Rethinking Love

The Starbucks story has me deep in my feelings. (I’m sure this comes as quite the surprise to everyone.) And then this morning I came across this article in my FB feed. Professor Yancy’s experiences aren’t mine. I have never — yet … and thank goodness — had to endure the kinds of attacks he has, but I have had feelings of rage and despair similar to what he describes, have questioned why I bother to keep trying to force a conversation about race, push people to see the world that I live in. The faster my heart beat as I read his essay, the more I knew I could stop looking for today’s source text.

Rethinking Love
(An erasure of Professor George Yancy’s op-ed in the Times.)

I needed a witness
needed help to carry what I was feeling,
my emotional response
to a different kind of threat.
The kind of threat
that will inevitably impact my loved ones,
that impacts me,
my body
my spirit.

I cannot take this hatred anymore.

They bore witness
to my vulnerability,
my suffering,
the sting of hatred.
They saw the impact,
and the space between us was not the same.

I wanted them to internalize
philosophy, love,
wisdom in the face of danger.
Yet, I seemed to have lost my bearing.
I was pushed to rethink love,
the kind that refuses to hide
and requires profound vulnerability.

Being weary, fatigued, pained
mixed with outrage.
Do I give up on white people,
on white America,
or do I continue to fight?
America suffers from white racism,
lack of courage,
spinelessness and indifference.

For many white Americans,
I am disposable,
more beast than human.
And yet, a braver white America
took off their masks.
They entered that space of risk
and honesty
to tell the truth about whiteness.

We are prepared
to be wounded,
to be haunted by love
and vulnerability,
step out into the water
feel the perpetual achievement
of the impossible.

__________

I’m still struggling with this form. Struggling every day. I had thought it would be a little more malleable in my hands than it has turned out to be. I thought I could use the words in the source text, stretch them to fit my ideas. Instead, I am having to stretch myself. Stretching myself isn’t a bad thing, sure, but it’s exhausting.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

This is my brain. This is my brain on a short leash.

Thanks to a comment from Paul on yesterday’s post, I’ve been introduced to Jeremy Rifkin and this excellent video about creating an empathic civilization:

When I went to Detroit last year, one of the messages we kept hearing at the conference was that equity is the answer (not surprising, as I was attending the Equity Summit).  Thinking more about Noguera’s speech yesterday and my response to it reminded me of the conversations I had the speeches I heard in Detroit. 

One of the panelists we heard the first day was Jeffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone.  I’ve had the opportunity to see and hear Canada quite a bit in the last year, and sometimes I find myself feeling a little jaded when I listen to him, and sometimes what he says is like a bright light switching on and clarifying some point I haven’t been able to articulate.  The latter was my response to something he said in Detroit.  He talked about the need for us to think about all children as our own children.  Again, like Noguera’s empathic conversations comment, this is pretty obvious on its face, pretty basic.

His point was that the people who hold power make sure their own children are well taken care of, but often seem little concerned about or perhaps magically and blissfully unaware of the environments in which they allow other people’s children to live and be educated. He said he finally realized that the secret to changing the odds for children like the ones he serves was to make everyone see that all children are our children, that there is no mythical sub category of “their children.”

Totally obvious.  And fits so well with Noguera’s comment about empathy.  If, as Rifkin says, empathy is how we show solidarity with others, extending the group of others with whom we show solidarity would mean that we’d be extending the range of our kindness, the reach of our compassion.  We wouldn’t be able to accept the fact of children living in poverty or being witnesses to violence at home or school.  We would be so moved and horrified by these things happening to our children that we would do something about it.  We would change systems and create equitable, socially just policies so that our children would grow up well, safe and happy.  I like it.

As far as my personal Empathy Quotient goes, I’ve been monitoring my thoughts today.  It doesn’t serve to monitor my behavior, because I’m usually quite well behaved.  My thoughts, on the other hand …  You might be thinking that it hardly matters what’s in my head as long as I’m not acting on all my unkind musings, and it’s true that we’re all better off if people exercise impluse control and don’t act on every thought they have.  At the same time, the things I think about affect my mood and my behavior … and souring my mood isn’t good for me and can’t be good for anyone who has to be around me, either.

I monitored … and by lunch time I had had to stop myself about a dozen times — cutting off my disparaging and disdainful thoughts about someone I heard being interviewed on the news, people I saw on the bus and subway heading to work, two of my colleagues.  And those are just the times I was observant enough to catch myself.  I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.  Surprised and saddened to see how intolerant I’ve become.  Maybe I’ve always been this snarky, but I don’t think so. 

So I have work to do.  It’s not just stopping the thought, it’s replacing it with a new thought, a thought that’s coming from the empathic side of my brain.  It’s not as simple as finding an I’m-trying-to-relate-to-who-you-are thought … and that’s already not simple.  It’s interesting looking so closely at what I’m thinking, hitting “pause” when something ugly bubbles up and reworking my brain to a kinder, gentler place.

_____

Check out the rest of today’s slices over at Two Writing Teachers.

Common Ground

Our essay topic: “What are the advantages and disadvantages of a “child-free” lifestyle?”

It’s kind of a ridiculous topic on its face, and written in such a way as to invite confusion in how people answer it.  Most of the class brainstormed on the advantages of not having children and the disadvantages of having them.  It took a long time to get everyone clear on the idea that we were supposed to be thinking about the disadvantages of not having children. 

The conversations happening around the room were interesting.  I anticipated the arguments against having children — although I was surprised by some of the voices those arguments came in.  I didn’t anticipate the conversation that bubbled up at the boy table.

A group of young guys and one older guy started my class in January.  The young ones all met before enrolling in my class, but they have formed a fairly strong bond with the older student over the last month.  The young ones are all seventeen — ok, James turned 18 about six seconds ago — and the older one is in his mid-30s.  All are Latino.  All have  (surprisingly vulnerable) defenses in place.  At least two have experience with the criminal justice system.  One — one of the 17-year-olds — is father to a baby boy who just hit his one-month mark on Thursday.  His girlfriend is also in my class, but wasn’t in class that day.

I was working with another group when I overheard their conversation.

“I can’t write about a child-free lifestyle when Jenny and I have a new baby at home.” (Isidoro, whose baby is named for him.)

“Well you only know about fatherhood for a month.  You can still remember what it was like without a baby, right?” (James, who has pictures of Isidoro’s baby on his phone and shows me updated shots almost as often as Isidoro does.)

“Yeah, I remember what it was like.  If I could go back a year, I think I’d do a few things differently.”  He shakes his head.  “I mean, what do I know about being a father?  I never had one to learn from.  Mine left before I even got here.”

“Mine, too.”  This was said in unison by both James and Ray, the older student.

“I grew up without a father,” says Wilson, “but not because he left.  He was just always trying to work at something.  He always had to be in another place to do that.  We were all at home without him.”

“So who am I supposed to learn about being a father from?” Isidoro asks.  “I grew up without a father, but do I want that for my son?  No.  But how am I supposed to do any better than my father?”

“You already are, man,” says James.  “You said your father left while your mother was pregnant.  You didn’t do that.  You’re still here.”

I’m not so naive that I believe every one of my students comes from a storybook family.  Of course not.  My surprise at this conversation is about the fact that a tableful of young men would be sitting around talking about the lack of male role models in their lives, about the absence of their fathers.  And that surprise is, of course, mostly about comparisons between my own experience of being a teenager and the ones I see playing out in front of me at school.  We didn’t talk like this when I was a kid.   We surely should have.   I’m glad these guys can, glad they feel comfortable enough with each other and our classroom to talk about real things.  And, odd as it sounds, I’m glad they share this piece of family story, this less-than-“perfect” bit of common ground, glad Isidoro didn’t say he’d grown up without a father only to be faced with uncomprehending faces, or scorn, or disapproval … or anything that would have gotten in the way of him talking his way through to James’ lovely observation at the end.

Really looking forward to reading the essays that get turned in this week.

You can’t hear me …

… but right now I’m speaking with a Negro dialect.  Because I want to have one.

Right.  Just one of the many things that have served to piss me off in the last few weeks, just one of the things that have managed to silence me almost completely.  I still can’t write about some of those things, don’t know if I’ll ever figure out words for some of those things.  But I can definitely say a few things about Negro-ness.

Because it’s not just Harry Reid, you know.  The 2010 Census started this week, folks way up in Alaska somewhere got to see the new census form that has taken an interesting, troubling and misguided step into the past by returning “Negro” to the list of choices for “Race.”

The Census Bureau says that “Negro” was added back to the form as a ‘term of inclusion.’  “Many older African-Americans identified themselves that way, and many still do,” said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Census Bureau.

Yeah.  My grandmother was about a hundred years old when she died in 2003.  And certainly there were times when I heard her use the word Negro … but not as a way to seriously, respectfully refer to herself or any other black person.   I’ve heard lots of people use the word.  As a mocking endearment, as a joke, as an indication that someone is way behind the times, as an insult.

But it’s clearly too much to expect the census folks to figure this one out.  Especially when we’ve got Harry Reid with his Negro-dialect-can-he-really-be-so-stupid-to-have-said-that bullshit.

Feh.

For the last two weeks I’ve had to hear about what a failure Obama’s presidency has been. His whole presidency. Apparently.  At nine months, the news told me what his first year had been like. At a year, I’m being slapped in the face with the failure of an entire four-year term.

In the lead-up to the State of the Union address, the political analysts kept saying we’d need to hear a “conciliatory tone” from Obama, that he’d really need to extend an olive branch across the aisle.  I’m sorry, but what does he have to be conciliatory about?  Oh, right, Scott Brown got elected (don’t get me started) and that means the president’s been smacked down, shown the writing on the wall, brought low.

Because that’s what this is about, isn’t it?  Mr. My Uppity President has (finally!) been put in his place.

I haven’t done the research, so I’m open to having someone else point me to the source material that refutes what I’m about to say, but I don’t recall ever hearing this kind of scolding language used with presidents past.  Even when our last president was at his lowest, no one was telling him he’d gotten too big for his britches and would have to make nice with his betters.  No one talked about him with the kind of angry-parent-to-a-grown-acting-child voice I hear being used now.

I was happy not to hear the demanded “conciliatory tone” in Wednesday’s speech, was happy to hear a lot of what Mr. My President had to say, happy to see some members of the GOP act like grown folks and clap for things that maybe not every single one of their constituents would have wanted them to clap for.

And then there was Justice Alito’s frowning head-shake and his mouthed “Not true,” during the speech.

I don’t care whether or not Samuel Alito agrees with things the president says.  What I care very much about is his Joe Wilson impersonation, about the Joe Wilson Effect that seems to be blossoming all over the place.  The level of disrespect that is shown to this president stuns and saddens me … even as I know I am being naive to be stunned and saddened.  Harry Reid was right about Obama being a viable candidate because of his light skin and his speech, but no matter how light his skin, the President is still a black man.  No matter how non-Negro his “dialect,” he is still a black man.  And in this country that still means things it has meant for centuries.  And one of the ways that is playing out is in this unashamedly rude, disrespectful, condescending, insulting talk and behavior from all sides.

And one of the ways it plays out reminds me of growing up in that small town in northern New York, where my family and the other family were the only black families in town and everyone felt the need to tell me and tell me and tell me just how much they didn’t see me as a black person, how I was the same as a white person in their eyes.  Who were they trying to convince?  Surely not me.  Today, we keep hearing that our nation is suddenly, magically, “post racial.”  As if such a thing were even desireable, let alone possible.  Chris Matthews bumbled himself into a version of that right after the State of the Union by saying (and saying and saying) that he actually forgot the president was black.  Because, you see, the speech was so good it enabled Matthews to forget he was listening to a black man … because a black man shouldn’t be able to give a speech like that. 

Good thing Obama didn’t want to have his Negro dialect on display Wednesday.

Not making people invisible.

Molly from Reality Outran Expectation left this comment on my Small world post in which I wrote about talking to a man no one else wanted to talk to: 

I suppose that people push away “odd” people the same way that death and illness have been pushed away from our healthy, immortal well-being society in which everything is perfect. Your lost man seems to want to be let in on the secret of being well, last time by reading and this time by healthy living. Unfortunately, none of these are going to make him “like the rest of us.” But a smile and a chat with you include him in the human race, and that is what he wants and needs, just like the rest of us.

Years ago I heard an advocate for the homeless say that just looking a homeless person in the eye was a valuable act, to acknowledge that a person is standing in front of you is a gift to that person.  At that time, I was teaching a GED class in a women’s shelter, and I asked my students about that.  Only two students, Toni and Ida, had had the experience of being identifiably homeless — on the street with bags of their belongings — and both agreed immediately.

Toni explained that she had never asked for money, only for food, that she had wanted people to know that she was actually hungry, that she wasn’t interested in buying crack, buying a bottle.  She said it didn’t matter, that people would walk past her as if they could neither see nor hear her.  Ida nodded.  She told us that the worst thing about being on the street — aside from danger, fear and realizing that she had no one to turn to — the worst thing was people looking past you, through you, people moving on as if you weren’t there.  What she said was “the way people can make you invisible.”

I know this feeling.  I am made invisible all the time.  It’s hard not to see me: I am a big, tall woman who often has regally flamboyant hair, and yet there are so many people who look right through me, who walk into me not because they have poor depth perception but because they have made themselves truly unable to see me.  Black people, fat people, and people with disabilities are often rendered invisible, so I guess I have the triple whammy of diaphanousness.

But all the ways people don’t see me cannot compare with the way we don’t see street people.  Someone who chooses not to notice my cane so that they don’t feel guilty about not offering me a seat is ignoring me in a very different way than the person who closes his face and doesn’t see the woman curled up sleeping on the subway steps at Atlantic Avenue, the man moving through the train asking for help.  That closed face — with the hard-set mouth and the look of judgmental disgust — isn’t about racism or fat phobia or hey-I’m-tired-and-I-got-this-seat-first.  That face is the one we make when we step in dog mess.

Ida said she felt worthless when people looked through her, that it didn’t matter that her homelessness was no fault of her own, that it didn’t matter that she made every effort to keep herself clean or that she managed to keep her kids in school the whole time they were living on the street.  Who she was didn’t matter.  What she was eclipsed that.

I honestly don’t remember what I did before I worked at the shelter, whether or not I looked through the homeless people I encountered on the street.  I want to believe that I didn’t, that I saw them, that I looked at them, that I didn’t erase them.  I know for certain that, since my year at the shelter, I have made a conscious effort to see people, to look them in the eye and respond to them whether I’m giving or not giving.

Which can be uncomfortable.  It’s not always easy or pleasant to look people in the eye, to acknowledge that you are seeing them and seeing their situation … and still not reaching for your wallet, and still enjoying the snack you just bought, still reading your book or having your conversation with a friend.

Of course, in the case of my ‘lost man,’ looking at and talking with him is both easy and pleasant.  But even with aggressive people I’ve found that direct, I’m-seeing-you contact often changes their behavior, enables us to have a less confrontational interaction.  This effort is so small, as I said in the other post.  It takes so little to give that moment of visibility.   And part of my desire to do that stems from my work with homeless women, and part stems from my own experiences of being made invisible.  But hasn’t everyone been made invisible at one time or another?  Is that maybe part of what holds others back from making the same small effort I make — a kind of “no one notices me, why am I going to go out of my way for anyone else” thing?

I’m still puzzling this one out, and I’m curious to hear others’ takes.