Flotsam

Our Progressive Country Through a Glass, Darkly

The Friday after the election I took the train up to Chicago to join the protests. I found two separate gatherings. The first protest was outside the Trump building. I could hear it from the El station. These folks were angry. Their signs proclaimed “Not My President” and “Re-Count” and other variations of the same. The second was held in a park, with children and music and colorful signs, most of which claimed “Love Trumps Hate” or some version thereof. At this one, a young woman from Northwestern interviewed me. She asked, among many things, what my reaction had been on election night, how I had processed it all. I said that I wanted information. I needed percentages. I needed it broken down by precincts. I needed them compared to the results before the Voting Rights Act was gutted. And then I said the most telling thing.

“It just didn’t seem possible,” I said.

She nearly jumped in her eagerness to ask, “Why not?”

“Look,” I said. “People of color have been telling us for a long time that this is what our country is. I always thought it was maybe 20% this, but on the whole, we were better. I thought I was listening. I didn’t listen well enough.”

She asked a few more questions, then moved on to the next protestor. I kept thinking about what I had said. It didn’t seem possible. I hadn’t said those words before that moment. I hadn’t said much of anything, really. Sad. Angry. Scared. Exhausted. Words hadn’t come yet.

It didn’t seem possible, I had said. But what, exactly, was it?

After leaving the protests, I walked along the lake front and I began to cry. I did not sob. No one turned to look at me or avoided eye contact. They were slow, sporadic tears, brushed easily away by my gloved hands. I kept walking until they ceased. I hadn’t identified the antecedent yet, but an outline had emerged.

The next morning, I met a good friend for breakfast. This person is one of the most caring, kind-hearted, lovely people I have ever known. I don’t believe we have ever spoken cross words to one another. That morning, however, this person began working-out what to say to their family of Trump supporters over the holidays. I responded by saying how grateful I was that none of my immediate family had voted for him. I was done having those conversations. I was going to work harder at listening and supporting the people of color in my life and in my community and in my country. I was exhausted by the narrative of the “forgotten white working class.”

Our exchange sharpened. This person felt like I was attacking their family. I felt like I was defending mine. My voice began to rise. Theirs followed.

I don’t remember how the conversation ended. The meal ended and we both needed to get on with our day. (The privilege of this, of our ability to literally walk away from the discussion, is not lost on me.) We did not leave angry. We hugged when we parted. But there was a shard there, something sharp between us that had never been there before.

What I know now, what I can recognize now, is that we were grieving, and that the friction between us was the frustration of being in differing stages of grief.

How could this person be justifying this? I thought.

How can this person be so dismissive? They wondered.

They were bargaining and I was angry. We conflicted because our ways of processing grief did not align. Of all the lessons I have learned from Roxane Gay, the one I hold dearest is the action of not judging another person’s grieving process. We all do what we must to live with loss, and the ways we do so are not always pretty.

Shocked White America Liberals (SWALs) experienced a loss on election night. I do not simply mean we lost the election. Elections have been lost before. What we lost on election night was our story. In this story, America was the land of progress. Sure, there was slavery, and Native American genocide, and Japanese American internment camps, and Jim Crow, and gay bashing, and, and, and, and, but those things were in the past. We were better than our forefathers. We were creating an ever-more inclusive and humane society. Look, we have a black president. Look how much better we are. Do not look at Trayvon. Do not look at Flint. Do not look at domestic violence rates. Do not look at Native suicides. Look at Obama. Keep looking. Keep feeling good about our country. Keep looking at our president.

And then the president became Donald Trump and our story died.

In the wake if this death, we began to grieve in the ways we knew how.

What other than denial explains that Jill Stein, of all the desperate saviors to seek, raised $7.33 million dollars to challenge the results? How else to explain why I “kept wanting more information”? If evidence of voter suppression could be found, then we could deny that Trump is our story.

Anger lashed-out at Hillary. She should have done more. Done different. Been more. Been different. Anger took to the streets. Bullhorns and signs and chanting. I joined those bodies. We railed outside the walls of Trump’s narrative but could not, in the end, make them fall.

Bargaining followed swiftly. People hoped the Electoral College would make this a lie. Petitions were signed. Social media was awash in Obi-Wan Kanobe memes. I decided I would quit my job, go to law school, move to Alabama, and work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. This was my version of “if you’ll just let this not be true, Lord.”

Depression took many forms. We ate too much. We drank too much. We hooked up. We stopped hooking up. My depression took these forms as well. I also stopped writing anything new, the effort of imagination too taxing.

As for acceptance, well, some are there, some aren’t. I think we can see a level of acceptance in the number of SWALs who have joined social justice groups and the numbers running for political office, even in the deepest crimson of districts. For many years, I considered my teaching, specifically the way I try to use my teaching as a means of confronting systemic oppression, to be enough service. In the story where our country was progressing towards greater equality, we all thought something we were doing was enough. The story of Trump’s America tells us that there can ever be enough.

Which doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Our SWAL privilege must be used to directly combat his story. As individuals, it is never enough. Together, it sometimes can be. But in order to do this, I think we must also recognize our loss for what it is. The story of Our Progressive Country, the one we told ourselves when Obama became president, and doubled-down on when he was reelected, and went all-in on when we believed a woman would hold the position next, that story died. We should grieve it in the ways we need to grieve it and not judge each other for the different expressions of grief we take. Sometimes, I play Obama’s old interviews (my God, it already feels like they happened thirty years ago) just to feel again that old story. It’s the way I read old love letters to feel again that past love.

But just as those old letters hold only the bright, warm slivers of those past relationships, the Obama interviews hold only the bright, warm parts of our nation’s story those eight years. And this was never the whole story.

So while SWALs must do what we will to grieve the story of Our Progressive Country, we must also recognize that the story was a fictional one. Not entirely a lie. No believable story is ever entirely a lie. Obama was president. SCOTUS passed gay marriage. The ACA became law. There were bright, warm days. But to deny the darker ones makes us complicit in the systems that forged them.

There are probably a thousand analogies I could use to understand the effect of Trump’s election. For myself, at least, I think of it as a death, and I give myself the license to mourn as I will, knowing that the stages are rarely linear, and that they cycle through again and again and again. I am angry. I am depressed. I am in denial. I am bargaining. I am accepting. Shuffle. Repeat.*

But though grief must be accepted and processed in whatever ways we will, it must also be met with a certain resistance. Grief occupies a land between the living and the dead, and this liminal space can be seductive.

We must not stay. The living need us. Our grief over the death of Our Progressive Country is not as important as the lives of those who need us most in Trump’s America. We helped write this tale by accepting the romantic lie over the difficult truth. If we want a different story, our complicity is the first difficult truth we must face.


*It’s important to note the white privilege inherent in mourning without being criminalized for it.

I wasn’t ever going to write anything about this election. There are far smarter people handling it, and I don’t think one more white woman’s voice is what anyone needs. I still don’t. But this blog isn’t a national one; it’s a personal one. I told a friend recently I should just title it “one white girl’s awakening.” This election plays a pretty big part in that awakening. I don’t know that I can ever be fully woke, but I can keep awakening, and this space is where I try to be honest about that process.

Image taken from Ingmar Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly

Take My Hand, Fellow Fan

I know few songs by heart. Even ones I would call my favorites cannot be recalled on the spot. But somehow, though I have not sung them in twenty years, the Baptist hymns of my youth remain with me. Play the first bar of any of these and I can sing every word. I even know the sign language version of some, which comes in handy for all those emergency situations where I am rendered mute, but must still communicate “for the bible tells me so.”

One of the only secular songs I can sing without hesitation is a hymn of a different kind. In the opening voiceover of the movie Bull Durham (1988), Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, states that she has tried “all of the major religions and most of the minor ones…but the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out, is the church of baseball.” I too have abandoned organized religion and found myself most blessed by America’s game.  It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in my mind, alongside “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Blessed Assurance,” rests “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

My reasons for loving baseball are the same reasons held by many, and I won’t bore you with most of them. If you’re reading this, you probably already share them. If you don’t, reading them won’t be enough to turn your head. In this way, my baseball faith is not an evangelical one. I hope nonbelievers one day discover baseball, but I believe that discovery is a private journey. This personal relationship with baseball equates roughly with what the Baptists would call “the walk,” which is code for the private relationship a person has with God. I think this phrase is particular to evangelicals because they recognize that the showbiz of their religion can seduce a person so that their worship has nothing to do with God and everything to do with the laser light shows. “How’s your walk?” means, “Are you praying on your own? Or are you just showing-up for the free food and babysitting? In the still, quiet dark of an evening, are you and the Lord copacetic?”

The same can happen with baseball. A person can love going to a baseball game, but not actually enjoy the game itself. A day spent in the sun drinking beer and eating hotdogs and nachos is a pretty great day. In fact, Phillip Wrigley intentionally courted these non-baseball fan consumers, selling a day at Wrigley as “fun and healthfulness … sunshine and relaxation.” This campaign has brought Wrigley Field, if not the Cubs themselves, tremendous success, much in the way that the laser light shows and rock music have brought evangelicals success, but left them lacking gravitas on the world stage.

Unlike the devoutly religious, however, I do not begrudge the social baseball fan their worship. I cheer anyone who wants to cheer the game. My walk with baseball is strong, but I also enjoy drinking beer and eating nitrates in the sunshine. And I must admit that while listening to a game or watching one in my home has its pleasures, I always leave a live game tingling with the jubilation of the freshly anointed.

My response, however, is not about the beer and sunshine. I have sat sober in stadiums on cold, rainy days and felt the same. It is also less about the smells and sounds and other sensory experiences of a live game, though this certainly enlivens the experience. But even more than all of this, my religious ecstasy arrives for the three minutes in the seventh inning when the entire stadium celebrates the joy we all feel for being lucky enough to be at a game. This celebration occurs by standing and lifting our voices together to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

While many American sporting events begin with the national anthem, to my knowledge, there is no other sport where the fans take a break part-way through a game and all, no matter the heated rivalry, sing a song celebrating sheer love of the game itself. I have stood in Busch stadium wearing full Cubs gear and we all smiled and shouted “1, 2, 3, strikes you’re out!” before returning to our seats and continuing to hurl abuse.

The Seventh Inning Stretch is perhaps the most powerful reason I keep lifting the name of baseball on high. Too often, the world seems polarized. People search for what separates us more than what binds. Sports, including baseball, often serve as a symbolic representation of these divisions, and people (including me) react accordingly, imbuing “the other” of the other team’s fans with qualities they see as, at best, inferior and, at worst, evil.  Property is destroyed, people are assaulted, people die, as representatives of a team of people they have more than likely never met, even though this makes about as much sense as people losing property, blood, or life as a result of liking Pepsi instead of Coke.

But in baseball, even if a full riot breaks out afterwards, there are still a few minutes of each game where baseball fans are reminded that we share a mutual love for the game itself. For a few minutes, gender, race, economic status, education, age, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, physical appearance, physical ability, marital status, political affiliation, Coke or Pepsi—none of it matters. In the seventh inning of each game, we stand together, tens of thousands of us, in cathedrals from Oakland to Boston to Japan, and we lift our voices in praise of what binds us. In the face of so much that divides, we must all find moments when we are united. I once found this connection by rising from musty pews and singing “Amazing Grace” with tabernacle choirs. These days, like the fictional Annie, I find it by rising and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Harry Caray Leads the Seventh Inning Stretch

Take My Boyfriend, Please

It’s been awhile, I know. Thing is, I’ve started seeing someone, and I’ve been a little distracted from blog writing.* I guess I’m writing now for the reasons I always do—the need to rant, or explore some thoughts, or to try and articulate an observation. Most of you know that it has been awhile since I’ve been in an actual relationship. Like, I get my leg over on occasion, but an exclusive boyfriend hasn’t happened for a few years. So I guess I’m writing this because while these observations and frustrations are familiar to women who regularly engage in relationships, it is all a little strange to me. Anyway, here it goes.

  • He has. So. Many. Shoes. He probably has upwards of twenty pairs of shoes. He has brown dress shoes and blue dress shoes and black dress shoes and running sneakers and casual sneakers and hiking boots and flip-flops for the gym and flip-flops for home and hiking sandals (what the fuck are hiking sandals?)…. I mean, it is insane. And you know, he’s explained that as a man in his thirties who has lived a varied and full life, he has actually needed all of these shoes, and continues to need all of them pretty regularly. Apparently, he can’t wear brown shoes with a black suit or black shoes with a blue suit, and I’m like, okay, why not just buy one color of suit? And he was like, okay, but he still needs the other shoes because he can’t wear flip flops to a wedding and he can’t wear running shoes to the beach, and he kept going on and on until I was like, whatever, do your thing. I could tell he felt a little hurt, though, so while he was at work, I went and got one of those shoe racks from IKEA and put it together and when he got home he started crying and telling me how much he loved me, and I was like, look, I love all parts of you, even the ridiculous ones, you adorable boy.

 

  • Okay, when we first got together, I did not mind listening to him bitch about his job, but it’s getting old. I mean, I get it. He gets paid twenty percent less for doing the exact same job as four other guys in the office. He actually does better work, but those guys and the boss were in the same frat, and they play golf together on the weekends, so it doesn’t matter what work he does, he keeps getting passed over for raises and promotions. I mean, that sucks, it really does, but like, grow some ovaries and say something or shut up about it. At least to me. I can only say, “That sucks, I’m so sorry, do you want me to rub your dick?” so many times.

 

  • He takes so long in the bathroom. I have no idea what he does in there. I mean, he does look good. Like, I really like when we’re out in public and other women give him the once over. I’m like, yeah, I get to hit that anytime I want it. But seriously, there is no way he is spending the entire time brushing his hair. He’s just dawdling. He has a real problem with focus, I think. In fact, the other day I totally proved that all that time was not necessary. I got home and told him we had, like, ten minutes to get to where we needed to go, and so he just threw on a ball cap and we left. And he looked fine. Of course, when I asked if he was okay later that night, he snapped and said he didn’t want to talk about it. You know that tone men get between playoff seasons? I forgot about that in my boyfriend-less years. It’s like you just can’t say or do anything right. I’ve learned to just make sure the house is stocked with beer and martial arts movies and get out of the way.

 

  • His friends. Oh my God I hate his friends. I did not sign up to date his friends. I don’t understand why I have to spend so much goddamned time around his stupid friends. He claims I have to get along with them because of something about a person’s support systems working together, or some other Men’s Health Magazine bullshit. All I know is that I not only have to hang out with these assholes, I have to pretend to like hanging out with these assholes. I have to listen to them go on and on and on about shit I do not care about at all. And I have to compliment them, but not so much that they think I’m hitting on them. (I mean, there is this one friend who I will totally bang if it doesn’t work out between my boyfriend and I, or if they’re ever drunk and I can convince them to do a three way.) All I want to do after a long day at work is get home, eat dinner, have sex, watch an episode of Miranda, and go to sleep. Instead I have to nod and make little sympathy noises while Robbie talks about how he wishes he was closer to his dad, and Brent gripes about how he isn’t sure he wants to have kids…I mean my God, the endless prattle. But I have a plan. First, I’m going to start talking about how I want more one-on-one time with him. This will make him feel like it’s his choice to stop hanging out with his friends so often. Then I’ll maybe drop hints that I think one of his friends (the hot one, obviously) has a crush on me, and that I don’t feel comfortable hanging around if he’s there. This means I get to dip out of the few remaining friend times, and those friend times will be all strained and weird because my boyfriend will be upset with his hot friend, but he won’t say anything because he will also think it is his fault for being insecure. Eventually, I will have isolated him from his friends almost completely. They’ll start “catching-up” once a month. Then their time be whittled down to the super bowl and bachelor parties, neither of which I am expected to attend. Extra bonus: Once he’s almost entirely reliant on me for human companionship, if he ever thinks of leaving me, he will be so gripped by the fear of being alone that he will stay. Double win for me.
  • Oh, and speaking of bachelor parties, the man has started hinting about marriage. We’re only a few months into this thing and there it is. I mean, he hasn’t said anything directly, but two of his friends just proposed in these big, elaborate ways that they filmed and then got a thousand million likes on Facebook, and he keeps making me watch the videos while staring at my face. I’m like, yeah, okay, I get it. Look, I’m not saying I’ll never settle down, but it just seems like marriage is an outdated system, ya know? It made sense when women couldn’t hold jobs or get credit cards or own a car, but now that I can exist financially independent of a man, why would I bother getting married? It’s just not natural. Sure, men benefit. They get someone to feed them, and wash-up after them, and take care of them when they’re sick. What do women get? It’s old-fashioned, I think. Of course, I’m not going to tell him this. The fact that our future relationship goals differ isn’t my problem. And it’s not like he’s straight-up asked me. If he did, I’d tell him. But if he’s just going to show me proposal videos, then I’m just going to keep smiling and then going about my day. He’ll come around to how I think about things. Or he’ll leave. I mean, he loves me, and by that point he will have invested years in our relationship, and he will no longer have any friends, and he will have passed-up that job opportunity in that awesome town close to his family so he could stay in the area, but in the end, it’s his call.
  •  The last thing is, I mean I hate to say it, but there’s a part of me that feels like I’m settling. He’s so cute and funny and nice, but…I don’t know, I guess my idea of a perfect man is someone really driven and ambitious, but with a job that doesn’t take up too much of his time or energy, and who’s adventurous and spontaneous, but really grounded and family-oriented, and who’s sensitive and emotionally available, but would murder a deer with his bare hands, and who makes me feel safe, but will hold me against a wall and fuck me for half an hour with his giant dick. My boyfriend is great and all, but he’s just not going to fuck me against a wall for half an hour and then offer up his take on whether women in contemporary America are still subjected to the double-bind.

 

Men. Can’t live with them, can pass the chardonnay.

AmIright?

 

 

*I have not started seeing anyone.

Complicit Complacent

This is the most uncomfortable post I’ve ever written. (Why not come out of hibernation with a bang, right?) I’m going to make some mistakes with this thing. I’m not even proofreading it before I publish it for fear that I will put it in a drawer. But in the wake of something that occurred in my office this week, amid so many other events that are occurring across the country, here goes.

Over the past month, led by students at the University of Missouri, black students at colleges and universities around the country have begun demanding their institutions recognize and rectify the racial inequality inscribed in and on their ivory towers. This past week, a KU professor was put on leave after saying n***** in her class. Or at least this is the soundbite that is being used. Read the open letter. The accusations against this instructor are actually far more substantial and wide-ranging than an isolated use of a single word. Of course, the people outraged at the Instructor’s dismissal, those calling these students fascist and spoiled and everything else that has been thrown at them, won’t read the open letter. And I’m not entirely certain doing so would help, as those people probably don’t think colleges and universities participate in institutionalized racism. But let’s step out of the hypothetical. Let’s talk about what happened in my office.

It was morning. I sat down at my desk and a colleague, obviously upset, asked if I had heard that a professor was being asked to resign after using “the n-word.” When I shook my head, the colleague immediately threw hands in the air and cried “free speech!”

I asked for the context, which this colleague did not have. A 2nd colleague stopped by. Colleague 1 repeated the story, then said, in dooms-day tone, “if this is successful, this is the end of academic freedom.” I responded with something along the lines of, “no, this is the beginning of universities being forced to admit and grapple with the systemic racism on their campuses.” Colleague 2 also wanted the context. Colleague 1 pulled up what the KU instructor had said, though from what source this was pulled was not clear and the actual letter asking for the dismissal of the instructor was not pulled. Colleague 2 stated that if the professor had said this word in response to students expressing the experiences they had with racism on campus, then she should obviously be fired. No matter what, it wasn’t wise, but if there was a discussion about the word, or if there was some other context, well, in short, Colleague 2 needed to know more.

I tried to make an analogy. I tried to say that if the KU professor was reporting something that had happened, that if it were, say, the word kike written on a wall, and she had said, “the word kike was painted on a wall”….and then I stopped talking because I recognized even as I was talking that this was not an effective analogy. I also began to recognize that I was doing a helluva lot of rhetorical and intellectual gymnastics not to call the KU professor a racist who deserved to be fired and not to call Colleague 1 the same.

We were interrupted by something or someone. Colleague 2 left. Colleague 1 and I avoided eye contact for a little while and then began talking about, I kid you not, puppies.

Then another colleague, Colleague 3, popped a head into the office and said, “well, I guess we can’t say n***** anymore.” In my silence, Colleagues 1 and 3 both began saying “academic freedom” and “free speech.” Colleague 3 also called for end times, citing an instance when a faculty member had been asked to clean-up his language when he said something was a “fuck-up.” I was in the corner of the office. Colleague 3 was blocking the doorway. I felt trapped. I was working pretty hard not to scream. I directed everyone’s attention to the puppies. After everyone left, I texted my friends on campus who I knew would be as outraged as I. I took comfort in their responses. I started student conferences.

Okay, so let’s talk about what happened. Or at least as much of it as I, with my limited ability, can talk about what happened. And don’t worry, after the obvious shock and censor of Colleagues 1 and 3, I’m going to get to my own terrible self.

I mean, there’s the shock that an instructor at a college actually said, “I guess we can’t use n***** anymore.” That shock and outrage doesn’t need explanation.

And there’s the bizarrely false analogy of someone being told not to say “fuck” as the same as not using n*****. That doesn’t warrant a response.

And there is the bizarre reaction of “free speech” and “academic freedom.” Jelani Cobb has already written eloquently of this idiocy. On this blog, I’m going to get into my own response in this situation because, well, my experience is the one to which I can speak.

Like how all of the people involved in this conversation, including myself, were white, and yet all of the people in this conversation, including myself, felt absolutely empowered and justified in our opinions about the use of a racial slur. We all felt perfectly comfortable having this conversation in a room filled only with white people. At no point did anyone in that room say at least this much, “maybe as a group of all white people, we can’t have the right conversation about this.”

Let me begin by saying, having had other bizarre and, quite frankly, abusive and irrational experiences with Colleague 3, I have no idea if Colleague 3 would have said n***** had there been black people in the room. I do know Colleague 3 assumed saying that word was just fine because it was a room of white people. And that Colleague 3 assumed that our institution is one where this speech is not questioned. What this also tells me is that I have not clearly signaled to my colleagues that I do not welcome this. I have not signaled that I am a black ally. For all that I cannot change about the campus, this is on me.

It’s also on me that I changed the conversation. I let it go. I diverted. I talked about puppies, for fuck’s sake. It’s a shame I will forever carry. And let’s be clear that this is not the first time I have been a passive racist. There are too many times to count. And, in fact, in my rural, white youth, I was sometimes actively racist.

When I was about 16 or 17 I gave a speech in front of a class about how rap music was responsible for spreading gang violence to areas where it had previously not existed. I am not kidding. This was something I had heard from (white) people in authority, and with my limited reasoning skills and lack of any real contact with people of color, I parroted. There was not even a twinge of a realization that what I was saying was idiotic, much less racist. And I promise I was a kid who would have adamantly claimed to not be racist based on such incredible evidence as knowing the KKK was bad. I don’t want to have ever been the worst of white folk. But I was (and still am) an ignorant white girl. And back then, no matter what I did or said, everyone around me told me I was smart.

Because I was smart. Here’s the thing we sometimes forget when we talk about intelligence: it is not equivalent to wisdom. Smart people can be ignorant. The smartest people in our country can be ignorant. The most lauded professors at the most elite college campuses can be ignorant. Oftentimes these people are ignorant of the experiences of Black Americans. Sometimes, because they have been told their entire lives that they are smart, they do not know they are ignorant. And because so much of their self-identity and worth, because their very livelihood, is built on being smart, having someone highlight their ignorance feels to them like a personal attack. Rather than responding to an observation of their ignorance with vulnerability and humility and apology and willingness to learn, most academics get defensive. On the topic of their own ignorance, academics are quite reactionary. They need no peer-reviewed sources to support the idea that they are infallible. The ratio of “actually” to “I don’t know” in any academic’s life has got to be about a billion to one.

So let’s return to a room of ignorant white academics throwing our ideas around without any real knowledge of that of which we spoke. Let’s talk about how my initial reaction was to ask for more context. This was a ridiculous response. Why was I waiting around for the context in this situation? It’s an important response in certain times, sure, and as a sometimes embattled educator, I usually want to know more about a student/instructor tension. But in this case? In this case my desire to gain the context in which this instructor operated was me enacting the very systemic racism I was at the same time decrying. There is no acceptable context here. Rather than have me talk about how this word in particular means this instructor was in the wrong, no matter the context, go read this and this and this and this and this.

Now, anytime I find myself in a contentious situation, my instinct is to rely on analogy. Like when I wanted to discuss the casual way people discuss rape. It’s a rhetorical tool that allows people to agree with you for a little while. It keeps the conversation open. So I tried to make an analogy, but realized as I spoke that this rhetorical strategy fails when it comes to this word. This wasn’t my first time realizing n***** has no analogous word, just the first time I had ever found myself embodying through rhetoric the idea that it did. It was really weird. It was like an argument switch had been flipped in my brain to the exclusion of the actual content of the argument being made. I was listening to the system of racism come out of my own mouth even as I was trying to fight it. Then I tried to find some other way of approaching this subject that did not involve me attacking or running away from the colleagues in my office.

I pointed towards puppies. I derailed. I still am the worst of white folks.

Why did I derail? Cowardice. It’s that simple. I am afraid that by doing so I will lose my job. I work at a place that implicitly, and at times explicitly, supports racism. I have no hope that a confrontation between myself and tenured colleagues over racism would go my way.

In a class this summer, someone brought-up the flying of the confederate flag. There was one black student in the room. There were no black teachers. The teachers and everyone else in the room cited the flying of the flag as an act of free speech. The removal of the flag was an attack on free speech. The black kid never spoke. The black kid was brought to tears. No one, especially the teachers in the room, gave a shit about that black kid or the hostile learning environment they were creating for him.

Or how about the “training” that was part of my faculty development this summer, one where they brought the (white) school lawyer in to discuss race. The conversation did not center on creating safe learning environments for marginalized students or ways to recognize our own enactment of the racist policies or procedures embedded in academia. The entire conversation was about protecting racist white students from legal action and making certain racist white students can get jobs in the future by understanding that their racist language isn’t “professional.” At the break I said I wasn’t actually all that dedicated to making certain racists get jobs, that I am, in fact, perfectly okay with racists being excluded from the workforce entirely. This comment was not met with approval.

I’m afraid if I say anything about the racism of my colleagues, I will lose my job. Writing this, in fact, probably guarantees that I will. But writing this is also my way of trying to make certain my greatest fear isn’t realized.

What I fear more than losing my job is that I am going to put my head down and get through the last few weeks of class by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll keep my head down and get through the next semester by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll get through the next thirty years by staring at the floor in silence.

So I wrote this. I published this. This is me holding myself publicly accountable. This is me maybe losing my job.

This is me doing my best to lift my head.

 

 

Image by Suzanne Viktor

Penknife

Maybe some people were born into a world that has always loved and accepted them just as they are. Maybe there are people whose families, schools, neighborhoods, religions, books, television, movies, and so forth, told them that everything about them was just fine.

I doubt these people exist, but I guess it is possible. I think it is more likely, however, that all of us have run into someone, or several someones, or entire cultural forces that told us we were not wonderful. If we wanted to be wonderful, to be loved and accepted, we needed to change. We needed to change weight or skin or hair or height or accent or gender or sexuality or talent or interests or intelligence, the list, unfortunately, goes on….

One way many of us are told we need to change is in the way we write. We must change our syntax, change our style, change our perspective, change our tense, change our word choice, change our rhythm, change our references….

But this process isn’t “just” about language. It’s not “just” syntax or word choice or structure or rhythm. Language is how we make sense of the world. When we express ourselves through language, we are creating the version of the world most true to us. We are our words. When people force us to write like someone else, just like when they force us to look like someone else, or act like someone else, or in any way be like someone else in order to be accepted, it is a violent act. And this act leaves scars.

Which is why I struggle teaching Composition and Developmental Writing (Well, this is one of many reasons). I explain and reinforce that what I teach is not “good” or “bad” writing. There is no “good” or “bad” in writing. There is, instead, a spectrum of possibility in language, just as there are many different writing audiences and many different writing goals. When it comes to the grammar and usage rules of Standard American English (SAE), I talk about the social and economic and historic forces that have gone into creating SAE, and how, in most ways, it is a tool of exclusion and repression. It wants everyone to sound and act in one way. It punishes those who do not. And that one way? That one way mirrors a specific portion of the population, and that population is more than likely not my students.

This is all so admirable. Oh, pat-me-on-the-back, aren’t I just such a clever and dedicated teacher?

Except I am absolutely scaring my students. No matter how much I explain all of this, no matter how much I talk about the SAE system as a game of power that they can learn to play, rather than be crushed under, in the end, I give grades. There are good grades and there are bad grades. These good and bad grades carry heavy consequences, and I am very much the person wielding that weight.

Because of this, there are times I am tempted to take cues from past colleagues and just not bother with SAE at all. If the ideas are sound, if I can understand what is being said, then why does it matter that someone throws commas around like dollar bills in a strip club? (Don’t worry, in the classroom I use a pepper shaker analogy.)

But I always come back to this: I can understand my students because I know them. I care about them because I know them. I can hear their voices when I read their writing and a comma splice or a verb tense shift doesn’t make me stop reading because I know them and care about them.

But others will stop reading. The people who have long been safe in the power of SAE will stop caring about what my students have to say if they do not prove that they can speak this language. It is a tool of exclusion. There are many people waiting eagerly to use this tool against others, and those people aren’t just grammar trolls on Facebook. Those people hold very real power in the world. SAE can make the difference between financial security and the lack of it. Financial security can affect everything from personal health to interpersonal relationships to mental health.

So don’t I have a responsibility to make certain my students are not excluded? Isn’t it my job to give them the tools they need to be included and safe and prosperous?

How can I do this without embodying those who would hurt them? How do I do this without excluding them myself? How do I get them to understand grades are a measure of how prepared they are to face those who would seek to ignore them because of what they sound like, not how intelligent they are, or how good of a person they are?

We are our words. In many ways, my job is to teach students to edit themselves to sound like someone they are not. I am creating scars.

They are scars I myself carry. As a woman born to parents raised in Ozark foothill poverty, who herself grew up working class in nowhere Oklahoma, I had to edit myself. The editing required to get me to SAE was not as ferocious as it is for many. My scars are not as deep as others. But they do exist.

And I can say that I am both grateful for these scars and resentful of them. I am grateful that these scars have allowed me to become part of the crowd with expendable cash and vacation time and community resources and a voice not easily dismissed by authority. I resent that I ever had to change to fit a system that told me I wasn’t good enough.

I also resent that this crowd to which I now belong will never include or accept certain people I love. Most of this crowd has never questioned their own privileged language. They’ve never had to do so. For most of them, the system works. For many, it has worked for generations. In their minds, therefore, it is not the system, it is the individual. Some people simply aren’t clever enough to learn it. Or, and this one gets to me more than any other, they are too lazy to try.

Ya know what? Maybe some people see the system, understand its rules, and want no part of it because they are just fine with who they are. Maybe some people want to be edited, but they already have so many scars that the language ones don’t have anywhere clean to land and each edit opens an artery. Maybe some people save themselves by stepping out of the system.

Others, I know, are working to change the system altogether, which is what should happen. The ivory tower doesn’t need defending, and it sure doesn’t need any more victims.

But how does this work from my end? How do I balance trying to change an educational system of which I am part? Is that even possible? Or does my position in this system mean I am one who must perpetuate it?

I don’t know y’all. I really don’t. I guess what I can do is keep being honest with my students about this system. I can keep insisting that they investigate and question it.

But I don’t know that anything I say can prepare them for the pain.

Caesura

Some of you good people are worried about me or for me. I thank you for your thoughts and consideration. Please know that I am well. Class preparation has me excited for school to start. Maine is, as always, beautiful. I have supportive, generous, and kind family and friends. The Cubs might just make the playoffs.

And I am back to writing. I am, in fact, writing a great deal across a variety of mediums. My writerly voice is no longer blocked. I can once again move my arms.

Unfortunately, I will not be posting anything on my blog within the next few months. Don’t worry, this is an external silence, not an internal one. I only post this because I know that if I were following someone’s blog, and they left me hanging with that last post, I would be concerned about them when they continued to remain silent.

This time, mine is not the silence of rock bottom.

And really, rock bottom was only a caesura.

Down in a Deep Dark Hole

In what was once Lootie, Oklahoma, a small coal mining town that dried up when the coal seams did, sits the ruin of a clapboard house my family calls The Old Place. It was inhabited by my great-grandparents, and my mother lived there for a time, when my grandmother was between jobs and husbands.

Growing-up, my mother would take us on a pilgrimage to The Old Place each Thanksgiving. Sometimes someone picked-up an old bottle or a tool, but we were really there to hear stories. My mother’s favorite stories, the ones she told most often, were of hard times hardening the people who lived through them.

There is the story of the time a dog got into the smokehouse and ate the meat and how her grandmother, who in most stories is the kindness woman to ever draw breath, beat that dog until it was nearly dead.

I know. I don’t like this story either.

But my mother does. Her eyes light-up when she tells it. She revels in this otherwise kind woman turning violent in desperation. In the past, I have judged my great-grandmother for her actions and my mother for her revelry in them. Part of me, I guess, always will.

But my life is one of privilege when compared to the lives of the people who lived in The Old Place. The life of a dog is worth more to me than it is to people who have hungered. I know this. We are shaped by our circumstances, and, in comparison, mine have left me a doughy mush.

There is another story my mother tells with delight that I have never enjoyed.

My great-grandfather (the husband of the woman in the story above) helped organize a union of coal miners who struck in demand of the black lung benefit. The strike lasted for seven years. Seven years of no food but what they could grow or scavenge. Seven years of hunger, of watching children and grandchildren hunger.

The union finally won, and the union men went back to work, and when the union men began dying, their widows and orphans received compensation.

But scab coal miners die the same dry-land-drowning union men do. And when their coughs turned, they came to my grandparents and asked if they might join the union, so their children and widows would be looked after.  According to the story, the sweetest-woman-to-draw-breath told them something along the lines of, “when my children went hungry, yours were fed, and this is the price for it.”

I don’t like this story. But I never watched my own grow weak. Never heard them cry with hunger. I have no idea how living through that would make me behave.

I know that a little over a year ago, I thought myself the kind of person who lived with a forgiving heart. Then a bad man entered my life. This man caused the suffering of those I love dearest. He caused a small child to suffer. He did this for a long time.

And suddenly, there it was, this hardness inside of me. This wish to see another human come to harm. There were times, I admit, I wished him dead.

And now I know something more of why my great-grandmother allowed those around her to go hungry when she might have eased their suffering. I still do not celebrate her decision, but if I saw those scabs as responsible for the suffering of my family? As responsible, no doubt, for the deaths of others?

I don’t know. I try my best to hold compassion towards my fellow humans. This bad man showed me there are times I am not able to do so. I resent knowing myself capable of such darkness, but knowing this has taught me compassion for the people in my mother’s stories, people whose hearts hardened under suffering.

The dark seam he exposed in me has provided some light.