Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

This work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Samori, is a treatise on his experience as a Black man in America.  What Coates is doing here is what so many Black parents in America have needed to do:  encourage their children to be cautious in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of their Black bodies.   As he states on page 129-130, “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body.  … already you have expectations,…  survival and safety are not enough.”  And “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.”  He is sharing his own past struggles as well as those around him, in order to communicate his concern for his son’s safety, while also communicating generally the plight of living in a body of color in this country.

Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock over the last few months, you have to be aware of the uncovering of the ongoing racism that we have been seeing in our country.  I say uncovering because the racism is not new – no, it has been going on since White men arrived on these lands–  but it’s once again being exposed for what it is on a national level.  While I rarely quote in this blog, I find that Coates’ words are far more poetic and useful than my own here.  He says, on page 17,  for example, “To be black… was to be naked before the elements of the world…  the nakedness is the correct and intended result of the policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”  This, I believe, says it all.  This is the institutionalized, ratified, codified racist structure upon which our country was built.  It began with the enslavement of a people, evolved into a Jim Crow structure and now exists in the form of a criminal “justice” system that is an entirely purposeful perpetration of a racist segregation of people based on the color of their skin.  It’s all the same thing.

And it is our obligation to blow this apart.

I’m still struggling with how we, as individuals can make a difference, but the very first step is understanding how deeply entrenched the problem is.  This takes looking both inward at our own implicit biases, which we all have, and examining the structural racism upon which our country has been erected.  Understanding the deeply rooted fear of a child for his own bodily security, and then as he grows, for the safety of his peers and then for the safety of his children, as Coates relays here, gives an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to live in his skin.  We feel his terror and we feel his rage over having to feel that terror.  This is where we start.

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.

 

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.  Many books have taught me this, but few as starkly as this one.  And in this moment in our history, I feel it is imperative for all white folks to be reading books like this one – at the very least this one.  Because racism is our problem.

Robin DiAngelo,  through trainings and lectures on racism and working with people of color, has helped both herself and many others become aware of the phenomenon of white fragility.  Because the power of white folks over black folks is so fundamental to the structure of our society, white folks have the luxury of being able to tune it out while black folks cannot.  What DiAngelo focuses on in this book is the responsibility of us white folks to do our own work and to take responsibility for our own part in the perpetuation of this power differential, which is racism.

One of the first steps is to separate the notion that being racist or committing racist acts falls into the binary of the good/bad person.  As DiAngelo points out, our images of racists are generally from the 1960’s, when we see white people brutally attacking black people, and we equate all racist acts with those people.  On the other hand, we have to realize that we as white folks inadvertently commit acts of racism frequently, and while our intentions may not be bad or hurtful, it does not mitigate the fact that the impact of our actions or words may still be.  This does not make us bad people – but it does make us racists and it does still mean we’ve committed racist acts.  We are still responsible for having committed them and are still responsible for changing our behavior and avoiding these acts in the future.

What are we to do?  As I am continuing to learn here, we are responsible to learn about the history of racism, the systemic ways in which white folks have had power over black folks since 1619 in the U.S., and how we need to get over ourselves.  We have to learn to let down our defenses, be open to criticism, and be curious and honest about learning how to be better and more just.  It’s not about being nicer, but more sensitive and responsive to the other.  As DiAngelo states in the book: “Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”  And this is hard.  We will make mistakes.  But if we don’t try, we will not make any progress toward achieving a more equitable space for others and a more just society.

And everybody benefits from a just society.

Let this book be the beginning of our work.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

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Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

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Olivia is determined to figure who is killing and disfiguring the wolves on her property and why.  She has her suspicions about it – the Phelps boys have always been evil, for example- but she cannot understand why.  Meanwhile, she has to go about her life, juggling her responsibilities of raising her grandson, caring for her insane mother whom she has always called Ida, running her grocery store, and maintaining her household, until her life gets completely turned around by her gradual discoveries from her wolf investigations.

The voice of the storyteller is Olivia’s and it is frank and raw and powerful.  Olivia lives in such frequently harsh conditions that her emotions usually must be kept tamed, but the heat of her seething anger sears the page.  She loves her father as fiercely as she hates her mother, and her world is build around this contrast.  She is smart but not educated and while she doesn’t give herself credit for having much, she manages to navigate complicated and even dangerous situations with strength and with heart.  She is a truly beautiful, strong woman character.

I think the way that racism and racial violence is woven into the story is extremely effective as well.  There is a building of very tender relationships between Olivia and some of her black friends, particularly of her best friend, Love Alice, as a preface to any of the tension.  When incidents do happen -or even threats of them-  then, it becomes all that much more personal and so incredibly disturbing.  It feels like my own family members have been affected when they are only fictional characters, because of this beautiful character development.  And the story builds into an incredibly suspenseful and somewhat complicated plot line – I literally could not put this book down!

This was a surprisingly excellent book – I very highly recommend it!  A new “must-read” for the blog!

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

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Wow.  I just finished this book and I’m still breathless…

Caroline is a young debutante who has given up her acting career to volunteer to help French families who have just come to resettle in NYC in the late 1930’s. Herta is an ambitious physician, one of the few women doctors, in fact, in Germany in 1939.  And Kasia is a teenager who, in 1939 decides she will join her crush, Pietrik, and deliver packages for the Polish underground, after the invasion of the Germans.  As you might expect, these very different women’s lives eventually intersect as the tragedies of the second World War drive them together.

What is most staggering is that this story is based on the lives of real people and real events.  Both Caroline and Herta were real women, individuals who exemplified the best and the worst that women could be.  And Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women, was frighteningly real as well.  What fills in the connections between the two women is historical fiction based on years of research by the author to create a story that also illustrates the best and the worst that people can be.

The writing is excellent.  The way the plot is drawn, circling among the 3 major characters, is great not only in terms of fortifying the opposing narratives, but also in building up and then releasing tension as well.  When parts become almost too painful to read, the story switches back to a lighter mood to give the reader a much deserved break.  (What I always feel guilty about is that what I find too hard to read about – millions of people – literally, millions! – actually lived.)

What was most horrifying – and I hate to bring this up, but I feel compelled – is that sentences in this book that described Hitler were frighteningly identical to those describing our new president of the United Staes.  The ego, the destruction of anyone who disagreed with him, and the paranoia with which he reigned – it was all too familiar.  That is terrifying. But all the more reason to read books like this one:  ones that remind us how far people can really go.  It reminds us not to be complacent, because people in Germany thought that it could never happen there either.

This is a MUST READ, by any measure!

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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Love seems to actually trump hate in this frighteningly timely novel by Jodi Picoult.   It begins when a Black labor and delivery nurse, Ruth, begins to care for the baby of a White supremacist couple and the couple insist that she be removed from their case because of her race. As it would happen, Ruth is alone with the baby when the baby stops breathing.  Should she touch the baby and save him, as she is trained to do?  Should she abide by the racist rules the hospital has imposed at the request of this repugnant couple?  What happens next sets Ruth and the couple and ultimately, Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy, on a road to grappling with race as it is seen from all perspectives.

Little did I know that I’d be reading this amidst the worst campaign and most devastating election outcome in the history of the United States.  The spillage of racism, misogyny, and bigotry that has poured out of the mouth of the Republican party nominee and his bedfellows has unleashed the underbelly of this country and its darkest side.  The election result has spawned a crippling shadow over my whole universe and I know this has been true for over half of this country.  We are embarrassed to call ourselves American, as it associates us with this new, evil and mean rhetoric in the eyes and ears of the rest of the world.  This is not the country I have known to be the home of the free.

And so it was, amidst my deepest disappointment that has sent me into a physical nausea that I cannot shake, that I read how Kennedy, seeking to defend Ruth in her ultimate trial, really tries to understand the day to day psychological beating that Ruth endures as a Black woman in a white man’s world.   The small slips, the subtle differences in perception, and the more overt signs of difference from which Kennedy is protected because of the color of her skin.  And while the 2 butt heads, they also come together because of the genuine efforts to try to understand each other, which is the foundation of the beginning of actually understanding each other.

Unfortunately for this story, love trumps hate in sort of a too perfect way by the end, so that it becomes a little fairytale-like as an ending.  I pray for this country, though, that we can reach an understanding that even remotely approximates this ending – for the good of our present and the good of our future.