Allowing Ourselves to be Transformed by the Stories of Others

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A friend of mine recently said, “I miss the people of September 12, 2001.” She quickly pointed out she DID NOT want another 9/11. But in context of the deep divisions in our country right now, what she missed was the solidarity among Americans the day after 9/11, when there was not the factionalism and tribalism we see now. “Where are those people?” she lamented. “I know they are still out there.” 

I thought of her words when I came across the op-ed in the Washington Post this week by Chesley B. 'Sully' Sullenberger III, the airline captain who successfully made an emergency landing on the Hudson river January 15, 2009 saving 155 lives with the help of his crew. Link to the op-ed below.[1]  

Captain “Sully” poses a similar quandry as my friend, albeit in terms more familiar to military officers and leadership consultants. He asks where our “unit cohesion” has gone and points out that when a team, army, or community loses such cohesion, defeat and dissolution quickly follows. He goes on to say that as a country, [W]e are in a struggle for who and what we are as a people . . . The fabric of our nation is under attack.”

Both these observations take me back to a dinner I attended New Year’s Eve, 2001. As the final hours of a traumatic year ticked down, the meal, of course, turned to the tragedy still fresh on everyone’s mind. One relative at the table expressed his desire for a more aggressive stance on terrorism, insisting upon an eye for an eye approach. He asked those of us seated around the table, “If someone broke into your house, shot your family, wouldn’t you want to go out, find them, and shoot them back? Wouldn’t you be justified?”

My father was at that dinner—a former Catholic priest, retired federal judge, and my lifelong spiritual mentor. Dad answered him, “Well, yes, I probably would want that, but whether or not it would be ‘justified,’ who am I to say? That is why I, as an aggrieved party, should not be judge, jury, and executioner. I think—I hope—I would first try to understand why this person committed this act of violence against me and my family. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Was someone holding his family hostage, someone with a grudge against me, or whom I had wronged? I think I’d like to know all this before I contributed to perpetuating the cycle of violence.”

It was my father’s piety and his time as a priest, traveling to some of the poorest parts of the world that inspired me to move to Kenya and live and work at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in 2002—the story I chronicle in my memoir Two Years of Wonder. I left on that trip with my own biases, prejudices, and presuppositions. But I think my dad’s words December of 2001, planted a seed whether I knew it or not. Because in the subsequent years in Kenya and in a myriad of other countries after, I learned that the story was never about me. Reflecting on only myself, as a writer and as an activist, just leads to navel gazing, solipsism, and shitty writing.

The real story (or stories), were the stories of the people I met. The children I met while at the orphanage, not to mention the friends I made in rehab years later: the “junkies” and “drunks” who poured love and wisdom into me when the suffering and deaths of the children I witnessed in Kenya brought me close to suicide.

What does any of this have to do with today’s news cycle?

I’d say, everything.

I’ve seen wall to wall coverage of this migrant caravan in the past weeks leading up to this midterm election. I’ve listened to the breathless commentary from news hosts speculating about the “diseases” these people carry into our country. Consistently, in television coverage I see wide angled aerial shots, from helicopters or drones, showing the column of people moving north. Inevitably this leads the “migrant caravan” to be treated as a monolith. Individuals are lost in that river of bodies and when that happens, we can’t hear their stories.

And it’s those individual stories—I know this from experience—will transform us.

Some journalists have endeavored to cover the people, the individuals. Those profiles, those people, their stories stand out to me. There is José Luis Hernández, who, as Jonathan Blitzer points out in the New Yorker: “[T]ried three times to come to the United States. When he was sixteen, after gangsters in Honduras threatened to kill him, he made the trip with two other boys, but they were attacked by extortionists at the Mexican border, robbed, and eventually apprehended by Mexican authorities . . . Two years later, he undertook the journey again, this this time with a slightly larger group. In Mexico, he fell from a moving freight train and lost an arm, half of one leg, and part of his left hand. Once more he was deported to Honduras. When he finally left the hospital, after a two-year recovery, Hernández began planning another trip . . . In 2015, he joined a group of disabled Honduran asylum seekers who called themselves the Caravan of the Mutilated, and together they reached Texas.”[2]

There is the story of Chantal and Stefani, as profiled by CNN. Chantal, from Honduras, and Stephani from El Salvador both identify as transgender. As such, they face high rates of violence and persecution in many Latin American countries. They are traveling north in search of safety, as well as jobs as climate change (an overlooked actor in all this) has altered the labor landscape throughout Latin America. 

In the same CNN story we encounter Iris, a twenty-one-year-old woman fleeing violence and endemic poverty with her siblings, nephews, and nieces, who rest by the side of the road with her sleeping or playing with dirty stuffed animals.[3] Iris said she would take the first job available that she could find in the States. The risk of being captured by sex traffickers in transit (a real risk to women her age[4]) does not deter her.

A caravan is a thing. As such it can be painted into something threatening, a menace that we can project our deepest fears and insecurities onto to. But seeing these people as a threat is akin to that relative of mine at the dinner table New Year’s Eve 2001, the one who proffered that he would be justified executing his hypothetical home invader. Judge, jury, and executioner.But I feel compelled to try to live up to my father’s proposal: to understand, to comprehend, before I act. This was all the more striking to me since my father actually was a federal judge. His forbearance makes sense though. After all, lives are at stake. It’s only when we draw in closer, take the time to read profiles like the ones in the New Yorker and CNN that the humanity of Jose, Chantal, Stefani, and Iris comes through. These are not some abstract home invaders. They are human beings. As Emmanuel Lévinas, a Jewish philosopher once said, the only thing we are ever converted by is “the face of the other.”[5] The stories of others will transform us. If we let them.  

This was what I learned Kenya and it was, ultimately, why it is the children’s stories that make up the lion share of Two Years of Wonder, not my own.  

What is hardest for me to comprehend is that embracing the unknown was once such a defining feature of the American character. “The US is a country of immigrants,” teachers told us in school. “A place for every culture, creed, and ethnicity. Where everyone has a voice.” America (supposedly) is (was?) a country that pushes against boundaries and barriers, whether it was reaching the Moon or Mars, or diving into the realms of science, math, engineering and the arts. Innovation, exploration are supposed to be in our national DNA. But we can’t take a step towards either without facing and embracing the unknown, trying to comprehend what we don’t understand, even if what we don’t comprehend is another human being. That said, with their souls and our own at stake, isn’t the imperative that much greater to comprehend, to understand, to not shy away from the unknown, the unfamiliar, the alien? 

I think my father realized that, seventeen years ago, on New Year’s Eve. 

So today, in November 2018, on the eve of another divisive election, as we’re challenged to choose between fear or facts, ignorance or understanding, I DO wonder, where are the people of September 12, 2001? Did they all turn into my relative who wanted to chase down “invaders” with their guns? Or are they people like my father, who seeks understanding even today as he asks “Why are these people in the caravan migrating in the first place? What can we learn from their stories?” I learned in my travels that these questions, inevitably, lead us down a path of compassion and transformation.  

That is a place I would rather make my destination.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-saved-155-lives-on-the-hudson-now-lets-vote-for-leaders-wholl-protect-us-all/2018/10/29/554fd0e6-d87c-11e8-a10f-b51546b10756_story.html?utm_term=.af3835b48f67

 [2] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-the-trump-white-house-is-having-a-meltdown-over-the-migrant-caravan

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/28/americas/migrant-caravan-profiles/index.html

[4] https://iwantrest.com/blog/

[5] Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, ed. Jill Robibns (Stanford University Press: 2001)

 

Little Rock ECD: Turning Scars into Stars!

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In my memoir Two Years of Wonder, there a number of children who experience increased vulnerability due to developmental, cognitive, or physical disabilities. For a long-time there were no places for these children to receive therapeutic services, much less an education in Kenya. There are still too few. But one of the organizations working to change that is Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Center. 

I first visited Little Rock Early Childhood Development Center in Kibera in 2006, when I was a graduate intern for CARE USA. Little Rock ECD Center was founded in 2003. It was the ONLY ECD center where the CARE Kenya staff could refer children with special needs in 2006—and these needs ran the gamut from hearing impairment to cerebral palsy.  

What struck me most about that first visit was the powerful feeling of love and warmth I sensed from the staff and the children. By 2006 I was already a bit of a veteran when it came to visiting children’s homes, pre-schools, and primary schools. I could tell that at Little Rock ECD Center, something was different. There was a unity, solidarity, and genuine determination to give the children there the best chance possible—despite the lack of resources. This came across powerfully when we stopped by for a visit and class was not interrupted so that the children could perform song and dance for us. An aside: another song and dance by children is the last thing you want when you do a school visit—what you want to see is how the school goes about the business of teaching children! 

The interactions among the children were also remarkable to me. Little Rock ECD was (and still is) an inclusive school environment, where children who are “normal learners” are integrated with children who are not. I remember seeing children without special needs helping their friends who did eat, play, and learn. It was remarkable to see: these young children who did not flinch from one another’s differences, who didn’t think twice about helping one another. There was no shunning here, no shame, no stigma, only love, fellowship, and solidarity. 

I visited Little Rock every time I’ve been to Kenya since. I’ve seen them move to a larger campus as they have grown. The same spirit of inclusion continues. As I watched the children play soccer on my last visit in 2015, I realized ALL of them—hearing and hearing impaired—had been taught sign language in order to communicate. There was no telling who was hearing impaired and who was not. Throughout the game they all signed to one another. In additional to successes like these, over the years, the school’s services have broadened further, with trained staff and facilities that can accommodate and treat children with a wide range of cognitive and physical disabilities.  

All this started when Little Rock’s founder, Lilly Oyare founded an ECD center in 2003. It was her goal to focus on vulnerable children in her community. When one child named Melody (more on her below) came to the school in 2006, Lilly faced a dilemma. Melody had cerebral palsy. Due to that, she was more vulnerable than most. Lilly realized they had no training on how to deal with such a child with Melody’s needs. But if Little Rock was to be true to its goal of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable children, Lilly knew they had to accept Melody—she had nowhere else to go. Even though the staff were not sure how they would continue, they opened their doors to all children with special needs after that.

The rest, as they say, is history. Little Rock now has had thousands of children pass through its classroom, hundreds of them have been children with special needs who had received the finest levels of support available. They have classes and after school programs not only for children, but trainings for parents on everything from child care and nutrition, to business generation and microfinance. 

I wanted to provide a glimpse of who Lilly Oyare is, so I sent her a few short questions over email. Her answers are below.

T: Hi Lilly, can you share what inspired you to start your foundation?

L: What inspired me were the lovely faces of the many children I met in Kibera informal settlement. They didn’t look any different than the ones I had in my house, thus they had they had the same motivations to build their dreams of being pilots, doctors, nurses, teachers, and pastors.

T: What are you working on right now that has you especially excited?

L: We are working on a Manual of Inclusive Education and we are fundraising to build a resource center for children with special needs who are unable to transition to primary school because of their disabilities. 

T: Is there a particular success story you’d like to share with readers?

L: Out of the class of 3 year-olds who were admitted among the Baby class in 2004: 13 are joining university and technical college this semester—2018—to pursue a number of different courses. Melody, [Little Rock’s first student with special needs] who has cerebral palsy, completed primary school and has been admitted to high school. She wants to be a lawyer to advocate for the rights of children with special needs.

T: What can readers to do be more involved and to support your cause?

L: Readers can participate in our fundraising activities through our global giving platform (providing early childhood education to 250 children). You can send money through our Paypal account or one can donate through direct debit.

T: Bonus question, what do you do when you’re NOT working, for fun, to restore your spirit, and/or relax?

L: I am very much involved in church activities and I draw my strength from Bible reading 

  

Lilly is one of my all time most inspiring SHEROS. You can watch a video on YouTube with her here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l8dOk6uTt4

 It’s thanks to people like Lilly that children with dyslexia, such as Miriam in Two Years of Wonder, can get help so they can have a chance to learn, succeed, and thrive. If you’d like to donate to Little Rock, here is the link to their site: http://littlerockkenya.org/newsite/ The donation link will take you right to their Paypal account.

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part Two.

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In Part One of this two-part series, I focused on the positive feedback I’ve received for my Sci-Fi novel, The Selah Branch, A Novel of Time Travel and Race in America. You can read it here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/9/1/the-selah-branch-love-it-or-hate-it-but-nobody-likes-it

This post will focus on the criticism (much of it legitimate) of this same book. To recap, the story is focalized through its protagonist, Kenia Dezy, a Georgetown University undergrad studying public health. Many people of color have praised the book. They have expressed gratitude for the work I put into it. Others, even friends of mine, HATE The Selah Branch. Some don’t even consider themselves friends of mine any longer.

And I see their point. Stories about women of color BY women of color have never had the platform they deserve in this country—or in the world. Writing is a tough profession and it took a lot of capital (social and financial) for me to break into the industry. My privilege gave me access to resources to fall back on as I started down this road and copies of my first books were selling slowly. Publishing has given me a voice, but no one can argue that white males are historically underrepresented in the US—much less American Literature. (If you think you can, I’d like to know which planet you are living on and if Elon Musk colonized it yet.)

When the median net worth for 40-49 year-old black women with a college education is only $6,000 (debt factored in against savings), as opposed to college educated white women of the same age whose median net worth is $25,000, there is no denying the disparities in privilege, opportunity, and capital that exist in our country as the result of racism.[1] The net worth of younger black women, even with a college degree, falls to an astonishing ZERO, while white women with an equivalent education are still very much in the net positive. See more at the link in the footnote. 

These economic disparities have fallen disproportionately in favor to white people, like me, giving me more access, more opportunities, and more resources. These advantages have enabled me to pursue further education and good jobs, to network professionally, to seek out mentors, and ultimately has helped me to publish. So when I roll up and write a Sci-Fi book, written from the point of view of a woman of color, let’s face it, this can mean shelf space taken away from a Sci-Fi book written about black women by black women. A book like An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (one of the best books I’ve read this year). Suddenly, here I am, a white dude, taking up space (once again) from women writers of color, who historically have not had the same opportunities that have been granted, undeservedly, to me.

And that’s how erasure happens folks. That’s how structural racism persists.  

And I’m part of the problem. 

Sh**. 

But wait! Sadly, there is more. 

When we consider books by white authors or films by white writer/directors, we must consider the legitimate question of, how well do they depict characters of color? Are the men and women of color fully fleshed out, authentic people, or are they one dimensional caricatures that might just reinforce stereotypes? As a writer, it’s deeply uncomfortable for me to read that, on reflection, a luminary like Viola Davis wishes she had passed on her role in the 2011 film The Help—partly for this very reason https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/about-aibileen-viola-davis-says-she-regrets-playing-ma-1828998001.

Ms. Davis has a valuable point. The Help, as feel good of a movie as it was, failed to really explore the lives of the women of color or represent their voices in an authentic way. We are witness to the indignities they suffer, but in the end (like so many black characters before them in American cinema) they end up serving as props to highlight the moral development and moral victory of the white protagonist (played by Emma Stone) and her family. Despite a movie title that references the characters of color, The Help is, disappointingly, white centered. The harshest criticism for the film being that it is another example of a white artist(s) exploiting the stories and suffering of blacks, to promote their careers, fill their pockets. Nia Long has recently spoken out about this https://www.theroot.com/nia-long-i-ve-watched-a-lot-of-men-get-rich-off-of-the-1828664319. To quote the article: “The Love Jones actress has a point—the gender pay gap is real, and it impacts black women tremendously. In fact, black women make 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women.”  

But even more pernicious, not only does revenue from these films flow disproportionately to men (and white men at that), the storylines, white focused as they are, work to ameliorate the guilt white people might have regarding the legacy of racism in this country. Once again, we can pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” and, “It’s all going to be okay.” 

I won’t argue with any of Ms. Davis’ or Ms. Long’s points. I can’t, because they are right. 

So, what am I to do, as a writer? As a privileged white writer? 

To my frustration (crying fragile white tears here, I know), it’s impossible for me to disentangle myself from my own skin color and the privilege it gives me. I know many white writers try to highlight these issues; we try to call one another out when our work falls short of a higher standard (e.g., The Help). I do think white people need to participate in these conversations on race, art, and representation. We certainly need to do more listening than talking in these conversations, but we do need to add our voices to the mix. For no other reason than the sad fact that, as Dahleen Glanton recently wrote in the Chicago Tribune: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege.[2] (I keep finding myself referencing this excellent article in my blog posts. Check it out, link below!)

That sad truth, stated by Ms. Glanton, is uncomfortable to accept. But it rings true. And yet, there are further double standards and injustices we white people have to be aware of as we engage in these issues. Perhaps most important to acknowledge is that we white folks are rarely penalized for trying to address racial inequalities. If anything, we get patted on the back—by ourselves especially—for being “woke.” We give ourselves an A+ for just making the effort.  

But when black people make these same claims (as they have been longer than we have), they are punished. Case in point: Colin Kaepernick still does NOT have a QB job despite being a better quarterback than more than half the men playing in that position.  

But I also believe that doing nothing, for white artists/writers not to wrestle with these issues, to not participate in these conversations, would be a loss. I still feel that to NOT write and publish The Selah Branch would have been a missed opportunity. I think of the women in my life who inspired it and how, in many ways, the story was a declaration of my love for them. I also think of the woman who came up to me weeping, thanking me for writing it. Then there are the comments on Goodreads and Amazon from readers of color who appreciate the book. And frankly, I see The Selah Branch as an opportunity to appeal to white readers, who might not otherwise pick up such a book with a female black protagonist, but would pick it up if it was written by a white author.  

Sad but true. 

So I’ve tried to split the difference, and make up for any “harm” I’m doing with The Selah Branch. I won’t allow The Selah Branch to “compete” in any contests in the category of “African American Writing.” Without question, that would place it in competition with authors of color, possibly limiting their exposure and their opportunities for promotion and accolades. I won’t do that. Any awards The Selah Branch has been nominated for, I have made sure it is in categories such as Sci-Fi or Multicultural, not African American. 

I’ve also been trying to make The Selah Branch a force for good. Not just by the content, but by donating all the proceeds from my sales to three organizations I know well. These are organizations that work to counter the effects of structural racism and racial injustice. In the final analysis, I felt I should not “profit” from writing a book like The Selah Branch. I have profited from racism enough living as a white man in America. But if other people of color, children, college students, or aspiring writers could benefit, well, then I might be able to sleep at night. More on those organizations here:  https://www.tenebraypress.com/the-selah-branch/

It’s not a perfect solution. But there are no perfect allies, only imperfect ones. I hope writers like Rivers Solomon, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, and Tomi Adeyemi would be all right with that. And I hope the Rivers Solomons, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafors, NK Jemisins, and Tomi Adeyemis of the future will be too. Maybe some of them are enrolling at Georgia State or in a head start program run by CURS or Atlantic Street Center right now.

I can only hope.

[1] http://www.insightcced.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/January2017_ResearchBriefSeries_WomenRaceWealth-Volume1-Pages-1.pdf

[2] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/glanton/ct-met-dahleen-glanton-anne-hathaway-white-privilege-20180730-story.html

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part One.

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It’s been about a year since I published my book The Selah Branch, a Novel of Time Travel and Race in America.

People love it, (it’s won numerous awards).

People also hate it, (I’ve lost friends over it).

No one seems to take the middle ground and just say they “like” it.

This post is about the people who love it and why. Part Two will give equal time to those who hate it.

As I’ve had women of color come up to me and tearfully thank me for writing the book. I’ve also had friends, people of color, stop speaking to me because I wrote it.

I knew when I waded into this territory of race, gender, and politics it was a minefield.  All the more so because I was writing a fictional story from the perspective of a woman of color, and I’m a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, male author. I admit, there is an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation and lack of authenticity in that.

But first, at the risk of sounding defensive, a bit on the positive feedback and my original intentions regarding the story.

My book The Selah Branch features a fiercely intelligent, educated, African American college student, Kenia Dezy, as its protagonist. Kenia is the daughter of an African American woman—a physician—and a father who immigrated from Nigeria and became a surgeon. Kenia comes from a privileged background and has had opportunities to learn about her Nigerian roots, even travelling to West Africa to connect with her extended family. It’s been gratifying to see The Selah Branch receive generous reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s also received numerous professional awards and accolades.

I’d never write a book from the perspective of a woman of color and claim that the protagonist somehow represented the voices of all oppressed women of color. I could never write such a character. To that end, I’d never even make such a claim for the characters I write who are white males like me. There is too much variety within that category alone for me to claim to represent all white males. That is an impossible task for any character, any writer, no matter their demographics, white, black, female, male, non-gendered, etc. . .  And it’s when we take the sample size of one character and extrapolate that representation to the greater whole that we are falling into the very old trap of stereotyping.

I would offer that part of the trick/illusion/talent of writing lies in the artist’s ability to step into the shoes, the skin, the lives of the characters we create. I believe this is similar for actors who portray characters who are perhaps very unlike their true selves.

Even though we authors must write from what we “know,” that is never enough. We still need to use our imaginations and we need to seek out new experiences to feed our imaginations. That way the range of what we know is ever expanding. This includes interacting with people, places, and perspectives that are novel to us. As my friend Rasheed Newson, a writer from television shows such as Narcos, The 100, and Army Wives has attested, “I’ve never been a drug dealer in Latin America, a teenager in space, or a wife of an enlisted soldier, but I write from those perspectives all the time. It’s part of the job and it’s the integral to the talent of being a writer.”

If writers, poets, playwrights, singer-songwriters, and/or actors were locked in to characters and voices that were only aligned with their given identities, it would be a poorer world indeed. Rasheed, as a gay black man would have a very narrow demographic to write about and write to. So narrow in fact, he would likely not have had as many writing opportunities as his career has actually afforded him. I would only be “allowed” to write protagonists who were white men. This would make my books City on a Hill, In the Darkness Visible, and Voyage of the Elawn—all featuring female leads—off limits to me.

Even now, I’m reading Earnest J. Gaines A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines switches chapter by chapter from the perspective of men and women, white and black, young and old. The novel is all the more powerful for it. If Gaines had been limited only to male characters because he was male, or black characters because he was black, this powerful piece of art—that stands as an indictment against racism and a persuasive argument for love and understanding—wouldn’t exist.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/6/28/writing-characters-of-color-when-you-are-a-cis-gender-white-heterosexual-male) I think the position that we should only write from the point of view of characters whom we share an identity with is highly problematic. Such narrow boundaries does more to contribute to division than to foster understanding.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit my own experience, that which I “know” and “see” the world, is limited. I have blind spots. A few I know, but most I don’t. For instance, I’ve traveled to 36 countries. I have friends from a variety of backgrounds—backgrounds and orientations very different from my own. But some of these backgrounds I am familiar enough with that I would be comfortable creating a character from such a place.

But I’ve never traveled in south or central America. I’m sad to say I don’t have a plethora of intimate friends who come from a Latinx background. As a result, I can’t say I’d be comfortable trying to write from the point of view of a Latinx character. I doubt the character would have an authentic feel. I’ve simply had to few experiences and not enough Latinx friends and family members who can speak into my life or check me when I get outside my lane.

In this respect, writers such as my friend Rasheed or my hero Earnest J. Gaines have an advantage over me. As members of minority/oppressed groups, to survive in mainstream society they have to understand the perspectives of the dominant culture.

As a white male, sadly, I don’t. For me, I have to make a conscious, intentional effort to try to see past my own privilege. And I don’t always do it right.

That said, I did feel comfortable writing Kenia Dezy and crafting the members of her family in The Selah Branch. Mainly this is because I’ve been blessed to have friends like Kenia. One of my dearest and oldest friends, Chisara, a woman I’ve considered my “little sister,” and a friend who was so instrumental in encouraging my early writing career that I dedicated my first book to her—she served as the template for Kenia. Do I know enough college educated, upper middle-class black women with a Nigerian heritage to claim to represent all of them? Of course not.

But do I know my friend Chisara and her family. So I felt comfortable writing a story about someone like her.

As a result, the positive feedback I’ve received regarding The Selah Branch has been that women whose experiences align with Kenia LOVE The Selah Branch. They enjoyed a story centered on a character whose experience reflected their own. One woman who had attended a college in a small white town in Texas, where she was one of the few black people, told me that reading The Selah Branch made her feel “seen” and her own struggles validated.

Ultimately, to only identify with characters (or people!) who match our hyphenated identities, may leave us wanting. As a practice, the approach suffers from the same drawbacks that leaves identity politics open to criticism—mainly that is only leaves us more divided and more alienated from one another.

What I hoped to do with The Selah Branch and with Kenia’s character was what drove me to write it and her in the first place: I identify with Kenia. I firmly believe there are universal things that connect us, unite us, and draw us closer through bonds of humanity and compassion. These are things that transcend our long-tailed demographic labels. These are the desires of our hearts, the goals of our lives, the values we champion. I identify with Kenia, not because she is a black woman, but because she is a someone who is against racism, who loves her family and friends, who wants to live right in relationship with others, and who wants America to live up to its ideals.

These things bring us together, across color lines, ethnicity, educational background, and social economic status. My hope with The Selah Branch, was to show that.

Next post: why people hate The Selah Branch. Why they are right, and why I have been donating all the proceeds to causes that counter racial injustice.

Nia Wilson & Mollie Tibbitts. This is really. . .uncomfortable.

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This post is truly uncomfortable. I’ve been reluctant to even post it, considering the unresolved nature of both these cases, the raw emotions involved, and the pain of the families. I can’t imagine the agony the families of Nia Wilson and Mollie Tibbetts are experiencing. My heart goes out to all those affected. It is gut wrenching to imagine how it must feel to lose a young woman like Nia to such senseless violence or to have someone like Mollie simply “disappear” while jogging the same familiar route each day.

This is not a post comparing/contrasting the worth of either of these young women. They both seem so full of life and potential. Rather, this post is a reflection on how these cases are portrayed in the media and how those portrayals reflect and reinforce our own implicit biases. As for these young women, my heart breaks. For the families I wish resolution and healing. I am holding out hope Mollie Tibbetts is returned safe and sound to her family soon. No one should ever have to endure what her or Nia’s family has gone through.

Like I said, this is a post on media coverage. My thought are as follows:

A veteran journalist once said to me that in terms of which stories get coverage in the US market, the following formula holds true: 1 American life = 5 Europeans = 10 Israelis = 20 Palestinians = 50 Asians = 200 Africans.

Cynical? Yes. But when we consider which tragedies get air time, column inches, and tweets, it’s hard to ignore the truth of the statement. Case in point, my Kenyan friends asked—rightly so—why there was not the same outpouring of international mourning after the terrorist attacks in the Westgate Mall in 2013 or Garissa in 2015 (where 67 and 152 people were killed respectively) as there was in 2016 when 137 and 32 people were killed by terrorists in Paris and Belgium. In 2016 thousands of us modified our profile pictures with the French and Belgium flags. In 2013 and 2015, I don’t remember seeing a single Kenyan flag superimposed on a profile picture.

The notion of bias in media is nothing new. But how this bias reflects racism. . . we have a harder time admitting.

That brings me to these two cases of Mollie and Nia. The disappearance of Mollie Tibbetts is deeply disturbing and tragic. As I write this, she is still missing. I know everyday she is not found is torture for her friends and family. I am praying she is found safe and sound. I don’t wish this ordeal on anyone. I do wish for her to be returned safely to her loved ones.

What is noteworthy is the coverage. Of course, Mollie is still missing, so the urgency of finding her is great. In that sense, the saturation of coverage and stridency is completely called for.  I don’t question that for a moment.

It’s just, we don’t always do it for everyone. And that’s the deeply uncomfortable bit.

If you are white and don’t understand why your black friends or neighbors might not see the latest coverage of a missing white girl the same way you do, read this article:

https://mic.com/articles/93780/64-000-missing-women-in-america-all-have-one-important-thing-in-common#.ubFEq3Seu

As the article points out, the bottom line is that even though African Americans represent only about 12 percent of the US population, they account for 34 percent of all missing person cases. They are OVER represented in missing persons cases, just as they are over represented in incarceration figures. To quote the article: "If you Google 'Natalee Holloway,' how many impressions would you get?" Black and Missing cofounder Natalie Wilson told ABC News last year. "If you Google 'Unique Harris,' who's missing from D.C., the story is not the same."

Where do these missing women of color go? Many are fleeing domestic violence. Women of color experience domestic violence at rates 35 percent higher than white counterparts.[1] Many end up as unsolved murder cases. Many are trafficked into sex work. In my own home county, King County which encompasses Seattle, 84 percent of child trafficking victims (18 and younger) were female, and 52 percent of them were African American. The general population of King County is just 7 percent African American.[2]

Those statistics are not making headlines. That leads to a long-standing complaint from people of color about what grabs media attention (and thus ours). A young missing white woman in Iowa garners national headlines and primetime coverage. Hundreds of missing black women in US cities doesn’t.

We can’t say the media is solely to blame here, because the media is made up of people just like you and me. The media is us. We are also its consumers. And we’re biased. We’re racist. Even if we don’t mean to be biased, we are biased. Even if we don’t mean to do racist things, we still do racist things. Often without even knowing.

Stories of missing white women or white women who have been victims of violence are packaged for our consumption with a familiar outline that harkens back to the damsel-in-distress trope. For women of color, the same treatment is not merited. That brings us to Nia Wilson.

As many might know, Nia Wilson (21) was stabbed to death on a BART platform in an unprovoked attack July 28th of this year. The man who murdered her and stabbed her friend was apprehended. He is white. Nia was black. Some are alleging this was a hate crime. In my own Google search for Nia’s image, I found at least half a dozen pictures of her. She was a photogenic woman. She wanted to be a paramedic and liked the idea of helping others. She appeared happy and approachable in her photos. There were half a dozen flattering photos that came up in my cursory search, much like the ones I used above. But when the local Oakland television station KTVU, ran the story, the picture they chose, from Nia’s Facebook profile, was one of her holding a toy gun.

Nia, who had been brutally murdered, for some reason, did not merit the “damsel in distress” treatment. Instead she was portrayed holding a weapon, confirming the implicit associations, on the part of whites, that black people are dangerous, criminal, and violent.

We’ve progressed enough as a society that plenty of people cried foul. Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune credits Anne Hathaway as one sympathetic and influential voice that brought attention to Nia’s story and the outrageous, biased, and racist way she was portrayed through the choice of this picture http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/glanton/ct-met-dahleen-glanton-anne-hathaway-white-privilege-20180730-story.html

The headline of Ms. Glanton’s article is another hard truth: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege.

What’s striking to me is the privilege so many of us white people (youth AND adults) have to dress up as Storm Troopers, Gangsters, Bounty Hunters, (complete with imitation guns) but we’re not DEFINED by it, nor are we imperiled by it. We can gather at various CON, events, e.g. Dragoncon, Comicon, Emerald City Con, and no one calls the police on us. If we’re murdered, the picture put on the evening news is likely not of us posing in Han Solo cosplay with a replica ray-gun.

Meanwhile, my friends, parents of black children, can’t even let their kids play with water guns, for fear they might be shot by police.

Nia Wilson dressing up as a 1920s gangster and holding a toy gun doesn’t scare me. You know what does scare me? These white men with real guns.

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Those pictures were from the Oath Keeper’s armed protests last month outside member of Congress, Maxine Waters’ office in Washington DC and from Ferguson Missouri. I am not advocating violence, no matter how problematic I find the politics of groups like the Oath Keepers. But consider this: an extraterrestrial visitor lands on your street tomorrow morning. He’s been watching CNN. He asks you why there have not been “misunderstandings” that lead to police shooting dead these white men carrying real firearms and threatening people, when black children are shot dead for carrying toy guns. Can you explain this to him without implicating racism?

Oh yeah, and speaking of white guys with guns, someone keeps shooting the sign commemorating the murder of Emmett Till. It’s been shot, dragged, and thrown in the river, like his body was, numerous times. Each time it is replaced, someone shoots it up. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/06/us/emmett-till-sign-vandalized-trnd/index.html

It’s 2018, right? Just checking.

Back to Nia. The damsel-in-distress narrative vs. the dangerous-black-person-with-a-gun feeds into the toxic (if implicit) bias that “well that black person probably did something to provoke/deserve it that treatment.” I’m afraid we white people feed ourselves this line when we encounter these stories and then move on under the illusion that all OK with the world. Our police are virtuous. Our society is post racial. These fallacies allows us to suppress our own cognitive dissonance. They let us ignore how we might be reaping benefits of a horribly prejudiced system.

All is definitely NOT right with the world. Actually, things are pretty damn wrong. To paraphrase Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace: “Things are pretty f***ing far from OK.”

And things are far from OK when it comes to how we track these things. In researching for this post, I looked up government statistics on missing persons. It’s heartening to see that at least some agencies are tracking these cases. But (again) attention is not applied in equal measure. When I tried to find data on missing Native American women, I found out that the US government does not even track reported disappearances for this group. It was a sobering reminder that we don’t act as if ALL lives actually matter in this country.

To that end, ALL lives will NEVER matter, until we act as if women’s lives matter, black lives matter, and native lives matter. Mollie Tibbitt’s life matters. So does Nia Wilson’s.

No more or less so than one another. No more or less so than anyone else’s.

Hopefully, in a not too distant future, the data we collect, the media representation—our representations—of these women and women like them, will reflect that.

 

[1] https://www.doj.state.or.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/women_of_color_network_facts_domestic_violence_2006.pdf

[2]  https://iwantrest.com/blog/systemic-oppression-inequity-and-sex-trafficking/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=March

Out of Many, One. Identity Politics, Loneliness, and Falling (Back) in Love with America

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While reflecting on the place our country finds itself in right now I’ve come across two great articles that have gotten my mental gears turning and given me insight, even some optimism.

The first is In extremis by Nabeelah Jaffer published on the website Aeon this week.

https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism

Jaffer, a PhD student at the University of Oxford challenges our widely held belief that religious extremism, fanaticism, and violence are phenomena born out of foreign lands, foreign cultures, and foreign faiths. Instead she highlights that the root of these social ills lies in the universal experience of loneliness.

As George Orwell said, sometimes it takes all our effort just to see what is right in front of our faces.

Jaffer’s observations already fit with the clichés we hear uttered about nearly every mass shooter, domestic terrorist, or serial killer: they are loners. . .alienated, isolated (and almost always male—that is a whole other blog post). But Jaffer pushes her readers to see the foreign terrorist, the domestic mass shooter, and the violent white supremacist as one in the same. We should. The distinction between domestic and foreign criminals who perpetrate this type of extremist violence is facile at best. It relies on an “othering” of people from different nationalities and backgrounds that has no real basis in fact. No matter who we are, where we are from, our hearts break for the same reasons.

What Jaffer’s article opens up is a line of inquiry to examine the alienation and isolation that is behind violence in the Middle East, violent Alt-Right extremism here in the states, and even nativist White Supremacist hate groups in Europe. These are manifestations of the same maladies and might even have similar solutions. (Spoiler alert, those solutions are love and inclusion—don’t act surprised, the name of the blog is BELONG after all).

The second article is the special report in the July 14-20th edition of The Economist (full disclosure, I am an unapologetic fanboy of The Economist). This special report on America’s Democrats, taken with the same issue’s cover story on the inherent bias built into the electoral college and its “odious” (The Economist’s word not mine) roots in slavery make the edition a MUST read.

I’m sympathetic to the spirit of what is often derided as “identity politics.” I think it is crucial we recognize that people from different backgrounds—ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, etc . . . have different experiences of the world. This is a non-negotiable if we are to move forward as a country and try to evolve away from out normalization and centering of “whiteness” and “maleness.” I like how the report, in the balanced-yet-witty fashion of the Economist, says the following:

“Candidates who are not in power must be able to persuade people that they share their worries, are on their side and, at some level, are like them. Voting is partly an exercise in narcissism. People want to be able to look at a candidate and see something of themselves. When your party does this, it is called empathy. When the other side tries, it is called identity politics.”

I admit, identity politics frequently leaves me with a sense of unease. For taken too far, I see its potential to set us apart from one another to further divide us. A balance needs to be struck, but what that balance is exactly, has eluded me up to this point. How do we do so without glossing over people’s legitimate experiences, their unique identities, the value of different voices?

The Economist article goes on to posit a way forward. It closes with an interview with Governor Jerry Brown of California—a leader who has remained relevant in an increasingly diverse electorate by consistently being on the cutting edge of progressive politics, and one might say, the right side of history. (The guy has been succeeding in California politics longer than I’ve been alive, serving as Governor in the seventies and today—well played Mr. Brown, well played).

Brown argues that we need to steer clear of the roll call of identities taking over the introduction of speeches by democratic candidates. While we certainly need to de-center white-masculinity, this does not mean we value some voices over others. We white men definitely need to do more listening and less talking these days. There needs to be a shift in how much time folks get to hold the microphone. But telling white men to simply “shut up” because they are not valued and people of color are, is just the mirror opposite of the white supremacy we are trying to combat today. James Baldwin said as much years ago when he criticized the Nation of Islam of exhibiting the very same racism as the whites they were calling devils.

I say that knowing I’ve have, figuratively, told white men to shut up at times. (Sometimes they deserved the rebuke—looking at you Matt Damon). Those of us on the progressive side of things are all likely guilty of some version of this I fear. It takes several forms. It even can show up when we tokenize the stories and voices of people of color, LGBTQ, (at the risk of appropriating them), simply moving down that “check list of oppressed identities” without reflecting on the individual persons telling their story. We don’t pay attention to the person as much as the label and the perfunctory task of getting some “melanin behind the microphone” for optics rather than true recognition.

It’s a tricky balance to strike I admit, but we need to constantly check ourselves, our motives, and how we present ourselves and ask others to tell their stories (and others not to). When we appear to completely devalue some points of view because they are too “privileged,” when we are blind to their pain or treat them as inauthentic, we get into dangerous waters. It can lead us into, what some observers have deemed, the “misery Olympics.” It even contributes to the (mistaken) impression among some whites that they are being persecuted.

Let me be the first to say they aren’t. But we can over steer in our efforts to self-correct and end up doubling down on differences, which can further alienate us from each other. This can make some people, who operate on a scarcity model, feel that in the recognition of historically marginalized voices means their own will be lost.

It won’t be. We’re all made better by inclusion of many voices. I’m convinced of it, but it requires a shift from a zero-sum to win-win mindset. One of generosity. That is NOT the worldview promoted by our current administration. If anything, the current administration has succeeded by doing the opposite, convincing people that if others are “winning” they must be losing. . .and on the verge of social extinction, which some (idiots) interpret as genocide.

                <Eye Roll>

                I can’t even . . .

As we correct historical imbalances in representation, however, it can be an exceedingly tough balancing act and sometimes feels like a real catch-22. But Governor Brown presents a refreshing antidote, urging us to focus on an articulation of the American identity that is, at its core, inclusive.

That has always been the ideal of America from the beginning, but not the practice. (This is captured powerfully in the recent excavation of the burial site of George Yeardley, the first governor of Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia. Yeardley was the first leader of a representative assembly in North America, as well as its first slave holder. He is the inescapable epitome the contradictory themes of our country, right there, in front of our faces from its very beginning: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/archaeologists-have-found-the-remains-of-one-of-jamestowns-early-settlers-now-they-have-to-prove-he-is-who-they-think-he-is/2018/07/23/81c71708-8901-11e8-85ae-511bc1146b0b_story.html?utm_term=.1d61235c0c43 ).

But enough about the governor of Jamestown. Back to the governor of California, Jerry Brown. Here I see that, again, we can evoke George Orwell: the solution was staring us in the face the whole time. In Brown’s words, progressive leaders need to “wrap themselves in the flag and become grounded in this ‘Americana business.’” By Americana business, Brown does not mean whiteness, border walls, guns, or Christianity. He means embracing and fighting for an American identity that emphasizes the things about America that leads so many to fall in love with her in the first place: freedom of speech, of the press, of faith, equal access to opportunity and protections of the law. As The Economist report concludes, we “must relearn the language of American civil religion: self-evident truths; a shining city upon a hill; life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And above all, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.”

(An aside: I wonder if “out of many one,” has been floated with focus groups as a slogan for the next democratic presidential campaign slogan).

This vision not only helps us to strive towards the best ideals of the United States of America, but it presents us with a big-bucket identity that is at once inclusive and also embracing of our differences. It might also be a healthy counter to the hyper-categorization and segregation of the electorate we see taking place by political operatives who place emphasis on long-tailed labels. Some labels have value. They help us to be SEEN. But they can also lead to the isolation and alienation Nabeela Jaffer warns against in the first article mentioned above. This is the very isolation that leads to political extremism and violence, especially if it contributes to the “othering” of our brothers and sisters.

I see Jerry Brown’s approach as a shift from a deficit minded lens to a strengths-based one. I guess my hope is that the socially conservative, church-going white-dude in Alabama (Joe six pack) can stand alongside green tea sipping LGBTQ allied, agnostic, AfroLatina in San Francisco (Ayesha Yoga mat) and they can realize there are American ideals that unite us, not just labels that divide us.

Out of Many, One.

               

To Write Well, Don't Write.

Life is Paradox. One of the most confounding but important things one of my writing mentors once said to me was: The time you spend NOT writing is just as important as the time you actually spend writing.

<Record Scratch>

Huh?

Said another way, every work of writing is a combination of the time spent writing and the time spent NOT writing. You need time to  think about the writing, whether consciously or not (but often unconsciously).

So here are my ten steps to writing a complete work, be it a novella, novel, short story, poem, screen play, or whatever. . .

1.       Write—Randomly. On scraps of paper, envelopes, increasingly I find myself taking notes on my phone. These moments of inspiration come at the WORST times. I find there is an inverse relationship between the ease of writing in the moment and the quality of the idea. For example, while merging into traffic, standing in the shower, or when I am about to fall to sleep at night. . .BAM I get walloped with a winner and the gearshift, bar of soap, or memory foam pillow are lousing writing instruments.

2.       Take Time—To Live your Life. Go and do the thing you were doing in the first place, driving to your destination, exercising, or getting a good night’s sleep. Go gather the experience that feeds your writer’s soul in the first place. You’ll thank yourself later.

3.       Write—Freely. I’m a person who likes structure so this part is REALLY hard for me. But I’ve learned that I need to take time to do character sketches, jot down scenes, scribble exchanges of dialogue. They might be out of order, they might just be background experiences of characters that never make it into a single draft. That's OK. This is an exploratory stage. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Don’t get in your own way. Let yourself enjoy the fun of it. Don’t stress if you don’t have a word or page count to look at yet. This step isn’t something measured that way. Remember what Einstein said: not everything that counts can be counted!

4.       Take Time—For your unconscious to work. This is also a hard part for me because I’m a recovering control freak. But I’ve found that this is where the most mysterious part of the process begins for me. Having sketched out scenes, and characters in step 3, I move on. I work on other things (See Step 2). I go for a hike, I read other books, watch movies, gently feeding images, experiences, the art and work of other artists, into my brain. It seeps into some weird place in my unconscious where the ideas germinate and grow.

5.       WriteAn Outline. I remember a business major roommate of mine in college asking me if I wrote my papers using an outline. I responded, “You mean you don’t?!” But I was an English major so I took the writing process a little more seriously. Here is where I (FINALLY) start adding some structure to the story, with scenes, character arcs, maybe even initial chapter headings. This is where the technical bit of craft comes in, techniques I’ve learned in writing classes, books on writing, and from mentors. I storyboard here, writing summaries of the chapters on 3X5 cards and lay them out on the floor, trying out different sequences. Throughout the process, even up to the final stages, be open to surprises your characters might throw at you or side plots that might pop up. I still do this all in long hand, it helps to remind me that this is still a draft and I can be free and flexible.

6.       Take TimeFor your idea to gestate. Congratulations, you are officially pregnant at this point. Once the outline is out, for me, the story is THERE. It’s a thing and its growing. But again, I find I can never hurry it. I just have to let it ripen at its own pace (although I wish I could force it, but when I do, it’s ALWAYS a disaster). Often, I find listening to music, reading other authors I like, watching movies, hiking and being in nature help, not to mention getting enough sleep—some of my best ideas come from REM sleep (See Step 2 . . .again). Sometimes, being a writer is like having a ghost as a business partner. You’re never quite sure when he or she is going to show up to actually do the damn work, but when they do, and the story feels ready, you know intuitively. The hairs on your arms stand up, the vibrations in your chest resonate and align. It’s inspiration. . .and you can’t not write.

7.       WriteThe First Draft. I write mine in longhand on college rule loose leaf. It’s slower, but it makes me think through my sentences with greater care. It also allows me to be messy. I still liken this stage to sketching as opposed to working on what will be the final piece. That is why I avoid the computer screen, even at this stage. Typing makes me feel like it has to be overly polished.

8.       Take TimeTo Walk Away! Yes, walk away! AGAIN! (Picking up a pattern here?) Unlike REAL babies, this baby may benefit from a bit of neglect. I take a few days between completing that first draft and typing things up. Treat yourself!

9.       WriteOn a Keyboard. Finally, this is when I actually start typing. Note: there have been a whole lot of steps and time leading up to this. When non-writers picture you “working” this is what they picture. But that’s a disservice. The preceding steps, especially the even numbered ones, might NOT LOOK like writing but they REALLY ARE. They are just as critical an ingredient and it’s important to give yourself permission, space, and time for them. (I’m still learning how to do that).

10.   Take TimeTo Edit. Another writing mentor once told me that “There are no good writers. Just good re-writers.” So true. Get some distance from your work while someone you trust edits it and provides you some honest feedback. I can nveer eidt ym owen suftf adqetuaely eonugh 😊 Good writers need good editors.

Then repeat steps 9 and 10 until ready to publish!

White Awake by Daniel Hill - A Must Read!

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I frequently encourage the white participants in my Reconciliation and Justice book groups to read more authors of color. I provide my students with recommendations ranging from Brenda Salter McNeil, to James Baldwin, bell hooks, Michael Harriot, and Michelle Alexander.

However, there are times I think the best person to reach people (especially white folks early in their journey to deeper understanding) is actually a white male—a white male who has grown up in privilege, made all the beginner mistakes when trying to be an ally, fallen down, gotten up, brushed himself off, and tried again.

That is where Daniel Hill comes in.

I recently was able to participate in a meeting with some of the leaders at my church and Daniel Hill. Daniel Hill is a pastor at River City Community Church, a multiethnic church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. He is also an author. I was first directed to Daniel’s book, White Awake, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, a reconciliation leader and church pastor here in Seattle. Here are some links to cut and paste to Daniel’s website and his book on Amazon. I’ll just say now that any white person in this country interested in working towards eradicating racism and building reconciliation should read White Awake.

https://pastordanielhill.com/

https://www.amazon.com/White-Awake-Honest-Look-Means/dp/0830843930

Amid so many gems, one of the most fundamental lessons of Daniel’s book has to be how he breaks down the two tracks we must use when discussing anti-racism and reconciliation work. These two tracks are interdependent and inseparable.

The first track is to consider Ethnicity and Diversity. Daniel, being a pastor, would be the first to call ethnicity, “God given and God created.” His point is that our different cultural backgrounds are valuable and worth acknowledging without self-consciousness. This is in direct response to people (often white) who are uncomfortable even talking about race. They will insist they are “colorblind,” which is of course a huge mistake. Striving to be “colorblind” only leads to the dead end of ignoring the undeniable fact that people of different ethnicities and skin colors experience the world in different ways. As a white male, when I see a police officer, I generally feel safe. But for my friends of color, they have a fundamentally different experience.

The second track is that of Race, Racism, and Discrimination. Daniel makes the critical and valuable point that THERE IS NOTHING REDEEMABLE ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF RACE. It is evil. I agree. Hear me (and us) out. Race, is a construct that is human-made, not only that, but it was created and propagated by European colonial powers as a justification for colonialization, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and genocide. This aligns with Brian Stevenson’s (author of Just Mercy) concept of the false Narrative of Racial Difference. This is the notion that points to ethnic differences, which are fine unto themselves, but then assigns different values to those ethnic differences. This is the essence of racism and I think Daniel is right to call it out as evil and unredeemable.

Daniel goes on to point out that to discuss just the first of these tracks without the second, is often what we get in the corporate sector when we attend mandatory gender, equity, and diversity trainings. Those can be useful, but without acknowledging the second track in these discussions, we’re not getting to the root of the problems that require us to have gender, equity, and diversity trainings in the first place.

As Daniel is a pastor, his core arguments against racism rest on scripture and tenets of faith. I know this might pose a challenge for those of us progressives who sometimes seek resources and justifications for anti-racism and equity work that are not associated with the faith community. This is understandable (which might be surprising to hear from a deacon). The church has so many times been on the wrong side of these discussions and so many people from marginalized communities have been church-hurt by bigoted religious folks, that association with the faith community can taint some equity and justice resources. It’s sad but true! See: Westboro Baptist Church (ugh gross, I don’t even like typing their name!). As a result, I know there are times equity leaders are required to step away from religious affiliations and references which can be divisive or triggering to some.

But Daniel’s work can be translated to the secular sphere seamlessly, as he does for his trainings and consultancies with government agencies. A middle way might be to borrow from the recovery community and 12 Step programs. As equity leaders and change agents we can recognize that racism, like addiction, is a social malaise and even a disease at the level of the individual. But these afflictions can be overcome through building community, honest self-examination, and spiritual (but not necessarily religious) growth.

So, my heart is full of thanks for Daniel Hill, an influential thinker/activist, a powerful speaker, and gifted writer. His book is a must read!

Michelle Alexander, Author of The New Jim Crow, Columnist for New York Times, & SHERO for Our Times

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Shout out today to Michelle Alexander who will now be the only woman of color Op-Ed writer. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow is a MUST READ for anyone who cares about recognizing, fighting racism. . .or just anyone who cares about the mistreatment of our fellow human beings (that should include all of us).

Alexander brings formidable scholarship and excellent writing to point out how slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War through convict leasing, voting disenfranchisement, lynchings, Jim Crow, and most recently through the mass incarceration of people of color. Below are links you can cut and paste to learn more about her and to buy her book—which you absolutely should do.

http://newjimcrow.com/about-the-author

https://www.amazon.com/New-Jim-Crow-Incarceration-Colorblindness/dp/1595586431

 In recognition of her work, I am including some striking statistics which alone should wake us up to the injustices taking place in the US under the guise of “The War on Drugs” and how the prison industrial complex and the emerging detention industrial complex benefit from it—the financial gains accruing to white own corporations and providing jobs in rural towns that are predominantly white.

It’s also worth pointing out how in black/urban communities the drug problem has been historically viewed as a “criminal” problem while in white/rural communities is has been mainly identified as a public health issue. To this point, I also want to recognize the recent work my own home city and county, the City of Seattle and King county for taking a more enlightened approach and viewing juvenile justice issues through a lens of public health, connecting at risk and incarcerated youth with mental health, recovery, and job training services. Well Done.

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/bold-step-king-county-to-look-at-youth-crime-as-public-health-risk/

This is not the case in most of the country. So here are the sad statistics—retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2015/05/28/113436/8-facts-you-should-know-about-the-criminal-justice-system-and-people-of-color/

  • People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the US population, they comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015.
  • 1 in 3 black men will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes; 1 in 6 Latino males will have the same fate. Only 1 out 17 white males are expected to go to prison.
  • 1 in 111 white women, 1 in 18 black women, and 1 in 45 Latina women will go to prison at some point.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.
  • African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites and incarcerated at 5 times the rates of whites.
  • The so-called War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color. Despite using and selling drugs at rates similar to those of their white counterparts, African Americans and Latinos comprise 62 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses and 72 percent of those sentenced for federal drug trafficking offenses, which generally carry extreme mandatory minimum sentences.
  •  Voting restrictions on the formerly incarcerated have disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly African Americans. Today, approximately 5.9 million people are not able to vote due to felony convictions. While laws vary from state to state—with some allowing for restoration of voting rights—1 in 13 blacks nationwide are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five black adults are denied the right to vote.

 

 

Insert-Daily-Mundane-Activity-Here-White-People-of-Privilege-Utterly-Take-for-Granted. . .WHILE BLACK

During this week of the Fourth of July, when we celebrate “Freedom,” a recent glance at headlines reveals to me how lacking freedom is in this country if you are a person of color. File this under the tragic, reoccurring category of “[Insert-Daily-Mundane-Activity-Here-White-People-of-Privilege-Utterly-Take-for-Granted] While Black.” If you are not familiar with it already, this is an exercise wherein we add the tagline “while black” to simple activities white people rarely are harassed, attacked, or imprisoned for. But if you are black, it’s a completely different story.

It is worth noting that the president responded with a thinly veiled threat of violence to the Congresswoman Maxine Waters. I don't know what the legal repercussions are against making threats of violence against members of congress are and if they are as serious as making public threats of violence against POTUS. These days, it's anyone's guess. But I commend Congresswoman Waters for her courage.

Speaking-as-Member-of-Congress while black: https://www.theroot.com/unbossed-and-unbowed-maxine-waters-tells-maga-harasser-1827268127

Walking-Down-the-Road while black: 21-year-old black woman called N*****, run over by truck and dragged by white man in Virginia. https://www.theroot.com/virginia-family-calls-for-hate-crime-investigation-afte-1826980108

Running-a-Business while black: https://www.theroot.com/black-owned-indiana-gaming-lounge-targeted-with-hate-no-1827258195

Going-to-School-and-even-being-valedictorian while Black: https://www.theroot.com/toronto-principal-transferred-after-being-accused-of-ra-1827258632

Owning-a-Car while black: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/police-attacked-me-for-stealing-a-car-it-was-my-own/2018/06/29/86829292-7658-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html?utm_term=.1b07c474f3ad

Mowing-Lawns-as-a-Twelve-Year-Old while black: https://www.theroot.com/some-miserable-troll-called-the-cops-on-a-12-year-old-e-1827244768

Selling-Bottles-of-Water-as-an-eight-year-old while black: https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/letterstoeditor/article/Editorial-Permit-Patty-is-the-latest-in-an-13038622.php

Swimming-in-hotel-pool while black: https://www.rawstory.com/2018/06/watch-white-man-tells-black-family-shower-entering-hotel-pool-hell-drain-afterwards/

Using-AirBnB while black: https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/10/us/airbnb-black-rialto-california-trnd/index.html

Come on white people. Do better. Be better.

Selene San Felice: F*** your Prayers

I was truly heartened to see this statement from Sojourners Magazine circulating among my social media feeds this weekend and how frequently it is being endorsed and shared among people of faith and people who want to call out people of faith on their silence and/or complicity on some of the injustices being carried out in our country right now.

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https://sojo.net/media/reclaiming-jesus-time-crisis

I commend this statement. I agree with it. Silence is not spiritual. Silence equals consent in cases of injustice. As a writer, I recognize the importance of words, free speech, and speaking out. . .speaking TRUTH to power.

But I also see this statement as only a starting point. I'd urge churches to go further than mere words. I hope church leaders who have been on the “sidelines” up to this point are as haunted and challenged by the words of Selene San Felice, one of the survivors of the attack on journalists at the Capital Gazette this week. Ms. Felice said to Anderson Cooper on CNN: "Thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”

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https://splinternews.com/capital-gazette-reporter-on-thoughts-and-prayers-i-cou-1827225278

I guess we all will wait and see what sort of act of compassion, reform, and resistance "thoughts, prayers, and reclaiming words," transform into.

 

Immigrants' Creed - Counterpoint for "Christians" who want to lock people of color up in cages

Came across this from one of the pastors at my church. She thought it was another meaningful counterpoint for people who call themselves Christians who are clamoring for the US to lock immigrants and migrants seeking asylum up in cages. As with all my posts on spirituality and faith, take whatever works for you and feel free to leave the rest.

The Immigrants' Creed
by José Luis Casal  
 
I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.


I believe in Jesus Christ,
a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger,
and returning to his own country suffered the oppression
of the tyrant Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power,
who then was persecuted, beaten, and finally tortured,
accused and condemned to death unjustly.
But on the third day, this scorned Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a foreigner but to offer us citizenship in heaven.


I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.


I believe that the church is the secure home
for the foreigner and for all believers who constitute it,
who speak the same language and have the same purpose.


I believe that the communion of the saints begins
when we accept the diversity of the saints.


I believe in the forgiveness of sin, which makes us all equal,
and in reconciliation, which identifies us more
than does race, language, or nationality.


I believe that in the resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct
and all are alike at the same time.


Beyond this world, I believe in life eternal
in which no one will be an immigrant
but all will be citizens of God’s kingdom,
which will never end. Amen.

 

 

Casa Padre and the American History of Concentration Camps

It is important to examine a facility like Casa Padre in the context of the US history of creating prisons and internment camps for people of color. Whether it has been in the form of convict leasing, Native American reservations, camps for Japanese Americans during WWII, or the prison industrial complex today, this manifestation of migrant detention—of children and their families—is a reoccurring violation of human rights and dignity that sadly has consistently targeted people of color and reinforced white supremacy throughout US history. These most recent incidents of state sponsored human rights violations are shocking, tragic, and outrageous, but not new. It makes last week's visual alignment with the despotic leaders of North Korea that much more disturbing.

Its terrifying to reflect ten percent of children in US juvenile detention facilities report sexual assault while incarcerated.[1] And also that the US ran Abu Ghraib prison less than 4 months before abuse and torture of inmates began.[2] Not surprising we are already seeing reports of abuse at detention facilities for immigrant youths and children in the us.[3]

 

[1] https://www.alternet.org/education/why-are-rates-sexual-abuse-juvenile-detention-facilities-rise

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse

[3] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/immigrant-children-allege-abuse-at-virginia-detention-center https://www.thenation.com/article/just-hateful-abuse-immigrants-face-detention-centers/ https://theintercept.com/2018/06/26/immigration-detention-center-abuse-ice/

 

ThisIsAmerica.jpg

Sorry "Christians," the Bible DOES say to Break the G**D**** Law

For those of you who know me, you might know I’m a deacon at my church in Seattle. It’s a non-denominational Christian church and my role is really to minister to the material, social-emotional, and practical matters of church members who might be in a season of need. I don’t preach or teach. I basically run errands and coordinate volunteers so that the pastors can do that. 

I as raised in the Catholic Church and while I appreciate their teachings on social justice, I couldn’t remain a practicing member considering their handling of the child sexual abuse scandals, their positions on homosexuality, female ordination, conception, and abortion. 

Anyone who has read my memoir, Two Years of Wonder, will also know I attend multiple meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous each week. I attend AA as a “friend of AA,” someone who has never struggled with addiction, but practices the 12 Steps as a spiritual practice. I find the tenants of AA have helped me profoundly with my depression and anxiety. I also have found a deep connection with the recovery community. It’s in the rooms of AA with recovering addicts, drunks, sex workers, that I have met some of the “best” Christians in my life—although I know they would eschew any such label themselves, since so many folks I meet in the recovery community are also “church hurt” and are understandably skeptical of institutional religion (something I took on in my first novel City on a Hill as well as my short story collection Bunny Man’s Bridge).

So my approach to religion is more informed by AA’s approach to spirituality than anything else. In that I mainly, “take what works, and leave the rest.” This would earn me the label “Cafeteria Catholic,” back in Catholic circles. If I were still Catholic, I might care.

That said, it’s been saddening, yet not shocking, in recent weeks to hear so many folks who call themselves Christians using justification from the Bible to rip migrant children, seeking asylum, away from their parents to be placed in modern day concentration camps. Now, you can consider me a post-modernist skeptic of the Bible. I look on it as a historical document, written by MEN with all the biases and cultural blind spots that come with that. Although I recognize there are some profoundly progressive notions in the Bible on a number of issues, including gender, these have historically been glossed over by scholarly analyses, until recently done by men (that is the subject for another blog post).

But for those who still refer to the Bible as their go to, citing it, erroneously, as stating that we have a moral obligation to follow laws (as some politicians have recently, cherry picking a line from Romans 12) I decided to include the following counterpoints—from the Bible—highlighted recently by Pastor Tara Beth Leach. I think its also interesting to point out that the author of Romans, Paul, wrote many of his most famous epistles from jail, as he was constantly, willingly, purposefully, breaking the law—and was ultimately executed for it. Strange that this is the writer conservative Christians turn to in order to justify their own legalistic position to throw people of color in jail.

 

·      In Exodus we see the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, deliberately refused to enforce the law of the land. Pharaoh had explicitly commanded them to kill all male Hebrews. Recognizing this command as outrageously morally perverse, they courageously refused to do it (Exodus 1:15-17). 

·      Moses’s mother, Jochabed, illegally hid her son for three months instead of drowning him in the Nile as Pharaoh had ordered (Exodus 1:22-2:2). 

·      The wise men disobeyed Herod’s order to tell him where Jesus was; they broke the law and returned to their own country (Matthew 2:7-12). 

·      Mary, mother of Jesus, and Joseph, did not give their child up to Herod but fled as refugees to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).

 

Let’s face it. Very righteous people in the Bible broke the law, often in order to protect children and families. Think on that.

 

 

Writing Characters of Color when you are a Cis-Gender, White, Heterosexual Male

With the release of my latest young adult novel, Jamhuri, Njambi, & Fighting Zombies (the second novel I've written from the point of view of protagonists of color) I wanted to share here the Author's Note I've opened JN&FZ with which I wrote as an attempt to enter into dialogue with some of these challenging and complex issues. I definitely would never suggest I have all the answers on this, but I think the best we can do is to keep a dialogue going on it. Scroll down past the cover for the full essay.

jamhuripreview2.jpg

A Note on Cultural (Mis)appropriation

            I have not stayed in my lane, and my sense of social justice—not to mention my friends who identify as people of color—have called me out for it. Rightly so.

            At first glance, most readers might not see the trouble with a cisgender, heterosexual, white writer using imagery from African culture in a work of fiction. It’s a “celebration of African traditions ignored by sci-fi and fantasy writers for far too long,” or it’s “an overdue acknowledgement of rich African contributions to art and literature.” Maybe it’s even “a healthy, contemporary reaction to the overemphasis of white characters in sci-fi and fantasy.”

            It is, I hope, but it’s other things too—things that must be viewed in the context of colonialism and the social, political, economic, and military oppression of people of color.

First of all, I’m no trailblazer. Other writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin, have been producing works that fuse sci-fi and fantasy with African themes for some time. Before them, Octavia Butler was doing the same. Acknowledging, celebrating, and profiting from a white male’s derivations from the art and images of people of color over those artists of color who have a more personal, historical claim is nothing new. It’s a long tradition, characterizing the careers of artists as diverse as Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and so many others.[1]

            So, depending on the interpretation, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is a celebration, an acknowledgement, or it’s just another form of exploitation and cultural (mis)appropriation.

            Truth is, it’s all these things.

            To simply see this work as a welcome and timely celebration, a “generous inclusion,” would be to patronize these traditions and ignore great artists of color. It also ignores the historical power imbalances that have benefited Western, white writers over communities of color, whether in Africa or in its diaspora, for hundreds of years. This has been due to quirks of geography, disease, and more insidious institutions and practices such as colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery (to name just a few). Blood, treasure, images, and ideas have been extracted from these communities for centuries, the benefits accruing to whites and the cost borne by people of color. It is a repeating pattern, called out with smoldering eloquence by Jesse Williams in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Black Entertainment Television Humanitarian Award:

 

This invention called whiteness uses and abuses us . . . extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold—ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

 

            There is nothing to add to Mr. William’s words. They are complete, powerful, and persuasive on their own.

There is a counter argument. It goes something like this: that the cross-fertilization of cultures has always taken place and led to benefits in a variety of disciplines. The very characters these words are written with are “Roman,” influenced by Greek and Phoenician alphabets; the numbers in this text are “Arabic,” although really first codified by a Persian scholar (Muhammad al-Khwarizmi) who modeled them after a number system used by Hindu mathematicians.

Cross-fertilization indeed.

            The precedents for cultural exchange in fantasy literature are many fold. Take J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed heavily from Norse, Finnish, Germanic, as well as his own Anglo-Saxon traditions. Such fusions can create works of profound beauty and stand testament to the value of cultural diffusion. And it is often artists who are pioneers in reaching across cultural and social barriers, drawn by the universal experience of art and the appreciation of beauty. In the process we may blend influences, foster collaboration, and forge lifelong friendships despite ethnic, racial, or other social barriers. Sometimes amazing art is produced too.

But it is equally important to point out that Tolkien’s ancestors did not systematically oppress these other groups. Furthermore, Tolkien, in his own time, did not benefit disproportionately from historic or current oppression of Scandinavians or Germanic people in a way that denied these groups equal opportunity to flourish. The exchange of trade, ideas, and even violence among these peoples took place (more or less) among groups with equivalent levels of power—on an even playing field, if you will. The costs and benefits were equally shared.

No such moral or ethical neutrality can be ascribed to the exploitation of people of color by Europeans or their white descendants. White privilege is real. It has benefited me and still benefits me as a white man, a white writer, in the United States.

            There is no getting around this. But just because something looks like an unethical pattern in the past, does not mean it is the exact same thing today. In my heart of hearts, I would hope that Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is not exploitive. But intentions do not exculpate the artist. The art and work will stand for themselves and will rise or fall on the interpretation, opinions, the praise or condemnation, of others. I expect both and I have no answer other than my work.

            So why write Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies? Can we escape these patterns of oppression, exploitation, and historical amnesia?

I hope so.

            Those who are not seized by the urge to create, to channel some idea from the world of the imagined to the real, might not understand the fierce insistence of an idea, a plot, or characters and their stories knocking around in an author’s head. Like the Greek muses, these imagined personalities and events seem to exist outside us, using the artist as a mere channel. Michelangelo described it best when he said the figures he sculpted had always already existed, trapped inside their blocks of marble. It was simply his role to chip away the excess to reveal them.

It is the same with the characters and stories that reside in a writer’s head. They feel, to us, as if they already do and have always existed—a bit like a law in physics, a pattern in number theory, or an undiscovered prime. We as artists reveal; we create, because we can’t not. These characters, Jamhuri, Njambi, Latia, Anastasia, Esmeralda, and their stories, although not completely aligned with my own background, wanted to be out in the world. They wouldn’t leave me alone until they were.

            The second reason was a personal promise. These stories were conceived in the early 2000s when I was living and working at an orphanage for HIV+ children in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time our resources for books were limited. Although we benefited from donations, the books I read to the kids had few characters that looked like them. As much as they enjoyed Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants (which did include a main character of color), they clamored for more characters that looked like them, characters from backgrounds and contexts they could relate to. As children who had been abandoned, abused, stigmatized, and generally not “seen” as individuals outside of their HIV status, this broke my heart.

At the time, writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin were not on my own radar. So I set out to write a few stories of my own.

As a result, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is laden with that personal history and meaning for me. If these stories never find an audience beyond the children I wrote them for, then I am at peace with that. The audience and stories deserve at least that much, if nothing else.

            But this all begs the question of whether a privileged, white, male writer can or even should write from the point of view of characters of color. The answer leads me to my third and final reason for writing and publishing these stories.

            “Can a privileged, white, male writer write from the point of view of characters of color?” I will leave that for the readers to determine. I’d like to think these characters are authentic and well developed, but sales, comment sections, and reviews will bear that out as true or not.

            The question of should I have even tried to write in the point of view of these characters also looms large for me. I, for one, believe that art can transcend race (in some ways). As mentioned above, the common ground, the shared experience of being an artist, has united people from various backgrounds for the entire story of humankind. Moving from literature to music, I landed on the career and life of Benny Goodman as an example. Contemporary critics may be split over the legacy of figures such as Goodman, whose classical background and European ancestry “legitimized” jazz for white listeners, making jazz “safe” to bring into venues such as Carnegie Hall. His integration and promotion of this African American art form in his own performances undeniably contributed to his own stardom and the success of his career at a time when black musicians couldn’t drink from the same water fountains, much less perform in the same concert halls as he. So in that sense, perhaps Goodman’s choices were exploitive. But Goodman also launched the careers of many African American jazz artists and, during a time of racial segregation, defiantly toured the US in an integrated jazz band.

            So, as they say on Facebook, the relationship status here is “complicated.”

And that still does not answer the question of whether a white person can even write believable black characters?

It is not as straight forward as I once thought. For instance, my friends—writers of color in literature, television, and film—have had to write white characters throughout the course of their careers. It’s the reality of whiteness being associated with the mainstream, with “normality.” This is a consequence of our ridiculous default culture of white-centeredness and the unfortunate reality of the marketplace. The question of whether or not my friends of color “can” write white characters rarely comes up for them. After all, as people of color in the United States, they are bombarded with images of whiteness. They are forced (sadly) to move in a sea of pallor that is, arbitrarily, considered “the norm.” As people of color in a predominantly white society, they have to understand white culture—even better than we might understand ourselves (as James Baldwin once pointed out).

            Whites do not have the same need. As Jesse Williams reminds us, white society might extract black culture, treating it as a costume to put on, or a thing to demean, to make the “other.” But we have the choice. If we whites wanted, we could likely pass the day without encountering a person of color IRL (in real life). With effort, (and sometimes without) we can whitewash our social experiences and our media consumption, eliminating diverse images and voices and validating only our own. Living a life in an echo chamber like this, as so many white Americans do, eliminates the need to appreciate the perspective or point of view of someone different. It is a great loss, but it happens. I know this from teaching classes on race and reconciliation to white participants. One woman in her fifties in one of my classes recently had the epiphany that, “I worked as a trauma nurse in for thirty-two years and it’s dawning on me that I never worked with a black nurse. It didn’t even occur to me that that was even remarkable until 2017.”

            Baldwin has written that people of color are forced to “get” us whites, to understand us. Sometimes reading white people, living in a state of double consciousness (knowing yourself but also imagining how others misperceive your identity), is a matter of life or death. The tragic deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and the murder of so many other black citizens by police can attest to this.

But to say that whites cannot do the same, that a white writer cannot and should not write from the point of view of black characters (as I have been told) is a conclusion I am unwilling to accept. Such a conclusion is flawed; it posits that we whites can never understand, much less endorse, the perspective of anyone but ourselves, even with effort, intentionality, and exposure. If this were true, it leaves me without hope. If understanding could only go in one direction: people of color learning to interpret and live with white people who are unable to do the same, progress would be impossible.

I don’t want to live in that world.

            It may take intentionality and no small amount of effort, humility, and discomfort, but I want—I need—to believe that members of a group of people who have been oppressors and a (rapidly diminishing) majority can come to understand and endorse, to love and accept the perspective of an oppressed minority. Perhaps it is the part of writers and artists, who try to see out of the eyes of others, to play a constructive role here. Again, to say otherwise—that artists, or even people in general, cannot do so—would be to suggest that people of color alone have this ability and whites do not. This seems like an overgeneralization, a dangerous assumption—in short, pure fallacy.

So yes, I believe that a white, privileged writer can and even should try to write from the perspective of others—with care, humility, and historical sensitivity. Must we be aware of harmful cultural legacies? Absolutely. We should also take care to consider whether or not our voices are taking up space that could be granted to writers of color who have not had the same opportunities to speak or to publish. The realities of the marketplace and the attention span of the modern human dictate that this is a genuine possibility. But to stop short of trying because of these risks handicaps us all.

The default flow of information, attention, experiences, and imagery might be in the direction of white people like myself—we the loud, obnoxious, blundering, self-absorbed, self-centered sibling of the US family, we who have historically been the referent. Thanks to demographics, this will not always be the case. But in the meantime, with intentionality, I believe this myopic vision amongst wypipo can be remedied. It takes exposure, dialogue, travel, reading, watching, and most of all, shutting up and listening.

            In that spirit, I think that is enough from me. People who look like me have had the spotlight on them and the microphone clutched in their hands a long time. Acknowledging that requires me to step aside, to let the characters take the stage—in this case Jamhuri, Latia, Njambi, Anastasia, and Esmeralda, who all have their own real-life counterparts—so they might tell their stories. I’ll be off to the side, sitting down and shutting up.

            Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy. If you don’t, well, I’ll try to do better next time.

 

—Ted Neill, Seattle, 2018

 

[1] This even happens in social activism. One need look no further than the initial confusion about the origin of the “MeToo” campaign. Many Twitter followers attributed it to Alyssa Milano, when it was actually a campaign started in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a Harlem activist, as a way to support women and girls and women of color who had been victims of sexual abuse.