A Million Tiny Pieces

The world is perfectly organized to get the results we are getting right now.

Fellow white folks, I have something to say to you about Dylann Roof. It may be different from other messages you’ve heard this week. I don’t care to discuss whether his actions were terrorism or a hate crime – though I think it’s a useful conversation to have. Neither am I interested in discussing whether stricter gun control might have stopped these murders. While I think gun control is relevant, it’s too easy to devolve into a discussion that focuses, in my opinion, on a symptom rather than the cause.

What I’d like to talk to you about today, my people, is how we created Dylann Storm Roof.

Roof is not an island. He is held up by millions of inputs over his twenty-one years that led him to execute a plan to murder innocent black people. Inputs that took hold in the South long before he was born that told him black lives are less valuable than his own, then reinforced that notion over and over, every day of his life.

Indoctrination in to Southern racism is as sneaky as Nazi indoctrination was: it grabs our attention by telling us we are special. Chosen. Then it whispers that “they” are trying to take away our power and POOF, we’re prepared to attack this imaginary enemy to defend our position.

I won’t preach – we’ve all heard those stories and then tucked them safely away as “history.”  Let’s talk about today.

Examples of the inputs that support the belief that black people are less than, apart, different from us. It probably started with his parents passing on the belief system that they had. Then, we supported him and sustained him right up until this moment:

1) Referring to Memphis, Tennessee as “Memphrica” – My home town is majority black. I see this reference daily on Facebook and I bet there are other similar references to cities that are majority black that I haven’t seen;

2) Flying the Confederate Flag – I understand that many Southerners have ancestors who fought in the Civil War and that it’s important to honor them. I understand that many continue to support states’ rights and that, at a high level, that’s what the Civil War was about. But many Americans (black and otherwise) have told us that it is offensive and creates a hostile environment for them, and we’ve told them to fuck off .  We can say it’s about history – and maybe it is for some – but isn’t it at least a little about someone else having the power to tell you what you can and can’t do?

3) Way Down in Africa – America’s first black radio station, AM 1070 WDIA in Memphis is referred to in the white community this way. They are separate from us.

4) City Monuments: Until two years ago, there was a monument in Memphis dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Two more monuments: Confederate Park and  were renamed along with this one when City Council voted on it in 2013. Notable, three white City Council members abstained from the vote.  Again, fuck off black Memphians. NOTE: These types of monuments remain all over the South – Memphis isn’t special.

Then there are the countless racist jokes we laugh at, pictures on Facebook of our president as a monkey that we scroll past and saying out loud, “I wonder what he stole?” when we see a young black man running down the street.  When we talk more than we listen and don’t stop to consider – at least for a moment – that what the African-American community is telling us about their experience could be true.

White Southerners, we created Dylann Storm Roof by supporting a system in which he could exist. Through our actions and our inactions, we have chosen to think of the African-American community as our enemy.

We loaded the gun.

~D

Being a white civil rights activist

Four things happened recently that led to this post:

1) The week after a teenaged girl in McKinney, Texas was verbally and physically assaulted by a police officer, I did something I had watched others do many time: I lost it on Facebook. The fill-line in my brain was exceeding and I went into the red zone. From the outside, I’m sure it looked like I was losing my mind: sharing of every article I could find on the subject; arguing with people I didn’t even know; serial rants that went on and on. People were worried about me. I was worried about me. I could feel my blood pressure and heart rate respond with every post I made;

2) I took a fictional work-in-progress set in the Jim Crow South to my writer’s group and realized that while I am pretty plugged in to current-day racial issues, my only real study of life in that place in that time came from my Tennessee History class in the late 70’s. If I was going to do a fair job of representing race and racial relationships during this time, I had a lot to learn about African-American history. Considering most of the history available was gathered and interpreted by white folks, I was going to have to dig to find the rest of the story;

3) Then came the Rachel Dolezal story;

4) This morning, I woke up to the story about a massacre at a historical AME church in South Carolina. Back when my Facebook rant happened, I made a promise to myself that I would read and ponder, but wait 72 hours after an incident to write about it so that I could a) provide a more thoughtful response; and b) avoid getting into a bad place in my head and heart.

“You’re failing,” you might be thinking. But I’m not going to write about Emanuel AME Church.

I’m going to write about being a white civil rights activist.

Some of the first Tweets I saw this morning were  messages to the African-American community about self-care:

@_Rickeh:  Many of us are at a job right now surrounded by Whiteness and nonchalance. It’s tough. I’m STRUGGLING this morning.

Over the coming days/weeks some White people IRL/at work will demand you engage over this-Ignore/separate as much as possible.
@FeministaJones: Self-care and Self-preservation may look like me not being nice to YOU
Life >>>> Nice

Sometimes, people lose their way in trying to do good -thankfully most not to the extent that Dolezal did. Just like my Facebook rant last week, I have guilt and rage and I need to do something with it.

But maybe, in order to do good, what I need should be subordinate to what the African-American community needs.  Maybe, I need to look to the community I want to serve about what my role should be.

Let’s walk softly today, white civil rights activists.

Let’s listen more than we talk.

~D

On passing – there’s plenty of work for you, Ms. Dolezal

Did you see this story?  Apparently, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, is white. She’s being accused of presenting herself as black for the past ten years or so.

Like the folks at Jezebel, I have questions. Many of them. And I’m going to listen for understanding as this unfolds. But there’s one point that I think is worth reflecting on. It’s clear that her family of origin was diverse and that she was interested in civil rights issues from early in her life. She teaches African-American studies. There’s no doubt she cares about this issue.

But, why did Dolezal think she needed to be black to do this work?

As a white woman who cares about civil rights, I see an immense amount of work to be done. How do we, as white folks, unpack our thinking about race and examine them? How do we identify the beliefs that we have and where they came from? And how do we draw the line between our thoughts and behaviors and systemic racism that plagues our country? This is work, in my opinion, that belongs to white people. And there’s a metric shit-ton of it to do. We could have used Dolezal to help move the needle in ways that stem from her own experiences rather than her pretending to share the African-American experience.

The white voice is critical to social justice. There are still people that hear the voices of people of color as whiney, too sensitive and “playing the race card.” We can be heard by people whose racial issues are so deep, their brains won’t even allow for the possibility that they are wrong. It’s incumbent upon us, white folks, to use our voices in a way that our people will hear. This is not a black issue – this is an American issue and white people have the biggest role in changing the way we function around race. We created it, we have to fix it.

Ms. Dolezal, whether she intentionally misrepresented herself or not, didn’t correct the misconception that she was black. That was the moment she could have empowered people of color and taken up her responsibility as a white woman in American.

It may be too late now.

 

Like this post? Hate it? Pass it on to get a conversation going!

 

Writing matters to race

When I first moved from the south to the midwest, I found activism to be much more prevalent. Most everyone I met had a thing that they were passionate enough about to spend their time, energy and money fighting for.

“I don’t have a “thing,” I remember saying. No bumper stickers, no buttons, no passion.

That was nine years ago – around the same time I started to notice how different racism was in the midwest from the south. Not better, mind you. Just different. And somewhere along the line, race became my thing. Since my children are biracial, I’ve always been cognizant of race and its complexity. But something changed for me when my environment changed and I saw things as an outsider. I became passionate (rabid?) about calling out racism in all its ways of being and holding myself and others accountable for the damage it causes.

And then, I started writing publicly. And I have to admit, I tried to reign it in.  Knowing that I do aspire to make a living by writing, I didn’t want to offend for fear of driving off potential readers. I bit my tongue. And I’m ashamed of that.

So here’s my public declaration: I am passionately anti-racist. And I will write about it. I’ll write about it because writing is both my way of understanding the world and my way of impacting it. I’ll write about it because writing matters and people who fancy themselves writers have to talk about things that matter.  Writing matters to racism. Art matters to racism.

Some people will go away. And that’s okay. To those people, I bid all the best.  To those who stick around, thanks. Let’s learn something from one another.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Speaking of race, I’m working on a story that flashes back to 1940’s south and a farm that is sharecropped by both white and black sharecroppers.  If you – or anyone you know – has experience in that subject matter, I’d love to hear from you. I’m finding research to be particularly difficult because, well….history is written by the winners. In order to do right by the black folks in the story, I need to better understand the time period.

 

~D

The “ick” of writing memoir

Today, I spent time on the phone with the marketing team for Wailing Wall. November 10, 2015 is the official launch date, and we needed to do some planning about how to make the biggest splash. It was exciting and thrilling and then…I had a moment. A moment where the whole thing just seemed icky. Wrong. Scary.

I’m planning a strategy for how I’m going to spend a month talking about the book – ergo, talking about my Joshua’s death. And since (I hope) that Wailing Wall is not the last book, I’ll publish, I’m talking about building my “brand” as a writer on the back of losing my kid.

Icky, right?

How do people do it – write and publish and tell horrible stories about people they love and not feel at least a little icky about it?

I just looked back at a Facebook chat I had with Joshua a couple of months before he died where he asked me how writing was going. He was always encouraging, always positive about my aspirations to write something that the world would one day see. If he were here right now, he’d say, “Ma, you’re being ridiculous. Get out there and sell the damn book.” I know he’d be stoked about the book – especially the cover. I know he’d be proud of me. And he would gladly have given his story to me if it helped me heal, become more human, and live again. And still, it feels odd to be excited about the book launch, to be asking people to read it and review it or host a book signing. Odd. And icky.

Writing in my sleep

The first paragraph came to me in a dream last night. It seemed like the beginning of a new story. I wonder what Charles Oliver wants?

~~~~

The latch on the wrought-iron gate closed with a clang behind him. Charles Oliver came in uninvited. I was barefoot in the garden picking basil for dinner and had closed my eyes to breathe in the scent just a meditative moment before. His entrance having jolted me, I met his eyes on his way up the brick path to my house.

“Staying for dinner, Mr. Oliver?” I asked, sitting down on the painted wooden steps of my front porch to wipe the dirt from my feet.

“If you’ll have me, I reckon so.”

The stove hadn’t been lit for days or maybe weeks. I had, instead, been grazing on food that could be pulled from the earth and eaten with little more than a wash in my deep porcelain sink. Survival of summer in the Mississippi Delta required ingenuity, especially when the only mechanism for moving the hot air around the old farmhouse was the attic fan and open windows. But I didn’t mind. Food straight from the ground seemed closer to the way God intended it. My little plot of heaven was small enough that I alone could tend it and it returned the favor by providing enough food to feed my body and my soul.

Mr. Oliver sat himself down at my old pine table and traced a finger over the indented words left by children practicing their numbers and letters. Not my children, of course. The one marriage I had ended after only a couple of months when Mr. Jenkins fell under the plough, drunk on corn whiskey. Henry, the old mule, didn’t even look back when he pulled the blades bumpity-bump over Jenkins’s body. No, the children who had studied at this pine table were mostly me and my little sister, Amylee between harvesting and planting seasons when we were allowed to go to school. My older brother, Skaggs (God rest his soul) probably made a few here and there, before he was old enough to work. Mama and Daddy never learned to read and write, so I imagine they only accounted for the X’s that were left in the pine when they re-signed the share-cropping contract with Mr. B each year.

The thirty-five acres my family farmed was now mine, Skaggs having died in Viet Nam and Amylee having moved to Nashville when she got a job teaching history at Vanderbilt. For a few years after Mr. Jenkins died, I kept the land in cotton but after a while, it all got to be too much for one person to handle and I let it go fallow. Except for a few black walnut trees and a dogwood here and there, goldenrod and Joe-pye weeds  have grown tall enough to keep the neighbors out of my business and provide a wild turkey here and there.

That night when Mr. Oliver sat down at my table, I set it with sliced tomatoes and onion, cottage cheese and three cold fried chicken quarters I’d brought home from the church potluck the Sunday before. “Take these home with you, Sister Bess,” the organ player had said as she wrapped the chicken in aluminum foil and stuffed them into the plastic bag I’d brought the bean salad in. “It’ll save you from havin’ to light the stove this week.”  But here it was Tuesday and company had come so it only seemed right to serve the chicken and worry about tomorrow when it came. After one piece of chicken and some sliced tomatoes, Mr. Oliver excused himself from the table, washed his plate.

“I’d like to sit a spell on the porch, if you don’t mind. When it’s time to go, I can see myself off,” he said. “No need to stay up on my account.” 

“Of course. Whatever you need,” I nodded to him, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until I heard the gate close behind him.  But by the time I’d cleaned the kitchen and did my nightly Bible study, Mr. Oliver had let himself out the same way he came in.

How to piss off a grieving mother

In my travels through social networks, I ran across a book called, “Ten Easy Steps to Overcome, Cure and Cope with Grief.”  Far be it from me to disparage someone’s work that I haven’t read – or even work that I have read if it pertains to their own experience, but on this particular day, 380-some-odd days after the death of my son, the title hit me as simultaneously ridiculous and offensive. In fact, every word in the title save for the last three rub me raw and make me wonder whether Wayne Weeks is writing from his own experience.

Since I can’t make it past the title, I’ll take it one word at a time.

Ten Easy Steps –  Really? These ten things (are you sure there aren’t 13? Or 8?)  To suggest that there is a set number of tasks that if you do them correctly and completely will eliminate the moments you lose your breath in the grocery store when you look at the Sunny D? And those times when you hide and watch a kid playing hackeysack in the park a little longer than you should because you’re secretly pretending it’s your kid? Gone. Just follow this recipe.

But wait! There’s more!

The steps are easy. No more bloody knuckles from grating through your feelings of guilt, shame, regret. For just $19.95, you, too, can have all the answers!

Overcome: For me, this word sounds like there is an end-point to grief. No one I have talked to in this journey – and one woman from The Compassionate Friends lost her son in 1981 – has indicated this is true. I have said before that grief changes you on a molecular level. Once you’ve experienced it, it becomes part of the fabric of your being. To overcome it means to rise to meet it and then leave it behind, but I know I never will.

Cure: Do I have a disease? Granted, there are more complicated grief responses that require the attention of a medical/psychological professional. I’ve had some of those and dealt with them accordingly. It’s possible that they will arise again as I continue to peel this onion. But I am not ill. I am human. A mother, who grew another human inside her body, raised him in to a man and then had to let him go. I loved him so much that learning to live without him is painful. I don’t need to be cured.

My apologies to Mr. Weeks, but he would have come closer to convincing me to buy his book if he had stuck with the final three words of his title: Cope with Grief. There is no way out except right through it. It takes how long it takes. It’s not easy. You will never be finished. But you will survive.

~ D

 

A Southern White Woman’s take on Waco v. Baltimore

There has been some activity on social media about the differences in how the shoot-out coverage in Waco, TX has been different from the how the riots in Baltimore were covered earlier this spring. Observations on why in Texas, motorcycle gang members were sitting, un-cuffed on the curb using their smart phones while police in basic uniform casually strolled through the crowd while coverage of the riots in Baltimore showed police in full riot gear, gas masks and rioters sitting shirtless on the curb with their hands zip-tied behind their backs and others using bottled water to clear pepper spray from their eyes.

Others have brought up the fact that protesters in Baltimore were publicly and immediately labeled as thugs* while the people involved in the Waco shooting are being referred to by their proper club name (Banditos & Cossacks) and the super-cute acronym OMG (as in “ohmygawd, Becky, look at her butt”).

To those who have brought up these issues, I say: I see where you’re coming from. And…

I wonder if we’re examining the issue critically enough. A photograph in public media is subjective to what the photographer thought was relevant to that moment. Words like thug can be buzzwords – someone, somewhere used it and suddenly everyone is using the same word to describe the incident. We are, after all, sheep. Some people are just too sensitive.

I’d like to dive a little deeper (buzzword!) and offer the following on why the coverage of the Baltimore Riots is systematically and inherently racist in ways that we (white folk) don’t even realize.

First, I’d like to offer the definition that I use for racism. It’s based on an academic definition used in multicultural counseling. Others will have different definitions and that’s fine.

Here is my working definition of racism:

Racism is an act that disproportionately damages members of an ethnic or racial group whether intentional or unintentional.

Accepting that definition for the purposes of this post, you can see how the pictures of the Baltimore Riots would damage (though unintentionally) black people by perpetuating them as inherently dangerous people impacting job prospects, the likelihood of interaction with police not to mention the physiological impacts of racism on people of color. Just evaluate positive media images of black people in general media coverage and you’ll see that we haven’t come very far since the early twentieth century portrayed black men in film as minstrels, “happy Negros” or murderers of white men and rapists white women.

But let’s dig even deeper.

In response to the Waco shooting, I’ve heard four separate stories (I heard one story twice) about the history of motorcycle gangs in America this week. If I’ve got the facts right, the very first Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs** (OMGs) started when veterans from World War II came home. The stories I’ve heard suggest that PTSD may have played a role, as well as a need to regain the brotherhood that they had in the service.

Wait.

What?

How many stories did we hear giving an eighty-year history explaining the Baltimore Riots?Many consider the Ferguson and Baltimore Riots symptoms of the unfinished business of racism. Put in the larger context of racism in the US, might we have viewed the riots differently?

And did anyone – politician, media outlet, anyone. – work so hard to differentiate between the people who were exercising their rights to peaceably assemble from the people who were looting? Or include the military and mental health histories of anyone running with a television.

I’d like to introduce a term that I did not coin, but wish I had. White ‘splaining.  Isn’t this coverage just a patronizing pat on the hand to the American public on why we shouldn’t worry too much about biker gangs? They are just misunderstood, war-damaged fellas just looking for a place to fit in.

Those thugs in Baltimore, though…

* Some suggest that thug is the new n-word. Next time you hear the word, make a mental note of the race of the subject.

** OMGs are thought to constitute about 1% of people in motorcycle culture. 

Back to work!

Right after my son Joshua died, my plan was to become a hermit. To curl up in a ball and shut out the rest of the world forever. When that stopped feeling like the right thing to do, my plan was to keep bees and chickens and make butter and cheese and wear long skirts, Birkenstocks with socks and grow my hair out – a sort of homesteading crazy cat woman if you will. That stopped being any fun, too.

Turns out I can’t even go crazy the right way.

When I have nothing to do, I do nothing. I don’t take advantage of the time to relax or dream or create. I obsess. Ruminate. Fret. And, as it turns out, poverty is not character building. I had forgotten Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that when you are worried about having your basic needs me, you have no energy to be creative.

So, I’m going back to work. I’m going to put that expensive Master’s degree I worked so hard for to good use. For me, there is something to be said for having far more on your plate than you think you can accomplish, so I’m keeping my previous goal of publishing every year. You will hear me whine about not having the time or energy to write. But I’ll write on my lunch break. I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. and write. I’ll pull over on the expressway to capture an idea. And it will be fine. In fact, I’m betting it will be more than fine. Shutting out the world – while quiet and peaceful – shuts out life. And I need input – my ideas are sparked by the things I see and hear and experience each day. This lack of input has my brain sort of atrophying. (Did you know there are 82 episodes of Man Men on Netflix?) When I am once again fully engaged in life, I’m counting on my muse to wake up, shake it off and turn out some amazing stuff.

~~~~~~~~~~~

So what’s up with Wailing Wall? I am in the line editing phase with my publisher which means someone with a passion for finding errant commas has combed through the manuscript. Yes, there are people who love this work and I’m damn glad of it. I’ve gotten the edits back along with a few suggestions for tightening up wording and I’ll be diving in to that next week. More exciting than errant commas is cover design concepts that will be coming my way in the next couple of days. A couple weeks ago, I spent an hour on the phone with a mysterious, artsy woman (at least that’s my fantasy of her) in NYC discussing the book and my vision for it. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for cover art.  I’ll post them here so readers can weigh in on your favorite ideas.

~ D

On Race & Writing