Monthly Archives: August 2016
Posted by Shelley Vermilya
Jesmyn Ward’s new anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race offers an array of contemporary black writers on the topic of what it means to be living in the wake of such losses as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Nine. What does it mean to live in an era of bullets — the lynching ropes of the present? What does it mean to write history with the black point of view as Honorée Fanonne Jeffers does about Phillis Wheatley’s husband? What does fatherhood for black men mean, and how do black boys learn their masculinity, as Mitchell S. Jackson considers and Clint Smith (also in the anthology) has spoken? These authors write about history and determination to turn the tide from victimized to the clear knowing that black lives belong, black lives do matter.
The rigorous power-filled writing in Ward’s anthology sent me back to James Baldwin’s original The Fire Next Time, which I first read 40 years ago. Therein are two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.” “My Dungeon Shook” is ten lean, muscular pages; Baldwin was never a boxer or fighter, but his words take on all opponents. His clarion call to his nephew (and to all) is to live and thrive despite devastating odds. This 1962 epistle is as relevant today as it was then,
“…You were born where you faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. … You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
Plenty have aspired to and reached excellence since. This month we’re reminded of that with every Olympic headline as we celebrate American women Olympian athletes of color: Ibthihaj Muhammad, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Simone Manuel, Laurie Hernandez, and Michelle Carter.
Yet on the same newsfeed, right along with these striking achievements were listed the latest deaths by gun violence. Jesse Romero, Mexican-American 14-year-old middle school student shot in Los Angeles running from police. Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, 20-year-old African American shot by white Chad Copley, neighborhood vigilante in Raleigh, North Carolina, while walking home from a party. Then, Imam Alauddin Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Miah, were gunned down near their mosque in Queens, New York. Then, Sylville Smith was killed by police in Milwaukee. Transwomen, Rae’Lynn Thomas and Erykah Tijerina were murdered this August too. Women, boys and men of color are particularly in the lines of fire. At a popular gay bar in June of 2016 in Orlando, Florida, 49 people died, 53 seriously injured, mostly Puerto Rican or African American, ages from 18-50.
We live in this complexity, this society where so many things are true at once; where black women break barriers and win gold at the same moment black men, women and children are losing their lives to violence.
In her 2016 re-release of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit has this to say about these times,
… ” ‘Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society,’ wrote Situationist Raoul Vaneigem. The question, then, is not so much how to create the world as how to keep alive the moment of creation, how to realize that Coyote world in which creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators, a world whose hopefulness lies in its unfinishedness, its openness to improvisation and participation. The revolutionary days I have been outlining are days in which hope is no longer fixed on the future: it becomes an electrifying force in the present”.
We live wanting results and a sense of completion; haven’t we ended racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia already? Solnit reminds us we will always be creating, participating, and we are the creators of change. This requires imagination and audacity, the kind Baldwin showed when he integrated a bar on the corner of MacDougal and Bleeker. He had been refused service on several occasions until he was escorted in with the president of Harper & Brothers publishing. He was never thrown out again. He writes, “They had fought me very hard to prevent this moment, but perhaps we were all much relieved to have got beyond the obscenity of color.”
Just as Baldwin wrote to his nephew, and Daniel José Older writes to his wife, and Edwidge Danticat to her daughters in Ward’s The Fire This Time, I write to my own children in every bit of my work, teaching or writing. My work is my life, our lives, intertwined. What brought me to adopt an African American girl and then her brother? What has raising them meant every day of our lives? My children roll their eyes now at my concerns for their safety. They are tall enough to pat me on my shoulder, sigh and brush off my fears for their black lives in white America.
To my black children I say: We are in the world I dreamed of when I adopted you. I wanted to walk into the future, as the future would be: as diverse and complex as nature has made it. Brazilian Paulo Friere and American Myles Horton wrote We Make the Road By Walking about their work as educators and social activists. If that is so, we’ve got a good path under our feet. We’ve laughed and talked, been to the beach, made S’mores at the fire pit, sledded on the hill behind the house. You’ve participated in dinner table conversations with all kinds of people and come to my college classes. You volunteered to read to kids, guided small hands as they glued self-portraits in response to hearing It’s OK to Be Different by Todd Parr. Kindergarteners so happy to have your beaming smile flash their way. You are both off to college with as many skills as I could badger you into gaining, and you’ll always be learning more as you walk alone. But I did not imagine the dangers of 1962 would still be so prevalent in 2016.
The hardest thing as a mother is knowing I can’t protect you. Not really. Your adulthood slams you right into the societal tsunami of fears, disharmony, abuses of power and those all-pervasive obscenities of racism and sexism. Dashiell and I used to read Bill Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes endlessly. In one frame Hobbes asks, “How come we play war and not peace?” Calvin replies, “Too few role models.” Our family had no role models, we found our way each day. You both learned to respond to snide remarks about being gay (because I am) or about your brown hands being dirty. We learned to be educators to your white teachers who stammered at what language to use when talking about people of color.
Leaving the house one morning I called out, “I’m off to do Reading to End Racism with third graders. See you after school!”
“Ok Mom, why don’t you end homophobia and sexism while you’re at it? Hope it goes well,” Zora responded. Was she being sarcastic or wistful?
My work is unfinished.
In 2016, 587 people have been shot by police, and 401 have died in mass shooting events as of this writing, simply for being themselves. Crossing the street, dancing while gay, driving while black, living while trans, walking while woman. Our history proves this non-stop legacy of hurt and grief and oceans of tears.
James Baldwin wrote to his nephew,
“The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them (white people). And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do no understand: and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. …”
We, white people, people with power and privilege, must release ourselves. Our place in history is as immigrants, one and all. We stand upon the shoulders of others. Our history is filled with broken treaties, theft, and justices denied. Carelessly or not, we’ve stepped on the necks and hearts of Native Americans, Africans, and many immigrants since and still today. Our democracy will only thrive with our participation, and our understanding and compassion for one another: working together to build a nation free of gun violence, filled with economic and social justice, creating a place where happiness outwits shame and mental illness. Jesymn Ward only found three black authors writing about a hopeful future. This could be the nation where she would find more. Solnit reminds us, “creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators.” It’s a reality we have to embrace. Our work will never be “finished.”
Grief is relentless. Solnit says “…joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”
Let’s start there, way beyond the obscenity of hate.
 The Fire Next Time. (1962/1991). New York: Vintage International, p. 7.
 “Queries of Unrest” is his essay in The Fire This Time. Watch Smith’s TED talk: How to Raise a Black Son in America. March 2015: http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_how_to_raise_a_black_son_in_america?
 The Fire Next Time, p. 7.
 After Ideology, or Alterations in Time in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. (2004/2016). Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, p. 95.
 James Baldwin, Here Be Dragons in The Price of a Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985. (1985). New York, St. Martin’s Press, p. 687.
 We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. (1990). Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
 Google search. Calvin and Hobbes quotes. Bill Waterson, 1985.
 The Fire Next Time, p8.
 This is a complex ideal. People, who are happy and live fulfilled and meaningful lives, aren’t called to addiction and are eager to find help and services to stay healthy. Consumerism, commercialism, competition lead to dissatisfaction, shame, guilt and all the ingredients for violence and hate. Happiness is a radical concept for most Americans. All our efforts for social, economic, political, and educational justice could create more opportunity for more meaning, well-being, and happiness for all. This could change everything.
 Hope in the Dark, p.24.