June 8, 2009: On Flannery O’Connor and Race

Having recently taken a workshop on unlikable characters (Takeaway: Don’t get hung up on some readers’ need for sympathetic characterswhen writing fiction.), I have both created a main character who steals from her generous landlady/employer and reread Flannery O’Connor. Talk about unlikable characters!

O’Connor was Southern—as is my sticky-fingered protagonist—and self-identified as a Catholic writer, two more reasons why this Quaker fiction writer decided to read her again.

But, oh my: Much as I had yearned to learn from O’Connor’s art, her treatment of her black characters appalled me. Hoping I’d find something more, dare I say enlightened, I read her letters, too. Which, sad to say, made her worse in my eyes. Example: In one letter, she tells a story and uses “colored people.” In another letter, to a different friend, she tells the same story but says “niggers.” So don’t tell me she was a product of her time and place. She knew better.

Tons of writers have written about O’Connor and race (Check out Links for an excellent but looong piece.) I want to add my two cents:

My personal theory re why this severely ill (lupus), Southern, white, female, Catholic writer living during the civil rights movement (1925-1964) was so drawn to the grotesque, so convinced that the South was “Christ-haunted” and so clueless that it was, in fact, slavery-haunted, is that she was absolutely all of those defining words AND Irish-American.

My hero James Carroll wrote a wonderful piece in the Boston Globe today re Irish Catholics in light of the recent abuse scandal in Ireland. His point was that to the Irish Catholics, oppressed by the British and decimated by famine, “the Catholic Church had such a grip on the Irish psyche, if not soul. . . ”

No wonder her stories are so fiercely concerned with redemption! And Original Sin. No wonder she believed that “the Catholic writer, in so far as he [sic] has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that is, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” No “cafeteria-style Catholicism” for our Flannery, no sirree. She puts ALL of it on her tray. Add all that painful Irish history/baggage to her Irish-American, day-to-day struggle to be Catholic in small-town, Bible Belt Georgia and, maybe, just maybe, you’ve got yourself someone so caught up in her own spiritual identity and survival, she was absolutely blind to the horror of racism.


April 20, 2009: Now, listen my children. . . “

Today is Patriot’s Day which, to Boston Marathon or Red Sox fans, must seem like a silly name for this holiday. But, as I write this, a Paul Revere impersonator, in colonial garb and astride an actual horse, gallops towards Lexington and Concord having already stopped here in Somerville. (I don’t know if he’s yelling “The British are coming!” since we know, now, that PR never actually yelled that. But when my kids were little, PR impersonators sure did.)

So on this Patriot’s Day which, in a way, celebrates how the well-connected Paul Revere so effectively broadcast news in 1775, I am once again musing on how information is disseminated. Two other events this morning underline my ongoing fascination: 1) I stepped onto my porch this morning: no Boston Globe. “Ohmygod,” I thought. “It’s finally happened. The Globe’s gone belly up, too.” (But it was production problems so, no, the paper’s demise isn’t today, anyway.) 2) Daughters Hope and Christina have posed a video onto Utube so we’re avidly watching the count rate increase hourly. Not exactly viral as yet but gettin’ there. (Forgot to link the site but like a prayer cat gets you there.) Very exciting.

Like a prayer: My prayer is that this site can tell stories of racial injustice and my own cluelessness effectively.


March 25, 2009: “Night Tree Necktie Party”

We’re back after a wonderful CA trip a little jet-lagged, a little weary—but robustly certain we’re blessed by an amazing family. Yesterday, a little jet-lagged, a little weary, I was walking to Union Square when I noticed a poster announcing an upcoming show at a neighborhood club; Night Tree Necktie Party is the name of the band to be performing.

My first (jet-lagged, weary) reaction: Well, that’s no more  shocking or attention-grabbing than the Dead Kennedys, I guess.

Almost immediately I wondered: maybe it’s 2 bands. Night Tree Necktie Party doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue, does it?

But then, despite being jet-lagged and weary, I remembered a story—a story about lynching—included in several of the earlier drafts of Way Opens which didn’t make the final cut. And here it is:

Since Lynchburg’s name is so inescapably intertwined with the word lynch, in the earliest days of my leading, I’d done quite a bit of research about “necktie parties.” Such research stirred up a vague, vague memory of a black-and-white photograph of a lynching I’d seen as a child—probably in Life Magazine. Naively, I’d assumed such a photo to be one of a kind and therefore easy to locate so I’d asked a research librarian at the Somerville Public Library for help. She steered me to the Without Sanctuary exhibit  which, at the time, was online. (Maybe it still is.)

Determined to find my photograph, I briskly went through the site’s slide show: “Nope.” “Nope.” Finally, thank God, the horror  of what I’d been briskly rejecting hit me. My God, I realized. There are hundreds of such photographs! They show us, again and again, a black man—there were a few black women, too—dangling from a tree, a train trestle, etc., while a crowd of white people—hundreds of them in locales all over this country—watch, laugh, eat. Some of those photographs had been made into postcards. My God, I realized. Lynchings were far, far more prevalent than I’d ever imagined. Chastened, I forced myself to look at those pictures again, this time very slowly, lingering over every scene as I’d done as a child. And praying.

So, yeah, I get why an up-and-coming band gives itself an edgy name. But as my Buddhist/Catholic friend Dolores says, “There’s so much hatred and evil in the world. Why add to it?”




February 28, 2009: “Nation of Cowards”?

My dear friend Delia sent me a New York Times op-ed piece by Charles M. Blow re Attorney Eric Holder’s comment that we’re a “nation of cowards” because we don’t have frank conversations about race.

“I take exception to Holder’s language,” Blow says, “but not his line of reasoning. Calling people cowards is counterproductive. it turns the conversation into confrontation—moving it beyond the breach of true dialogue and the pale of real understanding.”

For what it’s worth: This week, I bumped into a bi-racial Somerville couple I’ve known for many years. We’re not close friends, but our lives overlap in several ways so we keep in touch. After we’d brought each other up to date—I’d asked about their daughter; they’d asked me how book sales were going—this husband-wife duo proceeded to tell stories about race and passing. Words we’d never spoken in each other’s presence before, words like “colored” and “Negro” and “prejudice” were said aloud.

Now I’ve known this couple for twenty years, I think, but this was the first time our “racial difference” (to quote a study mentioned in the Charles Blow piece.) was discussed.

Why now? First of all, because they’d initiated it. (Honestly? Even now, right this minute, looking back. I have no idea how I could have brought up the subject of race. No idea.) So why did they initiate this conversation? I think  because they’d hoped that the woman they know slightly who’d written Way Opens might be open to—and fascinated by—their stories. And they were right.

So, yeah, I’m perfectly willing to label myself a coward. But, I’d also like to humbly (Really!) suggest that some relationships, like the breezy, Hi-how-are-ya? interactions with a neighbor (who just might be a person of color), or the friendship/acquaintanceship I’ve had with this biracial couple, don’t offer much in the way of openings to begin “true dialogue.”

Or am I just being cowardly?

February 10, 2009: A teachable moment

Like Dickens, who walked the streets of London twenty miles a day, walking though my beloved community is integral to my writing process. This morning, delighted that the recent thaw meant I could actually stride entire blocks along Somerville’s Summer Street without watching out for ice,  I was mentally revising yesterday’s work and plotting  today’s writing when a voice behind me shouted “El-lah, el-lah.” (At least that’s what I thought I’d heard.) I kept walking. “El-lah, el-lah;” this time more loudly and emphatically. I turned around. An older woman, Haitian perhaps, wearing school crossing guard gear and carrying two empty cardboard cartons, pointed to my purple gloves which had—again!—fallen out of my coat pocket. (These gloves have the worst karma; they’re constantly almost lost. One time they fell onto a busy street. When I picked them up, they reeked of cat piss. How is that even possible?)

Now I’d already walked past this woman just as she’d been emptying those two cartons by tossing their contents into the street. Not cool. And, I must say, I was a little disturbed that a crossing guard’s command of English to be so minimal that she couldn’t shout, “Hey! Lady! You dropped your gloves!” (Again.) What if, God forbid, she had to warn a child of imminent danger? Huh?

So, I’m afraid, I was less than gracious when I picked up my gloves. I did not smile nor reward her with fulsome praise. Instead, I sort of glared at her, then muttered, “Thanks.” And kept walking.

Not half a block later, that same thinking-while-I walk process kicked right in, this time about what had just happened. Almost immediately, I realized several things:

1. My ungracious behavior very easily could have been explained by this older woman of color as racist. How easily my annoyance could be understood simply in black-white terms! She couldn’t have known how upsetting her trash-tossing had been to me. (Just writing this, I want to shake my own shoulders and shout, “Get over yourself!”)

2. “Maybe I should have used that moment to teach her a little English?” I wondered. Did I just blow a teachable moment? (And, yes, “The Class,” a French movie about teaching and race and blown teachable moments has been very much on my mind lately.)

“Whoa, girl,” another and wiser voice counseled. Teachable moments only work in teaching/learning settings. That woman had not signed up for your on-Summer-Street-on-a Tuesday-morning tutorial. No matter how warmly and kindly and lovingly  you’d instructed her: “Say ‘Excuse me!’ ” she would have, no doubt, decided you were no better than those other “English only” jerks. AND a racist to boot.

So. Not a teachable moment for her, apparently, but maybe a teachable moment for moi? One of the many ways Quakers talk about God, Spirit, etc, etc, is the Inward Teacher. Sometimes, like this morning, when I’m so caught up with my supreme righteousness that I am unable to be civil, i.e. to politely say “Thank you” and smile, I apparently need a Kindergarten-level Inward Teacher!

November 3, 2008: “Cook on a Slave Ship”

As noted when I guest-blogged for Hope, last Wednesday’s meals-and-sharing dinner conversation got a little heated (I’ll link what I wrote when Hope posts it.) At one point I tried (foolishly) to persuade “An Angry Black Man” to treat me like the person he’d known for 2 years instead of lumping me with the rest of the “White Devils” he was railing against. Kevin, another man at the table, decided to come to my defense. “Patricia’s like the cook on the slave ship who’s really nice to you and gives you extra food,” he said.

What? (Or, as I read on Hope’s blog that someone else’s mother said: WTF?)

Hard as it is to admit this, there is a painful truth in Kevin’s metaphor. (Simile, actually) When it comes to today’s systemic racism, I am complicit. Actually, the painful truth gets more horrific: I could have quit my cook job. But how do I get off this present-day ship?