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Category: RACISM

Writing as Hope

Romans 8:24-25
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

I am working on a trilogy. The first novel is in the hands of my agent. He’s had it for two years. He hasn’t sold it . . . yet. This novel is THE BONE TRENCH. Here’s the “elevator sentence”: Mother Mary and Jesus are called back to Memphis by a devilish  private prison project. THE BONE TRENCH is funny. And profane. And very, very serious. Along with MM and Jesus, it stars Little c, Mary’s acerbic guardian angel. And Cat Thomas, the son of a sharecropping rape victim on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. The theme is white folk’s continuing inability to love our Black neighbors as ourselves, which has manifested itself in slavery, convict leasing, sharecropping, and, now, mass incarceration.

That’s novel 1.

Novel 2 in the series is JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. The manuscript is with Beta readers. “Beta readers” are kind souls who agree to read your work when it’s still mostly crap, or at least quite rough. As these readers give you feedback, the manuscript becomes smoother, more polished. JAZZY AND THE PIRATE’s sentence is: Eleven-year-old Jazzy Chandler calls Jean Laffite the pirate king back to New Orleans to save the city from the floodwaters of Katrina . . . and discovers pirates aren’t what she thinks they are. It’s funny and irreverent—how dare anything about Hurricane Katrina  be funny? In addition to Jazzy and Jean Laffite, it stars a house that morphs into a pirate ship. And Jean’s mealy-mouthed brother Pierre. And the swamp. The theme is white folks continuing willingness to economically exploit the world, which has manifested itself in slavery and pirating and, now, the near-destruction of New Orleans.

That’s novel 2.

I’m working on novel 3 in the series. The title is MOSES IN THE GULF. I’m not going to tell you much about it because my brilliant mentor Rebecca McClanahan always said, “Don’t talk about works in process or you’ll talk out the energy and won’t write it.” I can tell you that it has the same elements as the first two novels in the series: fantasy; historical figures called back to address a current day crisis; irreverent humor; alternating points of view along with a third, omniscient POV; the theme of economic exploitation.

Did I mention that I haven’t sold the first novel in the series? Yet.

Romans 8:24-25
24 But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

And while we wait, we write.

Hope: A double rainbow reaching from horizon to horizon

 

If I had lived during the 1860s, I probably would’ve done exactly what my mother’s grandfather did. Cursing, I would’ve picked up a gun and left my Mississippi family to protect my homeland. I would’ve fully understood I was fighting for a cause I did not support—preserving the right to own people. But the irresistible love of home would’ve forced me to take on lice and rain and mud and cannon fire.  I would’ve tromped through land that so recently had been someone’s backyard, aiming to kill men I had no quarrel with.

When the war ended and my side was the glorious loser, would I have wanted to see monuments erected to the politicians and generals who’d gotten us into the war? Helllllll, no! Those fools forced me to fight a war I didn’t want to fight, and then the sons of bitches f**ing lost!

So I’m not surprised veterans didn’t erect the Confederate States of America statues strewn across the American South. Almost all were erected after 1900. Quick reminder: the American Civil War ended in 1865. Reconstruction—the post-war era of Southern occupation by Federal troops during which it might not have been prudent to erect statues—ended in 1877.

It wasn’t until 40 years after the war that CSA statues gained momentum. (You think we waited a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War and erect a memorial? Saigon fell in 1975. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was fully completed by 1983). Those still seared by the heat of war didn’t erect the CSA statues. White people erected the statues in a cold, calculated move to assert white race dominance.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, given as New Orleans removed four of its Confederate statues, explains the history:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. . . . These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

True, the statues are “historical.” But the only history they teach is about America’s continuing surges of white supremacy. If you can’t answer the question, what was happening in 1900, 1909, 1957, and 1962 that led Americans to erect statues of a war that ended in 1865?, we can’t begin to have a conversation about whether the statues should stay.

You might say, “My ancestor fought in the Civil War!” But, yeah, so did mine. It’s not enough. You have to ask yourself, would my great-grandfather really want me to peg my identity on the worse experience of his life? Isn’t it more likely that his fervent prayer would be that his children and grandchildren live good lives? To be better in all things than they were? If your ancestor didn’t fight to preserve slavery but to defend his homeland, allowing the war to take center stage offends the reason he served. So there’s your choice: my ancestor fought to own people (unacceptable) or my ancestor fought to defend his home and I’m gonna ignore that to focus on the war (unacceptable).

I know—there’s that sticky thing called pride. Listen, I absorbed my family’s story about a relative going overseas with a legislative committee to buy one of these damn statues. We were proud of our relative—he sailed across the ocean to France, mind you. Only with time did the glow fade as we collectively absorbed the fact that the honoree was one of the most virulent racists the state ever produced. Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.

We must stop loving the South for its war. We must love it for the same reason our ancestors did. For the ripe figs and pebble-bottomed creeks and the light calling us home at night. To do otherwise sells the South down the river. We can’t cling to our ancestral myths when we really do know better.

With the whole picture in front of you, what do you choose to focus on?

I know, I know—I’ve been missing as of late. For two months, I’ve been holed up inside my novel doing everything I can to meet a self-imposed deadline for revision. The first of March, I received a reader’s report from my paid editor on JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. As you, my readers, know, I’ve been working on this novel since God was a toddler. I had finally reached the point where I thought someone could read it. Ordinarily, I would ask several Beta readers to take a look at it before I sent it to the editor. But I was in a hurry. Like I said, I’ve been working on it a loooooong time.

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The exploitation of Black Americans in my lifetime shows itself as mass incarceration. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling those working in the judicial system racist.

I don’t blame the white woman who confused my Black friend for a purse snatcher months after the actual mugging took place. I don’t blame the police officer who arrested my friend with no evidence other than the woman’s shaky testimony. I don’t blame the judge who let every person in the courtroom leave except me and the white social worker before he asked if the witness could identify the one Black man left in the room as the perpetrator. I don’t blame the underpaid Public Defender who never bothered to read my friend’s file. I don’t blame him for looking at my very distinctive friend and saying, “They have an eyewitness. Look at him—who’s going to mistake him for someone else?”

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Cast your mind back to 1982. The time is the NCAA Basketball Championship. The game pits the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by the brilliant John Thompson, against Dean Smith’s Carolina Tar Heels. The Hoyas’ star is the new phenom center Patrick Ewing.

As the game opens, Carolina puts up a shot. The seven-foot Ewing soars to the rim and knocks it down. “Goaltending!” the ref calls. Not once, not twice, but three more times, the same thing happens.

Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending.

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Small Things I Do FWIW

  • I shop at the Family Dollar or Dollar Tree or the downtown Walgreens rather than the ritzy Walgreens because one does not have to exercise class privilege just because one has it.
  • I choose to place myself in situations where I’m the only white person around—such as my Ob-gyn’s office—because I need to be constantly reminded of what it’s like for Black folks so much of their lives.
  • I always try to say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” to African-American clerks in a vain attempt to make up for the decades of Southern “etiquette” that prohibited such a thing.
  • I look at the world through racial lens because I know from whence I came and awareness is necessary.

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I’ve never been with a winner. Well, except that streak when the North Carolina Tar Heels won the NCAA Basketball tournament and the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series and Peyton Manning and the Colts won the Super Bowl.

That was an outlier.

The problem is, I don’t tend to pick my “teams” based on winner criteria. For example, at the onset of my legal career when I was choosing law firms, I didn’t make my decision based on where I could make the most money or whether the firm was considered “the best” in the state. I looked at a firm’s history: during Mississippi’s Civil Rights wars, which side was the firm on? As a result, the firm I joined was not the one at the top, the “winner” in the eyes of a state that really wanted to forget its Civil Rights history. It was simply the most principled law firm in town.

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We Can Fix Police Shootings

Those cities in the US experiencing dramatic declines in police shootings, how did they do it? Did they round up the citizenry and instruct them on the proper way to react during a police encounter (“Nope, nope, nope—hands on the wheel”)? Or did they go into African-American neighborhoods and distribute fliers (“When stopped by the police, make no sudden movements”)? Maybe they aired PSAs during the nightly news (“Even when surrounded by five officers pointing guns at you, remain calm”)?

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I failed at the conference for racial justice this weekend.

I gave racially tinged advice to a perfectly innocent question that had no race element to it.

I mistook one African-American woman with glasses and short hair for a different African-American woman with glasses and short hair, because all African-Americans look alike to us white folks.

Multiple times, I walked up to a conversation between two African-Americans and stood there like a white person, expecting to interrupt and be acknowledged.

When asked what next step I was going to take, out of all the things I’d written down, I chose a vague, politically correct answer because I wanted to show I was down with the program.

But worst of all, at a conference subtitled “Sacred Conversations on Race,” I argued with a man in my small group. Not once, but in some demented version of Groundhog’s Day, I argued with him twice. On the EXACT SAME SUBJECT. Sweet baby Jesus, that is failure.

They say that failure is an inevitable part of talking about race. That white folks fear this failure so much, we just don’t do it. We clam up rather than risk saying a racist thing, a hurtful thing. If we’re silent, at least we don’t risk stepping into a pile of mess (or, as the Conference called it Situations Happening In our Town-Memphis).

The way most conferences unfold doesn’t help. Invariably, after listening to a mind-bending talk or watching an eye-opening video, we’re directed to small groups where strangers circle up folding chairs and commence solving the world’s problems. One of us kicks it off, offering an opinion that hangs in the air. No one responds because back and forth slides too easily into argument, and the last thing anyone wants to be is the obnoxious group member who argues (again: I was that person, me with all my Parker Palmer active-listening training, not just arguing but interrupting—what the hell, Ellen?)

In contrast to my argumentative self, two members of our group made astonishing, transformational comments. Afterwards, when the conference was over and I’d been talking to my husband about the experience for, oh, 48 hours straight, I heard myself saying, “Those two women, they didn’t argue with someone else’s truth. They spoke their own truth.”

I paused, letting that sink into my brain.

The name of the Trinity Institute conference was “Listen for a Change: Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice.” Everyone at the conference who spoke to the title assumed it meant listen to SOMEONE ELSE. But I find listening to myself to be incredibly valuable. So I tried it, and what I heard was a white woman arguing with a white man about what really happens when African-Americans encounter the police.

After a bit, I told my husband, “I need to articulate my own truth so I can speak from that.”

What is my truth?

It’s a truth born in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s when racial injustice was the legal, embraced societal norm. It continued as an adult when I left my home state and devoured every book I could find on what was really happening when I was a kid. Over time, my reading spread out to include the South then the country, slavery then sharecropping, convict leasing then Jim Crow, poets and historians, memoirs and novels and 1970s sociological studies—all of it, or at least as much as I could get my hands on.

My truth switched from the page to people when I hooked up with the Memphis School of Servant Leadership where I was schooled by African-Americans willing to hang in there with white ignorance (I’m not beating myself up; “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge). My flat out baptism in truth happened when I and a handful of brave souls who were living on the street started the Door of Hope Writing Group. What had been “book learning” and protected conversations in safe spaces became extraordinarily personal.

Every week for eight years, the members of writing group gathered around a table and wrote our truth. Gradually, we branched out, and over time we went to doctor’s appointments and museums. To mental health facilities and awards ceremonies. To the bank and the blood bank. To court and to church. To galas and grant interviews and Graceland. To restaurants and retreats and jail (and jail and jail and jail). To the hospital and into neighborhoods where I was told, “Lock your door and don’t stop on the way outta here.” To the library and to shelters. To funerals. To public readings and the park and wherever we needed to go. And what I learned from our time together was that white America has no idea what Black America experiences.

Yeah, I’d seen some, but only enough to know that when Black folk tell me what’s happening to them, I need to listen. Their description may be totally foreign to my experience of the world, and that is irrelevant. We whites see the world through our glass darkly, and we need help to see the light.

So if an African-American tells me the police stopped her because she was Black or arrested her because she was Black, or shot her friend because he was Black, I’m going to believe her unless and until I see evidence that, in that particular instance, it isn’t true. And still I will weep, because it could’ve been true.

So next time I’m in a small group and another white person begins analyzing the truth of police encounters with African-Americans, I won’t argue with him so he can see more clearly. No, I will ask, “What do the African-Americans viewing the tape say happened?”

So, yes, keep showing up and struggling to talk about race. To do otherwise is to really and truly fail. But, as you show up, make sure you listen for a change.

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A 4th Moment in Mississippi

In the assemble hall at Power Elementary School once a week we’d gather for sing-alongs. Our wooden chairs had squeaky black-hinged seats that flipped up when not in use. Sit too far back and, if you were a skinny, skinny child like me, the seats flipped up when in use as well. In this cavernous space with its regimented rows, I’d belt out while singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” the line “land where my father died,” because my father had died, and I thought the song belonged to me. Here during our group moments, we skipped singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic—”Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”—because this song had been the North’s battle song during the Civil War. And we were in Jackson, Mississippi. And it was the 1960s when that history still very much mattered.

Today, in 2016, I returned to church for the first time in many years as a Mississippi property owner. Up until then, I’d been thinking of our new house on the Gulf Coast as 45 minutes from New Orleans. An extension of our lives in the Big Easy, where history is more defined by Jazz and pirates, French and Spanish architecture, and Creole cooking than the typical concerns of “Southern” history. Or I’d been focusing on the “ALL are welcome here” signs I’d seen in almost every Bay St. Louis store window, an explicit rejection of the anti-gay hate bills the Mississippi legislature recently passed. But we are back in Mississippi, no doubt about it—yesterday at the local 4th of July celebration I heard nothing but country music blasting from pickup trucks.

Inside the sanctuary of the tiny Episcopal church, the windows opened to the gulf, sunlight sparkling off the rippling bay. From another window, you gazed at an angel carved from the remnants of a Hurricane Katrina oak. The hurricane obliterated the church, along with so much of the coast. The church rebuilt, and the angel now stands witness on its grounds.

As we slowly proceeded through the Episcopal liturgy, I couldn’t take my eyes from the windows. What matters the complicated theology we have worked out in our heads when the sunlight glances like diamonds off the tiny waves? How important is the exclusivity of “the only son of God” proclamation when the blue of ocean spreads freely into the azure sky? It was a perfect combination for me. A God-filled sanctuary—a backdrop, a foundation—from whence I could experience God in creation.

Then the choir began to sing the Offertory anthem, that being the song the choir performs while the church is collecting donations. The choir was small, wobbly. Maybe eight people. But brave-hearted. On this Sunday of the 4th of July in Bay St.Louis, Mississippi the church sang as its anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

I have no idea if they did it on purpose. I don’t know if people even think anymore about the overlays once imposed on the song. But, for me, with my history, it was a moment.

A church in Mississippi was singing as its offering on July 4th Sunday the former battle song of the North. When the aging, white-people choir sang about the coming of the Lord, I heard the Lord’s arrival in them choosing this song. I heard reconciliation. Repudiation of division and a choosing of America. The United States of America.

Change comes with a slow creakiness and then it is upon us. It is our place to recognize it when it arrives.

An Outside Plant

He had one plant, small.

I had three hanging baskets and two big ferns, fat.

He’d been there when I arrived, he and his wife wandering among the plants. It was mid-day Wednesday, no one else at the nursery. A young, spring day. The swarms of eager Memphians hadn’t yet descended on the unsuspecting begonias and geraniums. No one in sight. Except me. Him. His wife.

When I’d wrangled my ferns onto the cart, I pulled them behind me toward the checkout. The clerk was watering the hanging baskets. Earlier, I’d asked him where his ferns might be. He directed me to the back. He’d been nice, polite. Absolutely fine.

I pointed my cart toward the clerk’s row. In the meantime, the man had separated from his wife. He approached the clerk in front of me. He was older. I’m older, but he was older than me. Slight. African American.

He asked the clerk a question. The clerk asked him to repeat his question. “Indoor or out?” he asked, holding his plant with both hands. “Outdoor,” the clerk answered, curt. He looked over the man’s head. At me. Behind the man. He asked, “Are you ready to check out?”

The man said yes.

The clerk said no, I meant her. He put down his hose and moved to the checkout. He bypassed the man standing there, holding his plant. A yellow flower. In a yellow pot. With delicate buds about to open. The clerk was white. I am white. I’ve already told you the man’s race. His wife, now waiting at the checkout, was African American.

The clerk positioned himself behind the counter. He waited for me to step forward.

I’ve been at such a moment before. Many times. Mostly when the white clerk looks into a sea of waiting customers and picks me, the white face, out of the crowd. That strikes me as colorblindness, by which I mean the inability to see the people of color waiting. Focusing instead on the “important” person in the group. The white person. When that happens and I step aside for those there first, the clerk seems genuinely surprised, as if she didn’t know others had been there before me.

This was different. It wasn’t an oversight. It was intentional. It was as if the clerk were angry at the man for something he had done to the clerk. Like showing up at the nursery wanting to buy his one small plant.

I said, “No.” I motioned to the couple. “They were here before me. Y’all go ahead.”

The man’s wife said, “Oh, no, that’s okay.” The man said, “We’re not in any hurry.” The clerk said nothing. The wife nodded at me to go ahead. 

I bought my expensive plants. The clerk yakked the whole time he rang me up. Nervous, it seemed to me, flustered maybe ’cause I refused his offer of priority. When he finished my order, he turned to the couple. “Let me get her packed in the car, and I’ll be right with you.” He said it to the man, but it was like he was saying it for me: See? You’re wrong—I didn’t mean a thing in the world by it. 

After the plants were securely in the car, I left. I did not see the clerk ring up the man’s flower. I hope the man went home and knelt in his yard and scooped up dirt and patted in his flower and now he’s sitting on his porch with his wife, waiting for it to grow. An outside plant. A tough plant. It’ll do fine in the Memphis sun, as long as the rest of us leave it alone.

I went to junior high and high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte was the home I returned to in college and law school. When my daddy died, I sang over his grave: “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.”

The North Carolina legislature recently passed a new law authorizing LGBT discrimination. The law requires men and women to use the restroom of their birth gender. It also prohibits cities from passing ordinances that protect transgender or gay citizens. (It does much more, removing the right of North Carolina citizens to sue in the state courts for any type of discrimination, but that’s another issue.)

The impetus for the legislative action was the city of Charlotte’s passage in February of a pro-LGBT ordinance. The law expanded protection of sexual orientation and gender identity. As they say, the legislature couldn’t handle it, and they jumped up a special session to take away cities’ rights to make these decisions for themselves.

National companies have been acting in justifiable outrage. Paypal canceled plans to build a multi-million dollar operations center. Bruce Springsteen canceled an upcoming concert. Others have made similar calls for action—Charles Barkley wants the NBA to move its All-Star game.

The All-Star game is held in Charlotte. The Paypal center was to be built in Charlotte. The Boss’s concert was to be held in Greensboro.  So the progressive cities—those who were trying to protect LGBT rights—are paying the price for the state legislators’ bigotry. The NFL, making the distinction between Charlotte and its state legislature, has been noted as one of those who aren’t taking a “stronger stand.”

What is to be done? All across the South, a similar progressive/conservative breach exists between cities and rural areas. Urban areas, progressive. Rural areas, conservative. The divide is as wide as that which separates progressive states from conservative states. Southern cities float like islands in a hostile land. This is true in my state of Tennessee. It’s true in Louisiana where we live part-time in New Orleans. While I know many folks in small North Carolina towns who are actively fighting discrimination of all kinds, this general divide appears to be true in my daddy’s beloved North Carolina as well.

Will the North Carolina legislature care if Charlotte suffers? I don’t know. In Tennessee, when the legislature passes laws that hurt Memphis or Nashville, the legislature doesn’t give two f***s. Because the state legislative leaders—and their constituents—are from the rural areas. Or sometimes they’re from suburbs that hate the cities that pump their life blood. Either way, the health of the cities is not their concern. North Carolina appears to have exceptions to this rule (what’s wrong with you, Raleigh?), but most of the leadership lives in places I’m having to look up on the map to find.

My solution? Those who want to protest discriminatory laws passed by Southern states should take action in the areas where the state legislative leaders live. The state leaders are passing laws to please their constituents. Thus, their constituents should pay the price for any backlash against those laws. Yes, this is a bit more difficult than a wholesale state boycott, requiring more precise decision-making. But I’m going to make it easier for you. Here are the counties the leaders of the North Carolina state legislature represent:

North Carolina House Leadership:
Speaker: Speaker Tim Moore: Cleveland
Speaker Pro Tempore: Representative Paul Stam: Wake
Majority Leader: Representative Mike Hager: Burke
Deputy Majority Leader: Representative Marilyn Avila: Wake
Majority Whip: Representative John R. Bell, IV: Craven, Greene, Lenoir, Wayne
Deputy Majority Whips: Representative Dean Arp: Union
Representative James L. Boles, Jr.: Moore

North Carolina Senate Leadership:
President: Lt. Governor Dan Forest: statewide
President Pro Tempore: Senator Phil Berger: Guilford, Rockingham
Deputy President Pro Tempore: Senator Louis Pate: Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne
Majority Leader: Senator Harry Brown: Jones, Onslow
Majority Whip: Senator Jerry W. Tillman: Moore, Randolph

What the hell is in Moore County, you might ask? Answer: Pinehurst Golf Course, which has hosted the US Open and plans on doing so again, as well as the US Amateur Championship. USGA, are you listening? Burke County touts its filmmaking credits, and part of The Hunger Games were filmed in Cleveland County. Filmmakers, are you listening?

Maybe none of this boycotting matters. Greensboro is in Guilford County, so you’d think Bruce’s cancellation would’ve gotten President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s attention. Instead, he issued a bizarre public statement full of convoluted logic. Still, (cynically) I trust the power of money over morals. Particularly grandstanding morals. In time, it adds up.

My point: if you’re going to boycott over LGBT discrimination, spread the love into the nooks and crannies where North Carolina legislators live. I’m sure they’ll thank you for (not) stopping by.

Black Lives Matter More Than Fear

I’m thinking about #Black Lives Matter and my surprise at the backlash against it. #Black Lives Matter began in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Florida for murdering Trayvon Martin. Coined by Alicia Garza, the phrase has grown to encompass all deaths of Black folks following encounters with police. Pure chance led me to follow #Black Lives Matter on Twitter a long time ago. It’s my go-to source for what’s happening in today’s civil rights movement. I feel like I’ve kinda gotten to know the young folks who founded and breathed life into the movement. I knew DeRay‘s blue vest before it had its own Twitter account. I admire these brave men and women.

So I was taken aback when people began responding to #Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter, which seemed rude to me. Argumentative, really—no, not Black lives, all lives. The topic under discussion had been set by BLM—we’re talking about times when folks act as if Black lives don’t even matter—and others (white folks, mostly) were grabbing the spotlight to shine it back on themselves. As if no conversation could take place without them being center stage.

Then some Black elders began to chastise the kids. “You aren’t doing it right. Look at the way we did it in the 1960s. Do it that way.” Respectability politics, I think they call this, but I don’t know. Again, it seemed like the old folks were trying to horn in on the young people’s moment, hoping to remind people they were still relevant. (Take a look back and be astonished how young John Lewis and Diane Nash and even Rosa Parks were—Ms. Parks is portrayed as a little old lady, but she was not).

Finally, the police popped up with Blue Lives Matter. I halfway understand that. Police think Black Lives Matter is against them, so they elbow their way in to holler, “No, we matter!”

But do the police really believe we don’t value their lives? Is there any town in America that doesn’t turn out en masse when a police officer is killed? We mourn the deaths of those who sign up to “serve and protect.” We grieve the loss of their lives. We commemorate them with renamed highways and memorials and funds to care for their left-behind spouses and orphaned children. That is the way it should be and it is. Of course, the Blue Lives Matter response could just be an attempt to silence criticism. Or it’s possible police officers do feel undervalued, aware we use the police out of fear for our own safety and only really care about them when something bad happens.

So we’ve divided ourselves into sides, all of us standing in a circle shouting at one another. Pro-police, anti-Black Lives Matter; pro-Black Lives Matter, anti-police. As if police aren’t us. As if, in fact, we—by which I mean those of us society sees as capable of influencing policy—aren’t the ones who tell police how to act.

Sometimes we give direct orders, the way Ferguson, Missouri did. Police in Ferguson were harassing African Americans like Mike Brown because the town wanted the money that tickets brought in. That’s what the Justice Department’s investigation found. The Ferguson police weren’t acting in a vacuum or out of character; they were paying the town’s bills, as directed by the city fathers. 

Other times we give orders indirectly, by letting the police know we will tolerate the harassment of “criminals” (read: poor Black folks) as long as the police promise to keep us safe.

It’s not working. Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Darrius Stewart and Freddie Gray and Walter Scott and Jonathan Ferrell and Corey Jones and all the other unarmed Black men and women tell us it’s costing lives and money—cities are routinely settling cases for millions and millions of dollars while we remain locked in debate over the particulars of whose fault each instance is. But surely we can agree we don’t want police killing unarmed African American citizens?

As President Obama said in the context of criminal justice reform:

I think the reason the organizers used the phrase “black lives matter” was not because they were suggesting that nobody else’s lives mattered. Rather, what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in African American communities that is not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.

Maybe fear keeps us from really addressing this. When I read white folks suggesting everything would be okay if Black folk would just start obeying the police, I don’t just hear victim blaming. I hear fear. Fear of the police. Fear of noncompliance. Fear of even asking questions. The fear is greater than the respect for known rights. And when Black folk are advised to act like white folk in their interaction with police, what I conclude is Black folk are braver than white folks. African Americans and #BlackLivesMatter are the standard-bearers for the rights of all of us, and they are paying the price of that bravery, for all of us. 

Whenever I look back on the civil rights movement, I’m puzzled by those who observed from the sidelines. I have little patience for the leaders who urged patience and propriety. I really don’t like the lock-jawed police who held the billy clubs, giving the upstanding citizens time to debate the merits of such an obvious evil as segregation.

My turn has rolled around. I don’t want to be in the position of saying, damn—I wish I’d spoken out against a system that over and over and over again justified the extra-judicial killing of unarmed Black Americans.

I support #Black Lives Matter.

THAT’s Creativity?

Creativity is the glue that holds my life together. This week in my creative life, I:

  • re-explored Facebook’s Notes feature
  • published a long, involved blog post
  • put together a new outfit that I liked so much I wore it two days in a row
  • did final edits on an essay before sliding it into the metaphorical drawer for its “out of sight/out of mind” resting period
  • began reading the Count of Monte Cristo as research for the new pirate novel
  • made up a story for Searcy while he sucked on his nighttime bottle
  • drafted the next blog post (not this one!)
  • decide to offer, and began formulating, a creativity workshop for next year
  • designed pirate costumes for Tom and me
  • conversed about a new blog for the Door of Hope writing group
  • crafted many sentences for FB status updates
  • boiled sea oats to (possibly) make a cross
  • filed essays and short stories with umpteen literary journals (really not part of my creative life, but necessary business support of that life)
  • back-and-forthed on a custom Thumb Prayer request
  • drafted my vocational credo
  • plotted the redesign of my front yard
  • critiqued a friend’s essay
  • tinkered with my Pinterest boards on the new beach house
  • revised a short story for submission to Conjunction’s “Friendship” issue
  • updated an essay that won a contest but was never published
  • snapped a few pictures

 

How about you? How much of your daily life actually involves creativity? No, I didn’t create a musical or theatrical masterpiece. I do my work in clothes, the blank page, home and yard, detritus as art material. The commonness of the medium does not make it any less creative.

Where does your creativity spill out? Do you give yourself credit for the impulse? For the talent? Do you see the love in doing what you do?

Do you call those without housing “the homeless”?

Do you talk about “entitlements”?

When someone commits a crime, do you respond with “thugs”?

James Deke Pope, who has served on the Community Advisory Board of Memphis’s Africa in April, suggests we pay attention to the language we use and change it if necessary. Mr. Pope attended the race and power workshop at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral last weekend, which I wrote about here. At the end of the gathering when the time came to offer comments, Mr. Pope suggested we quit saying “police force” and rename them “peace keepers.”

Can you feel the shift that occurs with that change?

Another reaction might occur too. Maybe you don’t fundamentally agree with the implication of the change. “Well, they aren’t peace keepers. They’re enforcers of the law.” As they say, it’s not just semantics.

Whether you see reactions as “riots” or “uprisings”—another Mr. Pope suggestion—will, in fact depend on your world view. The point, of course, is to be aware of your world view and use language accordingly.

I’m sure Mr. Pope’s suggestion resonated with me because I am a writer. I deal in words. But the truth is, we all deal in words. Every day. We choose how to characterize something. If you share my frequent laziness, you might go with the flow and use whatever words everyone else is using. Or you might roll your eyes at this focus on words as political correctness. (The Tennessee legislature so objected to a non-gendered pronoun they’re holding hearings on it.) But remember the shift from police force to peacekeepers. It’s not just words. Beneath the words lie positions. We should all respect ourselves well enough to think about whether our words properly reflect our positions.

If you believe there is no such thing as a monolithic bloc known as “the homeless,” you might want to say “men and women experiencing homelessness,” in recognition that this is a time in a person’s life, not the person.

If you believe that those receiving assistance paid taxes for many, many years before needing some help, you might not want to call them “entitlements.”

If you decry broad brush racial stereotyping that effectively dehumanizes people, “thugs” might not be your go-to word.

You probably have your own suggested word changes. Mine, obviously, come from my own world view and life experiences. Words. Help me to thoughtfully set them adrift in the world.

 

 

I thought I’d be shot. Dean Andy Andrews announced that, following the Wednesday morning service, he would be walking the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He invited us to join him. I attended the Wednesday service, but I believed if I walked in the neighborhood I’d be shot.

You need to know: Alabama Avenue, which runs directly behind the cathedral, was at one point called out as one of the most dangerous streets in the city. Cathedral staff regularly heard the pop! of gunfire. The Cathedral was predominantly white; the neighborhood predominantly black. But Andy was determined to get to know our neighbors, hence the walking-and-praying plan.

I prayed about whether to make the walk. At the end of the praying, I was no less convinced I’d be shot. But I figured we all had to die sometime, and I’d feel worse if Andy went by himself and got shot than I would if I went and got shot. So I showed up in the parking lot with the gaggle of white folks who agreed to walk. After a prayer, our ragtag group set out. We were led—thank you, Jesus—by an African-American congregant who was a local activist and schooled us on how not to rile up our more dangerous neighbors. “Pick up trash” she said. “That way they won’t be worried about what you’re up to, coming into their neighborhood.”

Cross from chip bags picked up in the neighborhood
Cross from chip bags picked up in the neighborhood

I didn’t get shot. No one got shot. No one even got accosted or yelled at. We got some hard stares until we became a fixture on Wednesday mornings. I kept it up until my hips gave out and I had to quit. Over the course of those walks the neighborhood morphed from something I drove quickly through to houses I recognized, store owners I’d bought chips from, a discovered tucked-away park.

Saturday morning, I was thinking about this episode of fear as I listened to the Very Reverend Mike Kinman from Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis speak. I was attending a St. Mary’s workshop with a really long title but, essentially, it concerned race, white privilege, and Ferguson.

I’ve been so several of these types of workshops, and sometimes they fall flat. This one didn’t. I wondered why. Maybe because the day began with love. The group was directed to remember love. To discuss with others at the table a specific instance of when you felt loved. Often, such workshops begin with a video or images designed to reveal white privilege. I find these exercises interesting, but even so they can come across with a kind of “gotcha” feel. Love is reassuring.

Flame in the Rock
Flame in the Rock

Significantly, we were also asked to share a time when we didn’t feel loved. It’s hard to be standoffish with another human being after you’ve revealed such a thing. Most interesting, the responses at my table—both loved and unloved—often went to community. Feeling loved: teams, classrooms, writing groups ( 🙂 ). Feeling unloved: school classes, work situations. We are a relationship species, and a workshop designed to build relationship had to be on the right track.

The day ended with relationship, too. The Dean asked us to covenant with one other person in the room to continue the conversation. The woman sitting next to me, a stranger, and I covenanted to get together. She’d responded when I blurted out that Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and I was weepy about everything, so be prepared. This random confession—one I didn’t want to make—may have been the thing she most connected with.

Transformed
Transformed

So, anyway. I’ll add “Attend a workshop” to the list of things I’ve shared that you can do if your desire to address racism has been piqued by recent events. I’ll also pass along two websites the Dean recommended. Campaign Zero which breaks down problems and provides policy solutions for which you can volunteer. I haven’t studied it, but it looks good.

The other site he recommended was the fairly famous Harvard test for implicit racial bias, entitled (surprise, surprise) implicit.harvard.edu I took this online test 5 or more years ago and scored somewhat high on bias for European Americans, which, sadly, both whites and blacks frequently do.

This time I showed a moderate bias for African-Americans, which I found curious. The test is facial-recognition based, and perhaps I’ve spent more time in the company of African-American faces the last 5 years? I don’t know, but, honestly, it doesn’t much matter. I resolved many years ago to admit I have racial prejudice and to never forget it, or else my many years in a racist society (I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s when racism was the law) would default me to a racist reaction more often than not.

Before I sign off, an even simpler thing you can do is create a #BlackLivesMatter list on Twitter. It’s an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in the movement, and if you’re like me, you’ll learn immeasurably from it. If you want a harder schooling, tweet something in support of the movement, using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Then wait for the deluge of racists who troll this conversation to flood forth, calling you and the #BlackLIvesMatter supporters every ugly name in the book. Never again will you believe we live in a post-racial America. You’ll also develop immense respect for those who are courageous enough to do this work.

“Yes, I Mind!”

So, here’s a story, one of my favorite from my young adult years. My sister went to visit her husband’s constitutional law class. The class is full of first year law students at a prestigious law school. Big bombastic law professor (this is the way I remember it.) Anyway, the professor leads the class in a call-and-response. He says, “When the police knock on your door and ask, ‘Mind if we look around?’, you say?”

And the entire class shouts back, “Yes! I! Mind!”

It so tickled me, this professor and his preppy law students. All of these wet-behind-the-ears men and women learning to become big fancy lawyers, and he’s re-training them like kindergarteners (“Please.” “Thank you.” “May I be excused?”) about their constitutional rights.

That’s the story, and here’s the question: you think he’s still doing it? Do you think the professor today leads his class in the call-and-response, “When the police pull you over and ask, “Mind putting out your cigarette?’, you say?”

Do you think the class still gleefully responds “Yes! I! Mind!”?

If the professor has kept up his rights training, do you think maybe one day the Dean of the law school pays him a visit? “Now, George, (or Garret or Gerald or whoever he was),” the Dean says, “do you think this talk about constitutional rights is a good idea? I mean, we all know theoretically it’s correct. But what if some of these students actually put these ideas into action? What if they start asserting their rights, and the police turn them around, slap them down, and arrest them? If that happens, we’ll be deluged with calls from angry parents, tuition-paying parents—we’ll be sued! Would you mind laying off that kind of talk?”

And the professor says, “Yes, I mind. It’s their right to know their rights.”

At which point the Dean turns him around, smacks him down, and fires him, because he’s one of those wild-ass, bad-apple Deans.

Did I mention the professor was Black? Okay, I just made him Black because he stood up for his rights, and it seems to me Black folks are the only ones standing up for their rights. Whether it’s through words or actions, Black folk are like, “What the hell are you talking about? I know my rights,” while white folks are like, “It’s cool, it’s cool. I ain’t got no rights. Just let me go, and I won’t complain.” I’m reading all over the internet this “just keep your mouth shut” advice from white folks to Black folks. Rational? Or simply unwilling to go Bob Marley and stand up for your rights?

Please don’t think I’m being flip about this. I understand that traffic stops are highly unpredictable and at any one of them the officer might encounter some sovereign citizen crazy person who pulls out a shotgun; I remember the police officers killed right across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas. What I’m trying to talk about is when police don’t do the job they are supposedly trained to do and infringe on constitutional rights left and, well, right.

Total aside: do you know your rights? Do you have faith that the policeman who stops you knows your rights? Do you wonder how many billions of dollars we pay out in lawsuit settlements because cops don’t respect your rights? If you don’t know your rights, and you don’t exercise them, the Supreme Court one day will say, look, no one’s exercising their rights—guess they don’t care about them; let’s just give the police all the rights. True story; or at least a prediction.

And, by the way, what’s going on with this rogue Dean of the law school? What happened to the accreditation agencies that are supposed to make sure Deans don’t act like nut-jobs? Why are the oversight agencies saying, well, that’s just how some Deans are?

What I’m asking is, how did we get to this place where police are viewed, even by their defenders, as a crap shoot? Where you don’t know which officer you might encounter, the amazing one that goes over and beyond in doing his or her job, or the one that will arrest your ass because your attitude sucks? We should respect our police officers, we’re told, but when did “respect” become a euphemism for fear?

I don’t know about you, but I’m figuring we need better training—rogue Deans can’t be slapping down beloved professors, willy-nilly. I’m not saying this only because I’ve had some great law professors—my grandfather was the Dean of the University of North Carolina Law School. I grew up full of admiration for Deans—you could achieve no higher pinnacle in my estimation. Deans hold a special place in my heart, and I admire those who defend them. I care about too many great Deans to see them defined by those who don’t know what the crap they’re doing.

For the sake of the good Deans, we have to better train our Deans to eliminate the disparity in Dean competence. We gotta insist on better review of our Deans so we don’t tolerate incompetence. We gotta better discipline our Deans so we don’t retain Deans who simply don’t have what it takes to be a Dean. We must institute civilian review boards and support their efforts to oversee our Deans.

The last thing I want is for a wonderful Dean—or policeman—to be doing an excellent job, bettering the future of America, only to have all hell rain down on his or her head because nobody trusts them anymore.

What Can I Do—the Bree Model

She had a crisis of faith. But so much went before that. Her work, her reading, her awareness. Her travel, her commitment, her participation. Her use of her talent. Her love of God. In her statement following her direct nonviolent action of removing the Confederate flag from where it flew on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, Ms. Brittany “Bree” Newsome gives us an outline of what we can do.

In her statement, Ms. Newsome, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, pegs the start of her activism two years ago with Moral Mondays, the movement led by Rev. William Barber in Raleigh, NC. The Moral Mondays movement was birthed after the North Carolina legislature moved to cut early voting, end same-day voter registration, and require ID at the polls. The movement has spread to other Southern states, maybe one you live in.

As the killing of Trayvon Martin and the tear-gassing in Ferguson and the police lockdown in West Baltimore unfolded, Ms. Newsome linked these incidents with Emmett Till,  Klan activity witnessed by her grandmother, and freedom papers required by slave-catchers. She put the events in historical context, using both personal family history and national history. Histories she knew well enough to provide needed context. Maybe you, too, know such a personal and national history.

Ms. Newsome is a community organizer—”I organize alongside other community members striving to create greater self-sufficiency and political empowerment in low-income neighborhoods”—whose background is in the  arts. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she’s done incredible work in film and music, won prestigious awards and recognition, sent amazing creativity into the world. You, too, might have an artistic expression that motivates you to engage with your part of the world.

The night of the Charleston Massacre, Ms. Newsome suffered “a crisis of faith.” She saw the members of Emmanuel AME Church doing simply what Christians are supposed to do: invite others to join their Bible Study. For that, they were murdered. Yet, Ms. Newsome refused to be ruled by fear. “How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?” You, too, might have experienced a spiritual crisis, followed by a resolve that even surprises you.

Her reaction was to meet with her community.  She had in place a small group of concerned citizens, both black and white, who represented various walks of life, spiritual beliefs, gender identities and sexual orientations” to whom she could turn to discuss and discern the next step. As you, too, perhaps have such a diverse, thoughtful, supportive community.

Together, this group charted a course of action. The action would require people to take different roles. One—a black woman—to scale the pole at the South Carolina capitol. One—a white man—to stand in solidarity with her (and actively help her over the fence). Other roles, too. Including roles that you might find fit your comfort level.

While part of a group discernment, Ms. Newsome knew why she, personally, was taking action. Her reasons were not simple or limited. Her concerns might not have been shared by everyone in her community. But they were hers, and she knew them as clearly as the sun shining in the blue sky. Same way you might have concerns that motivate your life.

As Ms. Newsome climbed the pole, James Tyson helped her across the fence then stood guard as she climbed. He accepted the flag when she brought it down. This was entirely thought out. As Mr. Tyson has said, because white supremacy was created by white people, white people must step up and take a role in dismantling it. Ms. Newsome credited Mr. Tyson with “moral courage” as a white ally. Never, she said, should this be viewed as being about one woman. Maybe you also lean on and expect the support of others when you act.

At the bedrock of Ms. Newsome’s actions was her Christian faith. As she acted, she recited from the Bible. She recognizes not everyone comes at this fight from a faith perspective, but she does “100%.” Just as you might find that your concern, courage, and caring originates with your faith.

Lastly, Ms. Newsome explicitly encourages others. “I encourage everyone to understand the history, recognize the problems of the present and take action to show the world that the status quo is not acceptable.” National issue or local issue, she wants us to do what we know is right. She wants us to be “one of many.” To participate in this “multi-leader movement.” Same as the national or local issue you feel compelled to act on.

Did I say lastly? No. Lastly, she holds true to herself. “All honor and praise to God.” When I think of the symmetry of this—a white man murders nine African-Americans in church and an African-American woman takes down his symbol of hatred as she recites Psalm 27 (“‘The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?'”), I want to weep. She exhibited what the Huffington Post called “staggering faith.” Can you imagine how exposed she felt high on that pole? And yet she climbed.

As Denise Oliver Velez at Daily Kos says, “Activism is a process. We need to learn from those people who make a decision to fight for change and justice and follow their examples.”

If so, Ms. Newsome’s teaching example is 1) know your history 2) use your passion/talent to act 3) stay in tune with your spiritual life 4) be part of a community you trust 5) discern your role 6) know your personal motivations 7) recognize your support team 8) encourage others to act in ways right for them 9) stay true to yourself.

So there. That’s what we can do. Easy, right?

What Can I Do?

I’m starting a new series here. I’m announcing this new series so you can skip over my followup posts if you want, ’cause I’m a polite Southern woman, and I sure don’t want to impose. But some of you want these posts. I know you do because I’ve been reading your comments and the question you’ve been asking as a result of the terrible murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. is, “What can I do?”

I don’t know what you can do. Well, that’s a confidence-inspiring beginning, isn’t it? But hang in there. What I do know is that some of the best news of the Good News is that we aren’t all feet. Or heads. Or ears. We each get to discern our own role in being God’s body on earth. I’m not gonna cite the Bible because, Lord, that gives me the willies, but it’s in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Sr. Simone Campbell on Krista Tippett‘s show On Being revealed herself to be stomach acid.) Paul’s “body of God” analogy is worth finding because—of all things—it has Paul, the king of interminable yadda, yadda, yadda, being funny.

So. You will need to figure out what you can do. But, if you’re like me and you love nothing more than being in community, MORE GOOD NEWS! You don’t have to figure it out alone. Nor, if you’re like me, do you have to discern correctly right out of the box. In fact, who’s to say I ever discern correctly? I may never know the true value of what I do. That’s okay. I do the best I can, and I trust others are doing the best they can. I duck my head and focus on my own little God wagon. And when I look up, I see the community that is supporting me in my trying. There’s a lot of comfort in that.

In this series, I’m gonna share names of groups, speakers, essays, events, columns, memoirs, paintings, classes, tweeters, pages, and other opportunities that have in function helped me answer the question: what can I do to fight racism?

I say “in function” because I did not begin this journey wondering how I could help combat racism. My feet first hit this path when I left my Mississippi home and moved to Memphis and, like Lot’s wife, I paused and looked over my shoulder. I, too, turned to salt. I stood transfixed by my ignorance. Ignorance of my state’s history. Of the country’s history. Of racial history. I read and read and read and read. Then, in one of those evolutionary dog-legs where sudden change occurs, my husband asked Evelyn Baker, what is this Memphis School of Servant Leadership I hear you speak of? He and I began taking classes, one of which was Racism to Reconciliation. I began facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, a group whose members have experienced homelessness and who published its first book last year, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. And I kept reading.

Major disclaimer here: I’m still not sure I’m doing anything to end racism. If this confuses you, refer to paragraph 3 above.

With that out of the way, here’s my kick-off organization. Drum roll, please: the Memphis School of Servant Leadership!!! I know. If you were paying attention, you already guessed. It’s a dynamic organization. Things are happening all the time. Follow them on the FaceBook page. Or if you prefer a group, you can join here. The current inspiration asks us to create and post signs with the hashtag DontBurnOurBlackChurches. Here’s how MSSL arrived at that action:

Today we met at the table to discuss Racism to Reconciliation.
We met Black, White, young, old, weary, fresh, seeking and knowing—- all Beloved.
In the tension and in the tender moments we listened to each other, shared thoughts and frustrations and then we strategized.
We’re not finished but we ask you to join us.
White Brothers and Sisters please post a picture of yourself with a sign saying {{{Don’t Burn Our Black Churches}}} using the hashtag #DontBurnOurBlackChurches. OUR STATEMENT: 
Seven Black Churches have burned since Charleston. We, white people, stand in solidarity with the Black Christian community. Arsons are intended to intimidate, silence and disembody Black people.Not in our name, Community Friends of The Memphis School of Servant Leadership

Obviously, you can join this movement even if you’re not in Memphis. Or—this is so very important—this activity might not be for you. I’m making a big commitment here, but I truly promise to keep going and post about other avenues I’ve used in my path of discerning. Maybe a later post will strike a chord with you. Until then, I’ll throw out a few more options:

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow, David M. Oshinsky. Because one day at Square Books in Oxford, during the time of my life when I automatically went first to the African American section of bookstores, I spied this book, unaware it would send me on a journey of discovery about my family’s racist past.

Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer. Because listening is a vital skill to bring with you on this path and, while I’m not altogether certain this is the best Parker Palmer book to learn his listening techniques, it will have to do.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh. Because when I read on the list in this foundational essay the fact that “flesh tone” bandages match my skin, I mused, hunh–I already thought of that, and it always makes me feel smart to have my own observations confirmed.

Wendi C. Thomas‘s Facebook page. She’s a journalist who this fall will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Better jump on her bandwagon now. Seriously, she does so much of the work for you; all you have to do is read.

The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman. Because he spoke to me so completely, and he might to you too. Besides, I need something of beauty on this list.

 

First, There is Racism

When my husband and I built our house at Pickwick Lake, we built it into the high bluffs that circle the lake. In order for this to work, the architect had to take steel beams and drive them through the shifting mud until he hit bedrock. The house was thus anchored and then built around these beams.

I keep thinking of this image as I ponder the murders in Charleston, South Carolina. What I keep seeing is that the steel beams anchoring the house of America is racism. Yes, the house we’ve built around these beams has many wonderful things, particularly an impetus to help others during times of need. But the beams are there, firmly embedded in the rock, holding up the house.

I can’t wish away the beams. I can’t pretend they aren’t holding up the house. I have to say, hunh–look at that. Without these beams, we wouldn’t have the country we have. Slaves built the White House. Slaves built Wall Street. Leased convicts and sharecroppers and Jim Crow labor—our entire economy has segued from one racist exploitation to the next. The steel beams of racism have run through our American house since we laid the 3/5 brick then wearied of Southern complaint and let Reconstruction lapse into Jim Crow and then discovered the magic of mass incarceration. Was this racism necessary to build the house we chose? Could we have created a wonderful country without it? Sure, but that’s not what we chose. We white Americans chose where we wanted to go and we chose racism as the tool to get us there. We forged those beams and hammered them into the bedrock and never looked back.

Now what do I do? First, I own it. I quit crawfishing. I quit attributing our social problems to everything but our bedrock racism. When our racism erupts into view I do not automatically blame mental illness. Lack of gun control. Erosion of family values. Economic disparity. Too little God in our lives. When our leaders and those around me try to obfuscate, I say, well, first, there’s racism.

First, there’s racial hatred. When I’m unwilling to purely and cleanly condemn white culture’s jokes, name-calling, “Southern” pride, and revisionist history. When I deny the pain we’re causing with our racist statues and buildings and street names and flags and holidays. When I place other things above the pain we’re causing. When I cannot even admit we are causing pain, there’s racial hatred.

First, there’s obdurate racial blindness. When I believe I must somehow allow white people to be victims too; when I insist my white feelings be taken into account; when nine African-Americans have died at the hands of a racist white man and yet I must type all lives matter. When I cannot step off the stage, cannot keep from pushing myself into the forefront, cannot quit bleating about my own issues. When I feel the need to say, okay, but. When I don’t even realize it’s my white culture causing the problem, when I think the naming of pre-existing racism is divisive or hostile, there’s racial blindness.

First, there is racial denigration. When I refuse to acknowledge that we Americans have always used black lives to create our shelter, when I can’t see that we are still doing it. When I let state legislatures pass laws that place the burden of “progress” on black lives—balanced budgets, criminal reform, drug wars, voter ID: is there any social “problem” we haven’t asked blacks to bear the burden of solving?—then label it “politics” or “conservative” or “Southern” or “sound fiscal policies,” instead of calling it racism, there’s racial denigration. When I cannot admit the truth but keep adding stories to the racist house, then I must stop and say: first, there is racism.

First, there is racism.

First, there is racism.

What is the answer, what is the second thing? I don’t know. But I cannot go onto the second thing until I give up my vested interest in denying, until I give up any and all push-back against the reality, until I admit the first thing.

First, there is racism.

 

 

 

 

Taking It Up a Notch

Finished.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, I’ve finished reading The Bone Trench out loud. That took nine days. This weekend, I reworked a query letter and wrote a new synopsis, one page. These two documents have now been sent to my paid editor Gretchen so she can work her magic.

I don’t want to burden you with the entire documents. But here’s the opening to the synopsis:

It’s been said the role of the modern book is to start a conversation. In America, a major conversation is coalescing around mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. The Bone Trench asks—with scandalous irreverence—what would Jesus say in such a conversation?

This is from the query letter:

The Bone Trench features Jesus but is hardly religious. Mother Mary is a fantastical Mother of God, but her desire to be a better mother is universal. The historical truths at the heart of the novel are all too real—my desire to explore America’s repeated willingness to use prisoners for profit was triggered by my own family’s checkered history with prison management and convict leasing.

My experience has been that Gretchen can take a query letter up a notch or two, so I’m excited to see what she does with what I’ve sent her. Until then, I could be researching appropriate agents, but one of the main questions I’ve asked Gretchen is, what genre book is this?

I’m open to suggestions, and to help you along, here’s the opening:

The trench in Union Avenue wept.
At the bottom of the dirt trench, hemmed in by its steep, slick walls, Cat Thomas dug a path for a new distribution line, finishing what the backhoe had started. Cat’s nose twitched with the smell of Mississippi River muck. Sweat stung his eyes, and a blister between his thumb and forefinger tugged and burned. The Memphis Power Company worker hated this part of his job: the damp trench, the earthen walls clawed by the teeth of the backhoe, the wiggling earthworms sliced in two. Ignoring the traffic noises drifting from above, Cat slowly found the rhythm of his shovel and worked in the June heat the way he’d always worked, with muscled shoulders and a head full of replacement thoughts: his wife’s wobbly smile when she announced the coming of a child, the cold one waiting for him in the refrigerator at home, whether the grit-and-grind Grizzlies would ever win it all. Caught up in his own world, Cat rent the ground. Until his shovel scraped a human skull.

Thanks for following along my journey.

Easter Questions

My priest today said during the Easter season to keep asking questions, so here are mine:

* Why do we ask, “Why didn’t she leave him?” Why don’t we ask, “Why does he keep hitting her?”

* Can we view the world as a blob rather than a pyramidal hierarchy or dichotomy? No more top and bottom; no more this and that. Can we see it as us in one messy all?

* Why doesn’t Memphis claim the title of Cradle of Creativity? The Blues, Rock-and-Roll, Soul, Jooking, Crunk—is there another city that has birthed as many American musical styles? (This is a real question; LMK if there is)

* Can we start putting up statues to achievements? Wars are not achievements. Wars are failures. When we honor our dead with statues, we are trying to glean something good from something horrible. Why don’t we praise the just plain good?

* Where are the feminine or gender-neutral equivalents of brethren? Does anyone say “sistren”?

* Why do I notice every damn “he” we use in our Episcopal liturgy to the point I feel excluded by the sexist language and must orally interlineate changes constantly? (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of …”; “Praise him all creatures here below”). Am I the only Episcopalian who doesn’t see God as male?

* And while I’m complaining about the church service that birthed this practice of questioning (beware, always beware), why do hymn writers believe they can use words that orally do not rhyme (e.g.,”When Thomas first the tidings heard, how they’d seen the risen Lord”) Or am I supposed to sing “the risen Lerd”? Surely the lyricists remember the words will be SUNG?

* How long will it take me to accept the truth that I cannot enjoy new beginnings without first experiencing endings?

* Did Peeps become such a cultural icon because no one actually eats them?

* Will I soon travel to Ferguson, Missouri or North Charleston, SC or the next site of police killings of a Black man or woman? Am I living through the next iteration of the civil rights era I thought I’d studied only as history?

* If Hillary Clinton is elected president, will we experience a breakout of female hatred the way we’ve experienced racial hatred in reaction to President Obama?

* Is it “politics” if the lament comes to me naturally?

* What happened to the raccoon who used to climb my cottonwood tree at night, stealthy as Dracula?

* Do we truly appreciate the unalloyed moments of happiness when they present?

* Who will want my celluloid bunny collection when I die?

Bunnies
Bunnies

* How did I get so lucky as to have this life I have? How do I reconcile the joy I’ve been given with the pain so many experience?

* Did your pastor speak of Walter Scott today?

* Would your view of race differ if you realized you, in fact, have African blood?

* And yet and still, with all this enlightenment, why do I love The Mentalist?

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