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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Just a little light reading about climate change and racism, right? Actually, here’s the thing: you can become better informed and learn about being a better human without feeling badly. In fact, feeling guilty or ashamed, according to social science research, can actually prevent people from making progress. So yes, you can read and even enjoy reading books that explain where humans have gone wrong on things like treating our planet and each other well, and help readers learn what to do to be part of the solution.

Next week, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action is discussing Saving Us: a Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing by the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Katharine Hayhoe. When I was working on open educational resources advocacy in my previous job, I often joked that I could talk about OER with anyone, anytime. That is Hayhoe’s approach to climate change conversations, and this book is her manual for anyone who wants to get better at this. You might be thinking, why does it matter if we talk about it? Isn’t it too late? Or as the former teen the younger said to me the other day “people have been getting ready to talk about climate change my whole life.”

Again, turning to social science research, it turns out that what we tend to do when there is a huge, seemingly intractable problem is feel powerless, which causes us to withdraw from the issue. Talking with others helps us feel less overwhelmed and better able to contribute to solutions (the fancy term: we increase our sense of efficacy). I wrote about this for my science communication master’s dissertation as I was researching how to best to support the rollout of a household carbon footprint tracker. Quick aside: while households alone can’t cut enough carbon to stop climate change, we can, if enough of us pay attention to reducing our use of fossil fuels, make a significant dent in the U.S. output — five household activities (electricity use, home heating, transportation, food, and waste (yes, trash)) in the U.S. actually make up around 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions for our country. But even better, research shows that learning about your own carbon footprint and working to reduce it can make you more likely to advocate for the systemic, societal changes we need to really mitigate the impacts of climate change and have a more sustainable future for the planet.

What does all this have to do with talking about climate change? EcoAmerica has found that 45% of Americans are “very concerned” about climate change . . . and that jumps to 75% if you include people who identify as at least somewhat concerned. But only 14% of us think other people are “very concerned.” So we currently have a perception gap that keeps us from reaching out to others, sharing solutions, or talking about how important it is to us. If we can bridge that gap, it’s more likely we’ll come together in our communities, and beyond, to work towards sustainable actions.

Hayhoe provides some great examples. First, a man in England showed her a list that has grown to twelve thousand people at the time she wrote the book, all folks who joined conversations about climate change that he started having after he saw Hayhoe’s TED talk about the importance of talking about this. That’s twelve thousand people who starting thinking about what they could do to help. And, the borough where he lives declared a climate emergency and committed to funding a sustainability effort, as a result. All because he listed to her advice to talk with people.

Another example is “solar contagion” — research that confirms what you may have noticed, that once a homeowner installs solar panels, neighbors often do, too. Not because people like to be like others (although we do) but because it becomes easier, once you can stop and ask, “Who did you hire? How’s that going? What do you recommend?” Hayhoe noticed people were intrigued by her plug in electric car when she got it. Seeing someone in your immediate sphere do something you couldn’t imagine doing makes it imaginable.

Saving Us is full of examples like this, plus all the details about climate science, social science research, expert advice, and data to help equip a budding climate communicator. But even better, it’s full of Hayhoe’s practical, open-hearted, very relatable anecdotes about her own conversations. She shares the actions she’s taken in her own life, modeling the idea that by sharing, she can help readers take actions too. And it works. I hadn’t gotten around to figuring out a worthwhile way to offset the impact of flying; I took Hayhoe’s suggestion and gave to Climate Stewards to offset a recent flight to see my dad.

Finally, the book ends with a nice summary of how to apply what you’ve learned from reading Saving Us, summarized in Hayhoe’s “secret formula” for climate communication:

“I have good news. There is a way to talk about climate change that works. You don’t need a PhD in climate science. You don’t need a bulletproof vest. And you don’t need antidepressants, either. In fact, chances are you’ll know more afterward than you did before; you’ll have a better understanding of the person or people you’re talking to than you did earlier; and you’ll be encouraged rather than discouraged by your conversation. So what is this secret formula? It’s this:

bond, connect, inspire.”

She suggests ways to open a conversation, and how to ask questions to learn more about what folks care about or are interested in, notice where you can find common ground and shared values, and talk about what you’re doing and learning and are excited about. Throughout the book, right up to the end, Hayhoe doesn’t sugarcoat our situation or gloss over how serious climate change is, but she makes it clear that ordinary people are not alone but instead are working alongside millions of other folks around the world who also want to make sure we have a more sustainable future. It’s a helpful read, and I really can’t recommend it enough, for everyone!

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed was on a lot of best books of 2021 lists. My Me and White Supremacy alumni group decided to read it before our June meeting so we can understand the holiday better. Gordon-Reed is a historian, and her book reminded me that reading history doesn’t have to be dry and dull. On Juneteenth weaves together historical and cultural information about Texas and its people, especially people of color, and Gordon-Reed’s family history and her own experiences growing up in East Texas. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, history, and social commentary that is illuminating and thoughtful.

If you think you know about the Alamo, about Texas history or about America’s war with Mexico, even about western movies and Giant in particular, this book will likely open your eyes to how these topics are skimmed in school textbooks and have been told mainly from the point of view of white people. Gordon-Reed is very generous in her critique of this, but sets the record straight. As she explains:

“About the difficulties of Texas: Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places — and people, ourselves included — without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses. That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so. How that is done matters, of course. Striking the right balance can be exceedingly hard.”

Gordon-Reed does it very well. This book is so much more than a cogent explanation of the significance of Juneteenth. It is a snapshot of what it is to think deeply about history and one’s place in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and also highly recommend it.

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I read Black Buck on a trip, straight through in a few hours. It was everything I’m looking for in a good read: smart, entertaining, thought provoking, funny, both heart-breaking and uplifting, ultimately about love and full of Truth with a capital T. Mateo Askaripour quit his day job to write, which is super inspiring. This is his debut, and he notes it “was written just for Black readers, though white readers are welcome to ‘come along for the ride.'”

Black Buck opens with a note from the main character, Darren Vender, known as Buck. He tells readers he wants to teach us how to sell, but he particularly wants to teach Black people how to sell. To white readers like me, Buck says, “I want you to think of yourself as an honorary Black person. Go on, do it. Don’t go don blackface and an afro, but picture yourself as Black.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that a) that’s why I read, to put myself into another life for a few hundred pages and try to learn something about being human from their perspective and b) I’ve been working on being antiracist and one way to do that is to try to understand the experiences of people of color from their points of view. So I appreciated this invitation.

Buck is a delightful narrator. He is honest about himself and his own foibles. He’s a lot like most of us — good at some things, bad at others, mostly kind but sometimes hard-hearted, a good son, boyfriend, and friend . . . except when he isn’t. Askaripour makes it clear when the novel opens that Darren is also someone with untapped potential; he’s 22, was a valedictorian at a magnet school for science, but he’s working in a Starbucks, moving up, but not really fully fulfilling the promise others saw in him as a teen. And still see in him: Rhett Daniels, the charismatic leader of a tech startup called Sumwun that aims to upend the mental healthcare world, recruits him one morning in the Starbucks.

Rhett is wealthy, successful, narcissistic, and from their first encounter, seems brash to the point of being somewhat unhinged. Initially, Darren isn’t interested. Pressured by his girlfriend and mom to at least hear about the opportunity, Darren, nicknamed Buck during his sales training week at Sumwun, ends up getting drawn into the tech startup atmosphere — the swag, the free food, the partying, and frankly, the success he enjoys in sales. But he is also aware from day one that there are no other Black employees at Sumwun, and that Clyde, the man who trains him, and others at the company expect him to fail. Rhett, however, believes in him, even seems to love him, and Buck is flattered. Who wouldn’t be?

As you can guess, this is just the beginning of the story. As Buck spends more and more time with his Sumwun coworkers (which reminded me of this great article on why workplaces should not call themselves a “family”) he spends less with his mom and girlfriend and friends he grew up with. As in any coming of age story, Buck faces some trials — some bad things happen in those relationships — and then he has to show what he’s made of. Some reviewers called this “formulaic” to which I would say, go read The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; human storytelling has patterns, which make storytelling and listening/watching a delight when done well, as it is in this novel. Anyway, in the process of realizing he could help a friend he nearly left behind in his precipitous climb to wealth and success, Buck ends up inadvertently starting a movement. Which, as sometimes happens in real life, makes him the target of some pretty nasty folks.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you by giving too many details, but I will say, what makes Black Buck uplifting even though it shines a light on all the excesses of capitalism, consumer culture, and gentrification, and the sins of racism, ableism, and other kinds of bigotry, is that Buck grows as a character. In the process, Askaripour examines the classic conflict of whether to take action against the forces of evil in our world with kindness or to fight fire with fire. His characters — and Buck is great but there are many terrific minor characters who advance the action in the story in different ways — make the social commentary happen, a la Jane Austen, which means you get so caught up in the story that it helps you understand the issues at hand. The ending is a bit wild, but unfortunately, probably not unrealistically so.

Ultimately, Black Buck is about a young man growing up in a world where inequity of all kinds stacks the deck against him and many of the people he cares about, who learns that what will really make him happy isn’t just doing well for himself, but being part of a community that can do well together. And that his own success will be richer for being part of something that helps others; Buck learns that there is no zero sum game when it comes to opportunity. (Yep, here is where I tell you again: read The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee). And as I mentioned, it’s also really funny, and a love story. If you’re looking for a good read, this is it. If you want something for your book club that is both a great deal of fun and also ripe for discussion, again, this is it.

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I realized when I was writing about The Quiet Boy that I had not read Underground Airlines. I really like Ben Winters‘ writing and if you’re a longtime reader of bookconscious you know I’ve read many of his books. So I looked in my library eBook platforms and checked it out. I loved it and will buy it so the Computer Scientist can read it too. I am guessing that life was hectic when Underground Airlines first came out; I remember seeing it and meaning to read it. Anyway, I’m really glad I read it now!

As with several of Winters’ other books, this novel is partly a mystery, partly speculative fiction, and deeply humane. I’ve said before that readers can learn a thing or two about being human from his books; that is the case with Underground Airlines as well. It’s set in a world where Lincoln was assassinated before becoming president, and Congress subsequently passed a series of compromises and a Constitutional amendment allowing slavery to remain legal and regulated in the South. By the time the novel takes place, only four slave states remain. The main character, who goes by the name Victor, is an escaped slave who works for the U.S. Marshall service, tracking others who have escaped.

When the book opens Victor is in Indianapolis, working a case. He meets a young mother, Martha, and her child at the hotel where he is staying. As he draws closer to finding the person he’s tracking, he finds himself helping Martha, and also revisiting memories he’d rather forget. Just when he thinks he’s solved his case, things fall apart, and now it’s Martha’s turn to help him. Winters uses their friendship to shine a light on the racism pervasive even in the abolitionist north. He seamlessly comments on inequity, “nice white people,” corporate greed, political dysfunction, and violence, but it’s not heavy handed. All of this fits into the story.

Which is compelling — I was nearly late for work one morning because I thought I could just finish a chapter I’d stayed up too late reading and when I looked up, I had ten minutes to feed the cats, get dressed, make coffee, grab a piece of toast, and fly out the door. Winters’ characters are complex people; there is no simple good guys/bad guys divide, and even the ones you root for do some things you wish they wouldn’t and vice versa. Winters gets that people are imperfect and sometimes act in surprising ways. Reading his books, I always get the sense that he is hopeful about humanity.

Underground Airlines is a terrific read, and it would be a great book club pick. There is a lot to unpack. I also think this would make a terrific movie or TV series. When I described it to the Computer Scientist he said it sounded like it has a similar vibe to Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle. I don’t know as I haven’t read that book or seen the show, but I did read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I get how the two writers could be compared.

Also, Underground Airlines ends with Victor trying to track down Martha’s partner, Samson. I would love to read that story! The final lines of the book left me wondering about a sequel. Earlier in the story, more than once, Victor or his handler express that “everything happens,” alluding to the fact that slave or free, black Americans are always in danger. At the end of the book, Victor has flipped that narrative and is hopeful about the chances of finding and freeing Samson: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible.” Could there be more in store for Victor and Martha?

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I read Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer: The Church and the Famine of Grace by Father Jarel Robinson-Brown for the Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition class I am taking online at EDS at Union with the Computer Scientist, the same class for which I read Song In a Weary Throat and books by James Cone, Kelly Brown Douglas, Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Stephanie Spellers and Liz Theoharris last fall. Which is to say, this isn’t the first book I’ve read about the ways the Church has missed and is missing the mark.

Also, when we lived in Georgia, I volunteered with an organization working to help people living with HIV in our county, and one reason some of the folks in the group gave for the higher than average infection rate among African Americans was that the Black church’s homophobia caused many people to hide their sexual orientation, which can lead to unsafe sex. Robinson-Brown critiques the Black church and quotes a fellow scholar, Anthony Reddie, who says that the Black church is “studiously wedded to White Euro-American fundamentalism.”

But Robinson-Brown also notes:

“It is the worship of the God of the White imagination that has led to the famine of grace in the Church. A White God who sends a White Jesus into a White world to save White people through a White church is a God whose interest is reserved only for the powerful and the comfortable, and who has no good news for the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ poor.” He goes on to say “While it has been busy telling LGBTQ+ people what to do with their desire and telling its Black members how to express their anger, it has lost its desire for the one thing that matters: God and God’s children.”

This is something Kelly Brown Douglas has lectured on in our course extensively.

Like Dean Douglas, and Howard Thurman, and James Cone, and and Pauli Murray, and many others, Robinson-Brown powerfully preaches in the final chapter of the book the true message of Jesus which was not one of power and privilege, nor of excluding people (even those his community felt were undesirable), but exactly the opposite. Jesus was radically inclusive in his ministry. So what has happened to the Church? How can followers of Jesus cause so much harm, and participate in and uphold racism and homophobia, deny women a role in ministry, etc.? Robinson-Brown’s diagnosis is the famine of grace in the subtitle of his book.

Lest you think this is a depressing topic and a book that simply spells out what’s wrong, let me share the simple, powerful message that Father Robinson-Brown builds from beginning to end in this book: it doesn’t have to be this way. He’s too good a writer for me to paraphrase, so in his own words:

“What is needed is an urgent prioritizing of a theology of grace that situates grace as the primacy of God’s love in every word we might say about the ‘other,’and that takes the crucified love of God at its word.”

and

“The demand on the White Church is quite simple: we are asking you to be more like Jesus, to let us breathe, to let us sit as equal kin at the table. It’s only difficult because if you’re honest, you do not want to give up your power and privilege.”

Yes. That is why racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and xenophobia exist. The people who have power and privilege (and as a white cis straight woman that includes me) have trouble giving it up. Not always because they don’t want to (plenty don’t want to) — the systems that make them privileged are designed to keep them that way. Which makes it hard even for people of good will — people who know grace and want to share it — to effectively change more than their own interactions with others. It’s like other kinds of reform — prison reform, police reform, education reform, etc. How can you reform what is inherently unbalanced, unjust, unfair, inequitable? Abolition may be the only way. I never understood that about policing until the beginning of the pandemic when I had a long in depth conversation with my two twenty-somethings and finally, finally, it was clear to me (you may recall that the elder suggested I read The End of Policing, which I wrote about here). Thirteenth and The New Jim Crow explain vividly why our criminal punishment system deserves to be abolished, not “reformed.”

And Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer makes the case for the abolition of the Church, which is the establishment in England. Perhaps in the U.S. the Church has already lost more of its influence at the community level. Many people don’t consider any church a necessary part of their lives. That may be less true in the “bible belt.” And the Evangelical/White Nationalist iron grip on the Republican Party is a frightening and heretical strain that reminds me in some ways of what James Cone describes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree — church folk howling about critical race theory, stolen elections, mask mandates, or two summers ago, about BLM, are really just the latest iteration of the same church folk who justified slavery and lynching.

I don’t know how I feel about church abolition (of course I don’t — see above, I’m mostly privileged when it comes to church). I get that the church needs to be different than it is now. And it makes sense to me that following Jesus more closely is what it needs. I’m frustrated by the ways the Church causes harm or isn’t bold enough or makes excuses about not being “too political.” But I also belong to The Episcopal Church, which is trying to solve the famine of grace in many ways. In fact the EC recently took up as part of its formation a call to be A Church That Looks and Acts Like Jesus. I find that hopeful — I there is a better chance of the Church becoming grace-filled than of American democracy recovering or prison and police abolition taking hold. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I am glad to be in the course we are taking. We are of different ages, races, gender identities, sexualities, geographic and cultural origins, and backgrounds learning together about the Church, what it has been and done, and what it could be and do.

But I digress. The point of this post is to say, if you’re interested in the church, read this book.

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I have read a number of books about equity over the past several years. I’ve also heard various books recommended or critiqued by people learning to be antiracist. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone by Heather McGhee is unique in that every person who has told me about this book had not only highly recommended it, but had different reasons for raving. For nerds, there is data. For organizers, there are examples of what’s worked. For those new to this work, it’s clear. For those feeling frustrated by racism and greed, there is encouragement. It’s a hopeful book, because McGhee has the clarity and depth of knowledge not only of the intricacies of our racial inequity in America but also of the ways even the most intransigent issues can be overcome. Her life’s work has been analyzing inequity and advocating for policy changes. What strikes me is that she has incredible empathy and listens deeply, because she tells story after story of people being incredibly honest with her about their views.

The main point of The Sum of Us is that the zero sum narrative we’ve all been told — that if any group of people receives some benefit, such as affirmative action, higher pay, universal health care, etc. — others will lose is both false and is at its core, a racist lie. In example after example, relating to jobs, health, housing, environmental safety, financial security, education, neighborhood vibrancy, and more, McGhee cites research and real life example of how multiracial coalitions working for antiracist solutions can win better lives for everyone. McGhee calls this these societal benefits the “solidarity dividend.”

The ways racism is upheld in our laws and policies, the brokenness of American democracy, the damage dealt to most of us by unbridled capitalism, are problems so huge and seemingly intractable. One reason this book is so compelling is that although McGhee presents each issue as part of these systemic, interlocking inequities that seems hopeless, she moves on to stories of actual people who have come together to work for a better world, and have succeeded. They have made their communities better, for example, by breaking down segregation and getting to know each other, or by bringing about changes like succeeding in winning a higher minimum wage, holding a polluting factory’s owners accountable, or successfully lobbying for laws ensuring paid time off or other worker protections.

McGhee connects the dots between the vastness of what faces us and the need to work together: “The mounting challenges we face in society are going to require strength and scale that none of us can achieve on her own.” A few pages later she notes, “. . . we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.” McGhee’s infectious optimism, backed by studies and examples, makes it plausible to believe what she says is possible:

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. In short we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom, rooted in the knowledge that we are so much more when the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

The Sum of Us is a kind of civic liberation theology for our time. Add me to the people raving about this book. And re-energized by it to keep on keeping on with the work of making progress for all of us.

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I’ve been reading but not blogging lately, but I’ve read so many good things I want to share briefly about each of them. The Computer Scientist and I just enjoyed a week off from work, as well, so there was more time to read.

First, I’m taking a class over the next two years at EDS at Union on social justice in the Anglican tradition and I have been doing the required reading for our fall semester:

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls by Kelly Brown Douglas — Douglas is Dean of EDS at Union. This book is her answer to a student at my alma mater (Goucher College) where she taught for many years, who asked why Douglas, a black woman, was a Christian when Christianity helped establish white supremacist, and in particular anti-black, ideas in American culture and upheld racist policies and practices? The student’s question is understandable. What are we to do when some Christians claim or have claimed that violence — slavery and lynching, but also discrimination and dehumanizing teachings — is in line with their beliefs? Douglas wrote this book of theology to respond fully. I learned about “platonized” Christianity, closed monotheism, and other theological notions I can’t say I am completely sure I understand. I look forward to more fully discussing these topics with the community of learners. But what I took away is that it is a distortion of Christianity — and Douglas is clear that means a heresy — to terrorize people. And yet, there are Christians historically and today who believe they are “right” with God and the world when they do so, arguing and even persuading others through interpretation of scripture and tradition that this is so. She examines not only white but also Black churches’ use of power and distorted theology to enact and/or uphold ideas that devalue anyone for any reason (gender, class, sexuality, race, culture or nationality, for example). Her conclusion is that “In effect, the troubling legacy of “Christianity” suggests that it is a religion in which imposing discriminatory power can find theological cover. Hence the truth of Christianity is that is has generated at least two prevailing legacies: one that terrorizes and oppresses and another that empowers and liberates; the first is most defined by whiteness and the second is most defined by blackness.”

The course is going to examine how we can ask questions and stay in relationship with God and each other in ways that help bring the world closer to “God’s just future,” or beloved community, as Dean Douglas told us in our orientation yesterday. It sounds pretty daunting. I’m anxious to learn more.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone — Another book of theology, as well as an examination of lynching in American culture and the responses to our legacy of violent racism in Black activism, music and literature. Cone covers theology, art, literature, and music, as well as the civil rights movement and the history of lynching in America. I’m still processing all the different angles, but for me this book was an affirmation that white Christianity has been timid at best (as Cone describes in critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr, who he admires but finds wanting when it comes to engaging with race) in confronting racism, and has colluded in violence either by silence or by endorsing it with racist theology. Another important takeaway is that there are plenty of Black (and a few white) theologians, writers, artists, and advocates to learn from, people who understand and express in their creativity and resistance what Cone writes of the cross: “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life . . . .” He goes on to note: “Jesus . . . was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States . . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” It seems to me that the many ways that our “principalities and powers” continue to lynch, through mass incarceration, police brutality, biased and racist criminal justice policies and procedures, educational and health inequities, and the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of people because of their race, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation are also the cross in America. It’s a lot to take in.

We are also reading the 1619 project — which by the way is not about hating whiteness or white people, nor about saying that white people haven’t ever helped Black people in their struggle for equity; it is about offering information most of us have not been taught about the importance of Black Americans and their experiences in our history. And it’s about illuminating the legacy of slavery in contemporary America, as well as the painful truth that while some white people have joined the struggle for racial justice in this country, historically, many of us were unaware and/or silent. As historian Leslie M. Harris notes in an essay on the 1619 project, “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.” At least two of the authors of the letter written by historians criticizing the project, Harris explains, Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, gave relatively minimal coverage of slavery and Black experience in their early career, seminal works on American history, and even in more contemporary work, “have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.)”

Our reading list also includes two articles on reparations – one by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Both of which are terrific.

Which brings me to the next book, Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. This book details the theological and scriptural case for reparations, and then in a clear and practical way lays out the steps needed, from “seeing” the existence and effects of white supremacy through “owning” the ethical response (from a Christian perspective, but anyone could find it useful), which they break into “restitution” and “restoration” through moving into the actual work of reparations: repair. I found this book inspiring as well as illuminating and it seems like a good next step for anyone who has been working on antiracism and wants to understand “what to do” now that you’ve learned about white supremacy. Spoiler: ask Black members of your community how you can support their priorities and efforts, rather than deciding for yourself what to do. Kwon and Thompson bring an ecumenical Christian viewpoint (whereas both Cone and Douglas write from the Episcopal tradition), which was interesting for me. I admit I sometimes take (false) refuge in the notion that I practice my faith in the “empowering and liberating” branch of the Jesus movement. It’s important, I realize, to acknowledge that no one denomination is that branch (not entirely, anyway) and that my own branch hasn’t always been either of those, and sometimes isn’t today.

Which leads nicely to another book I read for a discussion group earlier this summer, which is also on our course reading list, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. Spellers addresses many of the same issues Douglas and Cone do, but with a very current lens: given everything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning America is experiencing regarding systemic and intersectional inequities, what should the church do? This was a tough book to read and discuss. Spellers takes on the church as an institution aligned with empire and white supremacy. She imagines recent times as having cracked open the church, using the scriptural story of the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment that she cracks open to anoint Jesus with. Spellers asks readers to imagine that metaphor with her, and to think about how we now have to choose which way to go: patch it together or make something new? Do we go back to what we’ve been, without repenting for what we’ve learned? Or, borrowing Kwon’s and Thompson’s framework (seeing, owning, and repairing) and Douglas’s dual legacies (terrorizing/oppressing and empowering/liberating) do we figure out how to repair without just remaking the old structures that haven’t always been empowering and liberating? Spellers, like Kwon and Thompson, present examples and frameworks for thinking about how to move forward towards justice and beloved community.

The last book I read for the class is about another way to participate in the empowering and liberating work of faith: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharris, co-founder of the current Poor People’s Campaign and longtime campaigner for justice with poor, unhoused, and low wealth people. I say campaigner with and not for, because the hallmark of Theoharris’s work and this book is that poverty does not preclude people from thinking, feeling, and acting on their own behalves. If you follow the Poor People’s Campaign at all you know that it is a coalition of people who are poor and their allies, exposing the structural inequities and the social mores that have created the false narrative that poverty is somehow poor people’s fault. Theoharris explains that but also really delves deeply into the famous biblical passage where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” — which happens right after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints him with costly ointment and a man among his disciples scolds her, saying the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Through scriptural reflection and analysis, Theoharris explains how this passage has been distorted to defend economic inequality. She argues that in fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy in noting that if people didn’t follow God’s call for justice, poverty would continue to exist. Again, this was eye opening and fascinating, and I am still digesting it.

My leisure reading also connects to the ideas in the course reading, especially that human beings (particularly those with power) have a tendency to interpret their way into defending viewpoints that harm others. I read Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens, a smart, thought provoking look at the many ways America does not afford the same freedoms and privileges to all citizens — only people who look “white,” speak unaccented English and dress in a way that does not reveal cultural difference can “pass” as American all the time, and anyone who doesn’t fit these conditions is likely to find themself having to defend their citizenship or face bias and inequity at some point. Lalami also examines sexism in a searing and personal chapter on the condition of women both in America and in Morocco, where she grew up. I found the book sobering, but also strangely hopeful. Lalami’s final chapter is “Do Not Despair of this Country,” taken from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Lalami describes what unconditional citizenship for all would entail, and explains how we get there.

She cautions that despair “is a gift to the status quo” and that therefore, we have to do what we can and remain hopeful. She suggests informing ourselves, voting, and looking to “the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level.” And she leaves readers with this important last thought: “In any discussion of change, there comes a time to choose partners. In the last few years, many opinion writers have urged dialogue and compromise. Only by talking about differences of opinion, the argument goes, can we hope to reach resolution. Certainly, there are disagreements that can be resolved through debate: the size of the transportation budget, say, or the allocation to Job Corps training programs. But some disagreements are not bridgeable. Separating asylum-seeking children from their parents, for example, is not an issue on which I see a possible compromise.” I appreciate this point; I think there have to be certain things that are not negotiable, and among those are human rights. She also goes on to point out that we also have to remember the partners who are not right in front of us — people in other countries who are also affected by our dialogues and decisions. Lalami’s insightful writing should inspire people to hope, and to take part, in some small way, to being and allowing others to be equitable citizens. Or what Dean Douglas calls, bringing about God’s just future.

I also finally read The Book Thief which I’ve had on my to-read pile for several months. During the pandemic, my dad re-read it and send me a copy. It’s certainly also about the way humans will interpret their way into defending harmful beliefs and practices. Markus Zusak‘s famous novel is about a young German girl whose brother dies as they are on their way to live with a foster family. Liesel’s new father realizes she can’t read and helps her learn how, and she has a new best friend next door, Rudy. Life gets more complicated as the war begins and in addition to having to deal with “the Party” which her father is reluctant to join, being hungry, and having to go to Hitler Youth activities, where Rudy is regularly bullied, Liesel soon has to keep secret that her family is hiding a young Jewish man, Max, in their basement. The novel is uniquely narrated by death, who cobbles together different perspectives, muses on the difficulty of his work, and shares snippets of thoughts and even pages of a book that Max creates for Liesel. It’s a story about people who manage not to despair and who try to do their part for justice even if that means giving up some of their own meager comfort to help others. And it’s a beautiful tribute to books and reading and writing, and their power to lift us out of even the darkest moments.

Another vacation read for me was Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Our elder offspring gave me this for Christmas, and I had been waiting for a chunk of time when I could dig into such a meaty read.The Computer Scientist said “Do you know how many times you’ve looked up from that book and exclaimed, ‘Did you know . . .’?” It’s an eye opening read for anyone who grew up schooled in the white dominant American culture that taught exactly what the 1619 project counters: a national history centered in white experience. I went through public schools, got a “good” liberal arts undergraduate education in college, and have attained two masters degrees. And yet, what I’ve learned about Black history (and what little I know about Asian history, and Native American history) I have had to learn on my own. Even then, when I first began to learn, I still had to wrap my head around all that I didn’t (and still don’t) know or understand, all that I’ve been socialized to believe or accept. Stamped From the Beginning continued that education for me. Even as someone who has been trying to understand systemic racism it is mind blowing.

So many little things we take for granted as positive if we are white — like scientific research into genetics — can be, have been, and are being used for racist means, like “proving” that intelligence is determined by genes (it’s not). Even the stories I already knew seem shockingly fresh when Kendi brings them into this lengthy overall story. For example, the racist implications of certain policies (like standardized testing) and the manufacture of false and illogical narratives about drugs (marijuana was not considered dangerous even by substance abuse specialists until Reagan pronounced it dangerous, more government money has been spent on the “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing laws on drug possession than on deadly drunk driving). Kendi doesn’t limit himself to government policy in this book; social, economic, and cultural racism is also laid bare: disdain for and/or appropriation of Black culture, double standards or dominant cultural standards in dress, behavior, and language in schools and workplaces, false narratives and claims made with no evidence about affirmative action, Black parents, city life, and welfare. Anyway, I learned a great deal, and as with the reading for the course I’m taking, I am still digesting it all.

A small but very powerful book I also read last week is How Can I Live Peacefully With Justice?: a Little Book of Guidance by Mike Angell. Angell is rector at a church in St. Louis, and wrote the book after living in that community these past few years; he moved there just a few months before Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson in August 2014. He frames his discussion of peace and what it is and how we can live peacefully in terms of what he has learned by living in St. Louis and also through his longtime partnership with a human rights organization in El Salvador, but his guidance absolutely applies to all of us, wherever we live. Angell notes, “Living with peace means being willing to become uncomfortably vulnerable, and working for justice requires building unlikely relationships of trust.” He goes on to provide a brief but clear theological explanation of the relationship between peace and justice (which protestors even more clearly elucidate: “No justice, no peace”). And he tells us his own story — because one other aspect of living peacefully that he explains is that “We all, all of us, need to work to reconcile our own sense of self, our own identity, if we are ever to be able to reconcile with others. Peace only exists in relationship.” Angell gently guides readers through what that might look like, by being vulnerable himself. One important message he shares is that peace and justice, like everything related to bringing the world closer to God’s just future, is complicated, takes practice, and requires us to engage with questions that may not have answers.

On a much lighter note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, after a friend recommended it when I recounted clearing out some closets and shelves for my mother to make her house more manageable recently. The idea is pretty straightforward — clear out your stuff now, so you can live better in your old age and so that your family won’t have to do it after you die. The book is somewhat instructional with dashes of memoir as Magnusson recalls memories evoked by her own death cleaning. It was enjoyable.

And on the last evening of our week’s vacation at a little cottage by a small lake here in NH, I read a book that was on the bookshelf there: The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, a mystery featuring a ninety year old sleuth, Queen Elizabeth II. My offspring gave me a ribbing last night for reading all this stuff about equity and justice and then indulging in a mystery featuring the ultimate symbol of wealth and empire. While the Queen solves the mystery, she relies on her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian army officer, for help. Rozie learns that she is the latest in a long line of women who have helped Her Majesty solve crimes for decades. Okay, I get it, the Commonwealth is a vestige of colonialism. Seen another way (or am I interpreting away harm? I’m not sure) it is empire cracked open, an organization rebuilt in a post colonial world to acknowledge the relationality required for countries to collaborate globally. Anyway, while I do understand the controversies of monarchy I find the Queen interesting and this book made me laugh out loud (disturbing the Computer Scientist, who was trying to take notes on Always With Us? at the time) and I found it entertaining and enjoyable.

I promise not to go so long between posts or to mention so many books at once next time.

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You may get deja vu reading this post, because I just recently reviewed another book about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. I was telling a friend about reading that book, because she lives in Kentucky and I wanted to know her thoughts about it. She suggested I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson. They both tell the stories of women delivering books in the mountains of Kentucky during the Depression. Apparently there has been some controversy, with Robinson feeling that Moyes may have taken material from her book. Honestly, it seems to me Facebook’s fault as much as anything — after Smithsonian ran an article about the horse riding librarians, stories have circulated regularly on social media, which keeps obscure but quirky stories circulating for a long time.

Having read both, I have to say that I didn’t think they were that similar, and that the things they both talked about — a woman being attacked by a drunken man, a black packhorse librarian, weddings, babies, certain books and magazines being delivered, religious intolerance, prejudice — seem common enough ideas that someone with an interest in the topic, the region, and the time period would have come across those ideas in their research. Anyone writing about women who were pioneering in some way would consider the ways they were kept in their place, including through assault. Anyone writing about the early 1930s (in Kentucky and many other places) would need to include racism, religious intolerance, bootlegging, and patriarchy.

Robinson’s book is about a “blue” woman, Cussy Mary, named after the town in France where her great-grandfather came from. Her skin is blue because of a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia — her blood lacks an enzyme that is needed for oxygenation, so her skin has a blueish tint. I didn’t know until my friend told me about them that there was a community of so-called Blues in Kentucky. The entire book revolves around Cussy and her experience as a young woman who people fear, harass, and abuse because of her skin. Her love of books, dedication to her patrons and her sweet nature in spite of all the hardship, pain and grief in her life make her a lovely character. The brutality of the mining company, meanness of the prejudiced people who believe she is a heathen or worse, and extreme poverty of the Troublesome Creek area are vivid parts of the book. I appreciated that when the black librarian in town, Queenie, moves to Philadelphia and writes to Cussy about it, it’s not portrayed as a paradise.

There are some strange scenes that to me didn’t fit: for one, the town doctor who is later portrayed as kindly and well intentioned allows some horrifying mistreatment of Cussy at the hands of nuns in a hospital where he takes her to have some tests to determine why her skin is blue, but he later has an altercation with a doctor who wants to keep her overnight. And a sheriff also seems to act rather erratically and goes from being someone Cussy trusts to a maniac who beats someone up (ok, that’s pretty believable, actually). I suppose it keeps the characters from being one dimensional, but in both of these cases the out-of-character behavior gave me pause. I suppose the point was supposed to be that when it comes to skin color prejudice, even otherwise “nice” people act horribly.

I don’t see how anyone who reads the two books could think Moyes copied anything significant.The books have entirely different plots. Some details overlap, but again I think that is a matter of writing about something about which there are limited sources of information. Moyes writes about the librarians, two in particular, and focuses on their romantic lives, and the main source of conflict in the book is the idea that women living in a patriarchal, judgemental, and conservative society would want to have control over and enjoy sex. The characters who don’t want to marry in the two books have different reasons for that, and the babies in each book come from very different circumstances and storylines. Moyes also includes a murder trial that causes a fair bit of suspense and focuses on the extreme differences in circumstance between the rich and poor in her story. And as noted already, her main character observes things with an outsider’s view of Kentucky. Robinson focuses on Cussy, her reasons for serving as a librarian, her struggle with being physically marked as an outsider even though her “kin” go back generations in the area, and her developing sense of herself as more than a Blue person. Even though Cussy’s father is a miner and is organizing, there is almost no mention of the mine ownership, whereas Moyes makes the mine owner a major character who interferes with the women’s lives. Robinson describes the poverty of Cussy’s patrons very graphically, but we don’t hear much about the wealthy residents of Troublesome Creek and their cruel indifference to poverty is mostly implied, as the focus is on their colorism.

Both are good reads. As for why Jojo Moyes’s book is being made into a film? Well, the sex, I would think. Plus, she’s had a book adapted for film before. But Robinson is a bestselling author who has won awards, both of which are big accomplishments for a writer, so it seems to me both books did well.

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I finished two books yesterday,  and  “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Tatum and Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.

First, I read Tatum’s book, which I had bought a used copy of at a small indie bookstore two summers ago, for a discussion group at work. It was written in 1997, which struck me because it is a stark reminder that back then, although I would have said I wasn’t racist, I was not actively antiracist and would have been surprised by much of what Tatum writes about. Knowing what I know now, I was not surprised, but I will say this is a very interesting book because Tatum is a psychology professor so she approaches antiracism from the perspective of an educator, researcher, and psychologist.

Which is not to say this is dry or academic — it’s smart and thorough but completely accessible and replete with anecdotes from her classes and her life as a Black woman, mother, and professor. Her approach is to address racism as it impacts Black or multiracial people from childhood through adulthood as they develop their racial identity. Whatever your race there is much to learn about these stages of development. Whether reading it for your own education and understanding or to support a loved one or friend, Tatum’s sensible advice and authoritative voice will be helpful.

For example, in a chapter on “The Development of White Identity,” Tatum describes how white people, especially those who have gained “an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage” struggle to deal with self-consciousness, guilt, fear, and even blame. Sound familiar? It did to me. But Tatum cautions, “We all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of our racial and cultural heritage, not in terms of assumed superiority or inferiority, but as an integral part of our daily experience in which we can take pride.”

I am really looking forward to the conversation about this book!

Into the Silent Land is one of the books I’m reading as a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I’ve read a LOT of secular books on meditation, and have practiced mindfulness (practice being the operative word) for a long time. I also have a regular prayer practice, and have read about and tried meditative forms of prayer, mostly unsuccessfully. Laird, also a professor, has written a concise and highly informative handbook, which makes me want to try again.

Drawing on the history of contemplative prayer as well as the practical aspects of practicing it, Laird is both systematic and supportive. The combination of practical advice, encouragement, and ancient but still highly relevant wisdom is terrific. I’ve made tentative steps towards trying contemplative prayer. It’s a little chaotic around here right now, but maybe that is a good time to try stillness.

As Laird notes, “When we first begin the inward turn to quiet prayer we are faced with chaos, and the prayer word serves as an anchor in a storm, a shield and refuge from the onslaught of thoughts, feelings, storms of boredom, and fidgeting. But with some practice with the prayer word we grow in recollection and concentration and begin to see that there is something deeper than the chaos within. . . . What exactly is the prayer word doing? The prayer word excavates the present moment. The resulting interior focus eventually sets off and maintains a process of interior silencing.”

Sounds pretty good right about now, doesn’t it?

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“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

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On the way back from the Association of College and Research Libraries 2019 conference where I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen speak, I downloaded The Refugees from my library to read on the plane. I read The Sympathizer  a couple of weeks ago and found the brutality hard to read but the humanity of the story too important to important to put down. That, it turns out, is more or less what Nguyen said in his talk at ACRL. That the real story of America is much more complicated than the one we tell and that without the “narrative plenitude” that exposes both the beauty and brutality of America, we are perpetuating the power structures that sustain inequity.

So I was not sure how much brutality to expect when I read The Refugees, but I opened it with my eyes and heart open to whatever Nguyen had to bring, because I’m thoroughly convinced that he’s right, we have to face our whole history. That said, if you follow this blog you know I’ve been reading a fair amount about the brutal side lately. So I was pleasantly surprised — the short stories in this collection are as clear eyed and critical as his other work, but Nguyen focuses here on the emotional toll of being human. No less brutal, but somehow easier to read. That’s probably not good — we’re conditioned to accept that psychological damage is a fact of life. But I found these stories about betrayal, deception, addiction, grief, inequity, racism, disappointment and pain less challenging to read than chapter 21 of The Sympathizer, which is a detailed description of multiple torture sessions during wartime and its aftermath.

I guess the stories in The Refugees seem more familiar, and also, like the Sympathizer, remind me that for all the pain, there is also love. In “Someone Else Beside You,” for example, the father is in many ways an awful, violent, duplicitous person. But even though he only knows the most brutal ways to express it, he clearly loves his son. In several cases, while the characters are refugees the story is about something anyone might go through — a father who doesn’t approve of his daughter’s choices in “The Americans,” a man duped by a dishonest friend in “The Transplant,” a woman dealing with her husband’s increasing dementia in “I’d Love You to Want Me.” Without sounding too kumbaya, that’s what we need — stories about diverse communities that help us all understand we’re the same in some very basic ways, so the structures we’ve built up to raise white able people born in a particular place over others are absolutely ridiculous and have no basis in our humanity.

And these stories are not only important — Nguyen is such a good writer. In “Black-Eyed Women,” this paragraph really manages to orient reader’s to the narrator’s relationship with her mother in a brief, beautiful passage: “Ever since my father died a few years ago, my mother and I lived together politely. We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk. She constantly fed me gossip and stories, the only kind I enjoyed concerning my father back when he was a man I did not know, young and happy. Then came stories of terror like the one about the reporter, the moral being that life, like the police, enjoys beating people up now and again. Finally, there was her favorite kind, the ghost story, of which she knew many, some firsthand.”

At the ACRL keynote, someone asked Nguyen about ghosts in his work. He said that in some cultures, ghosts visit because they are seeking justice. In The Refugees Nguyen contributes to America’s narrative plentitude by adding to our collective story lives we must see if we’re ever to satisfy those ghosts.

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