February 8, 2010: New York City Story # 3

  1. [Note: These stories happened while I was staying in Brooklyn for much of January. As with much of this blog, these stories deal with race.]

January 9, 2010, Brooklyn Museum:

My dear friend Lynne has taken the train from Boston early this morning so that she and I can go to the Brooklyn Museum—she especially wants to see Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” part of the museum’s permanent exhibit since 2007.

It’s a Saturday; the place is packed. As so often happens in NYC, I am again struck by how many more people of color are here (the same thing happens on the subway, in the supermarket, etc, etc.) . That we’re in a museum begs me to consider how often I see anyone except white people in Boston’s cultural institutions. Answer: very, very few.

After Lynne and I sate ourselves on Chicago’s sumptuous banquet (Overhead: a little girl, wisely held in her mother’s arms, asks: “Can I sit there?” “We can all sit here,” her mother tells her.), we wander through other exhibits, opting out of the “Who Shot Rock and Roll” show because it’s so packed.

We find ourselves in a large exhibit hall adjoining a glass and steel storage area containing shelves and shelves of beautiful stuff. Already reeling from taking in so much—”museumitis”—although I’m curious to see what’s in this sort-of-displayed-but-not-really gallery, I don’t walk in.

But I reflect, as I did re the treasures I’d once found on Lynchburg’s Legacy Museum of African American History shelves: What gets displayed in any museum? And who decides?

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.


May 4, 2009: Yesterday’s Panel Discussion, Jamaicaway Books

This morning, when I saw a woman wearing a surgical mask walk past my house, I added another reason to the list of why yesterday’s panel discussion was so special. Reason # 5: People braved swine flu/”enclosed places” to come to the (extraordinary) Jamaicaway Books to talk about race.

Here were the first four reasons:

1. Roslyn, the co-owner of Jamaicaway Books, is a very special woman. She’s created an attractive and inviting bookstore which, because of her commitment to JP, is also community center.

2. Roslyn had invited Clara Silverstein, author of White Girl, to be the other panelist. And as anyone who’s read her book knows, Clara is awesome!

3. Although competing with the Walk for Hunger, May Fair in Harvard Square, Open Studios in Somerville, a very special reading by some very special poets, etc., etc., a nice-sized crowd attended. Thank you!

4. People, including Roslyn, were open, honest, forthcoming, insightful and, gratifyingly, stayed WAY past the time the discussion was supposed to end.

I want to do this more.

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!