Category Archives: race

“Racism is a morphing beast”

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Recently, I attended an OSPAN anti-racism workshop run by Didi Delgado and Leslie Mac.  #OSPAN — stands for “Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles.”  Developed by Leslie Mac and Marissa Jenae Johnson, these in-person and online trainings are designed to help whites become better allies.

Attending was my way to take constructive action after being stunned by Didi Delgado’s incisive piece about whites’ failures at being allies:  The Caucasian Invasion.

It was a smart move. I came away both charged and humbled. The meeting was held in Boston a few blocks from Fort Point Channel. I took the T in, which for this old broad was something of an adventure. The clouds were gorgeous and it was a little too warm for my pea coat, but I would’ve been cold in anything lighter. That’s the kind of spring we’re having.

The meeting started a half-hour late, during which time I was stunned (agog really) to see how focused the gathering group was on their phones (what can I say? I don’t get out much). Hardly anyone talked or introduced themselves. I ate cinnamon Altoids (five at a time for some real fire) and — what else? — looked at my phone.

It was a decent-sized group with all ages represented. About half of the attendees were employees of non-profits, individuals clearly charged with bringing back reports. A fair number of UU ministers were present.

After some emphatic jokes about the origins of the program being ‘finding a way to get white people to pay me’ (which, P.S., I have no problem with) and a very brief ‘ice-breaker’, the facilitators went over basic rules of engagement (listed below). Many in the group appeared to be familiar with them. I was not.

  1. TAKE INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY. To be an effective ally, whites must  both own and counter our status of privilege. This means addressing the sins of the past (reparations; addressing the ongoing legacy of slavery) as well as acknowledging the privilege of the present. In any given setting or relationship, ask, ‘who has the power here?’ and ‘how am I wielding my power?’ and ‘how can I leverage privilege in aid of marginalized or oppressed people?’
  2. ATTACK THE PROBLEM NOT THE PERSON. Didi Delgado shared about how truly awful some of the comments to her articles are by way exemplifying how to violate this rule.
  3.  PROGRESSIVE STACK  and STEP FORWARD/STEP BACK, according to wikipedia:

. . . a technique used to give marginalized groups greater chance to speak.[1]

The progressive stack attempts to counter a flaw in traditional representative democracy, where the majority is heard while the non-dominant groups are silenced or ignored.[1] In practice, “majority culture” is interpreted by progressive stack practitioners to mean White people, men and young adults, while non-dominant groups include women, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, people of color, and very young or older people.[2][3]

The “stack” is the list of speakers who are commenting or asking questions in public meetings. Anyone can request to be added to the stack. Generally, people speak in the order in which they were added to the queue. By contrast, in meetings using the progressive stack, ‘stack-keepers’ invite people from non-dominant groups to speak first (i.e. before people from dominant groups). They use the phrases ‘step forward’ or ‘step back’ to manage the list.[4]

(edited)

4. OUCH AND OOPS. ‘Ouch’ is a shorthand reaction to an offensive remark and ‘oops’ a shorthand response. This technique can be employed to briefly acknowledge hurtful statements or attitudes and apologize for same, with the goal of keeping a meeting from being derailed. Participants can choose to explore at greater length outside the meeting, or not.

Personal aside:  You know that moment in “Hidden Figures” when the Kirsten Dunst character is trying to defend or apologize for her complicity with racist decisions within NASA (and really fucking it up) and the Octavia Spencer character says, “you might want to stop talking now”? That was a major ‘ouch’ and ‘oops’ moment.

I wished I’d had this technique sooner in life. Funnily enough, the friend with whom I attended “Hidden Figures” said those exact words to me years earlier. It happened at a track meet when I sputtered aloud my surprise that our kids’ coach was black (there were reasons why it surprised me). I tried to add nuance to the statement — it was a sign of progress that it never came up, in my parents’ generation it would have, just like not knowing Mr. ______ was gay for two years. Blah, blah. She at last said: “you might want to stop talking now.”

Picture this then, years later, white woman leaning toward black woman in the cinematic dark, whispering,”You said that to me once upon a time.” The two of them laughing.

5. THERE IS NO QUICK FIX.

“Racism is a morphing beast.” (Leslie Mac)

As a constantly evolving, complex problem, fighting racial injustice requires sustained effort and constant learning. Activism of this sort does not lend itself to a check-list. “White people LOVE lists,” Leslie Mac joked (it’s true!) and then added, “anti-racism isn’t a a list. You can’t check if off.”

The work is messy and we’re gonna get messy doing it.

6. INTENT v. IMPACT

While some slack can be given to those allies with good intentions but little to show for them, black people have the right to make judgments based on value.

Is our involvement casual? More like a hobby than a sustained commitment? Would we risk our lives, the way they are forced, day by day, to risk theirs?

“I can’t eat your good intentions.”
Leslie Mac

 Here are some other points covered:

  • Support of black lives cannot be conditional.

African American activists don’t have to frame their message in ways palatable to white people in order for us to support them. Didi Delgado is often dismissed as an “angry black woman” and in fact two of the recurring criticisms of her recent article were that it wasn’t constructive enough and its tone was too abrasive.

How can anger be a disqualifier given the history of oppression in this country?

T-shirt at the event:
“BLACK LIVES MATTER
more than white feelings”

Needing a tax receipt for a gift is inherently conditional. Below please find some creative forms of giving (shared with permission):


  • Black people are not monoliths. Neither are their responses to oppression.

The imposition that every black person speak for all black people is something James Baldwin referred to as : “the burden of representation”.

The burden of representation is not only hurtful and limiting in one on one exchanges, it is corrosive to wider intellectual inquiry and has a way of encouraging tokenism.

Certainly there ought to be room for elegant rants as well as polite political analyses.

I suppose whites make value judgments about who their sources are, as well, gravitating toward those that inspire rather than demoralize. But, if one is not feeling uncomfortable at least some of the time, it might be worth asking ‘what am I avoiding?’

  • White missteps are inevitable and we ought to anticipate them

How can #WHITEFRAGILITY surprise us anymore? Our job is not to avoid screwing up (and certainly not to avoid being in the fray out of fear of fucking up), but to make the recovery time quicker and a tad more graceful.

Name it / Claim it / Tame it.

Didi Delgado, “I’m still holding white people’s hands during my oppression.” Also: “I don’t want to spend time with someone who leaves me on the line because I made them uncomfortable.”

  • We mustn’t forget to act!

Self-education
Reflection
Analysis
Action

These are the stages to becoming a decent ally. We need to guard against getting stuck toggling between learning and reflection and failing ever to get to action.

Leslie Mac: “People ask, ‘what should I do,’ but once you get through the first steps, knowing what to do will be obvious.”

“At some point if we’re gonna dig a hole,
someone has to pick up a god-damned shovel.”
Leslie Mac

  • Accountability is a real thing.

One of the primary objections to some white efforts — Stand Up for Racial Justice, for example (explored in Delgado’s article, The Caucasian Invasion) — is the lack of accountability to people of color. It’s one thing to take ownership for learning history and understanding grass-roots movements, it is another thing altogether to expect to effectively fight racism with no actual ties to black people.

Becoming accountable is an ask, one with real risks (see: ‘it’s messy’, above).  However, absence of accountability is no excuse for failing to act.

Hope you benefited from this post. As always, comments welcome.

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PS  As a writer of a novel set in South Carolina during the mid-eighteenth century, I am really flummoxed on the business of accountability. How do I ask a black reader to review my manuscript — it’s long, for one thing.  And for another, the issues around creating authentic voices, cultural appropriation and exploitation of African American pain are really tangled.

“Please read my draft (which I hope will be published someday and maybe even produce a little income). Let me know what you think? And if at all possible, please don’t tell me this isn’t my story to tell.”

Would any of the icky problems around cultural appropriation and profit be mitigated by an up-front commitment of a portion of earnings to black causes?

I think about these things a lot.


Good news!

THE SUN is OUT!

I got my NEW GLASSES! They were so INEXPENSIVE!  I got TWO PAIR!



YARD WASTE pick up resumed! I LOVE RAKING!





This potted beauty was $14.99! I should have gotten TWO!

I’M GATHERING info about impeachment for my group. I’M DOING something! Learning! Networking with OTHERS! Remembering the only thing I ever liked about the law (i.e. applying constitutional principles to right wrongs).


I LOVE TWITTER, because I find funny things, too!

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MY NEW Endocrinologist IS A DOLL! He TOOK AN HOUR to explain things to me! It’s like the Universe SENT HIM A MEMO on how to perfectly offset the behavior of DR. ARTURO, of Boston– an unprofessional, condescending, cavalier prick who dwells in a grubby office and actually hung up on me a few weeks back. I GIGGLED ALL THE WAY HOME!

And get this, my new AMAZING doctor recommends using FOOD to feed the body calcium not supplements!  GREENs — I love them! Beans, yogurt – real FAVES of mine! BYE BYE ridiculously EXPENSIVE HORSE PILLS!!



Working on chapter summaries and it FEELS LIKE PROGRESS! Also, read part of  TERRIFIC ARTICLE ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (to be shared later — regarding the Emmett Till painting controversy). IT gets added to my ‘I HAVE PERMISSION TO WRITE A STORY SET IN SLAVE TIMES’ file (Yes, I have such a file). YEAH!!!
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The BLM activist who wrote an article about how thoroughly and completely white people ruin the movement for racial equality IS OFFERING TRAININGS IN BOSTON NEXT WEEK! HER ARTICLE RUINED MY DAY. I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW to say so without evoking #whitefragility and #itsnotaboutyou but I DARED TO anyway to a BLACK FB FRIEND. We’re still friends.

I’M GONNA GO! (Am I foolish to think it can’t be two hours of telling white people how much they suck?) I FEEL BRAVE! I FEEL GOOD ABOUT TAKING RISKS WHERE IT REALLY MATTERS!

Organizing on [Safety] Pins & Needles Level I & II @ 24 Farnsworth St, Boston, MA 02210-1211, United States, Boston [from 11 to 13 April]

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Have a nice weekend everyone! And I won’t blame you if you decide to skip the “Bad News” post that’s already forming in my head.

What rough beast?

I heard the phrase ‘slouching toward Bethlehem’ in my head yesterday (St. Patrick’s Day!) and pulled a copy of “The Second Coming” off the shelf (a volume titled, “Major British Authors”, of all things — Yeats was Anglo-Irish, but still). I read the poem aloud while pacing a loop, surprised by its relevance (it was written in 1921) and impressed by the language’s potency. You can read it below.

But since we just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, a detour into the Irish love of language is in order. If you don’t think it’s a thing, I challenge you to walk into any sweet shop in Dublin and exchange a few words with the clerk. It’s not just the ‘gift of the gab’ or poetry, of course, but language in all its forms: lyricism, satire, gallows humor and puns, drama, scatological jokes and wicked curses, elegy, eulogy, rants, and prose. This is in my blood.

As for that blood, two generations on? Well, I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, for what that’s worth. Certainly, my family’s got the art of imprecation covered — all of us curse like sailors. My mother once famously growled, “I wish you kids would stop that god-damned gutter talk!” I might have been eight.

When my children were still quite young (though probably older than eight), I gave them my ‘F word’ speech. We were in the car, of course, all facing forward, strapped in, and aware that whatever it was I had to say, it’d be over in seven minutes.

In the course of my exegesis, I used the word ‘fuck’ at least 15 times, to say, among other things, ‘See boys? You’re not gonna fucking shock ME with the word!’ This tells me that the car ride occurred at a time when I was still limiting my cursing around them.

‘Fuck is a useful word,’ I said like a vocabulary instructor, ‘it has no corollary, really.’ [see what I did there, inserting the word ‘corollary’ ?] ‘Look at how its sound corresponds to its meaning– fuck, fuck, fuck! — how great is that?’ This went on for blocks.

And then, lest you think me derelict, I delivered two cautions, one arising from my love of language, the other from life as a suburbanite. ‘Here’s the thing, boys. If you use the word ‘fuck’ too much, you diminish its power. Don’t do that. You want ‘fuck’ to really mean ‘fuck’ when you say it.’ Did I glance up in the rear view mirror at that moment or save the look for the second warning? ‘Here’s the other thing, and this is important — some people are terribly, terribly offended by the word, I’m not even sure why, really, so watch out. You don’t want people judging you for saying the word ‘fuck’. For now, puh-leeze don’t use it around grown-ups.’

[Now, C uses the word ‘fuck’ almost randomly, nearly as a place holder — so much for preserving its potency].

My father was a clever and witty man who adored word play. He routinely launched riffs of puns that went on and on, and then on some more. We learned to play along, desperately striving to one day outdo him. Rarely happened. Fortunately, any and all attempts were appreciated, no matter how lame (and let’s face it, most puns ARE lame). Since not all of my father’s puns were delivered with corny fanfare, sometimes it was enough just to catch them. Here, I refer to those puns casually stated with a playful stealth. Picture this: family dinner, a sneaky pun inserted into conversation, a pregnant but brief pause, then one or two teenagers rolling eyes and groaning to patriarch’s visible satisfaction.

My father’s weekly efforts with the NY Times crossword puzzle were another source of teenage admiration. How did he do it? Every now and then, I’d snuggle in and try to make a contribution and fail. Just fail. He chewed his cheek and worked methodically — acrosses first, then the downs, scribing his answers with an engineer’s pencil. In some seasons, a football game was on.

My sister and I carry on the puzzle mania. I get the Sunday Times delivered solely for this reason (should be admitted sheepishly, but hey). The first thing I do is make a copy for her and then plop down with pen and coffee and get to work (yes, I do it in pen). Some part of me must still be 15, because even though I now know that half the trick is to simply have lived long enough, it amazes me how frequently I finish (or nearly finish). Unlike my father (after all, I’m no engineer), I work the acrosses and downs simultaneously. But since I’m not crazy, I do go sequentially. For some reason, I don’t consider answers supplied by my husband cheating (he helps with chemistry, sports, and military history) (maybe I’m not that amazing?) For desperate weeks, there’s Rex Parker’s blog — out and out cheating, of course.

As for the Irish love of scatological humor, let’s just say the Mallons had a reputation. Much to our childhood friends’ astonishment, belches and farts were delivered with glee and drama in our house. We ranked belches for volume and texture. Farts came with odor cautions and sometimes a physical gesture, like a lifted leg. I continue to be so foolishly entertained by farts that I’ve made my husband swear he won’t mention it in my eulogy.”She never met a fart she didn’t think was hilarious!”

In the ninth century Irish epic, “The Tain”, by the way, you’d be amazed at the amount of farting going on. And while not exactly on point, there’s also the scene where a vast army is stopped in its tracks by a bunch of women exposing their breasts.

Lastly on this topic of the Irish love of language (is that the topic?): rants. Ranting is a special talent of mine, one I’m kinda known for in my writing circle. While I’m not necessarily proud of this, there can be some art involved. Ranting universally features complaint and wrathful condemnation, but if crafted specifically and originally enough, the words can be elevated into something entertaining or even educational.

The poem by William Butler Yeats follows. It makes obscure references to his work, “A Vision,” but it’s not necessary to know them to feel the piece’s potency.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Have a nice weekend, all! Maybe give yourself a day without news? Or at least, a day where you wait til after lunch? My next few posts will be short, I promise!

PS It was politics, not St. Patrick’s Day, that drew Yeats’ poem to mind. But how nice to talk around that utterly unbelievable joke with enormous powers of destruction and not say his name.

(The SoulCollage card is part of a recently surfaced batch made a couple of years ago. It’s one of many addressing blood. There’s your Irish mother and child, there’s the ‘family tree’, there are the pea plants used by Mendel to study heredity, and there, running up the lower center, is an abstract coil representing the twisting shape of genes.)

 

 

Refuge

Sanctuaries are so important — even in First World lives where aggravations go to comfort and not survival.

The piercing beeping of trucks in reverse and the roar of playground grass maintenance started at 7:30. That would be immediately after I sat down in the cool peace of our deck to write. Even inside, with all windows closed and headphones on, I thought I would jump out of my skin. It didn’t help knowing that in another hour, two house construction jobs within a stone’s throw of my driveway would get going. So, I got in the car and drove around.

Aimless escape of this kind is a luxury since Finn came to live with us. I drove around in part because I could — it’s a doggie play date day (oy – talk about First World) but also because I couldn’t think of a place nearby that I wanted to occupy. Peets is crowded, always. Our town library is not reliably quiet. The coffee shop in Newtonville — also rarely has an empty seat.

And then I remembered my alma mater: Boston College Law School.  A minute or two from the house. With a beautiful, clean, QUIET and nearly empty library. Wow. Wow.

Greeted first by Saint Thomas More and then by a Ruth McDowell quilt, then entering a wing donated by the law firm I used to work at, there was a sense of homecoming (even if I did not feel at home at that law firm for a single minute of my tenure there and even though this library was built after I graduated).

Something curious went on just before noon. Maybe because I was recently ‘followed’ on twitter by a Massachusetts ACLU lawyer, maybe because last night I watched a talk he gave at the Center for Constitutional Rights on YouTube (Carl Williams) and was really inspired, and maybe because when at 11:55 I got up to chant the Lotus Sutra for Mike Brown, for Mike Brown’s family, for all the BLM activists on the front lines, and even for the dumbbells who don’t understand that racial justice benefits each and every one of us, I was tempted into pulling a directory off the shelf that just happened to be at eye level.

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I don’t even remember what you had to do to qualify for the Order, but I know it was kind of a bid deal. It was a weird and unexpected pleasure to reclaim this part of my life, even if temporarily and for no other purpose but to notice.

I’ll leave you with a little law school humor, lest you conclude I am spending all my sanctuary time on social media!

The virtues of watermelon


Let me tell you how much I like watermelon. It’s sweet! It’s juicy! I like watermelon doused in lime juice and sprinkled with mint. I like the cool crunch of it, especially as July shoulders into August and the heat gathers its dull fury.

But why so small a domestic rave?

Well, otherwise I might find myself complaining about the relentless, interfering noise in my neighborhood. When I went out to pick the mint, I leaned into the street to see what racket had just begun, thinking it might be the planned driveway installation next door. But no, it was tree work two doors down. That’s usually good for at least three hours. Not long after I clopped my headphones on, the excavator that has been working sporadically across the street for weeks fired up its engine.

And if I weren’t complaining about noise, I’d be feeling some responsibility to articulate my rage and despondency about racism and unwarranted death and policing and gridlock and…  and… and… For a while now, I’ve believed that speaking out in clear anger was part of the solution, because, you know, ‘denying racism is a form of racism’. I’m not so sure right now. I’ve hit some sort of wall and silence feels like the better response, or maybe, the only one I’m capable of right now.

It occurs to me: America needs an etiquette for mass shootings. America needs an etiquette for racist murders. Think about that for a minute. “Dear Miss Manners, I can’t seem to wrap my head around the recent spate of race-driven murders. What is the most thoughtful response — too old to march. Signed, Weary White Woman.”

I “liked” the woman on FB who said (not completely jesting) that she ought to be able to “call in black” to work, just to give herself a few hours to grieve or find her own humanity (if you’re on FB, look for ‘Evelyn from the Internets’ and scroll down a couple of posts, or search #callinginblack).

Shaun King of the NY Daily News can always be relied upon to inform and respond in outrage. I follow him on twitter so that I will know when another atrocity has taken place (@shaunking). His recent article spoke about the need to end the despicable practice of asking African Americans who have just lost a loved one whether they forgive the perpetrator or not.

If you haven’t read the recent NY Times article by Charles Blow, I recommend it.

Otherwise, find your cool, crunchy sweets where you can?

Even though I’ve been writing at the kitchen table today, I’m going to escape the clammy, noisy air by descending into the basement. It’s cool down there. And quiet. I’ll enjoy my bowl of watermelon standing at the sewing table, with my laptop set up among the pins and scraps.

Then I’ll turn my attention back to mid-eighteenth century, South Carolina.It is strange to feel the permeability of history, which is another way of saying: it’s awful to acknowledge how the hate from those years lives on.

In between

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between day and night

Between sleep and waking: yesterday I woke with four syllables in my mind: Appomattox. (That’s the place where General Grant finally cornered General Lee). It was a dream about writing.

Even though 1865 is more than 100 years after ‘my period’, I rewatched the Ken Burns’ Civil War episode featuring General Lee’s surrender, in part to see why my dreams would use this specific place name. So, I listened again to Mary Chestnut’s heartbreak at the fall of Richmond; to how a cavalry of black soldiers escorted Lincoln not long after; to how the KKK was born almost exactly as the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified into law. It’s a moving episode highlighting the extraordinary cost of that war.

I am rambling here, but I want to end with recent scholarly recommendations about vocabulary, indicating how we are ‘in between’ myth and a greater truth about our history:

Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications.

And:

[L]et us drop the word “Union” when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in “Union troops” versus “Confederate troops.” Instead of “Union,” we should say “United States.” By employing “Union” instead of “United States,” we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a “sandy foundation” (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared. The dichotomy of “Union v. Confederacy” is no longer acceptable language; its usage lends credibility to the Confederate experiment and undermines the legitimacy of the United States as a political entity. The United States of America fought a brutal war against a highly organized and fiercely determined rebellion – it did not stop functioning or morph into something different. We can continue to debate the nature and existence of Confederate “nationalism,” but that discussion should not affect how we label the United States during the war.   

Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University specializing in the intersection of slavery and politics in the 19th century United States, is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014).

– See more at: History Network’s website.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves on the verge of spring, when there hasn’t really been a winter. In my yard, the crocus have been blooming since mid-February. Still, the birds gladdened the air this morning. I walked out for the paper at around 5:15 (thank you, Finn, the furry alarm clock) and reveled in their songs and the smell of rain.

And, apropos of dirt (which I just read might have healing properties merely by squishing a clump in your hand — Atlantic Magazine, The Nature Cure), I made a recent decision, one that makes me feel good.  I will focus all my gardening energies this year on the side and front yards, areas where Finn has no access. I hope this will offset some of the discouragement about the dirt-mess the backyard has become.

 

White Writer, Black Characters

IMG_7101Some time ago, I received a challenge on Instagram about my use of images of African Americans. After watching an episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s show, “Finding Your Roots”, I had triple exposed photos of a quilt I’m working on (from the “Middle Passage” series) with a TV screen capture of an enslaved woman near a river in Louisiana. The result was haunting and satisfying enough that I wanted to share a few of the variations, and did. Undoubtedly, copyright violations. But were they acts of cultural appropriation?

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Through both quilting and photo collages, I have been letting my imagination range in service of writing a piece of historic fiction set in South Carolina in the eighteenth century. As an intensely visual person, working with photos and cloth often comes more readily than writing a historical scene, particularly one with dialogue.

But whether in cloth, photography, or text, when is the use of an African American image or topic by a white artist an act of cultural appropriation? And if it is, how do you tell? Can a white audience/creator ever be the judge? Do the artist/writer’s intentions matter? And if a work offends even one African American, should I defend it?

Initially, I did defend the images. ‘Exploration in service of understanding. American history/my history. Blah, blah.’ But then, after following tags like #whitefragility on twitter and reading articles with titles along the lines of, “why I won’t discuss race with my white friends anymore”, I sent a private apology and deleted them.

But now I’m posting them again. Have I learned nothing? I am not sure about any of this.

[Just to explore the idea that my results would be ‘truer’ using topics closer to my own ancestry, I layered the same quilt image with a TV screen-capture of Irish gangsters from ‘Peaky Blinders’. The results were more compelling, but I don’t think it was the Irish connection that made them so].

I am a firm believer in genetic memory. Just so you know.

In the foreword to her book, “The Logbooks — Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory”, journalist Anne Farrow describes a conversation with a black friend who challenged her choice of topic. Her friend said, “‘When white people take up black stuff, there’s always a reason. There’s always something there.'” My sister refers to that ‘something’ as “hinky”.

So, am I entitled to the topic of slavery? Is there any way to get it right? I like to think I’m self-aware, without major amounts of hinkiness lurking. The only thing I can come up with is this: I don’t want to spend this much time with fictional material closer to my own suffering — and maybe so much so, that I’d rather leap across three centuries and a tricky racial divide. Okay, but is that ‘hinky’?

‘The research I’ve done about slavery has made me a better citizen’ is something I have asserted from time to time. And indeed, if healing the wound of racism requires acknowledging the complexity and horror of our history, then shouldn’t all of us white people be learning a little? And maybe even, a lot? You cannot read about the transatlantic slave trade and the practices of enslavers and be unmoved or unchanged. And, if you follow the news, you cannot learn about this historic stuff and think, “glad that’s over”.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s intense and informative article, “The Case for Reparations“, he asserted that the fact that one’s white ancestors were not here during the 250 years of slavery in no way makes us exempt. And why would we be, when we dwell in white privilege? For purposes of white privilege, it doesn’t matter when our grandparents arrived. It only matters that they were white. Even if they were shabby, uneducated, Catholic, Irish. Still white.

Watching Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series for the third time, I hear Shelby Foote‘s words with new ears. He said something like, ‘oh, sure we’ve had other important conflicts in our history like the Revolutionary War, but you cannot understand the American psyche unless you understand the Civil War.’

[Case in point: how can you understand the rise of the Tea Party without understanding the Civil War? And Trump? Clearly, his hat should read (I didn’t think of this): “Make America White Again”.  As if it ever was].

Around the time the controversy about the novel ‘The Help’ erupted, I watched a documentary about the making of the film “Nat Turner”. The movie was based on William Styron’s novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner“. Most of the interviewees harshly criticized Styron and the movie because they diminished a hero in African American history, especially, but not exclusively, by making him lust after a white woman.

Lots to learn and note from the documentary, but since I was busy writing scenes of another slave rebellion (The Stono Uprising, SC, 1739) and wringing my hands about ‘getting it right’, my take away came from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who voiced a contrary view. He said something like, “if others have a different version of Turner, let them write their own novel.”

Pondering all of this, I found an an article on the site “The Root” entitled, “White Writer/Black Characters: Bad Idea?” by Desmond-Harris. After establishing that no writing pleases every audience, she asked, does that mean you should abandon your interest in making black women your protagonists?  She continued:

“No way,” says Marita Golden, author of a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Skin Deep: Black Women and White Women Write About Race. “White people, because of the emotional legacy as well as the historical and political legacy of racism, often feel that they do not have access to the black soul and the black spirit,” she told me, “but I think writers have the right to write about anything.” In fact, she said, “I really feel that white people should write about black characters.” …

So here’s a start. Develop relationships that will allow you to become confident that you can begin to speak to that experience, because you know African-American women as individuals. “Usually, white people who write meaningful books with black characters, they do have black people in their lives who they know deeply and respect,” said Golden. To be clear, that’s “as friends, not as research. Serious, meaningful, complete friendships with black people.”

I wonder about jinxing my writing efforts with such a public discussion, but this is where I am. Where I dwell. (I like Saskia claiming the word, ‘dwelling’ — there’s a lot to that word. And it seems like it resonates with ‘remembering’ (Liz) and  ‘flourishing’ (Peggy)).

This might be a selfish post dressed up as risk taking, but there’s so little cloth in my hands these days and the business of creating one page after another is so solitary that the urge to connect here with where I dwell wins out over cautionary superstition!

To be clear: I am not looking for permission or rigid definitions. I am curious. What do others think about cultural appropriation, the uses of the imagination, artistic subject matter, genetic memory? What about this business of facing suffering straight on vs. from the side?