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?

Undimmed By Human Tears

This Week’s Bit of String: Plastic cutlery at hotel breakfasts

First morning in a Bloomington, Minnesota hotel. I’d been looking forward to this five-night stay: I wouldn’t even have to make my own bed! Already I’d run 4 miles on a treadmill in the fitness centre, and I was ready for my share of American plenty.

Breakfast smelled good; coffee and fruit and syrup, and the crank of the waffle iron sounded as well as the splutter of juice and cereal dispensers. But as our family negotiated the buffet, we found only paper plates and plastic cutlery to eat it with, and no receptacle to dispose of these things but the nearly full trash bins.

Endless criss-crossing hallways of Mall of America, Minnesota
Thine alabaster cities gleam… Mall of America

With about 100 rooms in the hotel, the three bins in the dining area would fill up more than once in the course of the morning. That’s a lot going to the landfill, especially as kids sampled everything from the buffet and hastily threw out the bits they couldn’t be bothered with.

On top of this, the hotel and even the rental car company persistently offered ‘free’ bottled water. In the midst of a heatwave, air conditioning units ran full throttle and few pedestrians walked Bloomington’s wide plethora of highways and sand-coloured routes. The roads were lined with massive office buildings and hotels, many with their own fountains and escalators. And shops. Massive Targets and any other shop you can imagine—even with alternative branches of the same shops in the Mall of America a couple quick exits along the freeway.

So much stuff—who buys it, who has space for it? How quickly is it thrown out to make room for something more? This level of consumption and waste can’t be sustained. For goodness’ sake, America, what are you thinking?

Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control

I assume this lifestyle stems from corporate attempts at moneymaking, which officials across party divides seem to hold as the highest ideal.  The hotel wants to save on equipment and staff costs. Coca-Cola wants to peddle Dasani, which though scandalised and pulled from the market after just five weeks in the UK, is ubiquitous in the more accepting US. None of this should shock me.

Examining it honestly, what shocked me was how easily I convinced myself to go along with it. It’s just for a few days. My normal week consists of 11-hour stints out of the house for work every single day, writing or editing diligently on the bus, then managing laundry and food prep and cleaning the second I walk in the door at home. Surely taking a holiday could entail a mental, even a slight moral holiday as well?

White Mountain view from the summit of Mt Osceola
For purple mountains majesty…White Mountains, New Hampshire

Because waste and how we respond to materialism is a moral issue. It affects vulnerable beings and it influences larger habits. Instant gratification and material excess are staunchly defended, even encouraged, here; we invented the phrase retail therapy and were exhorted to continue with it even during the pursuit of very expensive military campaigns on two fronts in the Middle East.

America being a large nation full of juxtapositions and surprises, the allowances disappear the second a woman becomes pregnant in many states. Likewise, the constant amassing of assets is not available to impoverished persons from other nations, even those whose governments and economic stability were constantly jeopardised by the American need for cheap fruit.

A Thoroughfare of Freedom Beat

Self-serving agendas go way back in this country. In 1776, American ‘Founding Fathers’ decided against ending slavery, to mollify Southern colonies and Northern businesses, keep the states unified, and kick the British out. Thereby, these heroes scrapped independence for all in favour of independence for some.

Mrs. Spokescow lobbies for voting rights in a Ben & Jerry's factory display
Above the fruited plain…Ben & Jerry’s Factory, Vermont

I understand they genuinely believed their actions benefited more [relevant] people than they harmed. They felt they had the right, a moral duty in fact, to begin a nation that would serve as a beacon to others. No other democracies existed yet, not even fledgling ones. If they hadn’t ignored slavery and banded together to fight for freedom, monarchies might have flourished forevermore.

America’s history is littered with compromise: railroads built by overworked immigrants, industrial revolution on the backs of child labour, draconian Homeland Security measures to reduce terrorism, mass production that disregards environmental and animal welfare…That’s a lot of bending from a pillar of morality; a lot of cowardice from the home of the brave.

A lot of us have done pretty damn well out of these questionable practices. Progress comes with sacrifices, but will there be a point when the sacrifices are ours rather than someone else’s?

Crown Thy Good

As I said, surprises abound here. Despite the breakfast utensils at my hotel, efforts to recycle are truly widespread (so if people in the UK are still using America’s wastefulness as an excuse not to recycle, themselves—grow up and own your own bad habits!)

In fact, recycling in the USA continues despite certain obstacles. China, a major re-manufacturer of recycled materials, is clamping down on contamination in what it receives, so recycling companies are scrambling to accommodate this. We can help by ensuring that we recycle only what’s recyclable: no crinkle cups like those red Solo ones (or Dunkin Donuts ones, I expect), and no food takeaway containers. It’s known as ‘wishcycling’ when we contaminate the actual recyclables this way, and I suspect it’s rife in the UK as well as the US. This Colorado Public Radio article reminds us how we can enable recycling companies to do their job.

Big fish made of plastic waste
From sea to shining sea… Como Zoo, Minnesota

It’s nice we want to recycle rather than waste. But what we should really do is reduce the disposables we use in the first place. The UK and Europe have made great steps to cut down on plastic straws and grocery bags. The US is catching on too; not just in ‘liberal’ coastal areas but in places thought to be conservative. Here’s an article in the Des Moines Register (from the rural midwestern state of Iowa) about cutting down on straw use in cafes. We’re in this together.

And this can only improve with innovative campaigns that bring the dangers of waste to the public’s attention. Consider the Art to Save the Sea exhibit at the Como Zoo and Botanical Gardens in St. Paul, Minnesota: every big sculpture is made of pieces of plastic waste washed up on the Pacific coast.

Till Selfish Gain No Longer Stain the Banner of the Free

Beyond consciously fighting our wastefulness, we could try fighting our stereotypes about others and accept personal responsibility for ourselves. (Er…especially when we’re not on holiday.) America just had a birthday, and this first, experimental democracy is still not very old. Back in my home region of New England, a recent theatre project put on the show 1776, which tells of compromises made while writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. With their production, they actively spurred discussion and drew attention to truths about our founding.

Memorial to Thomas E. Burnett, Jr, who gave his life on Sept 11, 2001 intercepting the hijackers on Flight 63. His last known words were, "We're going to do something."
Who more than self their country loved…Memorial at the Mall of America

At our White Mountains campsite, a truck-sized trailer of white people practised swordfighting and rode bikes. A Latino group played with each other’s hair and chatted; an Asian group threw an American football around and fished for trout and cooked rice in an enormous Instant Pot using the bathroom socket. One tiny, adorable girl broke away from their party to talk earnestly to me in a language I didn’t understand. This country continues to learn and integrate.

Let’s remember these things when some people are cross about how the national anthem is sung, some people don’t want to bake others a cake, and indeed some people are upset about cakes not being baked for them…Let’s stop and remember that we DO have it pretty good, at the cost of countless, invisible Others. Let’s consider what it’s like for people who are genuinely oppressed in parts of the world (sometimes as a result of American economic or defense policy). Then can we sacrifice from our own entitlements—perhaps not pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour,” but at least being thoughtful enough to calm each other down?

 

Note: Headings and captions use lyrics from “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, obtained from this page, which, in yet another example of American juxtaposition, links at the bottom to a detailed history of Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s interactions.

 

 

 

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?