{a palaver on lingo}

The other day, I heard myself say something about a “palaver,” as in, “so we had a palaver about the whole thing,” which, when I used it, meant an annoying, big-fat-hairy-deal conversation. The Scots usage that I echoed means “a big fuss”or “a bother,” and the West African/Portuguese original usage, from whence the word originates (Portuguese palavra or ‘word,’ from Latin parabola or ‘comparison’) in the mid-18th century meant “trader talk,” or the linga franca used by tribal folk and traders. (Is this another example of what Adrienne calls my “weirdly specific knowledge”? Why, yes, I think it is…) Isn’t it interesting that my meaning of the word was halfway between two other meanings? I’m always intrigued by the “separated by a common language” aspect of the English language. I read a lot of books – and see a lot of what I perceive to be as misuses of that language, or, at least, odd uses.

But, perhaps, none so odd as the misused and egregious banged up homophone.

lingo

♦ The suffix, sapient = wise, so homo sapiens are those of the wisdom, or the Latin words for “wise men” – and refers to human beings.

♦ The suffix, geneous (not genous, sorry) = type or kind, thus homogenous, in chemistry, refers to the same type.

♦ The suffix -nym easily gives us its meaning of “name” thus homonyms are words in biology which are namesakes, and in linguistics/English are words which have the same sound, but have different spellings and meanings. See also homophone, (or homographs or heteronyms, which sound different, but are spelled the same, i.e., lead the metal, lead, as in leading the way.)

English, my people. My language is known to be hard to learn, but it sort of galls me when MY PEOPLE don’t know it. How did we all miss the whole idea that “homo” is merely a prefix, and not a bad word? Oh, wait? You’re still operating under that juvenile and egregious means of calling people homos, and meaning, offensively, that you’re accusing them of being gay? Really!??

… may I ask you to GROW UP!?

By now, myriad people the world over have heard of the Provo, Utah based ESL center who fired a blogger because he had the nerve to blog about homophones… and the school feared that people would associate their school with a GLBTQ people, or a “homophonic agenda.” OH, I cringe. I dramatically slap my forehead. I am tempted to dramatically slap their foreheads. But, people are comfortable in their ignorance; even knowing that the word has nothing to do with gay or lesbian people, the Utah language school’s belief is that even writing “homo” is wrong. Homo=gay, because REASONS. Elementary school, immature, confused REASONS.

And so, my fantasy letter begins:

Dear Book and Word World,

I write, because I CARE. I care about how words are used, by people who actually publish things. I care, because… we only have one English language (if you ignore the British Commonwealth) and we need to actually use it properly. To wit:

Cavalry, Calvary and Calgary? Are three vastly different things… The first is a herd on horses, the second is a Hill, and the third is a city in Canada. Listen carefully, pronounce properly, and spell specifically. Please and THANK YOU.

Your and You’re are a tiny bit over the pet-peeve line, much like there and their and they’re — but these can almost be seen as typos, and we ALL do this one sometimes… even people with multiple English degrees. A friend and I laughed just last week over discrete and discreet — it happens. But…

Reign, rein, and rain? Why am I running across this one so frequently? Three separate things, darlings, and the words are in such uncommon usage that this should be one that we catch. Only the first has to do with kings and princes.

I’m pretty sure I’ve fussed before about Peak and Peek and Pique. Only one has elevation – and the one with the q – that you rarely use – is annoyance. The other you know, right?

And if you don’t know the difference between taught and taut, I suggest a return to school. No, really. Even night classes could help.

Lightening? Lightning? Which one relates to weather?

It’s not that I’m trying to call anyone stupid, not at all. But sloppy, hasty, and lacking beta readers? Insisting that words mean what you think they do, instead of looking them up, and understanding that words have meanings that came along before you? Oh, yes, I’m calling you out on that, book people. Loudly. (Additionally, Tech Boy would like you to know that though Adverse and Averse sound alike, they’re not interchangeable.)

Writers, Bloggers and Copy Editors, Unite! Subvert the homophonic agenda. Or, whatever it is.

{the fine points of getting it right, or “why aren’t you representing?”}

Dear Store,

So, yeah, yesterday I visited you, and cringed at the massive display of cases of Jamison’s and Guinness, and a countdown clock to St. Patrick’s Day, and now, I have a teeny rant: Thanks, Store, for subtly reinforcing the worn out, hoary stereotype that there’s nothing more to Irish culture than being a flat-out, pishing, green-wearing drunk. Nothing exists in a vacuum, Store, and even your displays helps shape the lens of how people see the world. Your reinforcing a tired old cliché does not serve anyone, and helps to obliterate the record of the myriad brilliant, incisive and influential Irish and Irish-American people that I know personally. Just so you know.

Also, please note I didn’t mention you by name, as you’ve probably not yet gotten my note about it, but next year, if you do it again? It’s ON.


As I’ve no doubt mentioned repeatedly on this blog, representation was one of the BIG Questions that came at me repeatedly in grad school: “Why aren’t you representing,” or, “why aren’t you representing more?” I will admit that for a long time, I wrote stories under the shorthand For some people, when you present a culture as the “norm,” it’s too subtle for them. They want you to exaggerate certain qualities and create a caricature more than a three-dimensional whole. People sometimes don’t even know they’re doing that, and end up exoticizing an entire culture. Everyone Mexican can make tortillas, wears a serape, and likes to nap with her sombrero tipped over her face during siestas; everyone Japanese is a geisha or a kung fu master, etc…

“The Kingdom in Huntress is influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, but it is not China or Japan. It is a fictional fantasy world…” ~ Malinda Lo, author of ASH and HUNTRESS, in “On avoiding the exotic in HUNTRESS,” from her blog, 2 Sept. 2011.

What I’ve been asking myself is how to represent a culture in a fantasy world without exoticizing it, and turned to author and anthropologist Malinda Lo’s blog for help in thinking it through. Is it enough to set a book in a fictional version of North/Northeast Africa and southern Italy during a fictional Ottoman Empire? I don’t think so, not inherently. Is it exoticizing to take note of the actual clothes, foods, and religious and social mores from the real Ottoman Empire in its heyday, and use that in the book? No, especially if I can subtly include them without making them A Thing. So… what would make this exotic? Malinda speaks of her own work:

“What makes something exotic? It can certainly be philosophy or beliefs, but more often, I think exoticism resides in things you can actually see or hear. Clothing, food, music, architecture: these are the external markers of difference.” ~ M. Lo

So, taking note of that, these are among the things I will avoid: no despotic ruler clichés, no warmongering, fanatical religious Muslims. Further, there will be no untrustworthy, swarthy mafioso types, and while I can’t promise no short, or hirsute, or curly haired, or dark skinned or chauvinistic characters, these things won’t occur because a character is Sicilian. There will be no obsequious, effendi-panting slyly servile types, no Ali Baba and Aladdin, Sindbad or any one of Forty Thieves. No Oriental-ism, with swoopy calligraphy and poufy turban saber-wearing sultans, swathed in mysticism and curly-toed shoes, reclining on Persian carpets whilst being danced for by those sloe-eyed temptresses from the harem. Also, people will wear a color other than black, and not eat only spaghetti.

Honestly, I should think most of these egregious stereotypes would be easy to avoid… the point of adding cultural richness is to place the character right in the midst of the riches, not keep them self-conscious about it, and always commenting on the nubile chick tossing off veils in the corner as she dances, and the smoke of the hookah or whatnot (and really. Must I have a hookah? I think not).

Yeah, you’d THINK this stuff would be obvious… but too many people mess up with exoticism for me to believe that, so, we’ll see.

Writing thoughtfully,

-t

{“come and get your fix”}

Fast food has become a major source of nutrition in low-income, urban neighborhoods across the United States. Although some social and cultural factors account for fast food’s overwhelming popularity, targeted marketing, infiltration into schools, government subsidies, and federal food policy each play a significant role in denying inner-city people of color access to healthy food. The overabundance of fast food and lack of access to healthier foods, in turn, have increased African American and Latino communities’ vulnerability to food-related death and disease. Structural perpetuation of this race- and class-based health crisis constitutes “food oppression.”

– Andrea Freeman, Fast Food: Oppression Through Poor Nutrition 95.CAL. L. Rev 2221 (2007)

My girl A. is taking a fundraising class, in which she has had to create a company/cause and fund it. She’s focused on fresh food for the disadvantaged members of her imaginary town, and is working on funding the heck out of it. It’s a Real Thing, though – last summer, the food banks for the combined Bay Area counties partnered with community supported agriculture and farmer’s markets to allow struggling folks to have fresh fruit and veg. No one is asked for I.D. – they’re just allowed to fill up two bags for their households. Gotta admit – I got a little misty about that. AND, this past week, a group who works with Whole Foods, who, as far as I know, didn’t participate in stuff like this, contacted the food pantry at our church. Which is huge. YAY!

Both of those things came to mind when I saw this video. It is both terrifying in content and cool in execution. YouthSpeaks in conjunction with UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations have put together this rap about …the other white powder. Sugar: more likely to kill a drug-proofed urban kid than crack. Though popular culture and Fast Food Nation have talked a good game, information hasn’t trickled into the cities, which are plastered with fast food and liquor stores and 7-11’s on every corner. Where money is tighter and cheap/quick/filling is sometimes the sole aim, no one really talks about how bad not having easy access to fresh foods and no limits on carbs can be. Structural perpetuation of disproportionate advertising and availability of fast food in a community – it might be hard to imagine that people are doing it on purpose. You might be tempted to argue that people can choose their poisons, that no one is culpable for anyone’s health issue or responsible for anyone else’s problems. I’d encourage you to read this paper before you decide. It’s not the only one out there, or the newest, but it focuses on a part of Oakland, CA I got familiar with because of grad school… and there’s something to this idea.

And, that’s my Big Think for today.

{clothes. class. hair & nails}

There was more than a little contempt in the name we gave her. “Hair & Nails” was a code signalling what we thought of where she placed value, what we thought of her priorities. She hadn’t read great books, she hadn’t had great thoughts, but she had a fiercely claw-like manicure and went to a shop to see to a tinted/braided/straightened/shellacked coiffure at least once a week. We – my intellectual sisters and I – were better than that.

In my quiet heart of hearts, I also looked askance at my gnawed down nails and fuzzy caterpillar brows, and knew that I wasn’t polished, wasn’t well put-together, and didn’t have it within me to care – as maybe I should have? – about externals. I looked at my frumpy outfits, my run-down flats, and my pudgy figure, compared them with her pricey Louboutins, her big Chanel bag, her firmly Spanxed thighs. I resented her, a little, and she, me. I excused myself my inability to compete, and told myself she looked like a pricey streetwalker. She seemed to look at me pityingly, as if my frizzy frumptitude was inexplicably disappointing, as if I were letting down the race.

Gah. The silent conversations we have, where our looks and our clothes shout. The silent competitions, and the signalling we do, with our clothes, our hair, our selves. I mentioned earlier this month that my writing group was exploring this topic. We argued the point (boy, do I disagree), and talked about whether or not a lack of emphasis on clothing meant that different people – of varying classes – were now the speakers for the culture, and the writers. (This is what we miss, when we deny diversity in literature, by the way — the deeper shadings of a life that most people of color live, but don’t talk about. This, too, is cultural diversity, this exploration of class and clothes…) We came to few conclusions, until a more recent news cycle.

Like others, I was wearied by the tale (and its subsequent iterations) of the nineteen year old Barney’s shopper who went after a $350 belt, bought it, and was subsequently led away in handcuffs, because surely it was a scam, and he couldn’t afford it. The clerk who made the value judgment of the boy’s prospects took his race into account – and nothing more. Black people cannot afford to spend large sums of money on mere belts, ergo…scam. I am sure his bosses are even now quietly patting him on the back. “Okay, you screwed up this time, but…” The bottom line is, stores don’t want to lose money on assuming that everyone can afford their wares. Everyone, meaning, people of color, who may not speak Standard American English, whom they may not really want to be buying their wares. There’s a lot of subtext there.

And, then, there’s the matter of the belt. Did you, like I did, wonder, “Dude?! $350 for a belt?! What else did it do, organize your closet???” I thought that briefly, yes, but I also thought, “Well, it’s your money, to spend for whatever ridiculousness you’d like – good for you for having the discipline to save up.” It’s too bad that bigotry and institutionalized corporate nastiness also played a part in this growing-up, learning experience.

U Penn’s Wharton School of Business reported on a paper a couple of its students did called “Conspicuous Consumption and Race.” It talked about the fact that ethnic minorities often spend more on high profile, high ticket purchases – the SUV in the run down neighborhood with the gold grille, the big-ticket basketball shoes, pristine in their boxes, the iPhone/iPad/Xbox, the showy Chanel bag – but it talked about reasons. It’s not just about “keeping up with the Joneses” – unless the Jones’ are of the Price-Jones’ and of the dominant culture. It’s cultural signalling – “We’re okay. We’re not poor ghetto people you have to fear. We have money; we aren’t trying to hustle yours.” Status signalling, not necessarily fashion. Mutual funds vs. Manolo’s. One’s a lot harder to show off than the other.

That begins to shine a different spotlight on Hair & Nails.

A much-linked piece by Emory PhD sociology candidate and Graduate Fellow at the Center for Poverty Research at UC-Davis, Tressie McMillan Cottom, takes this even further. She speaks candidly about her own experiences in The Logic of Stupid Poor People, talks about a family who gets ahead by lump sums of insurance when someone dies, and disability payments. We could be cousins; much of what she says makes me flinch in recognition. She talks about a family which encouraged especially its female members to do well in school, to go further, making the females the keepers of the educational flame, the ones who could “talk like White people” and help the community out. My family exactly, a generation removed. I hope you read her entire essay — it has much to say on signalling and privilege, and what we trade on, unknowingly, to make our way through the world.

cute-chanel-stickers-on-a-black-nail-polish

Thinking back to Hair & Nails, the differences between us were starkest in what we thought we had to trade on. She, her aggressive beauty, her polish and her purchases, I, my academic standing, and effortless Standard American English, a quiet manner in school, the acceptability of being a “good” girl, from a “deserving” family. This carried me far further than any actual true intellect – I’m not as smart as I could have been, because I wasn’t pushed, and didn’t receive extra help. I wasn’t a squeaky wheel. Quiet and compliant was “good enough;” sounding like I belonged was sufficient to pretend.

Something else I read in Hair & Nails’ condolence glances was pity for my perceived inability to rise to the challenge of beauty. Sociologists assure us that we all signal, that, to a certain extent, we all perform cultural respectability in return for whatever intangible rewards. But, what about us slobs? What am I signaling, with my refusal to spend salon time, by turning up my nose at the claw-tipped manicure and the bling and the Hilfiger? Certainly, that I am possibly a snob who thinks I can trade higher on my perceived intellect, on my ability to ape the dominant culture well enough to not just fit, but to thrive – I’ve certainly been told that one often enough. But, now I wonder if it’s not something more.

Candidly, I have this… figure. When I was younger, I buried it in baggy sweaters and shapeless trou, and about a hundred pounds of concealing pudge. I wrapped it in duffel coats and knee-length cardigans, and didn’t acknowledge it, past middle school, really, for various reasons. I was wildly signaling to the judging, cultural gatekeepers that I was a sexless, marginally unattractive, smart, safe individual. I wasn’t slutty. I wasn’t man-bait. I was neat and scrupulous and conservative — and really, middle-aged, in my dress, even in college. Regardless of my signaling, my parents scrutinized and micromanaged my every male friendship, and I got used to my father glowering and scouring my journals if I so much as spoke to a member of the opposite sex. My mother graduated from high school pregnant, and her failure was imputed to be my own – despite my just being “one of the boys” for most of high school. And, in spite of the baggy clothing and the frumpiness, I still captured negative attention. I signed myself jokingly “Vivanna, Temptress of the Night,” because when they found out we were even casually friends, my future in-laws offered their son a vasectomy, told him when he was done “dipping his wick” with me, or whatever truly classy phrase his father used, that they would help him disentangle himself from my succubus tentacles. “Those people” entrap you with children, he was told. Regardless of signals, in spite of the performance of acceptability, I was repeatedly judged as oversexed and dangerously distracting – the more drab I became, the more of the life of the mind I tried to cultivate, the worse it seemed to get.

Try harder. Work harder. Be more. Do more. These are the messages young people of color receive from the older generation, with a continued pressure to perform. Dress for the job you want tomorrow, not for the paycheck you have today. Dress up. Look up. Aim higher. Dress for success. Send the right message. Perhaps these are some of the ideas behind student loan debt – behind a willingness to pay for the next thirty years for the dream of the upwardly mobile…

Maybe Hair & Nails’s pitying looks weren’t mere contempt for differences. Maybe she, with her rhinestone nail tips and extensions, knew something that I did not – that it’s useless to think that our appearance doesn’t tell a tale of us. And, that maybe it’s not a $350 belt or $2500 purse we’re after, but we’re all trying to find out some way to belong…

As I sit at my desk in my ponytail and plain cardigan, it’s something to think about.

{and, still looking inward}

“How can another see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself? And without my being able to see him in me. And if my secret self, that which can be revealed only to the other, to the wholly other, to God if you wish, is a secret that I will never reflect on, that I will never know or experience or possess as my own, then what sense is there in saying that it is my secret, or in saying more generally that a secret belongs, that it is proper to or belongs to some one, or to some other who remains someone. It’s perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy. Namely, that it is not a matter of knowing and that it is there for no one. A secret doesn’t belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place. The question of the self: who am I not in the sense of who am I but rather who is this I that can say who? What is the- I and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the I trembles in secret?”
― Jacques Derrida

The identity of the “I.” Yeesh. Derrida is sometimes frighteningly deep.

{this&THAT}

When you’ve twice tried to use your library card instead of the bank card in your purse, it’s probably a sign. Of what, I’m not yet sure. Perhaps, advancing senility?

We are writing about race whether or not we consciously choose to address it. We can’t help ourselves—as we write, we disseminate our own views, our own attitudes, our own ideas of what it means to be a person in the world. We choose who populates that world: who is present, who is absent, who’s forgotten.

And so we have to, as we grow, reconcile our initial geography of social structure with the larger context of the world we’re entering into. Sometimes, as we enter this larger world, we have no kind of reliable map. We have to create our own.

Sometimes, the things I read hit me in the middle of the forehead. Today’s Rumpus original by Delaney Nolan makes my head reverberate.

We talk a lot, in my writing group, about privilege and ignorance, about classism, ethnicity, diversity, whose stories we can write, and why, or how. Nolan writes, “The purpose of good literature, as far as I can tell, is to find a common human ground that we can all relate to.” That sounds remarkably like my own discussion on the “commonality of the human experience.” In writing this good literature, we try not to pretend we can possess a thing or a culture or a people we cannot, but instead, make accessible what little we know, by bearing witness. In this way we can authentically hold open a door for someone else to catch a glimpse of something they may be interested enough to discover, outside the pages of a book, for themselves.

And doesn’t that just give whole new meaning to the word, “doorkeepers.”

“Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition— all such distortions within our own egos— condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”
― Tennessee Williams

Lately I’ve really thought about this quote, and about who and what we see each other to be, and how much we see through projections. Someone told me the other day, in essence, that I judged them through the lenses of being a writer; that my desire to know how people tick made me pull them apart, and stuff them in little boxes, in essence like some horrifying little bully who pulls the wings off of flies, or who nets butterflies only to drive a pin through them on a display board.

No, that didn’t make me happy to hear, but neither did it frustrate me, not really. Not when I had already begun to understand that, although we have shared a close acquaintanceship, that perhaps we neither one of us yet truly understood what it took to ascend the step to truly be “friend.” Befriend. Friending, a verb, and yet it still eludes us… Though this idea of me viewing the world through the medium of words shook me, it also let me see how blind we are, as a species, and how quick we are to hold up the alleged cruelty or inattentiveness of another because we are blinded by ourselves.

Don’t we all see each other through a series of mirrors or windows? Depending on the angle of the light – or which way we hold ourselves – we either see what we want to – which, all too often is only ourselves – or we look enough beyond what we see reflected back at us that we catch a glimpse of the unknown. I don’t believe that just because I’m a writer, the sum total of my ability is used to define people. I don’t know what it does mean, but so far, my answer to that accusation is simply rejection; a “No,” and not “No, but.” I’m still waiting for my head to catch up with my heart on this one, and tell me what it all means…

That’s a big, true hope for any piece of work.

{make a wish, blow the candles…}

“[The students] asked me dozens of questions, as young folks do, and as usual they were astonished to hear how different things were in those days before integration…. I couldn’t help thinking that there are now whole generations who have grown up since those days and know very little about how things really were. That’s when I made up my mind that it was time to begin writing, and this book is the result.” (29)

~ quoting Idella Parker, in “Neither Friends nor Peers,” by Rebecca Sharpless, printed in the May, 2012 The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 78, No. 2

According to today’s THE WRITER’S ALMANAC: “It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings born in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1896. She’s best known for her book The Yearling (1938), which was the best-selling novel in America in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

The Yearling is about an adolescent boy in rural Florida who adopts an orphaned baby deer named Flag, becomes really close to the deer, and then, in the end, has to shoot Flag because it’s eating all the family’s crops.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings also loved to cook. She once said, “I get as much satisfaction from preparing a perfect dinner for a few good friends as from turning out a perfect paragraph in my writing.” She even published her own cookbook, called Cross Creek Cookery (1942), a few years after she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

What Billy Collins – filling in for Garrison Keillor – fails to mention in today’s write up is that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings did not, in fact, prepare perfect dinners for her guests, she had her maid, Idella, do it. And she took her maid, Idella’s recipes and printed them in Cross Creek Cookery in 1942, and because of the tenor of the times, she did not give credit where credit was due.

I have been thinking about that, today of all days. I have been thinking about the relationship of African American, Southern women with their Caucasian, Southern sisters, and feeling ambivalent. I have wasted little ink and less time on the whole Paula Deen thing – wasted little outrage, and very little shock. I think more shock has been spent on the people who were surprised by her language. Much like I often point out that Martha Stewart had a tribe of workers making her immaculate grounds look so good for Martha Stewart, Living, and that Oprah has leagues of foot-soldiers polishing the armor in her little kingdom, much less stylists and chefs and who-knows-what-all-else to ensure that she remains the unsullied Queen of Everything, I knew very well that someone as expansive and entertaining and sassy as Paula Deen certainly wasn’t working her butter-loving fingers to the bone alone. It was her staff – and, being a Southern woman creating Southern food, they were very probably people of color.

Actually, what was a little worrying to me, personally, was my knee-jerk “of course” about the whole thing. Of course Paula Deen has racist leanings. Of course she used the n-word. Of course she didn’t see anything wrong with it, which is why she apologized so ineptly. She’s a sixty-six year old Southerner. Aren’t all Southerners of that era racists?

Unequivocally, NO. It’s actually very, very wrong of me to believe so.

But, like racism in all its forms, my knee-jerk response is kind of a …reflexive, what-you’ve-been-steeped-in, how-you-grew-up kind of thought. This offers no excuse, but an explanation, of sorts. To wit, my parents were in middle school around the time of school desegregation. One of my father’s childhood stories is of pulling up to a stop light each morning in his South Florida town next to a school bus from the other side of town (Yes! Their town was big enough for a light! And two lanes going the same direction at that light! I know!), and lobbing spitballs, food, and other small missiles at each other, until the light changed. This went on, unchallenged by any adult, apparently, and the skirmishes continued when they were bussed to their schools, and their racial populations were mixed. It was war, from the moment they hit the front porch to the moment they opened the classroom door.

An Army man, my father entered the military young, as so many young men of color did in the sixties. He served under sadistic sergeants of whatever race, and they were, as always, universally hated. As an Army chef, and later as a hospital cook, he saw people “gob” (by which he means “spit,” my fellow Yankees. Yes. \ˈgȯb, ˈgäb\. It is a verb.) in the food of those they hated – usually across distinct racial lines, though I daresay anyone who raised their ire even slightly would get spit in their grits. He refused to let us go out to eat, when I was a child, because he was certain it happened still, and would happen to us. Because we were African Americans.

A lot of times, it’s what you grow up with.

And, when I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood, as a child – and then I grew up, and put away childish things, including things I had been taught to accept without thinking. Including inherited beliefs about other groups. Including an assumption that “all” people of any stripe are anything.

Avenue Q is a musical I have never seen – I actually usually hate musicals (Shh! I know!) – but I have had the song quoted to me, line for line: “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” It’s kind of a funny song – an ironic song, of course, full of the edgy humor Avenue Q is known for — and I hate it. I hate the idea of it. I hate the thought that everyone really is a “little bit” racist, and that we are, in this country today, in many cases, more than “a little bit.” I hate the idea as a “Yankee” who is deeply uneasy in the South, I have bought into the so-many-years-past post Civil War self-righteousness of the North, to hold up the South as The Big Meanies Who Wanted Slavery, when as an entire country we practice institutionalized racism, including and not limited to how districts fund and teachers teach in various schools, how policemen decide to patrol and pull people over, and who they let pass by, how shopkeepers and restauranteurs react and respond to people in turbans, dashikis, kurtas, hijabs and burqas. We substitute a subtle classism for our racism, and call ourselves acceptable.

To be self-actualized, I must do better. I must remind myself that the Mason-Dixon line is an imaginary, permeable barrier. It did not keep racists on one side, and the rest of us on the other.

Christopher Meyers’ piece in the Horn Book this past week solidified some things for me. Often, as a writer, I feel like I am just here, lost in the dark. I have written before about what I felt was my “entertainment” value in a world which contains constant situations like the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and how flippin’ useless I felt as a human being, that my entire job was to make up lies about times in worlds that didn’t exist, when what exists in this world, worlds containing people like me, is sometimes violent and ugly. And yet, my friend Anne saved me from myself, reminded me of what I am doing – what I try to do, anyway. Why I keep trying to open my veins and write. Meyers seconded that. As he said,

“Images matter. They linger in our hearts, vast “image libraries” that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness, instead of potential threats or icons of societal ills, perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.”

“…making a dent in the majority culture’s collective sense of What Black People Are Like.” That is what Anne said we writers have the power to do. If we change who people see – who they believe can exist, maybe I, maybe Mr. Meyers – maybe any of us – can save a life.

It’s worth thinking about. It’s worth trying for. It’s worth everything, that striving. It’s worth being truly grateful for, as we sit around our metaphorical table, various races and ethnic backgrounds, orientations and classes. It’s worth holding hands and bowing heads – or lifting them up – and counting the blessings that we still have time to try – to keep trying – to get this right.

Set the table, light the candles – and wish a Happy Birthday to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who dreamed of a kid who bucked the trend of hardnosed farmers and took a chance on an innocent life. It didn’t work out as he expected, but like Jody, we can dream bigger than we are – and perhaps change the future.

{mr. scalzi, matthew 6, and anti-intellectualism}

It’s always funny to me, as a Christian person, to find agnostics doing a better job of explaining Christianity than those of us who claim the name.

(And, no, I am not writing this post to maintain that John Scalzi is a some kind of doesn’t-know-it-yet-but-once-he-figures-it-all-out-he’ll-know Christian. He’s agnostic. He says it, I believe it, that settles it, hah-hah.)

I simply appreciate that he thinks about things. He knows the Bible well enough to find verses and think about them, and really apply what he knows to things. He thinks about systems of thought, about ethics, and you can see the evidence of his background in philosophy in this post. John Scalzi actually applies reason and logic to a system of belief – something that is vastly missing from the majority of belief systems and denominations.

And, when was the last time the average Christian person put as much thought into an agnostic or philosophical system of belief, with the end result not to debunk it, but to examine its strong points?

Thinking about it, my favorite columnist, Jon Carroll – also agnostic. One of my favorite authors, Sir Terry Pratchett – also agnostic. Which, as a Christian, you might think might make me nervous. (It probably makes my parents nervous. Sorry, guys.) Except, it makes me thoughtful, more than anything.

I am so against anti-intellectualism. It is like a deadly gas stealing all of the breathable oxygen from intelligent discourse in this country. It permeates American culture – and I know I sound like my professor, Micheline – yet another agnostic – but I will also just say flat out that anti-intellectualism encourages lazy thinkers, and lazier readers. (Oh, how Micheline railed at us for being lazy readers! She might roll her eyes at me, even now, except I am reading A Hard Book, so feel personally vindicated this week. This week only, but anyway. One book at a time.) Anti-intellectualism prefers to deal with people on an emotional level, where facts are easily warped, and people give up thinking things through for the heady rush of sentiment… and since I’m a closet sentimentalist, lead always with my heart, with my brain chiming in a distant second, I deeply admire people who can put aside the first hot blooded leap to whatever conclusion, stand their ground, settle into themselves, and give things a thorough dissection with their minds. It is a valuable, valuable thing, this lack of rush to sentiment.

(Case in point: this post. I had strong feelings about John’s post, and rushed to write this in response, and, in the time it’s taken me to work out what I want to say from an incoherent emotive rush words, I’ve kind of lost my plot. Emotional reasoning! Kind of unreasonable, yeah.)

Balloch 13

A lot of people fear logic – respond to it with hostility, and it seems that they distrust those who rely on it. Which I’ve honestly never understood. Later in Matthew – the twenty-second chapter, the thirty-seventh verse – we’re reminded to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts – and with all of our minds. There is never going to be a call for all one or all the other sort of thinking. The best system of belief is both heartfelt and thoroughly intellectually mindful.

“But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

~ Galileo Galilei, in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615

Oh, Signor Galilei. Do you mean to say that we’re not going to get a sudden bolt from the blue to tell us what to do? Do you mean we’ll have to think for ourselves… by ourselves?? Are you stating that we must develop a sense of critical inquiry? Why… yes. Yes, indeed. And that sense of critical inquiry is what it took, to ground a man who saw things counter to what he had been taught was The Truth Of The World. He believed strongly that his God required him to think – and he did.

And, it cost him.

But, it was a price he was willing – at least for as much as he could be – to pay.

I grew up loving reading somehow despite the fact that in our home words were rationed, and reading was something strictly overseen. Things deemed “appropriate” or “inappropriate” were not discussed so much as were heavy, unspoken Expectations of “You Know What Is Right” put out there. But, I didn’t…know what was right, I mean. I still don’t. “Right” isn’t always this one, clear thing. Like Mr. Scalzi does here, we have to think about Right. Moral righteousness is not inherent within our makeup, even if we are born and raised with church. And yet, how little time was spent teaching me personally to adjudge right from wrong. How little of the spirit of critical inquiry necessary to living an “examined” life is actually encouraged and taught – how few of us know the value of critical thinking. How few of us know how to think.

Matthew 6 isn’t the only place in the Bible which encourages its readers to examine situational ethics and good judgment. But, it’s as good a place as any to start.