Thursday, July 30, 2020

Wendell Berry and the Hidden Wound of Racism

I ordered a copy of The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry more or less by accident. I didn't know what it was about, only that Wendell Berry wrote it and I hadn't read it before and that was good enough for me.

It turns out that it's his meditation on racism and the legacy of slavery, from the point of view of a Southern descendant of slave-owners old enough to have heard family stories about it.  Parts of it appear to have been originally written in the 1960s, but it was first published in 1989 (and I wish I'd read it then). However, Berry's observations are so crystalline, so cutting and relentless that they are still far ahead of most, for all that he uses language like "man" for "people" that sounds graceless now.  It's simultaneously a relic of the past (Berry was born in 1932 and grew up, like my father, plowing with a mule) and sharply relevant to today.

A quote on the back cover from Guy Davenport describes it thus: "The brunt of this book is to wake us up, page after page, from stupidity."

Berry speaks scathingly in his firm quiet way of the "romanticizers," whose purpose is "to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism--an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves."  

He's speaking in particular of a memoir of the Civil War published in 1895; but it might just as easily be about the Confederate glorification monuments that scatter the landscape in the South and the apologetics thereof. For all that some of them are coming down, many still remain, and there have even been pushes to put up more...mostly in Appalachia, where support for the Confederacy was low to nonexistent.  Somehow the descendants of people who voted against secession are putting up battle flags in defiance of history and common sense.  We in the South are still preserving our heritage of moral dissonance like a mosquito in amber, having neither learned much nor moved very far on. Not that that distinguishes us from other Americans in any way.
He spends some time attending to the damage done to our religious understanding as well, which explains what drove me out of the Southern Baptist church I was raised in. Berry says, "Far from curing the wound of racism, the white man's Christianity has been its soothing bandage--a bandage masquerading as Sunday clothes, for the wearing of which one expects a certain moral credit."

Indeed, that describes the relationship of white Evangelicals with the Republican Party to a T.

He is unstinting, but allows ample room for humanity, humility, and nuance.  He starts with racism and the legacy of slavery, takes a winding road through his childhood, and ends up at economic justice.  Like you do. 

If you are a white Southerner, you must read this book, which is short but concentrated. Other people will benefit from reading it as well; but Berry is speaking our language here, and depicting the culture we grew up in with compassion and humanity but also unflinching clarity for its particular flaws.  Never mind the lies of America in general; we've been fed on particular poisoned lies for particular reasons, and Berry offers an antidote.  Read it and be healed.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Why "But the Irish Were Slaves!" is both wrong and racist

Since people have been posting about this...

First of all, the Irish were not slaves. There were quite a few Irish and Scottish (and English for that matter) indentured servants, and indenture was exploitive and frequently brutal, but indenture was not the same as chattel slavery.  The most significant difference is that indenture is a legal contract that a person enters into, which has a theoretical end.  That end was often not respected but the indenture remained a legal human being. Enslaved people on the other hand were not seen as legal persons at any point. Slavery was carefully built both legally and culturally to be seen as innate, the "natural" relationship between white people and black people because of the latter's supposed inferiority.  There were reams and reams of writings justifying that world view, a sure sign of propaganda at work.  Another word for this ideology and its long-term effects is "racism."

There was indeed slavery in Africa, as in Europe, Asia and basically everywhere in the world, but there were avenues for someone to gain their freedom AND it didn't create a skin color based caste system like it did here. The evolution of slavery in the Americas, because it involved the displacement of literally millions of people, is unique.

There were some indentured servants in the colonies who were African in origin, as well as chattel slaves. We know this mainly because they frequently had to argue in court for their status as indentured servants whose terms were up. Those who did so successfully were generally Christian and literate. Later laws against teaching enslaved people to read and write should be viewed with that in mind. The codification of chattel slavery into law was a process, one that made it harder and harder for anyone of African descent to extricate themselves from any form of servitude, and created a situation where a person of color was assumed to be enslaved until proven otherwise (and said proof was frequently not accepted). That process was largely complete by 1700.

Indentured servants were on the same general social level as enslaved people. There were intermarriages. This partially explains why certain Irish and Scottish customs, such as jumping the broom and "first footing," have become African American customs. HOWEVER...and this is a big however....a white indentured servant who completed their term of service became a free person and could completely blend in to the rest of the population.

This made an incredible difference in outcomes, both for individuals and collectively. As a white person, some of my ancestors may well have been indentured servants. I don't know...and neither do you. Because you can't tell by looking at me, and more importantly, it has had no discernible effect on me or my more recent ancestors who have been a bunch of middle class or wealthier farmers, business people, preachers, and educators for generations.

The same can't be said for African Americans...even if their ancestors were in fact indentured and not enslaved, or were freed at some point before 1863, or indeed even if they arrived long after it was all over, because the state of slavery or its existence at a given point in time is not the sole determining factor here.  Escape from slavery, whether as individuals or collectively, did not and has not granted escape from racism.  Partially because racism, while woven into the establishment and justification of the system of chattel slavery and exploitation, was also very much tied up with the origins of capitalism.  That is to say, while racism is certainly the legacy of slavery, it's still very much alive and well because it serves other purposes.  In any case, racism has a measurable effect on black people's educational and employment opportunities, their ability to acquire and maintain wealth, their health outcomes, how frequently and harshly they suffer punishment from the justice system, and (as we should all be aware by now) how likely they are to die violently at the hands of police.

And that brings us back to "But the Irish were slaves too!"  Aside from the fact that it's factually wrong, the only reason to bring that up right now is to somehow deflect from the argument that racism in the US is the legacy of slavery.  I hope I have explained clearly enough what is wrong with that idea.  But let's back up even further and ask a more pertinent question...

Why the hell would you want to do that?  What do you, O fellow white person, get out of trying to undermine the idea that racism is a real thing that happens to real people and sometimes gets them killed?  Why, when millions of people are marching in the streets in the hope of justice, do you think it's a great moment to waltz in with what would be a desperately irrelevant bit of historical geekery even if it were true?  What reason could there be, except that you recognize that the status quo benefits you and you are choosing in this moment to defend it?

What the hell is wrong with you?

Friday, June 12, 2020

Trying to Build a Better World and Burnout

I have been reflecting on the fact that for much of my adult life I was driven by a vision of how the world could be a better place. It was coherent, complex, accounted for a lot of details and potential problems, and workable...up to a point.

The breaking point, as it often is, was the ability of individuals to muck it all up, and people's general inability or unwillingness to resolve conflict or to deal with people who are operating in bad faith.

Understand, I put a LOT of energy into this. My first job was working for Greenpeace. I was involved with the environmental and anti-globalism movements, feminist activism around motherhood, and Occupy. On another track, I helped start and run various Pagan organizations and events, and ran a teaching coven for ten years.

 At some point, I gave up. I still do political work, but it's mostly damage control. I'm not trying to create anything new. I'm just trying to keep it from getting worse. Which is probably why I have less energy and enthusiasm than I used to.

Don't get me wrong; I show up for certain causes, like Black Lives Matter; but they are driven by other people. I resist getting too deep into any activist group, because neither trying to adapt to an existing organization with fatal flaws, or trying to build up something from scratch only to have it blown up by someone whose ego is a stand-in for gasoline and a match, are scenarios I ever want to repeat. It's not even that I've never succeeded in building something that lasts; I have. It's that the losses are too costly.

I don't want to feel this way. It's a serious problem. But I do.

Aside from the fact that some of them are friends of friends, I find the accounts of the activists in this story entirely plausible because I've known people EXACTLY like this guy. Grandstanding, co-opting group work, leveraging charisma (including sleeping around, and it's often the men who do it) to gain positions of power, running people off who don't agree with them, ignoring what everyone agreed to because they think they know better, starting fights with the police that other people have to finish...all of it. They are quite often some flavor of bigot as well, in a "but I'm one of the good guys" whiney-ass way. Those people are incredibly destructive. They don't have to all be informants, most of them probably aren't. Some of them are super-dedicated radicals. They're destructive nonetheless.

 I have quite frequently been the thorn in that person's side, the boring-ass consensus-process bitch who insists that we actually follow the rules we all agreed on that were designed to keep the group from being cetera. I have suffered quite a bit for it too. I'm angry, and I'm tired.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Arguing With White People

The author and her husband, standing in front of Preservation Hall in New Orleans
I spent a lot of my adolescence and beyond arguing with my father about racism. Basically as soon as I was old enough to understand the concept, I started challenging him about some of the stuff he said. It was probably in our top five disagreements along with the place and role of women, when he thought I should get up on a Saturday morning, and mowing the grass which I flatly refused to do. (Cut grass makes me itch and break out in red welts).

I have argued with plenty of other people about it, too. I have heard it all. I have heard weird shit you would never have thought of, because the ideology of white supremacy runs deep in this society and it has its own mythology and apologetics. There's a social ecology that supports it that is complex and has tendrils extending to many areas of life, including education, the church, literature, and yes, law enforcement and the judicial system. It has to; you can't maintain an artificial imbalance of power without a whole lot of propaganda. The same, incidentally, applies to sexism, homophobia, rigid gender ideology, et cetera. And the completeness of it is what makes it seem "natural."

It can be extraordinarily difficult to have those conversations, and not just because of fear of making a scene or being "that person" at work.  Those are real fears, albeit ones people need to learn to address and move through.  One of the gifts my father gave me is that he didn't get angry or punish my admittedly snotty adolescent righteousness, so I got to get past the scary part without any repercussions except being expected to remain civil and back up my assertions.   But even if you did not have that kind of fortune, or you do in fact suffer repercussions when you decide to start opening your is absolutely crucial that you do so.  For the lives of others, and your own liberation.

The other big problem is that it's like fighting sand in a windstorm.  It's everywhere, it gets into everything, and you tend to wind up tired and angry with nothing much to show for it.  Do it anyway.  The results you get hardly ever show up immediately, but they build up over time.

Listening to people who are at the pointy end of white supremacy and reading about the subject is essential, especially the specific history of racism against African Americans in this country and how it functions. You can't argue a case you don't understand, and your feelings (shaped by the same white supremacist cultural propaganda that I mentioned earlier) may not be a reliable guide.  You don't have to re-invent the wheel, either, and people have spent many decades and lots of thought on analysis of the problem.  You can benefit from all of that for the price of picking up some books or following some blogs.

On the other hand, I think for white people trying to talk to other white people about racism, we need to carry the ball ourselves past a certain point.  People of color often spend their whole lives thinking about the subject, have formal education on the topic in many instances, and have lots of experience arguing with white people about racism....but it's still different when the call is coming from inside the house.  Or not as different as people might think, in some cases.  I don't think people in general really realize how quickly and sometimes violently other white people will turn on you, though the white people who died during the Civil Rights movement and the current existence of a website dedicated to doxxing white women who date outside their race should offer a clue about that. Again I say:  Do it anyway.  Just realize that your fears can be valid and exaggerated because of white supremacist cultural brainwashing at the same time.

One advantage you have is that you can easily speak in terms that other white people understand...though it has limits.  There are plenty of black people, who because of their upbringing or profession, can do that too.  Biracial people frequently have lots of experience trying to get their white relatives to see the light, unfortunately. Sometimes people enter interracial relationships either despite their parents' vehement opposition, or in some cases because of it, which can lead to some screwed up family dynamics.  Even when it's not that pointed, just because someone loves their biracial children or grandchildren it doesn't mean they have thought very deeply about race, and it is a topic that requires reflection before you can have any chance of getting the sand out of the gears.  All of the biracial people I know, including my husband, have stories about wtf moments with family or friends.  They also all know how to bridge the gaps and speak in language that their white relatives understand...and have run into situations where that simply was not enough.

Then there's the advantage granted to you just by being the person you are, in the body that you're in; what is otherwise called "privilege."  It's not a magic wand or a cure-all (as any white person who grew up poor can tell you) but it is power nonetheless.  It's a little bit of extra authority sprinkled on your voice and actions.  It won't fix everything, but that's not your job.  Your job is to speak.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Speaking the Future Into Being

Well, and to think last week we were complaining that the apocalypse was boring and not very apocalypse-like.  Last night somebody set Atlanta on fire again and I learned my new favorite word, "carbeque."

As when anything important happens, we all took to Facebook to argue about it.  

For those of you struggling to keep up, please take note that hand-wringing about some windows getting broken after deafening silence on the matter of police murdering people with complete impunity, implies very strongly that you care a lot about the former and nothing for the latter, and that's what the kids call a you problem.  That doesn't mean that everyone thinks smashing things up is a-ok or that there isn't some vocal condemnation of it from activists as well as assorted officials; it does mean that they are taking the time to put what's happening in context and express some nuance, a concept you might have heard of. 
For my more conservative friends:  Most of you have already identified what the important  moral question is here. You might be fascinated to learn that some of the points you have been making lately are the exact things that people on the leftward side of the political spectrum have been saying for years, about the many other instances of police murder you inexplicably missed.  You don't know that because you don't listen to them.  You should try it.  They might know other things you haven't noticed.

For my more radical friends: You are missing a golden opportunity here. People I would NEVER have expected to do so are openly questioning that stupid coroner's report on George Floyd, out protesting, or saying that they understand why people would get mad enough to break things. Maybe instead of focusing on criticism and calling anyone who voices it nasty names (like neoliberal, which almost certainly does not mean what you think it does), you should try to, I dunno, understand the critiques people are making and seize the opportunity to make connections with people you don't often find common ground with.

Or you can go on and retrench all of your existing balkanized divisions and thwart any possibility of gaining real traction, just like every left/activist group I've seen for the last thirty years.

You know why the right-wing extremists are doing so well, despite the paucity of their philosophy and their repugnant personal traits? They recruit, constantly. They hand out flyers. They start book clubs. They take any hint of agreement and exploit it into a conversion gambit, and talk about their vision of the future a lot. It's a shitty future, but they all know what it's supposed to look like and are encouraged to actively fantasize about living in it. They plan, and sometimes take, concrete steps towards making that future come to pass.

That shit is powerful. It's a poisoned dream, but a dream nonetheless.

To counter it we can't just have the status quo (which sucks a lot for lots of people) and we can't, absolutely cannot, have a bitchy America's Got Privilege jury deciding who is or isn't woke enough to be allowed into our "movement," which because of said gate-keeping never actually becomes a movement but hovers constantly at a level just above toe shoes but below Pet Rocks.

We need something better.  We need something accessible, and welcoming, and above all visionary. Defining yourself always against what you are not creates emptiness, and fighting always against what is wrong (however necessary) is exhausting.  We need the Beloved Community, and more to the point we need to describe what the Beloved Community is going to look like.  It's ok if we don't all have the exact same ideas. It's the act of speaking it into being that is important here.

Here's one:  I would like a means to resolve serious conflicts with people when it's beyond my personal ability to address, that does not involve calling the police.  I have a neighbor who has put her hands on me while drunk more than once, among other incidents. There isn't actually a lot the police can do that isn't out of proportion to behavior that didn't actually hurt me (but which causes me distress and which I NEVER want repeated), and so there's not much between "ignore it" and "file a police report."  I think a society that took conflict resolution and de-escalation seriously would have a third option for me...and that would incidentally likely reduce times the police are called due to vague "someone is walking around black in my neighborhood" type scenarios, and in turn reduce occurrences of police violence. I also think that a society where people commonly had good conflict resolution skills would function very differently, and much more justly and humanely.

What does your Beloved Community look like?

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Stories We Tell

This story has nothing whatever to do with global pandemics, toilet paper shortages, the sorry state of affairs in this country generally speaking, or politics.  Except, perhaps, by implication...but that could be true of anything, really.

Many years ago my ex-husband (then my boyfriend), our roommate and I were the sort of people who frequented Rainbow Gatherings and also went on road trips more or less on a whim.  It was the 80s and gas was under a dollar a gallon and you could rent camping gear from the Georgia State University recreational department for very little money.  So we did.

We met lots of very interesting people at Rainbow Gatherings, all of whom were 80s-era hippies...some were original models who never gave up but many were our age, the sort of people who followed the Grateful Dead around, because that was still a thing then, and who believed in things being free and smelling of patchouli.  I was 100% one of them and somewhere in the archives of the National Park Service is video of my twenty-something self wearing a long skirt and a midriff shirt in the middle of the Talladega National Forest, talking about the healing uses of elder flower tincture with, I'm sure, much more of an air of authority than I actually warranted.

One of the people we met was a fellow whose "Rainbow name" was Spice.  He lived in Charlotte and we hung out at gatherings and he came through Atlanta a few times.  He eventually invited us to a weekend party at his property...a farm he had inherited from his grandfather, I the middle of nowhere North Carolina.  Close to Ruffin, maybe?  I can't was a long time ago...but I do remember that it was most of the way to Virginia.  A good six hour drive, at least.  (This becomes relevant later).

We went, naturally.  Why not?  We made friends pretty easily then.  We drove up there in the one car we had between us, a 1988 Ford Festiva.  It was a tiny two-door hatchback.  (This also becomes relevant).

It was fun, I will admit.  We glamped, in a manner of speaking, in a dilapidated cabin he was slowly trying to refurbish, and I wandered around the dirt paths looking for wildflowers and deer.  He had a bunch of his friends there, mostly guys, and it was clear they did this frequently.  Not a bad way to spend your time.

We were always talking about starting an intentional community back then, and he invited us to come help fix up that cabin to live in full time and then work on the rest of it.  I was fine with this plan if it was made minimally livable (it really wasn't yet) and we could figure out a way to make some actual money in the middle of nowhere North Carolina.  I was usually the voice of reason in these situations so while my ex was spinning glorious visions of what could be, I was asking how we were going to live in the meantime.  But we went back home making plans for the next time we could come back and put some work into the house.

Except a few days later he called us up and accused us of stealing some sheet rock that was there, intended for remodeling the cabin.

Well, first of all, who steals sheet rock?  But laying that aside...since evidently someone had...why would he think WE had done it?  We tried to explain that this was ridiculous, because...

1) We'd left before he had, he'd seen us drive away, and we didn't have a key to the gate.
2) We lived in Atlanta six hours away.
3) We didn't own a truck.  Sheet rock will not fit in a Ford Festiva.  Certainly not if you also want to put people in it.
4) We lived in a city apartment (he'd been there) that had no reasonable storage areas for sheet rock, assuming we'd somehow teleported it there.
5) And honestly, what the fuck? 

He immediately saw the logic of all this and apologized, because human beings are reasonable like that.

Well, of course he didn't.  He doubled down.  I pointed out that his pickup-truck driving buddies, some of whom had keys to the gate, were much more likely culprits.  That just made him mad.

We were baffled, and not a little upset and disappointed.  I can't say exactly what was going on in his head, but I guess it was easier to accuse us...relative strangers from Atlanta...than his closer friends.  Even if that made no kind of sense. Or maybe he realized he'd invited people to live on his property while he was high and needed an excuse to get rid of us.  I have no idea.

I wonder if he's still telling himself the story of the people from Atlanta he invited to his party who stole his sheet-rock.

I do know that nothing we said, no matter how logical or grounded in obvious facts, made the least impression on him.  I have had that experience...many, many times in my life.  Once someone has decided on a certain story about you, and it has some kind of emotional resonance for them, they will ignore everything that doesn't fit the narrative.  They are the worst about it when they are actually the ones in the wrong...because nobody likes being the bad guy, and nobody thinks of themselves that way, but if they alter the facts so that you are the villain of the story, then they don't have to do any such thing.  They can go on thinking of themselves as the hero: wise, perspicacious, and good.  Most people are much more attached to their self-image than they are to the truth.

Well, I guess that does have some relevance to current affairs.  I am not surprised that lots of people have concocted stories that ignore facts, reason, and science, allow them to go on doing exactly what they were doing before, and buffer them emotionally from thinking otherwise.  I'm not surprised that no amount of logic, statements of the obvious, or appeals to common humanity will move them.  One hopes for better, always.  But I'm not one bit surprised.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Today is Pretty Good

On Memorial Drive, Atlanta, GA
My son bought me take-out brunch from Baker Dude Cafe in Grant Park.  It's thirty minutes away but they have keto desserts made with Swerve that I can eat.  It is strangely difficult to find sugar-free desserts in Atlanta, compared to Chattanooga where tasty sugar-free cupcakes abound. I don't know what's going on there but someone should look into it.  I am just saying that, whenever the world allows such things again, that if there was a place that had sugar-free desserts, comfy chairs, good coffee, and wifi that was a little closer, I would be there EVERY day. As it is the almond pecan carrot cupcake at Baker Dude's was worth the drive by itself.  I had their crustless mushroom and leek quiche which was also very good and my son had their Van Gogh sandwich which he pronounced "delicious" while eating it on the way home.

It's beautiful and sunny today, and lots of people were out and about, though they were maintaining a polite distance both at the cafe and on the sidewalks and at the farmer's market going on next door.  Lots of people were wearing masks, some weren't, but no one was crowding.  As I walked by I overheard a woman saying,"I just can't with all of this."

Me neither. My unemployment finally came through (hooray for PUA) so I'm less freaked out about money. I have also (unrelated) stopped arguing with my husband, which was getting to both of us, even though I am still very agitated and can't sleep well.  But today is pretty good.

We had a picnic in the front yard and I'm now sitting out here with my laptop and a glass of wine.  Today is pretty good.