Boys Will Be the Men We Raise Them to Be
“—we need “to raise our sons differently in order to protect our daughters …
we also need to raise our sons differently for their own sakes.”
To Raise a Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood is written by mother of a baby son and young daughter, former middle school teacher, Washington Post journalist covering education and world events, and first confidant of Christine Blasey Ford, Emma Brown. She received responses to the Ford/Kavanaugh stories that prompted an epiphany: not only do we need “to raise our sons differently in order to protect our daughters … we also need to raise our sons differently for their own sakes.”
YES! Teaching a course called Men and Masculinities, and my own mothering of a son and daughter gave me this insight too. Every young woman in class talked about how she prepares to walk alone – daylight or night: keys, pepper spray, cell phone, letting friends know location. The men conceded they had never thought of this, except those who describe themselves as gay. They too know caution at all times.
There is much to think about regarding guns and sexual violence and how boys learn behaviors. Brown begins with shocking material on brooming assaults that are nationwide, often involving high school athletes. This is not a book about growth charts and best toys for toddlers.
#MeToo and the increasing visibility of transgender and nonbinary people, Brown suggests, has “created more space for all of us to consider what gender is, and what impact gender norms and gender stereotypes have on our lives.” Cheer another – Yes! The young people I work with, from Kindergarten through College, see gender as a spectrum, not just a flat line between boy and girl with strict boxes of behavior.
Gender is how we feel being in our body, mind, and heart, how we express and present ourselves to the outside. Most of us are raised in tight binary boxes. Many of us rebel. Even a small child can express exasperation at the rules.
Casting off our socially expected gender armor can be challenging, but maintaining the façade can be literally deadly. Brown cites 2015 Centers of Disease Control and Prevention statistics:
4 million men (and 5.6 million women) had been victims of sexual violence in 2014. Death by suicide is staggering among white middle-aged men, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This is not “horseplay.”
Brown explains a Columbia professors’ description of “sexual citizenship”–respect and realizing sex is something you do with and not to, another person. Sexual assault researcher Mary Koss says, “When you are learning to drive your penis, you can really hurt people by mistakes you make due to inexperience.” My students realize the conversations about sex and gender ought to begin ASAP—age appropriately of course.
Brown’s chapter, “Racism, Violence, Trauma: How Close Relationships Can Help Boys Cope,” describes the successes of Chicago’s Becoming a Man Program. She considers the way bias has impacted how Black boys think of themselves as well as how “implicit bias is like the wind: you can’t see it, but you can sure see its effects.” Teachers and other adults in their lives can be blustery and harming when they don’t interrogate their biases.
It seems there are more similarities than differences between boys and girls/men and women. Sexual assault (‘SA’ students say) is utterly ubiquitous. Men need a liberation movement. The power and control issues that create a society of harming and hurting are harming everyone. There are societies that do not have a word for rape because it does not exist, which is impossible for western citizens to imagine. If we really do become equal . . . .
 Brown, Emma. (2021). To Raise a Boy: Classrooms, Locker Rooms, Bedrooms, and the Hidden Struggles of American Boyhood. New York: One Signal Publishers/ Atria, p. 6.
 Ibid. p.13.
 Consider “Riley on Marketing.” YouTube video, 1.11. May 6, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CU040Hqbas.
 Brown, p. 19. For much more information and updates see https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics.
 Ibid. p. 89.
 Ibid. p. 148.
 Ibid. p. 160, Walter S. Gilliam in an article Brown wrote for The Washington Post, 2016.
 Helliwell, Christine. (2000). “It’s Only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference. Original publication Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25(3). Access: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3175417?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
The Urgency of Now: An Imani Perry Trilogy
Breath: A Letter to my Sons (2019) Beacon Press
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (2022) Harper Collins
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018) Beacon Press
-Click on these titles to purchase through Bear Pond Books or find them at your local bookseller.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”(1)Excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. April 4, 1967.
Access the full speech here.
Memoir offers intimate introduction to people we want to know and may never meet. Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons caught my attention. I’m the white mother of African American siblings, daughter and son. Hearing Dr. Perry’s longing to send her boys off with this maternal paradox: “I want to hold you safe. I also want you to fly,” resonated profoundly.
I notice now how this next line is prescient, “The routes have always been rough. West Africa to Barbados to South Carolina Maryland to Alabama. To Chicago from Mississippi…. Claim your earth as you see fit and ride above it.” (2)
Raising Black children in the landscape of racial and gender violence takes courage
and the fiercest love. Breathe: A Letter to My Sons is a long letter, a short book, of warning and tenderness.
The routes Perry mentions in Breathe come into acute focus in South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. She travels below the Mason-Dixon
line through historic events, literary landscapes, with piercing contemporary longings.
“I was just trying to see how the back-then is inside the now.” (3)
History and now. She asks, “Can [the United States] ever be remade in the image of the Declaration of Independence? Or will the founders’ racist sins taunt us always?” (4)
Each chapter is a world of wonder with historic figures, racism’s worst consequences, beautiful lands, complex cityscapes, and everyday people she meets along the way.
Of New Orleans she says, “But if we are to tell the truth about that history, we have to tell the tragedies as well as its miracles.” (5) She ends with George Floyd, Houston, Texas hurricanes, pondering her writing as a “moral instrument,” and wonders if we will do more than read, if we will “allow curiosity and integrity to tip over into urgency.” (6)
Urgency was the heartbeat of Lorraine Hansberry. Dr. Perry’s biography of the playwright offers the intricacy of art of the past’s relevance to now. A Raisin in the Sun is Lorraine Hansberry’s best-known creation, but her light shines so bright despite her short life. Perry introduces us to her remarkable friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. They gave each other solace and creative inspiration during the era of civil rights activists raging and bargaining for justice. Perry makes clear how Hansberry was fearless, unyielding in timeless matters of injustice.
In a meeting of Black artists and activists with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May of 1963, she ended the meeting with a comment that is hauntingly immediate, “…But I am very worried about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” (7)
Lorraine Hansberry died on January 12, 1965, of cancer at the age of 34. Malcolm X was assassinated three weeks later. James Baldwin died of cancer in December of 1987 at 63. Nina Simone wrote the song “Young, Gifted, and Black” for Lorraine Hansberry, and inspired a generation of Black pride and determination. She died in April of 2003 at the age of 70.
Their art, created in the not-so-distant past, illuminates much too much of now. Dr. Perry writes in these three books of the tragedies, the miracles, the wonder of whether it is possible to ride above the heartbreaks and fly.
(1) Excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. April 4, 1967. Access the full speech here.
(2) Perry, Imani. (2019). Breathe: A Letter to My Sons. Boston: Beacon Press. P. 66.
(3) —-(2022). South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p.67.
(4) Ibid. p. 267.
(5) Ibid. p. 323.
(6) Ibid. p. 382.
(7) Perry, Imani. (2018). Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Beacon Press. p.164.
I’m introducing an idea here and I hope you’ll pass the link along to folks who might enjoy Vermilya Notes.
I am a science fiction project. Say what?!?! My work as the Equity Scholar in Residence in the Washington Central Unified Union School District in Central Vermont is a constant conversation – pop up questions to and from educators about racism, sexism, gender expression, ideas for units of study, symbols and words. I am in the schools to offer access to ideas and justice content. I like this description rather than “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” I want to be available for questions about how to be confident in teaching and learning. You see how I’ll be science fiction until we manifest the dreams of equity, access, and justice for all.
Spring semester I also teach a course called Men and Masculinities at Saint Michael’s College. Being in the college classroom keeps me honest. We talk about historic and real, live-action, personal and political, content.
As I skim newspapers and various blogs for the latest publications, our magical local bookstore, Bear Pond Books is just a link away. Here are a few of my recent acquisitions:
My daily world includes K-12 students and staff, college undergraduates, and teachers working on graduate credits. If You Give a Moose A Muffin and others in the amusing series by Laura Numeroff guides my teaching and learning. One idea leads to another, and another as circumstances evolve.
This job as the embedded ESR requires reading and listening to what journalists, authors, and videographers are saying. I’m always searching for materials to offer, for example, concise film clips about microaggressions, CRT, biases, How Racist Are You? What is age appropriate (third grade to 12th) for a conversation on say, the N-word?
Reflection offers an opportunity to articulate new insights and knowledges. With that in mind, I’d like to begin this series of notes guided by these questions:
– Why this book, film, essay?
– What is the essence?
– How does it connect us to these times?
I’ll send out the first edition tomorrow. As always—let me know what you think
How do we be the justice, become the future?
The Provincetown Unitarian Universalist Meeting House Monday Night Meditation Group invited me to talk about race and racism. I conceived this piece for an audience of white folks engaged in Racial Justice work and to accompany our meditation.
This is not an essay. It is lightly edited to read rather than be heard. It is more an unguided meditation on being white antiracists walking together toward love, imagination, and justice.
I have no answers.
There will be no quiz.
Hopefully we will find some good thoughts to share with one another. This is all about LOVE and IMAGINATION—or the absolute lack of both.
I am an educator. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called Men & Masculinities at Saint Michael’s College this semester, and a course for teachers and administrators in the school district where I’m experimenting being an embedded Equity Scholar in Residence —that is, I’m inside the school working to think, offer resources, add a splash of courage for teachers about inclusion and equity issues.
So, the class is Racial Equity, Intersectional Justice, and Confronting Bias at School. We are talking about becoming antiracist educators, abolitionist teachers, and changing what we can in classrooms and policies, for equity and more justice for students. All white, all women, all fully exhausted, yet showing up for class Tuesday afternoons.
I’ve been deep in teaching and conversations about equity and dismantling racism for a long time. I’m often moved by new insights and perspectives, but I’m not often startled.
Claire Willis recently came to talk to the Monday Night Meditation group. She was talking about her new book Opening to Grief: finding your way from loss to peace.
She spoke of invalidated grief, silenced grief—and that startled me to wonder:
What about historic and systemic grief? The grief of knowing the American Dream was/is a distraction, that American History is whitewashed, watered down, and laden with biases. So many lives erased or silenced.
Did you all grow up reading women writers? Queer or BIPOC writers or artists? When I was coming out it was a radical day when Ruby Fruit Jungle was published and the main character didn’t die. Lesbians ALWAYS got married, went totally crazy, or died by suicide. It was a requirement to get to press.
My grief flows for all the lives we still lose because racism, homophobia, and transphobia grip so many hearts.
My grief floods me as I am just beginning to learn to write Land Acknowledgments. I’m learning more about all the nations that once were and those that remain. Why did it take so long to bring this ritual to our way of doing things?
My grief floors me as I see the Covid-19 pandemic exposing all the vulnerabilities that remain in our social structures, all the legacies of slavery and economic inequalities so blatantly still here. Embedded systematically. Loop-holed and entrenched in ways mostly invisible to comfortable white folks.
The Summer of 2020 brought the brutalities of 400 + years to a head. Then January 6, 2021. White supremacy, even more unabashedly, arrived in full gear.
I’ve been shocked that I, who read and talk about race and class and ‘this stuff’ all the time— didn’t perceive fully, didn’t GET the deepest deep dimensions and realities of the racist and misogynist ideologies in our midst.
Why??? How do we see so differently? Who have I not yet met – so I can understand? Have I missed seeing their grief? Have they missed seeing mine?
What startled me as I thought about this are the implications for understanding the depth of race and systemic racism, and how it’s impacted all of us.
As Claire Willis talked, I found a great sense of sadness, Grief with a capital G—and I came to feel the whole systemic and historic levels and layers of racism, sexism, LGBT and gender violence…. then and now.
She said, “Grief is love with no place to go.”
This echoes right now for so many heartbreaks. Grief is love. With no place. No place to go. No place. T0 go. Grief is.
Grief and the subject of race and racism— race is not real, it is a fabrication, a construction, that has benefited a very few for centuries, while racism—all the structures that uphold the systems of oppressions based on skin color—are too strong. We have not dismantled them – yet.
Maurice Berger writes in his memoir and musings: White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (1999)
“…myths hold us hostage to their smooth elegant fictions. The subject of race, perhaps more than any other subject in contemporary life, feeds on myth. …Myths are white lies that tell us everything is all right, even when it is not” (96-97). And— “Racism and hype are bound up together: racism is built on hype, which in turn is built on stereotype” (98).
My perceptions are only as a white, queer, mother of two no- adult African American kids, educator, gardener, swimmer. I only have ever walked in the world in my white body. I thought my queer self would offer me great awareness—I promise—I get it now—I’ll never be all woke. As much as I want to identify or think I ‘get it’ when my kids talk of their experiences or other BIPOC people talk of everyday life in America—I have never walked as a black body. My knowing is only through my white bodied experience.
Meditation settles me, centers my values, engages my body, mind and spirit. Rhonda Magee notes in The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities through Mindfulness that the historic Buddha spoke out against the caste system of color.
Yet–only recently—the last 5 years? — have Black Zen and Buddhist teachers been published in Tricycle or Lion’s Roar –do you think that’s the right timeframe? I’ve attended weekends with Rev angel kyodo williams, who co-authored Radical Dharma. I swear it has new words in it every time I pick it up! Black teachers are now being heard and interviewed in established Buddhist resources and launching incredible on-line sources.
Listen: the historic Buddha spoke out against the caste system of color. When was that?
We (white people) have been trained so well in the ways of systemic racism —and I would add all the other systemic oppressions—we are just not as fluent in talking about race—that we didn’t realize BIPOC teachers were missing—until they are appearing with regularity. We (I) didn’t realize education focused on the wonders of white male patriarchy and excluded all other stories until I found myself at 19 in Provincetown in the Seventies surrounded by drag queens and theoretical lesbians….. yes! I started to see! So much beauty and possibility.
Rev angel kyodo williams writes in Radical Dharma Talking Race, Love, and Liberation:
“the great fraud of the construct of whiteness is that it has coerced and convinced most white folks to no longer see their own oppression: by men over women, by straights over LGBT, by hetero fathers over their sons in arbitrating their masculinity, by capitalist values of personal acquisition over the personal freedom of one’s soul. white folks have been duped to trade their humanity for their privilege. the most insidious lie is that racism is a Black problem or a colored folks’ problem. white folks wake up: not only oppressed people are complicit in oppression. it’s your problem too.”
How do we become the opposite of “duped”? I looked it up: “Undeceived” is an antonym.
How do we become the future?
Paulo Freire (Brazilian educator) and Myles Horton (started the Highlander Folk School) were friends, activists, and writers. Together they published We make the road by walking. My current teaching methodology, influenced by Freire and adrienne maree brown, is an ‘emergent praxis:’ What do you need? Let me meet you where you are. Let’s explore your questions together. We’ll just see where this goes— there may not be an answer or conclusion. Let’s be curious.
I know we won’t find justice, equity and inclusion for all in my lifetime. We may not be able to open lots of minds and hearts— but the ones we reach will continue this work.
We are on the road to reckoning.
We are being called to account for a bloody, cruel history, a country based on standing on necks and killing unarmed people. Freire wrote about the oppressed becoming oppressors. Hurt people hurt people.
We are now called to be amazing—to bring the dream of the possibilities of this nation into being.
Anand Giridharadas wrote in his newsletter The.Ink: “…what we are actually endeavoring to do right now is to become a kind of society that has seldom, if ever, existed in history. Which is become a majority-minority, democratic superpower.” Then he writes, “We are falling on our face because we are jumping very high right now.”
We are falling on our face, picking each other up and — walking together.
Michael Eric Dyson writes in Long Time Coming: “If justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public, then patience is what mercy sounds like out loud, and forgiveness is the accent with which grace speaks” (178).
Several writers talk about trees of hate — racism — as seeds planted, nurtured, and matured. Rev Kate Wilkinson of the UU Meeting House in Provincetown has told the Cherokee story of the fighting wolves inside us—the one you feed will win. Children are not born racists or rapists or haters. Our social constructions of gender, our economic and systemic segregation set us up, dupe us into being toxically masculine or feminine, romance us guns and violence, deny us joy in our bodies and perpetrate demeaning pornography instead of encouraging real time and real pleasures.
The wolf of shame and guilt gets a head start over the wolf of joy and justice.
To get to justice we strengthen our willingness and bravery to really reckon, to believe stories our BIPOC friends and community members tell us, and most importantly, be upstanders and find ways to be antiracist activists.
Meditation and prayer keep me in “the work.” I have to listen. I take my dogs walking every morning, even at 4 below, praying and walking, seeking guidance, and courage. The courage to continue. Microaggressions are not usually aimed at me directly anymore, but the BIPOC and LGBT kids put up with them daily. The N-word is in the hallways. White teachers are afraid to teach the Civil War, Emmitt Till, Civil Rights. I heard a student was told not to do a project on the Black Panthers because they were a terrorist organization.
I love the ideas and ideals of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
I pray for courage and often for patience—why are school systems STILL teaching white hetero-centricity? Why isn’t Black History Month every-month-all-year-long? Black History is American History. What do teachers need to revise and re-vision their courses to be inclusive? Why, why, why are we still HERE?
What are we, white folks so afraid of? Why don’t we tell the truth?
Understanding our white advantage (a term Resmaa Menakem uses and I appreciate because saying “white privilege” makes people shut right down) and grief—will aide in our readiness for reckoning. Really, honestly, and truly, accepting the history of the land and the peoples who went before us, and being accountable. Herein lies our liberation.
And what does our accountability look like? What does liberation feel like?
James Baldwin, writer, activist, gay, Black genius wrote that Black history “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
I call myself a science fiction project in my role as Equity Scholar in Residence. I guess all of us—seeking individual and social justice or endeavoring to work toward inclusion in any system built to manufacture good workers, good widgets—could claim this identity.
In this, now: Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin –the Buddha and all such friends—smile upon us as we live our lives planting the seeds of the possible—together.
James Baldwin: Born: August 2, 1924, Harlem, New York, NY Died: December 1, 1987, Saint Paul de Vence, France
Maurice Berger—Born: May 22, 1956, New York, NY Died: March 23, 2020, Copake, NY Editor of Independent Lens in the NYTimes— grew up poor, white, Jewish in a housing project with primarily Puerto Rican and Black families. His point of view was shaped by his early experiences and he curated work that shows the lives of people of color in their complexity and beauty. He died in March 2020 of Covid-19 complications.
BIPOC Black, Indigenous and People of Color https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-bipoc.html
adrienne maree brown. emergent strategy: shaping change, changing worlds. (2017). “Together we must move like waves.” “What we put our attention on grows.”
Michael Eric Dyson. Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Races in America. (2020).
Paulo Freire Born: September 19, 1921, Recife, State of Pernambuco, Brazil Died: May 2, 1997, São Paulo, State of São Paulo, Brazil Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (1968).
Anand Giridharadas. Writer, political analyst, and Dad. The.Ink: on politics and culture, money and power. January 15, 2021 https://the.ink/p/hope “We are falling on our face because we are jumping very high right now.”
Myles Horton Born: July 9, 1905, Savannah, TN Died: January 19, 1990, New Market, TN. Highlander Folk School (https://highlandercenter.org/our-history-timeline/) where labor activists and then civil rights activists trained in organizing and non-violent action. Rosa Parks, MLK, Bayard Rustin— marvelous makers of the Sixties events were there. Freire and Horton worked together and published We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. (1990).
Valarie Kaur. “You are a part of me I do not yet know.” “Who have we not yet loved?”
The People’s Inauguration (February 2021). https://thepeoplesinauguration.org/
Land Acknowledgments. This practice honors the lands we live on, acceptance of the history of broken treaties and genocide, and begins the reckoning for current generations.
Resmaa Menakem. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies (2017).
Rhonda V. Magee. The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Informing Our Communities Through Mindfulness (2019).
The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum offers a new installation by Wampanoag historians about the Province Lands. https://www.pilgrim-monument.org/wampanoag-exhibit/
Two wolves inside “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is black – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is white – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith” He added, “The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”His grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked him, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed”. https://uplifters-edu.org/two-wolves-in-your-mind/
Rev angel Kyoto Williams, with Lama Rod Owens, Jasmine Syedullah. Radical Dharma Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (2016).
Claire Willis with Marnie Crawford Samuelson. Opening to Grief: finding your way from loss to peace (2020).
A Cosmology for March 2020
My mother used to buy me a doll when I was small and ill. She always named her Miss Virus. The last one I recall had a handcrafted cherry rocking cradle and wore a long lace dress. Her eyes conked shut or blinked wide.
As you may know by now, or suspect, I was never the doll kind of kid. Being really sick was such a shock and betrayal, the doll just added insult to injury. I guess it made my mother feel better.
Here we are, facing an all transforming global virus. Time to change everything we have assumed in our past and prevail into the unknowable. Time to take care of one another as best we can. We have a house with an introvert (you got it; that would be me), extrovert, and a self-proclaimed ambivert. The ambivert is off wandering in the woods and meadows around the house with one extremely delighted dog. The extrovert is talking with as many people she cares about as humanly possible.
These times are for hunkering down. For me, hunkering means reading. Groping around my overwhelmed bedside table, I couldn’t find any bookmarks from Bear Pond Books of Montpelier, Vermont,1 where I do almost all of my book buying. I realized a lot of markers were making it very clear that I was mid-way through quite a few books. There are lists posted on many media sites today about 100 things to do to stay sane right now. None of them mention finishing all the books you started. Here are a few of the writers with whom I’ve kept company so far.
One that I’ve finished is Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Non-Existence: A Memoir. It is just out! As I have followed Solnit these past few years, I am so delighted to hear her ideas and the way she writes takes my breath away. Her descriptions make San Francisco of the last three decades vivid, alive, alluring, sobering, and lost. (Everything has changed for the streets of San Francisco since the Seventies, #MeToo, the technology giants, and now we must wait and see what’s evolving as California is under a stay at home order.) The violence against women, Solnit included, and the deep changes in consciousness about such brutality resonate throughout.
As the title suggests, Solnit is writing about navigating growing up in the most invisible way possible so that she might literally survive. Women have been so thoroughly silenced by patriarchal traditions and violence, that to claim voice is a radical act of courage, to thrive is an outright revolution. The memoir is about fully existing when a whole systemic effort is working to keep women down, always on the defensive, always hyper vigilant. Hard to be focused and creative and stay alive.
My favorite quote is Solnit remembering an older man she was dating saying, “Baby, you’re driven.” Her immediate, abrupt reply, “And you’re parked.”
Solnit cites poet Diane di Prima, “You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology.” Writing requires knowing all you have read and heard and seen and being most true to you. She goes on to explain “… the task of writing a particular piece is the general one of making a self who can make the work you are meant to make” (p. 122).
She’s reading fairy tales at 5 pm (California time) each night to all of us on Facebook since she can’t do the book tour as planned, and she adores a cast of children she is reading to as well as a story with fairies and fabulousness.
Melba Pattilo Beal
Seventh graders at the U-32 Middle/High School, where I’m part of a pilot project as an Equity Scholar in Residence, read Melba Pattillo Beale’s Warriors Don’t Cry (1994). Their teachers invited me to read it along with them. Beale was one of the Little Rock Nine, the cohort of Black teenagers who were the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. You may recall the Supreme Court declared that public schools had to integrate in 1954 with Brown vs Board of Education. Arkansas opposed. The Nine braved a year of horrifying harassment and daily danger to their lives. Beale’s descriptions are harrowing. The book starts out with a near escape from an enraged white man chasing teenaged Melba to kidnap and or rape her the day word came out Central High was going to be integrated.
I am reminded of the horrible conflicts in Boston in 1974 when bussing to integrate occurred. (See Episode 13 of Eyes on the Prize: The Keys to the Kingdom 1974-1980 https://vimeo.com/65530064). The United States public schools are considered even more segregated now since our social fabric is still shredded by racism and injustices regarding real estate and economic opportunities.
Melba Pattilo Beale continues to lecture at her resilient 78 years of age.
I am mid-way through teaching Men & Masculinities at Saint Michael’s College. I assigned Peggy Orenstein’s Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020) and just finished it. The stories Orenstein collects often shock her. After decades researching and writing about girls, girls and women convinced her to find out what’s going on with boys. This is an interesting evolution for many women sociologists, psychologists and journalists. While in the Seventies we were focused on liberating understandings of women (my big three reads, then were Women’s Ways of Knowing, In a Different Voice, Toward a New Psychology of Women 2.). Now women are seeking insight into boys and men. Personally, as I came into understanding what feminism (as in the theory that equality is imperative for ALL – globally women, girls, boys and men) could do, I’ve been dreaming of liberation for boys and men.
Men have been trying to find out about boys and men in these same three decades (my big three writers for this period are Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz and Tony Porter with books and TED Talks. There are many new voices via TED). James Gilligan, Carol Gilligan’s husband, worked with men incarcerated in San Quentin for decades. The men in San Quentin 3 who have worked in Restorative Practice say, “Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people.” James Gilligan reflects on the harm being beyond anything he could possibly understand in comments captured in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’ documentary, The Mask You Live In (2015).
What does Orenstein say? What a trap: Man Up, Be A Man, Boys Don’t Cry, Don’t Be a Pussy—you may add more here. (also see the work of C.J. Pascoe, R.W. Connell, Rosalind Wiseman, William Pollack, Paul Kivel, Michael Thompson, memoir by Charles M. Blow)
The damage is for men and boys and the people they harm: other men and boys, themselves, women and girls and people they love.
Kimmel says that he found that women fear being raped or murdered and men say they most fear being laughed at.
Women fear death. Men fear shame.
Orenstein interviews young men who are harmed by sexual assault by girls or older women or other men, expecting that men ALWAYS want it. Young men are in the vortex of pornography and almost believe what porn portrays. Hookup culture may be total freedom for young men and women, and it can also turn into blackouts and denigration and stories we all have heard. Brock Turner made this hook up behavior infamous. Malcolm Gladwell addresses these extremes in alcohol consumption in Case Study: The Fraternity Party in Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019), another book I finished this week.
At night, as you might imagine, I sometimes have to stop reading content such as this (thus all the disappearing bookmarks) and I pick up a book on nature. I’m halfway through The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate | Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (2015). Beech trees are particularly zealous in keeping their territory. They will snuggle up and lean on and then underground drain all the nutrients from another type of tree until it declines. Note that this will take several decades to achieve, but hey. There is a whole “wood-wide-web” right under our feet.
Beverly Little Thunder
The most recent mid-way book I completed is Beverly Little Thunder’s memoir, One Bead at a Time (2016 with Sharron Proulx-Turner). I met Beverly on the trip to Montgomery 4 and we’ve co-facilitated workshops for the Peace & Justice Center in Burlington, VT. I especially appreciate hearing her story about growing up in Lakota traditions, defying sexism, homophobia, and racism along with constant economic stresses, to become a leader and teacher in Two Spirit ways. She made it out of abusive relationships (men and women) with five kids in tow, to learn and teach and hold land sacred for Womyn’s Sundance in Huntington, Vermont. She has her dedication and gifts challenged over and over and defies all those as she listens to wise counsel that guides her.
All of these authors, except of course the tree expert, chronicle the dangers of being strong, defiant, white, Black, Native women. White, Black, Native men are harming one another and themselves (White males accounted for 69.67% of suicide deaths in 2018, https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/). Firearms, alcohol and drugs fuel the shame, and stir the cauldron of homophobia, racism, and sexism that perpetuate the anger in power and entitlement.
But there are other stories that offer hope. There are cultures around the globe with such a sense of equality that the men have birthing pains. The men and the women rely on one another throughout the community to work together for the survival of the whole. There is no concept or word for rape. Every time I assign an article on this community my students are adamant that this is impossible. I plead with them to try to imagine.
And we do raise wonderful, loving, caring, nurturing, and ever tender men. This week I also watched the six-part Netflix documentary series Babies (February 2020), and professional journals, acknowledge that the oxytocin levels in new heterosexual parents are the same when the mother and father share equally in the caring of the newborn. Gay dads too.
My students participate in a mask exercise where we write the things we show gladly on the outside. 5 On the other side what we feel on the inside. We exchange these so each student reads the comments written by another in the class. The outside is competent, organized, funny, pretty cheerful. The inside is anxious, homesick, depressed, scared, angry. As we go around on what everyone is feeling on the inside, my heart breaks. The wonder years of youth. I observe that we can’t tell the difference between the women and men in the class. We can’t tell sexual orientation or pronoun preference, or any other identity markers.
The exquisite differences in human plumbing, the pleasures available to us all, the partners we chose with whom to share intimacy, of course there are differences and distinctions. The poetry of human sex and sensuality is too often ruined by predation and abuse that shatters souls. Our responsibility to one another is to listen, unearth the despair, the harm and find our ways to healing. I sat in a circle with the men incarcerated at San Quentin prison, many of whom I’d also heard speak in The Mask You Live In. They assume radical responsibility and learn radical love.
In this time of unknowable change, I offer this. The virus is not discriminatory. We are all vulnerable. We are all together in this.
In kindness, radical love, and willingness to transform.
2.Belenky, Mary Field, Nancy Rule Goldberger (Editor), Jill Mattuck Tarule (Editor), Blythe McVicker Clinchy. (First edition 1986).New York: Basic Books.
Gilligan, Carol. (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miller, Jean Baker. (1987). Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
3. See Vermilyanotes.net: https://vermilyanotes.net/2016/12/ Week One: Victim/Offender Education Program
4. Ibid. https://vermilyanotes.net/2019/02/05/ Mercy & Diary of Montgomery, Alabama Trip February 5, 2019
5. Watch Ashanti Branch TED Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M34wU5kXajI. He is also interviewed in The Mask You Live In.
Let’s Face It
Winter Wind Scroll. Peaked Hill Bar Life Saving Station.
Thea Sullivan asks, “What’s something you’re proud of yourself for this year? (Or, if you don’t like the word pride, what can you appreciate yourself for?) What hard thing or challenge did you face, internally or externally?” And “What’s something you’re grateful for from 2019? *
My first thought is fighting: the daggers of doubt, the not-good-enough in everyday moments in between some so-awesome enough. It has been a hard year—deaths by cancer, a taking of life, a sudden brain disease; the shattering of pedestals built since childhood; living in shards of grief and sadness; financial fears; our stressed landscapes and fewer birds singing; inevitable aging.
Aka: Being Alive. I’m grateful for all the new learning, yes, as hard as it’s been.
Despite 44 years without a drink, this year the whiskey ads sound so sexy and seductive. Oh, to let go of this tension. But as my colleague, friend, and sober brother in all this mess of life, Michael Klein, said in a recent social media post, “… But in all of it, I never think drinking would make it easier. It would just make it drunker.” I didn’t grab a cigarette or drink. I often underline the “wild” and “precious life” of my tattoo since Mary Oliver’s query is demanding.
The things to appreciate and accept of 2019, and to continue: Finished the memoir; the college grad flew off to California to work; son had another season in the beautiful game; I’ve been an imperfect companion to a very grieving partner; started making a job as an equity scholar– thinking our way to more just educational action; and started interviews for a book about transracial families’ knowing. Best teaching in my college classrooms! Best because students departed with eyes and hearts wide-open and a desire to talk and think about complexities rather than demand “either /or.” They are most interested in striving for “and.” They also noticed how a conversation stops when someone says they will ask Google for “the answer.” The questions really are more engaging.
Despair and devastation everywhere. This planet is ablaze. Many people are belligerent and unkind. And scared. There are children in cages. In it all, the fires, the rising waters, the endless plastic and denigration of the lands, hope and possibility are aflame too. Former coal miners are becoming beekeepers. Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda are inspiring strikes for climate awareness and action.
And us—all of us are thinking and doing things in our lives to be transformational and makers of kindness and change.
I recently read about President Lyndon B. Johnson burying the Kerner Report of 1968. How did I miss this historic note? The commission was established to find out what caused the riots of 1967. The findings were clear, even though “white supremacy” was not the term used, and poverty.
Alice George writes, “White society,” the presidentially appointed panel reported, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The nation, the Kerner Commission warned, was so divided that the United States was poised to fracture into two radically unequal societies—one black, one white.” **
W.E.B.Du Bois said this in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folks. Nobody listened to the Kerner Report either.
I spent two weekends at Omega Institute studying with Buddhist, activist, Black, queer Radical Dharma teacher, Rev angel Kyodo williams. I’ve read Radical Dharma so many times the cover is tattered (not torn). She says people are ready. Ready to face the truths. In her 2018 interview with Krista Tippets’ On Being she says, “There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift. And then, what I feel like people are at now is, no, no, bring it on. I have to face it — we have to face it.” ***
The year started with a trip to Montgomery, Alabama. Long wide boulevards once teeming with the business of cotton and slavery, was fairly desolate in late January. The Equal Justice Initiative founder, Bryan Stevenson brought the museum and the memorial to Montgomery. He requests a real reconciliation, the real truths, the real depths about dehumanization of Black bodied human beings—from slavery to now. ****
I listened to the podcast of 1619. More pieces of the puzzle.*****
This is my history.
Tippet continues in the interview with Rev angel, “You say: “We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit,” if we don’t do inner work, as you say in another place, that has been underemphasized. That we have not trained ourselves to do the work that is upon us now.
Rev. williams: No, we haven’t. We haven’t; and we haven’t, for good reason, from a particular perspective. To do our work, to come into deep knowing of who we are — that’s the stuff that bringing down systems of oppression is made of. And so capitalism in its current form couldn’t survive. Patriarchy couldn’t survive. White supremacy couldn’t survive if enough of us set about the work of reclaiming the human spirit, which includes reclaiming the sense of humanity of the people that are the current vehicles for those very forms of oppression.”
“If enough of us set about the work of reclaiming the human spirit…”
All spirits, all humanity. Liberation. Guilt, shame, and blame. How could thousands of white people gather and watch a lynching? Send postcards about it? Black history is my history. Queer history. Indigenous history. The history of people with all kinds of abilities. The devastation of white supremacy. Say it. Come into acceptance. Our history is devastating trauma. ” How intolerable it is to be intolerant,” muses Rev angel.
Loving vs. Virginia (1967) and US vs. Windsor (2013) gave marriage rights to interracial and same sex couples. Black Lives Matter. BIPOC Lives. Our history also includes glorious moments of togetherness, solidarity, and love.
How ironic to be intolerant of those who are intolerant, say I, who is.
Did I ever answer Thea’s questions? Here’s to living into the questions, the hard challenges, things to be grateful for, to our deep knowing and liberation, and all the unknowns that a New Year brings.
This is my trilogy:
Equity. Inclusion. Justice.
Oh, and only possible with much,
Sources for you to explore:
- Meet Thea Sullivan http://bigpictureguidance.com
** The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders became known as the Kerner Commission.
****https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/ and https://vermilyanotes.net/ Mercy & Diary of Montgomery, Alabama Feb 5, 2019
Photographs and text by Shelley Vermilya. Edited patiently by Zora Aretha Vermilya.
January 1, 1940 – May 11, 2019
How I miss your unconditional love
MERCY & Diary of Montgomery, Alabama Journey
With the Peace & Justice Center of Vermont
Two small Black children in tattered clothing holding hands, ask quietly, “Have you seen our mother?”
This scene of the ghostly siblings is in a hologram display at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. I listened and then moved on to another hologram of the sister of another child taken from their mother. I went to the next gate behind which was a hologram woman talking of God and things meant to be, redemption, but her words melted in my ears and I was drawn back down the hall to the children. A hologram woman singing piercingly in an adjacent cell made listening difficult. I focused, trying to hear the question. Such a small voice. I bowed my head against the cast iron bars of the gate and suddenly sobbed. I was broken open.
All my years learning about the history of the South and the North, reading autobiographies of civil rights activists both Black and white, sorting out pieces of lies, myths, the glossing over, the distancing, the constant betrayal of half-truths, and the silences. The glossing over, the denial, the denial, the denial. I was finally broken open.
Our Nation has been built on the dehumanization and destruction of Indigenous Peoples of North America and Peoples from Africa brought here with no consent. It was not enough that the International Slave Trade was abolished in 1808. The Southern States created the domestic trade and Montgomery was booming with it. The Civil War was not enough. Reconstruction was shattered. Jim Crow smothered rights. 4,400 people were known to be lynched between 1877-1950. The Civil Rights of the Sixties did not create real integration of schools or society. The denigration and dehumanization of Black people continues through violence, police shootings, incarceration. A Google search reports, “Prison rates in the US are the world’s highest, at 724 people per 100,000.”
Currently Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are among the supporters of Representative Bobby L. Rush’s H.R. 32–Emmett Till Antilynching Act, an anti-lynching bill designating lynching as a hate crime. 2019. 2019. 2019.
Imagine being Ruby Bridges’ parents in 1960, sending their six-year-old daughter into a white school for a better education. Ruby and her mother daily walked past screeching vicious crowds while escorted by white federal marshals into the school.
Imagine those parents and children believing so deeply in integration, and, that the time had come for change. The Freedom Riders had signed their last will and testament the night before getting on the Interstate bus. They were willing to die for justice.
Imagine a phone call in 1961 from Alabama that your white child, supposedly in college in New York or Boston studying for exams, was beaten severely at a Greyhound Bus station in Montgomery.
People from my family, my father, his siblings, his parents, grandparents, born into the South believed everyone liked it just the way it was. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make change. People know their place. Philosopher Elizabeth Minnich has written about the “evil of banality.” People do their job, want to be the best at it, go along. They don’t necessarily question why or what they are doing, they don’t think about it. And racist, white supremist core values were seen as polite, civil, “just the way things are.”
I am abashed by the hate. Those capturing, shipping, whipping, selling people. Taking a mother from her small children. Collusion everywhere—from the slavers to the sellers and wearers of the cotton fabrics. The boatbuilders in the North. The rope makers, the blacksmiths making manacles and chains. Those cheering and having a picnic at a lynching. Everyone, North and South, was part of the enslaving systems. Everyone was terrorized.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. (Maya Angelou)
My years of reading and watching documentaries (like all the episodes of Eyes on the Prize and 13th), and facing this history and our legacy, takes courage. It also takes acceptance. I have accepted the power of the lies, the insidiousness of the whitewashed versions of happy slaves, the hysteria that white women have to be protected from Black men, the “science” of brain, bone, teeth measurements to determine intellect, the absolute humiliation for us all of stereotypes and misinformation.
This trip to Alabama was merciful—50 degrees, the museums and sites were not crowded so we could walk through the Memorial at our own pace with our thoughts and wonder. It was also heartbreaking. Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”
“Racism is a heart disease,” says Buddhist teacher Ruth King, “and it’s curable.” Racism is a disease. We can cure this if we face the realities as Maya Angelou says. Enough white fragility. Enough, oh that was so long ago. Enough coming down on each another, for that perpetuates the rule of the owners and betrays our abilities to heal and unite. Our only chance for survival will be through our resistance to hate. Resist racist, homophobic and sexist remarks, jokes, and symbols. Resist messages that demean us. Educate about the honest and true history and contributions of People of Color as intertwined with Euro Americans. We have to work together in all our creativity and abilities to save the planet and create the future. Urgently.
Diary of the Trip: January 25-27, 2019
January 25: THE DEXTER AVENUE KING MEMORIAL BAPTIST CHURCH
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first church. Sarah Collins Rudolph and her husband arrived as Tour Guide Wanda Howard Battle was giving us her regular talk. Sarah Collins Rudolph is the Fifth Girl, the one who did not die in the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, along with Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair did. Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph were in town for the opening of a play about the Four Little Girls. Mrs. Battle was overwhelmed by their entry and swept them into the tour. Mrs. Rudolph was temporarily blinded in the blast and she did lose an eye. Her new book recounts her life-long witness.
January 26: THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE
800 6-foot-tall rusted steel mini-monuments represent the victims of lynching.
Representation. Six foot mini-monuments hanging, to be walked around and gazed up upon. Replicas waiting in the adjacent yard to be taken to the State and location of the lynching. 800 of them. Some with many names and dates. The year 1947 on one.
4,400 names and many “Unknown.” Murdered for asking for a drink of water, for protesting the lynching of a husband, for saying something to a white woman, for the right to be human.
The memorial sculpture by Ghanaian Kwame Akoto-Bamfo on our early morning visit was saturated in sunlight. Nkyinkyim Sculpture. * The power in the shadows complimented the faces etched in screaming. Each link of the chain is reflected on the ground. Each sculpted Being reached to touch another, seeking to link together while being severed apart.
Inscription on a wall
For the hanged and the beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.
Ida B. Wells Memorial Grove
“Our country’s national crime is lynching.” (Ida B. Wells)
Guided by Justice, 2018. Dana King (b. 1960) Bronze: Three Women walking during the 381-day Bus Boycott in 1955 and boot prints.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott started on December 5, 1955-December 20, 1956.
Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus, where the Colored or Negro people were to sit, on December 1st. She was a trained non-violent activist, a seamstress, and she investigated rape cases for the local NAACP. Martin Luther King, Jr., the new pastor at the Dexter Street Baptist Church was 26 when he was faced with these events. The people walked rather than ride the segregated buses. And they walked until the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public transportation illegal. Non-violent activism begins in earnest.
Raise Up, 2016 Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) Bronze
JANUARY 26: THE LEGACY MUSEUM: FROM ENSLAVEMENT TO MASS INCARCERATION
Written on the exterior wall of the Legacy Museum:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. Maya Angelou
The domestic slave trade expanded slavery after the International Trade was abolished in 1808. Montgomery, Alabama became a leader in the sale of humans until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Then the manipulation and continued dehumanization of people of color evolved to the current mass incarceration.
JANUARY 26: FREEDOM RIDERS MUSEUM
I don’t think anybody can say the students caused the violence . . . the people who committed violence are responsible for their own actions. (Freedom Rides Coordinator Diane Nash)
Thirteen (7 African Americans and 6 white Americans) Freedom fighters aboard a Greyhound Bus arrived at the Montgomery Terminal on May 20, 1961.They were testing the Supreme Court decision to desegregate interstate bus and rail travel. They had signed their last will and testament the night before.
A mob of 300 segregationists first attacked the photographers and journalists, intentionally destroying their equipment and then they attacked the Riders. All local police, ambulances and services were “busy,” and “unavailable.” The Riders fled to the church nearby or were taken away by local allies.
Over 400 volunteer Freedom Riders, college students, clergy, and housewives, traveled to the South through the summer until Attorney General Robert Kennedy convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to uphold the law.
Freedom Summer, of 1964, brought many more volunteers to the South to assist in voter registration.
January 27: CIVIL RIGHTS MEMORIAL by Maya Lin (1989)
A black granite circle, names of social justice activists carved on the surface, caressed in spilling water. In front of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Among those names carved into the dais:
Viola Gregg Liuzzo (1925-1965). She was shot by the Klan while driving Leroy Moton, a Black teenage activist who survived by pretending he was dead, from Montgomery to Selma. She is the only known white female to be killed during the Civil Rights Movement.
POEM—Elizabeth Alexander At the National Memorial for Peace & Justice
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name is a holy word.
The rocks cry out —-
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are
You are not lost to us.
The wind carried sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
True Peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice. (Martin Luther King, Jr)
(in no particular order) for further reading.
* https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/ https://youtu.be/8O2ETApTLds
Video of Sculptor at work.
The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (The Sarah Collins Rudolph Story) published by Africa World Press and written by Tracy Snipe (in conversation with Sarah Collins Rudolph). The book will be available through http://africaworldpressbooks.com/
All text and photographs by Shelley Vermilya. Edited by Zora Aretha Vermilya.
Enormous Gratitude to the people of the Peace and Justice Center of Vermont who organized and made this journey possible.
Where Does The Tide Go?
In 2014 Vermont received an “F” for the lackluster teaching of civil rights by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance organization. Vermonters, among others, deny their obliviousness. And then the election results of 2016 startled a whole lot of white folks, oblivious before. All over again the glaring impotence of thinking rights were won and legislation was all set for every issue the Second Wave feminists, African American, Vietnam veterans, First Nations Peoples, Environmentalists, folks with disabilities, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender folks had marched for. We are marching now as we watch every civil thread and right challenged, taunted, or abused. Hopelessness is not an option. It is obvious that lifetimes are required to widen the avenues toward justice for all. If we want democracy to work, we have to pass action on to the next generation as the most important inheritance.
When my son Dashiell was about three we were at the beach as the tide was receding. We wandered further and further into the watery sand of the bay catching hermit crabs and strolling at a pace one only finds in summers with very young children. He asked, “Where does the water go?” In bewilderment I said, “Let’s go see if there is a book at Cricket’s house that will tell us!” We dumped our buckets to return the hermit crabs to their own wandering and trudged up the street to rummage through the guide books. Today, if asked, Google replies:
Tides are caused by the gravity of both the moon and the sun “pulling” at the water in the sea. Because the Earth is constantly turning, the “pull” of gravity affects different places as each day goes on – so when the tide is “out” in your area, it is “in” somewhere else. But the water level at high tide changes too!
Almost two decades after this idyllic beach walk I sit in wonder at how, despite the reliable ebb and flow of the tides, I am still bewildered by new questions. I had never thought to ask about the whereabouts of all that water and since then there have been many more such queries by Zora and Dashiell. We, humans, too are pulled incessantly by parents, friends, media, school curricula, social media and the constant “ding” in our pocket as the phone alerts. Our senses, our physical and psychic energy, are at the mercy of these relentless social and media tidal flows. Curiosity, questioning, finding our rhythm, knowing the truth may have more layers than we see at first glance—this is what understanding is all about. This is acknowledging the world as the dynamic continuum it is.
This summer of 2018, a great number of white people have called police to report people of color while napping, shopping, swimming, or walking in their neighborhood or entering their own home—no other reason, no other apparent activities that would suggest endangerment. Several individuals have been murdered. The dehumanization of Black people started at the very birthing of this nation, and still blights our communities, our nation. The bridges slowly bringing intersectionality across the wetlands of segregation have been undermined by the hatefulness engendered by the current president and those emboldened by him. But the bridges are there—getting reinforced by new candidates running for local and state offices, kids on campaigns to stop gun violence, get out the vote, and sue the government for the climate. The bridges are being built by new entrepreneurial young people in neighborhoods they love and want to keep affordable.
Hope sneaks in and shines light on despair. But then I recall the tall African American social worker standing at the railing of his condo by the bay who warned that when the cute little toddlers got big, people would cross the street when they saw them coming. He could have no idea just how deeply his words would resound these years later. When Dashiell was just seventeen Trayvon Martin was murdered, and the number of Black boys and men killed for being Black and male continues. President Obama’s presence in the White House gave a lot of us tremendous hope that racism in American was turning around. Instead, what was just ahead was the unleashing of a new wave of terrorism on men, women, girls, boys, transgender women of color as well as school children in an era of untethered white boys with access to big guns. Ruth King eloquently explains, each individual murder is a star in a much greater galaxy. That galaxy includes all the Emmitt Tills, Trayvon Martins, Tanisha Andersons, Dee Whighams and Botham Jeans over hundreds of years in the United States.
In Vermont this summer, kids and counselors of color at a camp for adopted children were harassed with racial slurs, taunted at a mini golf venue and made devastatingly uncomfortable in the renowned resort town of Stowe. The representative for Bennington decided to withdraw after winning the primary because of the death threats she and her family received. She has been the only African American representative in the state house and her work for social justice and inclusion has been admired.
Hurt people hurt people, say the men in their restorative justice circles in San Quentin. There are a lot of hurting people. Healed people heal people, I remind my daughter when she comes home after work and recounts a weird interaction with a customer. “Is it because of my skin?” She is intentional in her efforts to be welcoming, friendly, and not at all impatient, so as not to be seen as the Black girl with attitude. This is retail. Is it or isn’t it racial? These so called “micro-aggressions” take hours to shake off. Hurt people are also on that wide spectrum—perpetrating their violence in rude remarks to fatal gunshots — our nation suffers the hurts of all these confusions and unequal regard.
Stares, drive by catcalls of the N-word or other derisive words, questions that could be taken as doubting reliability or responsibility, these are the daily experiences that make up microaggressions. “Death by a thousand cuts” comes to mind, referring to a slow torture practice from ancient China.
Robin DiAngelo has just published a fierce retrospective of her years as an antiracist educator, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon Press, 2018). She is adamant and clear about the squirming and denying most white folks do regarding racism and race. We are soaked in white supremacy by our very existence on this land, we are drenched in socialization that promotes white as normal, white as the way it is, white as right.
I have never met anyone who actually wanted to be racist, though I do know many who are because we have not thought about our own whiteness. Racism is in the air we all breathe, the laws of the nation, the media we consume, the neighborhoods we inhabit, the schools we attend. This is systematic, larger than an individual. We are all born into it. We have to acknowledge our initial naïveté and then get to work.
Prejudice is learned.
Ignorance can be replaced with knowledge.
Ruth King says, “Racism is a heart disease and it is curable.”
Fear can be subverted with conversation, attention, information.
Curiosity can turn fear into a willingness to change.
And still, events occur and hurt prevails.
I know that joy would thrive here, where anxiety has taken hold. Loving and raising two children has taught me about being willing to see the world through un-restricted eyes, colorblindness works both ways. Breaking the stranglehold of white supremacy/racialized and prejudiced ways of knowing–on my imagination, on my responses to events, on my moral compass, on my compassion for other peoples—is my liberty. Seeing the world without the lens of racial denial, knowing the additional layers of non-conforming gender, sexuality, economic agility, age, and living in a rural sociology have taught me about complexity. Every day I come to a deeper understanding of more of what I didn’t know!
Dr. DiAngelo wants us, white folks, to accept that the foundations of this nation have been built on dehumanizing people with brown and black skin, stealing land, and breaking treaties (along with James Baldwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Nell Irvin Painter, and so many others). Our ancestors all came from other places and many were treated horribly until they established their lives, as in assimilating to the standards of whiteness of American. This is a deeply bitter heritage. We can hold these truths and at the same time embrace the beauty, art, science, and majesties that have been able to thrive here. By accepting the past, ending our denial, we may design a better present.
Stamp your foot, holler your refusal. “I don’t want to be racist.” From here we may begin our work to learn, to love, to do something every day to thwart the hate, the vengeance, the fear held by white supremacists, the transphobic, the ableists, the ageists, the Holocaust and climate change deniers, the bakers who will not celebrate nontraditional marriages. Every day. One thing.
James Baldwin always wanted his white readers to grow up, be mature, accept history and reality. Note his last lines here that clarify the racist blame regarding integrating neighborhoods, note the way we have been given twisted information. Baldwin writes,
There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips, and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why. I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.
We can change the country, 1963
Too often we don’t know what we don’t know—and how easily we have been deceived. We have to find the erasures–of color, women, gay, lesbian, and transgendered activists, to point out a few. We need deep curiosity, not despair and defiant skepticism. As I write this Texas is determined to ban Hilary Clinton and Helen Keller from their history books. White radical women are so despised….
I’ve had students rage at what they have not been taught. I’ve watched as my kids have negotiated their community of “well-meaning” white people, the very people who are shocked at my concerns for my children’s safety locally and more broadly.
I’ve been constantly amazed at how, despite my attentiveness, I keep finding out new-to -me perspectives on the historic record and their consequences. The NASA “Hidden Figures” of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are good examples of women not easily found even with the feminist quest for revealing silenced voices. May 1, 1865 when black workers dug up the mass grave of Union soldiers and buried them with dignity, prayers and the choir of Black children singing “America the Beautiful.”
The tall African American social worker warned me as the toddlers walked along the bay at sunset about the reactions they would meet as teenagers. Here, tides and years gone by, I fear the rage and even the innocence of white fragility. Growing up, accepting the complexity of our identities and heritage, welcoming the vitality in challenging our assumptions—this is what I’m constantly trying to explain and examine. How is it we are this way? Why are immigrants so despised when they are the new, very much needed new energy, new participants for our democracy? Why are we not the generous nation, truly welcoming and encouraging new citizens as the poem on the Statue of Liberty offers? James Baldwin reminds us that the folks who got on the Mayflower were not successful in England. Relentlessly, the tides prevail, watershed ideas, new technology, our lives keep changing, the water low means the water is high somewhere else.
Swimming I am buoyant. Moving through cold spots, watching clouds, loons, boaters, and paddle boarders. Freedom in the wide-open space of the pond. There are no tides here, but the earliest fallen leaves are on the surface, my body follows the power in my arm strokes, propels with the flutter of my feet. Slowly, with effort, I progress across the pond. In the bay I swim through the waves, breathe in the gaps in the surge, progress only as the tide and my defiant persistence permit. Wind and water, the pull from the moon, the backlash from a storm out at sea, all play their role in my drifting. The elements are all the same—pond and ocean—yet the challenges are complicated differently. White fragility and racism, the elements are all the same—pond and ocean—individual and enormous systems.
As mentioned above, Ruth King talks about the individual event, the single star and the constellations of many stars. This is her description of how we respond to the killing of one Black being as a single star. If we step back, look harder, we see so many individual stars, individuals harmed or murdered. We see the constellation and better understand the magnitude of what is going on.
Which of course, makes me think of Marvin Gaye’s (April 2, 1939- April 1, 1984) song “What’s Going On.” We’ve been wondering—we have to challenge all our impatience, fury, and frustration. Fifty-five years ago, four young girls were preparing for church. They were blown apart in their church basement. Remember this road is one we make by walking, we design each path from the rubble of explosions to mercy and the possibilities we dare dream.
What’s Going On
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on
In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe
Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Tell me what’s going on
I’ll tell you what’s going on, ooh ooo ooo ooo
Right on baby
Right on baby
Songwriters: Alfred W Cleveland / Marvin P Gaye / Renaldo Benson
What’s Going On lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Two shells at Herring Cove After the 4th Nor’easter March 2018
PROVINCETOWN ART ASSOCIATION AND MUSEUM
THE MEMBERS’ 12×12 EXHIBITION AND SILENT AUCTION
June 29 – August 26, 2018
It is the only thing louder
Beauty, mysterious mixes of nature and light, doesn’t have the power to stop gunfire or war, greed, or even the beginnings of fear. If we love the land, listen, hear the voices of the hurt, allow the other sides of the stories to be told: How do we hold on to hope, persevere, and continue to be faithful to the idea of justice for all?
Verging on hopelessness, despairing, crushed by political hijinks, anti-intellectualism, and reversals of protections to lands and peoples: we persist. We find beauty in the storm. Awe and wonder too.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver spent over forty years combing the landscape of the Province Lands. She describes these 17.5 square miles at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in her poems and essays. She would head out at dawn and walk, along the bay, through Beech Forest, down fire lanes, across dune meadows, and gaze at the blue pastures of the ponds and across the sea. She sat still and long enough to see a fox playfully batting at a butterfly, a turtle striding across the bottom of a pond. She always carried a hand sewn pad in her back pocket. Local lore says she left pencils in tree nooks in case she needed to scribble an idea. A squirrel stashes seeds for the next cold spell, but Ms. Oliver’s pencils won’t sprout the next generation of poets. That one of her pencils is around someplace, seems right. That’s poetry waiting for a word.
The image of Mary Oliver walking, and pondering, and letting ideas emerge, year after year across the same paths, offers a kind of permission and promise. I’ve been thinking that I need to photograph other things. Maybe I need a new perspective and new things to print, both photographs and in words. Actually, yes and certainly, no. Just as Ms. Oliver found new words while traversing well known places, every time I go out with my camera there is new light and striking shadows, shells, snow on dunes, leaves on trees, or tides high or low. Every time I start an essay, even if it is about the art of photography and my visual life, words about justice seep in. I am coming to realize that photography retains my balance, keep me from falling into the tyranny of despair.
From my toddlerhood to their last agile days, I would trudge along behind my Mom and our neighbor, Connie Clark. We would walk down tree canopied nature trails, around ponds, and across narrow boardwalks traversing swamps. Connie plied me with bowls filled with springtime pond water teeming with larvae or frog eggs, so I could witness the miracles of life’s transformations. My mother was patient until mosquitos started buzzing in the dining room and she demanded the research be returned to the source. These two women read voraciously and collected seed pods and vines for fall bouquets. Silent Spring shocked them. They were my first guides to Rachel Carson’s world view and respect for the universe right outside our door. In 1962 Carson wrote, “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature… but man is a part of nature, and this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Carson’s “…this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself” sends me thinking of James Baldwin and all he endeavored in his lifetime to teach white people about their too frequent and thorough dehumanization, especially of people of color. Every one of us has a face that fits on the Pantone color scale, every one of us carries a glimmer of our ancestors in hair, eyes, nose, lips, eyebrows, the shape of our ears, or even a gesture with our hands. We are all humans, our skin our largest organ, and to deny one is to deny us all. The war against others begins with war within one’s own self.
As a youth, James Baldwin had a white teacher who guided him, offered him theater, literature and conversation. From her he came to know that not all white people were hate-filled, though some certainly deserved caution and contempt. He wrote every way he could through his lifetime to explain the conditions into which white Americans put Black Americans.
. . . If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.
That question only leads to more: Why Latinx? Why Lesbians, Gays, Transgender peoples? Why Asian? Why people with Disabilities of all kinds? Why Jewish? Why Muslim? Why Native American? Why Nature? Why people with little money? Why people with no home? Why Elderly? Why Asylum Seekers? Why Children?
Once this question gets going we have to wonder who is left to do the hating.
Terry Tempest Williams is another lover of the land, writer, activist, feminist, and conservationist. Her deepest roots are in the American West, yet they stretch to the coast of Maine. In The Hour of Land, she explores the tensions of mining, extraction, and conservation in the wilds of our National Parks. She declares three points for our immediate attention: “If we fail in this century, it is because we are too timid,” “If we lose our way in America, it is because we are too complacent,” and “There is a tradition of courage in our country and we must exercise it now.”
My usual work is teaching, talking, and writing about issues that precipitate and perpetuate misunderstanding and harm. This includes: toxic expectations for men and powerlessness assumptions for women; whiteness and racialized violence; queerness and violence toward LGBT folks; Power and Fear. The stuff of race, class, sex, gender expression, and sexualities. The ways all stereotypes about these issues–as well as disability, ethnicity, religions, education, access—keep a whole lot of hurt and hopelessness alive. My usual work is to educate to illuminate the possibilities of compassion and awareness. I don’t want to change the world. I want to transform it.
Wandering the Outer Cape brings me courage, especially off-season when the beauty is stark, and the beaches are empty of sunbathers. Extreme winds push my body as I make my way down the beach and the booming waves after a storm surprise all my senses. I feel the crashing of the waves in the sand under my feet and the spray of seawater in the wind; smell the metallic of the ions and cold salt in the air. My fingers work the camera as snow and sand blasts the beach clean, seaweed flying. Ironically, this is soul soothing nourishment. My photographs bring the viewer bluster and balm.
James Baldwin wrote, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
My photographs reveal all the colors in the sand. Not beige at all, but bits of black, pink, blue or purple. No combination of seaweed on the beach is the same, in the wrack line there are souvenirs from waves and human negligence. Color is in every shred of sea hay, every dried seaweed curl, every feather fiercely intact after flight from the bird. The camera lens captures one second of this wildness; to realize we are nature our minds can come to know courage, the revelation of our own oppressions will make us all free, if we are not afraid.
In my heart, I hear James Baldwin sighing in agreement as I read these lines by Rev. angel Kyodo williams:
the great fraud of the construct of whiteness is that it has coerced and convinced most white folks to no longer see their own oppression: by men over women, by straights over LGBT, by hetero fathers over their sons in arbitrating their masculinity, by capitalist values of personal acquisition over the personal freedom of one’s soul. white folks have been duped to trade their humanity for their privilege. the most insidious lie is that racism is a Black problem or a colored folks problem. white folks wake up: not only oppressed people are complicit in oppression. it’s your problem, too.
How do we become love and freedom? Is it by walking the same beach and being willing to see something new? Changing our point of view, moving our lens from the grain of sand to the clouds above the horizon line, moving the entire body, looking, focusing, attending. Click, the shutter opens and closes. Philosophy professor George Yancy writes, “As James Baldwin said, Black history “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Who could we be without the weighty anchors of social norms, constructions of race, gender expressions, the colonialization of privileges? Can we find the freedom, liberate our deeply entrenched biases, unexamined assumptions, and fears? We are waves, constantly moving, rising and ebbing. We are humans who have everything to lose and even more to gain.
Be courage. Create beauty with words, graphics, photographs, and actions. We are the world we want to live in, this is our one wild and precious life, and we aren’t afraid of the impossible.
In Order of Appearance
Shout out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog. Incredible integration of ideas, stunning graphics, as well as reminders of things read in the past and their immense value to thinking about the present.
Andrea Gibson (1975-) Take Me With You (2017).
Mary Oliver (1935–) Blue Pastures (1991).
Maria Shriver asked Mary Oliver what she has done with her one wild and precious life. Oliver replied, “I’ve used up a lot of pencils.”
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) Silent Spring (1962).
James Baldwin (1924-1987) I’m Not Your Negro (2017)
film and text by Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck.
Terry Tempest Williams (1955–) The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (2016).
Ions smelling metallic. I’m not sure if this is at all accurate. What do you think? From The National Science Foundation: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/water/index_low.jsp?id=ions
Maybe it is cold salt one smells in the mists of the storm surges.
James Baldwin found in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/08/20/james-baldwin-the-creative-process/ From The Price of A Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction (1948-1985) on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Responsibility to Society.
Rev. angel Kyoto williams, Sensi (1969–) Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation (2016) with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah.
George Yancy, Dear White People, New York Times, 2015.
No, thunder isn’t overhead, we aren’t counting till the lightning strikes. This is Tig Notaro’s show.
I’m a reader, not an avid viewer of television or movies. We don’t have cable on purpose. With a book, I can close it when I get overwhelmed; toss it across the room when it irks me and go back to it when I am darn well ready. There is less immediate control with screens. Sure, turn it off, walk out…. but the content has already slipped in, the horror already pouring over my skin, into my brain. I gotta keep it out of my mind. I’m not overly tenderhearted or naïve. I just don’t want that stuff in me from fiction. I know it from real-world and history.
What a gift. A casual dyke, not a lipstick power babe. L- Word covered that genre and besides, stealth is a whole other way to be in the streets. Tig is Tig—down low funny dealing with the meanest hard rock formations of humans.
Stay with me, this will circle ‘round.
This is a quote from Lama Rod Owens,
When people ask me how I’m doing, I feel a little confused and pause for a moment. In my mind I want to talk about this deep sense of heaviness and despair that feels like mourning with and for the world. I want to say that a part of me doesn’t feel good enough, that this was a feeling I was born into, trained in, and encouraged to accept—that I do not remember an experience before this (Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, p.57-58).
Trust a Black, queer Lama man to express what is exactly me, precisely, perfectly. Despair is in my lungs from years of breathing it. As you may remember from earlier blogs, I was raised by drag queens. I’ve disco danced my way along the gender expression spectrum and I’m often mistaken for a guy. I say, just don’t call me late for supper when asked about preferred pronouns. Struggling to figure out why I didn’t like being mistaken, when it really was partly my responsibility because I do dress mostly in clothing from the men’s department … I realize it surely doesn’t matter. I’m queerly me. This means I never have ever felt represented in the media. Alison Bechdel’s squad in Dykes to Watch Out For, comes so close. I swoon over Rachel Maddow but I sure don’t have that passion for the national-politic.
Tig’s show is enlightening, refreshing, so cutting edge about sexual assault it made me squirm a few times (such raw taboo truth) and, and it isn’t insulting or assaulting. I tried to be a fan of Grace & Frankie, Transparent, and The Fosters. Actually, I even watched a full season and a half before signing out. I just couldn’t go along with the escalating absurdities and gratuitous weirdness. Ok, you’ve caught me in my devotion to documentaries and TED Talks. Fiction wears me out.
Tig has her share of fantasy moments, dreamy what ifs. These fade as she engages with deeper and most daring confrontations with the stuff of real life –that rocky content: Grief from a sudden dying, life-long consequences of incest for all family members, cancer, workplace sexual harassment, falling in love across sexual identities, and just beginning at the end of season 2—race.
What’s funny? It’s a mix—just as our real days are. Tip toe into the Grand Canyon of griefs or take the long view across the whole panorama?
We are all living in the grief and mourning of our pasts and the pandemonium of the current administration. The exposure of sexual abusers and actual consequences to perpetrators is bringing a liberation like we haven’t seen before. My FB post in October:
I was told, “It’s an occupational hazard of being a girl,” so I dressed like a boy and always had on shoes good for running. But me too.
One Mississippi characters are opening up silenced topics; male characters are working out of inhibitions that were put on them by history, tradition, shame, grief and denial. Women are rising. I confess to being just a little excited, kind of daring to be hope-filled. Not only for Season Three but our whole nation and globe. I asked my Beloved for a watch, just like Tig’s, for Christmas. I want to be in these times.