What Took So Long?

This Week’s Bit of String: A nation of former slaves

Long known as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, few people know Haiti’s history. It was founded in 1804 by the slave population who boldly overthrew their French “masters.” However, they were then forced to pay money for their freedom or the French (with British help) would reinvade. Haitians started their country in terrible debt, many of them uneducated. The world wouldn’t trade with them. They were never given a chance to catch up to other nations.

In contrast, the American Revolution originated over taxes. I remember my childhood disappointment when I learned this. How unglamorous and ignoble!

Imagine then my distress when I was told a couple years later that the American Civil War wasn’t over slavery, just states’ rights. Yes, it was over states’ rights to hold people captive and abuse them. However, the North wasn’t honourable enough to fight the South over liberty and equality. It wanted its stature and capital back.

One side of my protest sign, the other side reading, of course: Black Lives Matter.

And finally, I was presented with the embarrassing discrepancy between the actual dates of both World Wars and the smaller range of years I’d learned in American history books. We were years late to both fights. Land of the free and home of the brave—where were we?

Now people in my country are fighting for causes of greater value. Do our voices belong in this fight after being silent? What shortcomings held us back before?

Guilt and Persecution

People of colour in the USA and other countries have faced a similarly difficult journey to Haitians. No one rushed to provide freed slaves shelter or teach them to read. No one gave them therapy to recover from family separations. Instead there was sharecropping, for-profit incarceration, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, police brutality, and probably more I haven’t read about yet.

155 years of those things doesn’t enable anyone to get over the even worse 246 slavery years that preceded them. Yet we’ve seen prominent white TV hosts argue that slavery wasn’t that bad, some masters were nice for goodness’ sake, while the same hosts raise hell if Starbucks makes a cup design less Christmassy.

A few of the Haitian people I was privileged to meet, and a reminder that the president insulted their entire country and population with only tepid objections from a handful of Republicans. Haitian lives matter.

Surely Jesus would not have shared Fox News’s priorities. However, religion seems to reinforce white silence now, perhaps because religions are focused around martyrs. Their exalted figures have suffered, and often people reduce that to an idea that suffering in itself warrants exultation. I believe that’s why some evangelicals support Trump rather than the African Americans living under constant bodily threat. His “suffering” is more like theirs.

In the social media age, many of us aren’t great at pausing our quest for attention. No one wants to relinquish a single ‘U ok hon?’ Whenever someone responds to Black lives matter with “All lives matter,” I picture a person uncomprehending of object permanence, who fears if their race loses the spotlight for an instant, they’ll disappear. A person who can’t see what’s worth fighting for.

Anti-racism means more than disapproving of extrajudicial killings. It means accepting—and expressing—that people have bigger, more ingrained problems than ours. It’s maintaining perspective: having to change our vocabulary to eradicate certain terms, for example, doesn’t equate to the abuses and injustices against people of colour which those terms represent. Feeling shame for how our systems treat minorities is uncomfortable, but nothing like actually receiving that treatment.

Deference and Dominance

In Haiti I noticed a lust to be white amongst some of the young people I met, as if their culture were still under invasion. My Haitian friends wrote me letters posted with stamps that showed white fairy tale characters, although their heritage is full of black heroes and legends. Schoolgirls tried to wipe a birthmark from my arm, not wanting my whiteness sullied.

We white people do the same thing, clinging to figures that have done nothing for us. We’ll settle for so little from those in power. $1200 for months of being unemployed during a pandemic, wow! Or: hey, that heavily armed police officer was polite when I asked directions. What’s all the fuss about?

When our race is the one in power, we have an innate belief that we as an individual can make it that far, too. We don’t want to upset the status quo because change might not benefit us. Why struggle against power figures who look like we do, who could one day be us?

Silence is compliance.” Kneeling in memory of of George Floyd with 200+ others in Stroud, UK

Up till now, some liked having local police departments driving armoured humvees. Some were glad when they could go to football games without having to witness a silent, kneeling plea to stop killing black people. And the rest of us who sympathised with Kaepernick’s point, and who felt nervous about law enforcement with deadly weapons, we didn’t want an argument. Partly we cloaked this in insecurity: who are we to speak up, when we’ve not been ordained by racial struggle? But also it was about staying in our comfort zone.

Then there was a grossly mishandled pandemic. The administration didn’t want to share medical supplies, calling them “ours.” Protest broke out and they called cities “battle spaces” and said they’d send in the military to “dominate.” Increasingly it’s clear the president sees America as another building to stamp his name on.

So more of us decide to fight. Our status quo is already threatened from the top. We might as well disrupt it.

It’s human to care more about things that affect us. We still ache for people who live in fear, and who grieve for loved ones unjustly taken. But we’re not the heroes here. In the great white American tradition, let’s fight even though we’re late, even with less than selfless motives.

This is my attempt to examine my own privilege. Hopefully other white people do the same. People of colour shouldn’t have to explain it to us yet again! Let’s listen to their stories and thoughts, not demand them.

Flags and welcome sign in Minneapolis, USA

There are countless black people dealing gracefully with white reluctance to face their pain. Check out American footballer Emmanuel Acho’s series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man—” spoiler, he doesn’t make it uncomfortable at all. Visit Patrisse Cullors’s website, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, and understand the aims of all the groups under the Organizations tab. Consider Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: “I don’t want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things.” Read Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again” and Danez Smith’s “not an elegy for Mike Brown.” Recognise why people are fighting for change.

So amplify, and give money! Support protests as a reminder to legislators that we’re the ones who put them there. Since I’ve been to Minneapolis and loved it but never in my mind connected it to the nearby tragedy of Philando Castile, so far their Freedom Fund is the one I’ve chosen to donate to. Next up: more family discussions, more emails to officials, more sharing minorities’ thoughts and work, more donations to educational funding, and I think I’ll check out Dr. Mary Frances Berry’s book History Teaches Us to Resist.

How are you supporting change?

Getting the Picture

This Week’s Bit of String: Racial bias in a dancing competition?

In December 2016, Ore Oduba won the glitter ball on Strictly Come Dancing. My son was quite excited about this, and admittedly I was too, enchanted by Ore and Joanne’s jive in Week 4.

But my son had been anxious as the final drew near. Historically, celebrities of colour get fewer votes from the audience, judging by the frequency they are in the bottom two. Often they dance perfectly well. They just don’t get the audience votes, and have to be ‘saved’ by the judges.

So every year there are concerned murmurs about whether the dancing show itself is racist, and then the requisite backlash from white people offended by the very suggestion.

Here’s the thing: there are more white people than not in this country, and there are probably more white people than not watching Strictly Come Dancing. Humans gravitate toward the familiar, the reflective, so the many white viewers may well vote for a white celebrity. Amongst very talented candidates, that tiny blip of recognition on the subconscious radars of thousands wields some influence.

It’s not overt racism, I think (I hope), but innate bias. We need to be aware of it. To probe our decisions a little, rather than huffily dismiss concerns others have about it.

I notice our gravitation toward the recognisable in other areas. My name, for example. People glance at it and assume it’s Natasha, although they’re neglecting an s and slapping an h in willy-nilly. People see what they’ve seen before.

Studies also show that babies are drawn to certain types of faces—after a few months. There’s an interesting article on that in Slate, here. As we develop (or supposedly develop), we suffer from ‘perceptual narrowing,’ as if our senses get stuck in a rut. If we’re not exposed to a broad range of sights, we will stop looking for them.

Re-Visualising History

With these biases and predilections in mind, I’ve been trying to get the right mental image for the protagonists in my novel about Eve.

Usually when we write a story, it plays vividly in our imaginations, a cinema multiplex in our brains open 24/7. The same is true for me now, but because this story has its basis in something other than my imagination, I have a distinct unease that the imagery is not my own.

Recall every classical painting or children’s Bible illustration you might have happened upon that depicts Adam and Eve. Flowing gold locks—maybe sometimes brown hair, but always porcelain skin, right? God would have been cruel to form such pasty creatures and pop them down under the Middle Eastern sun.

Selection of National Geographic magazines
I’ve been trawling through my best sources for portraits resembling early peoples of Southern Iraq/ North of the Persian Gulf.

Anthropology traces the first humans back to Africa. At some point we probably all had dark skin as a clever, preferable adaptation. One day that feature may well win out evolutionally again. For my work-in-progress I’m using a less scientific source, but even the Bible says Adam was created of the earth’s dust, and then Eve was formed of Adam— probably not lily white, then.

It might be unfair to say racism is behind all the whitewashing that Adam and Eve underwent over the centuries. But plenty of people have twisted passages from early Genesis to support racist ideologies.

For example, after Eve’s son Cain (also a major character in the book I’m working on, and quite fascinating to me) is ‘marked’ by God for committing fratricide, certain factions have said that mark was black skin. A curse justifying slavery and other cruel practices against millions of people. However, God marked Cain not as a curse, but a sign of guardianship, to show He would wreak vengeance upon anyone who, in turn, harmed Cain. In my book I’ve put it on Cain’s upper cheek, figuring it would have to be quite visible:

Against his dark skin it was blanched white as if God had seared through to his very bones.

It’s still hard to conjure up the right image in my head. Not just because I’ve had years of the wrong images, but also because I’ve never known many people of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve unwittingly had my own perceptual narrowing of sorts.

I guess, though, that I don’t always see my characters when I’m writing a story. Most often I see scenes through the protagonists’ eyes: their surroundings, their loved ones and interests.

And I hear the voices. Dialogue—external and internal—scrolls constantly through my head, with or without a precise picture of who’s speaking the lines.

Here Be Dragons

Stitched emblem of a Chinese-style red and black dragon
Oh hey, Gabriel.

It’s been less challenging to picture Eden, the punishing land around it, and the angels charged with keeping the two separate. I decided a while back that our ideas of angels suffered a major perceptual narrowing.

Why are they always portrayed as looking human? There’s no indication they’d resemble us at all. The creation story says God made people ‘in His own image,’ which to me implies the angels weren’t made that way. Besides, if Lucifer, himself an angel, was the tempter in the Garden, he’s also described as a serpent. A serpent with arms and legs, that is, which in his case were struck off as punishment for that fruit episode.

So angels are serpents with arms and legs…how about they breathe fire, too? Yeah, I decided dragons are actually angels. Handy critters to know when outside the Garden Adam and Eve have to keep warm and cook food.

I’ve had Gabriel describe it thus:

‘The man and woman went forth and multiplied. That was the Boss’s only command they followed unerringly, although their kind bred division over the years, too. Their descendants assumed we, the Boss’s messengers, should be shaped like men, often slaying us when we appeared.’

So this book idea evolves to challenge old perceptions: white ancestors, humanoid angels…What will it take on next? Well, there’s God, obviously. Tune in next week to find out how He’ll look and sound.

What steps do you take to fight perceptual narrowing in your creative endeavours?

Believing What We Read

This Week’s Bit of String: Dinner with the minister

Quite a few years ago we had dinner at a Southern Baptist pastor’s house. I’d met his family at a New England playground when our son was little, and as they’d recently arrived from South Carolina attempting to reform us heathen Yankees, they were very friendly and keen to get our kids together.

‘He’s a pastor,’ I informed my British husband before introducing him. ‘Just bear that in mind.’

During the meal, the two men chatted merrily. The minister asked my husband about his physics studies, and eventually followed up with, ‘So do you believe in evolution?’

My husband laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who believes in creation!’

‘Ah do,’ drawled the pastor calmly.

‘Do you?’ my husband asked me, visibly shaken to his core.

I shrugged. I was raised to, certainly, but in the midst of all the other issues and debates raging through life, I’d never found that one to be a battle worth fighting.

Old Premise, New Ideas

Is it so very important where we come from? I mean, to an extent it is. There’s a lot to learn about more recent history (post-Big Bang or Creation or what have you) that better informs our view of the world and of humanity. But I bumble along in my explorations happily resigned to uncertainty regarding the world’s origin story.

On a mental level, I see the logic of the Big Bang Theory. But the creation story still fascinates me.

Sculpture of a woman embracing a globe
Mother of all…

I’m working on a new novel, starring and told by Eve—‘mother of all the living.’ What would it be like, acting as the prototype for 50% of an entire species? How would she learn to be a woman when no other women were around (and not many men either)?

I’m scribbling the early chapters, as well as researching at the moment. I haven’t read a lot around this issue. I’m planning to read Paradise Lost, and look at the Apocrypha as well. So far, I just keep reading the first chapters of Genesis. And honestly, it’s intriguing.

I’m sure to many, the Biblical idea of Intelligent Design sounds overbearing and rigid. But each verse poses huge questions and leaves much to the imagination.

For example, after Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit, God clothed them in animal skins. How? Was this the first animal slaughter? Could it, further, have been an animal they’d loved in that place of peace?

Eve is never named in that account until after being cursed by God and exiled from Eden. She’s called ‘the woman,’ or ‘Adam’s wife’ up till then. That’s cold. Why?

Then again, considering Adam’s name simply means man, and according to the story there were no other men or women around, I guess they wouldn’t have needed to call each other anything else.

Factual Truth Versus Character Truth

So I’m researching, and questioning, and daydreaming. Not because I intend to find out exactly what happened in the first days of earth, but because it’s fun to imagine.

Isn’t it, in a way, more exciting not to know or worry about whether a book’s premise is true? Hogwarts probably doesn’t exist, and when you think about it, a ring holding dominion over all Middle Earth is somewhat bizarre. But we love finding out how characters—people rather like us—might react in such inventive scenarios.

Bristol Cathedral interior
And we can marvel at the beauty of something without sharing in the faith it represents.

It’s not exactly difficult to imagine a woman breaking a rule—she’s sure she’s only bending it a little—in order to gain some equal footing. So what if it takes place in a garden paradise that’s just appeared out of nowhere, with angels strolling and demons lurking? I feel I can still inject plausibility into her plight.

I think there’s a vital difference between believing a book and believing in a book. It’s the difference between veracity and value; the hierarchical inferiority of situation to character. Aren’t we capable of savouring a protagonist’s authenticity without completely swallowing their circumstances?

I keep going back to this quote from Yann Martel’s eponymous character in Life of Pi: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?’

I’m not putting my trust in the words of Genesis. But it draws me in and I accept its story, the same way I accept a John Irving story or a Joanne Harris one. Fiction writers tell the truth of their characters, and I’m prepared to believe them. Tell me a character, Biblical or otherwise, did such-and-such: fine, I’ll play along. I’ll ponder why, and to what effect.

Do you find it necessary to establish the complete veracity of a book in order to get involved? What makes a story more or less believable—how happy are you to fill in the gaps?

A Statue is to History as a Facebook Profile Picture is to Life

This week’s bit of string: A doctor and a gentleman

In Central Park, a statue pays homage to Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of gynaecology who founded the New York Women’s Hospital, the first hospital expressly for women. He is described on the statue’s plaque as a philanthropist who advanced the reputation of American medical practice throughout the world. This influential doctor is also memorialised elsewhere, including on State House grounds in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sims is also known for his sadism. He made his scientific advances by experimenting without anaesthetic on slave women in the nineteenth century. As protester Seshat Mack notes in this New York Daily Post article, ‘he was a man who recognized the humanity of black slaves to use them for medical research about the human body — but not enough to recognize and treat their pain during surgery.’

A statue is a melodramatically posed likeness of a single person, often designed and made decades after their death. That is not history. People advocating the relocation of confederate statues aren’t trying to erase history; they’re giving voice to a more authentic one. It’s not a question of whether Dr. Sims and the confederacy existed, but of whether they deserve honour.

I’m not suggesting history is relative and that people can take from it what they want to. I’m saying it’s big, and that people will try to take from it what they want. We have to constantly watch out for that.

Worthy Monuments

With their ability to portray multiple facets of an event, maybe books are some of our more effective memorials. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was ten, already intrigued by the period. The idea of the Underground Railroad drew me; the excitement of escaping slavery. Even after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which doesn’t exactly gloss things over, I could not have grasped the magnitude of people for whom there was no escape. It’s still hard to imagine the despair of living in that situation for generations.

Purposefully rusted metal monuments in Gheluvelt Park
Gheluvelt WWI Memorial. Each column represents two months of the war, while just one centimetre of height represents 500 casualties.

What statue, memorial, or even work of literature can convey the suffering of possibly millions of slaves?

Comparatively speaking, I have not much considered the stories of confederate soldiers: ordinary, often poor men persuaded or conscripted into a horrific war. Some of the statues being removed are also memorials to those men, engraved with names of the town’s dead. Does bravery for a bad cause still deserve honour? It’s easy to imagine that a lot of those names refer to decent people, so I sympathise that those memorials mean something to their descendants.

But they aren’t the only piece of history. Some confederate statues are put up on former slave auction site. Hang on, who sacrificed what here? Surely the ones in chains, sold to bolster a white economy, should be remembered. It makes sense to relocate confederate statues to museums or private collections. Government and municipal buildings may sometimes showcase only one side of history, but let’s attempt not to use such a jagged-edged fragment of it.

Meaningful Memorials

In Bristol, UK, near where I now live, a venerable music hall is soon to be renamed. It was called Colston Hall, after a city benefactor (or at least, after the street that’s named after him). However, that philanthropist was also heavily involved in the slave trade, instrumental in the kidnapping of 85,000 Africans.

Cascading pools in the footprint of the World Trade Center
Ground Zero

I have enjoyed shows at Colston Hall. Those bands and memories will still exist under a new venue name. And I’m happy for the change. Who really wants to say, ‘Well, you may have been oppressed and brutalised by something for generations, but I wasn’t, so who cares?’

I doubt many people attending concerts at Colston Hall will notice the name change. Before the renaming campaign, most of us didn’t have a clue who Colston was. Similarly, how many times do we encounter a statue in a park or town centre and actually read the informational plaque, however sparse and biased? There’s not so much honour in being a statue, loved more by pigeons than anyone else.

These days monuments tend not to be statues. We’ve moved on in our attempts to portray the gravity of a tragic event. The World War I memorial in Gheluvelt Park, Worcester, represents the number of casualties in every month of the war. It introduces a staggering sense of scale. Other recent monuments encourage reflection. The pools at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City—my uncle called the latter the most memorable thing he saw in an entire cross-country trip.

Could there possibly be such a memorial to slaves? Could we replace the likenesses of individual confederate figures with a confederacy monument that recognises its bravery yet also the brutal ugliness of its cause? I suspect a truly effective version of either one of those things would be more than just a statue.