  Because then I picture the same scenario, only with a white guy in a hoodie.  Am I wary?  Of course.  But, actually, if I am honest, I am even more wary of the white guy.  Why would that be? I wondered.   Is it because I have never had a harrowing or violent experience with a black guy? Most black teens I meet are respectful, helpful. They say "yes, ma'am" and some don't even look me directly in the eye.  I always thought it was because they were raised "right",in the "Southern tradition".  But maybe it is because Coates is right, and black boys are always fearful around whites, and somehow I've picked up on this.  Maybe I know  subconsciously
that the black guy in the hoodie on that street is just as reluctant to engage with a white woman.   But a white guy, who has no legacy of injustices, who instead has a legacy of a certain amount of entitlement, could be much more dangerous.  So because in my pretend scenario, in my minds eye, I am more afraid of a white guy than a black one, does that make me part of institutionalized racism?

After reading Coates, I had to admit I have seen some of the institutionalized racism he talks about. "All my life," he says, "I'd heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good', which is to say 'accept half as much'". As a volunteer in the public schools, I witnessed at least three white teachers who were seemingly exasperated with a student who was without exception black.  There seemed to be a level of vitriol that was unexpected to me, and seemed to be incongruous with how the teacher behaved with the rest of the class.   I always tried to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt--perhaps that child really did try a person's patience--but it always left me a little unsettled.  Why was the "troublesome" student always black?  How would I react  as a teacher? I wondered.  In my minds eye I thought I would be kind and compassionate, probably even extra lenient with that little black kid.  After all, he probably didn't have a dad and the mom was working two jobs and there are older brothers in gangs and baby sisters to take care if at home and...I stopped myself.  Why would assume any of that?  There was a whole gaggle of black kids living in my suburban neighborhood with two parents and a good home life.  Perhaps I am just as guilty as everyone else for stereo-typing, for buying into preconceived notions that have no basis.

Still, I argue with myself, I think there are a lot of favorable stereo-types about black people that I buy into and envy.  Their hair is amazing...all those spring loaded curls, with a seemingly inexhaustible option of weaves and wigs and braids to change things up.  And then, if a guy, opts not to mess with hair at all, a black guy can pull off bald no matter how young and a black bald guy always looks good.  It is not so universal for white guys....look around. Then it seems that every shape and size of a black woman is desirable in the black community.  Some find Haley Berry beautiful, but just as many seem to want a big booty.  So I see a body confidence in black women that I don't see in white women who seem to all want to look like the same impossible skinny blond Barbie doll. And there is a camaraderie in the black community that is harder to find among whites.  A stranger is instantly a "brother" or a "sister".   Perhaps it is a familiarity born from shared griefs but it is a familiarity nonetheless.

I am sure that Coates would dismiss my positive observations.  Call them trite and perhaps even find them offensive.  What is good hair, and fellowship when you are are being routinely pulled over because of the color of your skin? Probably he would use it as another example of a "person who believe themselves to be white" trivializing the real issue, burying their head in "the Dream."

Which leads me to my real issue with race issues.  As a "white" person, I feel completely helpless at
talking about race.  Everything I say or think is wrong or offensive, ignorant or trivial.  I read book after book, essay after essay about the damage someone of my coloring did to someone of their coloring, and for this I must hang my head in shame every day.  I cannot talk about my questions, or disagree with a point of view, or even have a point of view or even imagine what it must be like because, I am repeatedly told, someone of my complexion cannot understand alienation, fear, being wrongly accused,, being mistreated, being underprivileged, or being ignorant of how certain social politics work.  We too, fear for our children and are outraged when they are mistreated. So we can, maybe, slightly, understand your fear, Mr. Coates, and become outraged with you for the injustices that are done to children everywhere, especially from people who should protect them.

Is there social and political injustices?  Yes, unfortunately.  And I am glad for the insight Coates has revealed in this memoir.  It reminds me that we may never be able to completely understand another's point of view, because we all been shaped by different circumstances.  But we can seek to understand each other.  And then find some common ground.  Because regardless of our heritage, we are all human.  How do we regain our humanity?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alright. This book definitely brings up the issues of race in this country. Coates doesn't hold back on his experiences or his feelings. Sometimes I didn't understand where he was coming from, sometimes I disagreed, and sometimes I was offended, but it did make me examine my own observations and feelings closer than I ever have before. And it helped me understand his point of view and feelings...the anger, the fear, his reasonings of how the history of race relations inform the present situations in this country better than any other thing I've read. He doesn't come up with any advice or alternatives though, and I do wish I could see a way to make things different.


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Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a PresidentDestiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved reading about history the way Millard writes it. The drama behind Garfield getting elected, then the absurdity of him getting shot, the primitive medical practices that cost him his life, and the inventiveness that was inspired to help (the first air conditioner, Bell's device to find the bullet), and the way the nation pulled together at the end as they waited in vain for a favorable outcome. The characters came alive for me...the goodness of Garfield, the scheming Conkling, the driven Bell, the dithering of Arthur before a lone woman believes in him enough to help him change his entire character. What a way to make history come to life!


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Brilliance

Brilliance (Brilliance Saga, #1)Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fast-paced plot-driven action book. It is written like a movie, like lots of reviewers have mentioned, but I like movies. There are a few loose ends that didn't tie up, but then I learned that it was part of a series, so maybe they will be resolved in the next installment. I liked that the brilliants were less superheroes, and more just super smart, made it more relateable. Fun beach read. It was listed on the YA category on the list I saw it on, though I don't know why. All protagonists are adult in adult situations.


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