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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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This week I finished a couple of inter-library loans, each about a prominent woman whose work was of the highest caliber but whose accomplishments are always discussed in terms of their gender. Marie Curie is one of the greatest scientists of all time, Chiyo-ni is one of the greats of Japanese literature. Each is generally spoken of as a woman who exceeded expectations, not just as an accomplished person.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Falloutby Lauren Redniss, is a beautiful book, a graphic biography with cyanotype art, a glow in the dark cover, and more than the usual life story of Marie Curie. Redniss portrays Marie & Pierre’s great love for each other and for their work, Marie’s second Nobel prize and the scandal around her relationship (as a widow) with a married colleague, the redemption of her reputation as she provided dozens of mobile and field x-ray units during WWI, and her post-war celebrity, as well as the incredible legacies of her life, including children and grandchildren who became prominent scientists.

Through art (including a custom font she created for the book) and text, Redniss also explores the “fallout” of the Curies’ work: nuclear weapons, radiation treatment, and nuclear energy, including interviews with a victim of Hiroshima, a man who grew up watching bomb tests in Utah, and a scientist studying Chernobyl, photos of mutant flowers growing near Three Mile Island, and an interview with a couple who regularly visit a radon spa in Montana. It’s a lovely, moving, thought provoking, and fascinating book.

Chiyo-Ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi is part biography, part anthology of a hundred of Chiyo-Ni’s haiku, arranged by season, as well as examples of her haibun (prose with haiku, a form made famous by Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North) and renga (linked forms, where two or more poets write haiku to form a longer work). Chiyo-ni published two poetry collections (a rare feat at the time) and her work appeared in a stunning 120+ anthologies in her lifetime (1703-1775). She became a Pure Land Buddhist nun at age 52, and her poems are known for their enlightened clarity. She wrote one of her most famous,

a hundred gourds
from the heart
of one vine

at age 24, when a Buddhist master asked her to compose a poem on sankai, “desire, form, and nonform.” As the story goes, he was stunned when she spontaneously wrote the gourd poem, which illustrated that “everything arises from the mind.” But, in her time and ours, she’s been called a woman poet, not just one of the greatest poets in Japanese literature. Do we call Basho a man poet?

I am intensely curious about why human beings feel the need to label each other and why women are viewed as doing something especially remarkable if they excel in a “male” field. It still happens today. The Computer Scientist shared this video with me and our teens this week, showing female “geeks” (gaming, comic, and anime/manga fans) who’ve experienced sexist attitudes about their interests, which are already disparaged in mainstream culture (hence the nickname “geeks”).

I just heard a piece on NPR about the Women’s British Open, where Inbee Park could win a 4th major this year (a feat no golfer, male or female, has accomplished). The reporter said he hoped Park would “get her due” if she wins. He went on to note that the LPGA tends to promote “sex appeal” rather than “great golf” and Park isn’t a “glam girl.” Why wouldn’t sports fans be at least as impressed with Park as they were with Phil Mickelson, who finally won the men’s British Open after many attempts? He’s no glam girl either.

Before you hit the comment button, I’m not saying men and women are the same, I know there are differences. But can’t we judge people’s actions and accomplishments on their merits without dwelling on labeling them by gender or race or age or any other label? I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, but it can’t hurt to try.

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