read: nonfiction by David Dennis & Elissa Washuta
eat: whatever the **** you want
Since my last post, I have consumed a lot of comfort. I’ve been trudging through Harry Potter in Spanish (The Goblet & The Order), which has the duel benefit of soothing my soul and helping to progress my narrative foreign language skills. I’ve eaten pizza. Oh, have I eaten pizza: Frozen pizzas; mediocre Domino’s pizzas delivered at the click of a button; a make-shift “pizza,” in which shredded, bland Portuguese cheese was melted over ritz crackers on a skillet. I’ve baked my Grandmother’s biscuits and cried eating them. I forced myself to imagine that, if she were still alive, she wouldn’t have voted for somebody who brazenly laughed off accusations of sexual abuse just because it might be possible he’d appoint a supreme court justice who would throw all of his energy into denying women access to comprehensive healthcare (healthcare which prevents abortions by ~67%, just by the way).
I stuffed my face with biscuits and I cried. Then I re-taught myself how to make Old Fashioned’s and binged the entire first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I needed these comforts because November and December* were months of intense anxiety for me— something I know I’m not alone in. I read the news every night, and every night I went to sleep with a nugget of shame that snowballed into an orange snowman of visceral fear that followed me around my apartment as I fumbled for the bathroom or a glass of water, sending chills down my spine. Sleepless, I spent most of my days in a vegetative state, teaching ESL as if I were an ESL robot purchased by the Spanish Ministry of Education. “HEL-LO AND GOOD MORN-ING TO YOU TOO AD-RI-AN-NA.” Great purchase, Spain, just fantastic, way ta go.
I know that there are many more important problems in the world right now beyond the smallness of my own anxiety, but hang with me. I need to start here because I’m trying to place my voice in this maelstrom. It’s part of the struggle, after all: On November 10th, I read many posts from my fellow White/CIS friends in which it seemed like they were trying understand their own visceral fear and deep-seeded anger and disappointment while also acknowledging how much privilege they have and have had and will still continue to have as white middle- and upper-class citizens, even as the things they fear come to pass. The posts read something like I know this election will effect other people even more than it will effect me, and I’m sorry…
I both admired and twinged at these posts. I admired them because honesty is crucial (always and now), the recognition of your own rhetorical context even more so. I twinged because I felt ick about feeling very similarly: as if— after an election when people I know and love voted for someone who openly peddled in bigotry and hatred— as if I didn’t have the right to be scared. That if me and my family and the people I love had all been a bit braver, we wouldn’t be here. I twinged because somehow it seems that apologies won’t cut it anymore. I twinged because it seems like apologies should never have cut it in the first place. I have a very southern (well, southern-female) tendency to apologize constantly. You didn’t like that drink you ordered, friend? I’m sorry. But this year— happy freaking 2017 everyone— I don’t want to apologize any more. I don’t want to feel as though I have to be apologetic for calling bullshit when I see it because I am a woman or a political outlier at a conservative/southern gathering; I also don’t want to seek apologies from Trump supporters, whether they be strangers or people close to me in my life.
Instead, I hope I can try, that we we can all try— and by try I mean actually struggle in the effort— to be more consciously loving. Specifically when it’s hardest. When to be loving means to be uncomfortable— to question traditions I find comfort in, or to question the justice of the system that has made my life easier in small, big, and plentiful ways. To do so with patience and openness but persistence. To try even harder when it means I have to peel back the layers of rhetoric that have manipulated, misguided and contributed to growing and keeping live and well a pervasive moral laziness I sense in myself and my culture.
I have been reading and researching and reflecting and laying in bed at night (and during siesta, which is real), thinking about how best to go about this. So here, instead of the usual food and book recommendations I write on my blog, are my own resolutions* (which, don’t worry, include reading some really good writing). I’d ask my you to consider them, too, or else help me improve on them where I’ve been short-sighted. It’d be the best thirty-first birthday present you could give me.
1) Remember that you do not know what it’s like to be black or indigenous or LBGTQ or an immigrant or a first generation Mexican-American or (insert any demographic NOT YOUR OWN here) in the United States of America. You do not know what it’s like to grow up black in a small southern town just because you grew up in a small southern town. You do not know what it’s like to be told to “get over” having an ancestral lineage of decimation and genocide. You do not have any idea what it’s like to live with such history or with the deep prejudice that has followed it just because you understand the history and the prejudice to exist. You may know other things, but you do not know any of this.
I have failed here again and again— as a teacher, as a friend, as a wife. It’s a lazy and easy mistake: I was raised to try and be empathetic, and it’s the muscle I clench first when I’m trying to be kind. But sometimes “trying to show that you get it” isn’t being kind. Often times— most times— it’s an act of silencing that helps to perpetuate damaging stereotypes and centuries of injustice.
2) Remember, too, that the biggest act of love or sympathy you can actually offer is not to shout what you know or what you think but to listen. So. Since you, as a white woman, are conscious of the fact that you do not know what it’s like to be a minority in this country, read thoughtful journalism and analytical, reflective essays by minorities in this country. Fiction and poetry, too, of course— that’s a given. But thoughtful journalism and nonfiction must also be a priority. I have two writers in mind to follow closely, so here’s a little reminder about why you should be reading all of what they write always.
Journalism by David Dennis
Everything I’ve read by journalist (and fellow Davidson alum!) David Dennis has compelled me with its sincerity and persistent willingness to look at the ugliest acts of racism straight-on. His writing makes me want to try harder; to listen more closely to the human stories behind the headlines, even or especially when I find them upsetting; to ask my black friends and colleagues and neighbors questions I might have otherwise felt awkward about asking; and to ask myself, too, the harder questions before I go to sleep at night.
In this open letter to his son, Dennis discusses the hurt he felt watching Alton Sterling’s son cry for his father. Yes, Dennis writes this letter openly, which means that he has let us in to one of his most private realizations. He describes his own hurt in such detail that his audience can hear what it’s be like to be in a black body in a black family in 2017. As you can see, I was tempted to imagine how I would feel if I were him. Instead, I re-read. I tried to listen again. Dennis’s open letter generously allows me that moment of human connection, lets me follow his mind as he works through what he can “hardly wrap his brain around.” He lets me and anyone else surfing the web listen— even those who, like me, have forgotten to listen before, repeatedly; even those who arrogantly interpret black activism for justice as an attack on their own privileged community; even those who are immediately on the defensive; those who will actively work against him and the black community; and even those who directly threaten his life— he lets all of us listen. If we will:
“That was the visual I wasn’t prepared for. All I could see was you. I’ve been so accustomed to getting over Black death that I’d ignored the reality of Black survival. Of what it was like to bury a parent as the price paid for inequality. The pain of what it’s like to have to wake up the next day knowing that injustice took mom or dad away. I now have a new fear. One I just watched play out in front of me the same way I’ve seen Black people lose their lives in front of me. That video has shown me what it would be like if you were awakened in the middle of the night and someone told you that police murdered me in cold blood. Cameron’s screams sound like what I imagine your screams would sound like.”
Creative Nonfiction by Elissa Washutta
Begin here: “Apocalypse Logic”
Elissa Washuta’s imagery will sear into your brain permanently, making you a more thoughtful person for it. I admire this essay in particular from The Offing, published last November, for many reasons (it’s a must-read), but especially for her use of imagery. It’s as if she’s using her words to make me try to feel the pain she has experienced bodily, as if she’s trying to make me understand in my body, through the temporary trans-formative power of metaphor, how dangerous it is to navigate life in a culture built upon the genocide of her own:
“The last time I watched television, a man kept touching a screen with a red-and-blue map on it. After a while, I was nauseous and my whole body felt held up by metal rods. Stop putting your hands on that map, I wanted to tell him. I was in a huge room full of people who were booing, crying, and drinking heavily. Termination, I thought. They are going to terminate my tribe. They are going to finish what they started. I am certain that I was the only person in the whole venue—a concert space—thinking about tribal termination. I am always in this room and I am always lonely.”
Begin with these articles; but do more. Find more voices and add them to your news feeds. Click the links and follow them and read articles and essays in their entirety as they’re published.
3) I don’t care what you share on your social media sites or how you interact online as long as — Ok, wait, actually I do— RESOLUTION 3A) THINK CRITICALLY ABOUT YOUR SOURCES. Moving on to 3B) As you read these articles, you should also write regularly— once a week, maybe— in a private place about these articles. Make a Google Doc, get an old fashioned journal, send yourself a text, whatever. But write without the goal to persuade or to incite conversation or to bait clicks or to sound smart or just or likeable. Write instead in order to reflect and analyze your own emotions and opinions.
Sometimes, when I’m outraged at an injustice my husband has faced because of his race, I throw a fit. An actual fit: “I’m enraged!!!” I storm around the apartment, cursing, stomping; I cry, even. And he’s just like: Sara, I’ve lived with this all my life. And in such an instance it’s him that has to help me. I’ve had to realize, again and again, that the anger I’m feeling in such a moment is something he’s had to learn how to survive, something he’s had to learn how to use in order to survive. Honestly, my rage probably seems insulting. But there he is anyhow, reaching over, helping his white wife come to terms with her rage at the ugly act of bigotry that has been recently enacted on him. Damn if that’s not inspiration for the kind of love I should myself be striving to give.
Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who read at the inauguration in 2013 and whose words I came across recently in Brainpickings, speaks to such an act. In Power and Possibility, she writes that “Being an empowered and intelligent black person and even more so being an empowered and intelligent and self-respecting black woman is profoundly destabilizing to most status quo. You’ve got to remember that in a way that’s not disabling.” And how does she approach problematic readers and colleagues and community members who are disturbed by such a destabilization, who are surprised by her intelligence? Or else readers or friends who are even unconscious of their quieter prejudices, or who perhaps, like me, have talked over her, trying too hard to “get it”?
“When I was younger I used to think that love as an ethic was … obviously a good thing, but a little corny. I am certainly an optimist but not a fool. In academic environments, we are taught a skepticism that can lead us to discount the power and force of love. But the older I get, the more I think of all the possible permutations and possibilities of a love ethic. To love someone or something is not just to agree with them or affirm them. To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love. So what does it mean in a complex and dead-serious way to come from that place of love?”
Re-reading Alexander’s poems & work from her nonfiction on the eve of the 2017 inauguration*, I can’t help but think: Damn. That’s inspiring. That’s something to work toward. I only wish I had been asking myself this question and trying harder to answer it all along.
Post Script 1: I will be back to reading and writing about other places soon. Part of the reason why I write about food and books is because traveling— and thinking critically while doing so— helps me better reflect on myself and my own culture. I hope.
*Post Script 2: This is dedicated to my father, Billy Paul Sams, who passed on the same day I first drafted this post, January 7, 2017 (hence the anachronistic context); he was, for me and many, the best possible example of how to strive every day for a more just version of the American south, of how to treat everyone around you with the same loving respect and kindness. He was always my best reader.