Black Lives Don’t Matter Enough

There was supposed to be a different post today, but I feel compelled to write on recent events. I do not in any way consider myself an authority on the current situation; I can only bring an awareness to what I see and perceive as a writer.

Like so many of you, I feel absolutely horrified and saddened beyond belief with the killing of George Floyd. We don’t need *yet another* incident of police brutality. Imagine, for those of us who are not black, if we hear a rattle at the door and suspect a thief, we call the police, feeling safe and trusting enough to do so. Imagine if you are a black person, especially a man, and you did the same thing–you might get arrested for being in your own home, or even killed.

Look at the intersection of trust and race. I belong to a minority group that is considered the “most successful” group in the United States: we have CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, Ivy League professors, and a handful of nationally-known entertainers–not to mention your garden variety of doctors, scientists, and IT professionals! Though I have indeed experienced racism and discrimination (in one case so badly that I had to leave a graduate program, but then eventually so did three other white students in my cohort), I can generally trust that the institutions in American society are going to work to help me. While people may have trouble pronouncing my name, my name and my type of American accent are likely not going to prevent me from being able to rent an apartment. If I go up to a police officer and say that I saw an abandoned, full backpack or suitcase next to a building, they will take me seriously and investigate it.

But imagine if this is not the case. Imagine you cannot trust the institutions in your society to support you. Imagine that there are people who still hold subtle prejudices against your ethnic group, or, more innocently, who may be a bit dismissive of your concerns. Sure, they might not use the N-word, nor would they condone the KKK or white supremacist protesters holding a noose. Yet they might say that “you’re complaining too much,” or “all lives matter.” But just because someone is tired of hearing something, or finds certain things repetitive does not mean the problem is over. Just because you as an individual have absolutely no discrimination against black people and treat them as equals–which is an admirable and necessary thing–does not mean that discrimination against black people does not exist. Just because individuals do not discriminate does not mean that institutions do not.

I do empathize and understand where these people are coming from. I also agree that they often see too much violence and a need for more personal responsibility in the communities they criticize. I do not, personally, agree with the horrifying violence that has been going on in response. Violence only escalates negative situations and accomplishes very little other than destruction. I read a Detroit Free Press article about protests in Detroit that turned violent, and many of the violent individuals were actually white protesters from the suburbs. These are not helpful allies.

From a Buddhist point of view, one could say that the policemen who commit these horrific acts of violence against black people are not at peace with themselves. They lack empathy, they have serious issues with anger, and they have likely not been exposed to positive figures in the black community. They are often repeatedly thrown in situations where their own lives feel threatened, and the people who are threatening them are of an entirely different race and cultural background they are not comfortable with. They overreact to situations which require law enforcement, but not violence (George Floyd was using a counterfeit $20 bill, which was indeed an illegal act, but minor). I am aware that there have been programs with mindfulness training on police forces, but when the fire of anger is stoked, when there are biochemical forces at work, when racist feelings are hardwired into the reptilian brain, and lethal weapons are involved, this seems like a recipe for disaster.

We hear so frequently about black criminals, and yet we laud people like Julian Assange (who is no honorable freedom fighter but really an asocial criminal mastermind), law-dismissing Mark Zuckerberg (always in glossy magazine articles entitled something like “Thirty Billionaires Under 30”), and asshole-in-chief Jeff Bezos who doesn’t pay his corporate taxes. Why aren’t these people equally condemned? Why is white-collar so soft and under the radar? Why is being a sociopath in a suit or a hoodie acceptable?

We need to teach people, from the time they are very young, about differences. We need to expose children to others of all backgrounds. This is a huge challenge in the United States where we have such demographic variety and enormous distances. We need to hold our media accountable to the images and stories they feature, especially when it relates to certain ethnic groups. We need to socialize men–and women–so that they learn how to deal with anger in constructive ways (domestic violence cuts across all classes and backgrounds). Gun control is an urgent necessity, though the majority of us are powerless next to the gun lobby. We also need to study philosophy and understand why we have laws, study sociology and understand why and how we need to regulate human behavior.

Most of all, we really need to encourage everyone to develop empathy, to see beyond our own little narrow selves, and to really listen to what other people have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable.

In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.

 

He Had a Dream… For You

Monday January 21 marked a historic event, the annual commemoration and 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the inauguration for the 2nd term of our 1st Black president, Barack Obama, who (as you might expect) gave a wonderful speech with his usual eloquence. Also impressive were the crowds who turned out to see him. People of all backgrounds, races, nationalities. It’s one of the strengths of our country, the tremendous diversity we have. Obama’s speech reflected this, citing various civil rights milestones and promises to ensure that the fundamental freedoms by our Founding Fathers continue to be granted to everyone. These are indeed themes that Dr. King addressed in his famous speech 5 decades ago.

But what of the people who now take freedom for granted? What of those people who have no idea, no clue about the efforts of the valiant civil rights activists who brought about these tremendous changes in American society? In particular, the immigrants who have come here and prospered, the ones who really know very little about Dr. King and his brothers and sisters, without whom they would not be in this country?

Let us first speak in defense of the newly immigrated. Survival is the number 1 priority. Finding a job, finding housing, learning the language (in some cases), feeding one’s family, taking care of the children, adapting to a new culture—-the list goes on. The reasons for which people have immigrated to the US are as diverse and varied as the citizens of this country. In some cases, it is politics. In others, economics. Perhaps some people are joining their families, whereas others are leaving their families behind. Even after decades, sometimes immigrants have not adapted well, and still struggle with life in the United States, missing their homelands and all they have left behind. Sometimes this process continues for more than one generation, as the children inherit the difficulties of their parents.

These are all extremely valid and important issues in the life of an immigrant, things that cannot be denied. But are these things mutually exclusive from maintaining a grateful attitude and having a healthy curiosity about the history that enabled so many people to immigrate to the United States? What I attack is apathy: apathy that is born of ignorance, blind prejudice against particular racial groups (read: Black/African-American), insularity, sticking only to one’s kind, and a sense of entitlement. You think the civil rights movement was simply something that happened 50 years ago? Something to give you a day off from school or work, and something for the kids to learn about at school? Think again.

Especially if you are a non-white, prosperous immigrant, living in your wealthy suburb or ethnic enclave—-Fremont, California, perhaps, or Houston, Texas, or Flushing, New York—-riding to the shopping mall or your ethnic grocery in your large SUV or luxury vehicle, going to your house of worship, spending hours at your office earning a six-figure salary, gathering with your friends and watching the latest video clips from your home country, YOU HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE GRATEFUL TO THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Do you know anything about the Selma to Montgomery marches that now enable you to have the right to vote (if you actually vote at all)? Are you aware that Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by the great Mohandas K. Gandhi when he led African-Americans in acts of civil disobedience? Do you know that “colored” people had to drink from separate water fountains, as you sit sipping your latte at your Starbucks surrounded by people of all nationalities? As you fight to get your child into a great public school or university so you don’t have to pay exorbitant private fees, are you aware that the Little Rock Nine had to be escorted by the National Guard to enter their school that was newly desegregated? How about those white Freedom Riders who risked their lives for people of a different color, because they felt the call of justice so strongly? As you debate about whether or not to return to your home country because it is prospering too, and you can have daily maid service, do you know that there were strict immigration quotas in the 1960s to avoid “too many of your kind”? And as you angrily scold your son wearing baggy pants with the crotch hanging down to his knees in “ghetto style,” do you stop for a moment to think how much your existence is owed to the Civil Rights Movement, to all the African-Americans who fought, sacrificed, endured hardship, and even lost their lives so that yours could be comfortable?

We might still be light years off with accomplishing all the goals that the Civil Rights Movement set out to accomplish. We might still be dealing with discrimination, prejudice, harassment, and a whole host of racially based evils. But it is of utmost importance to live mindfully as immigrants, to take just a moment out of the day to practice gratitude for those who have paved your way. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream—-and you are living it.

(And yes, those baggy pants with the crotch down to the knees are most unbecoming. Even Dr. King would have said so.)