In an interview this month, the Vice President of the United States wouldn’t say Black lives matter. He refused to say the words. I started writing this on Juneteenth – a day when we acknowledge that in 1865, a group of enslaved African Americans in Texas were finally freed. They had just been notified that the Civil War was over.
As I’m writing this, it’s also the night before both the Vice President and the President of the United States travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a “masks-optional” campaign rally a few blocks from where, in 1921, a mob of white supremacists killed 300 Black people.
Neither Juneteenth nor the Tulsa massacre were included in my American History books. My Upstate New York high school lit classes didn’t have enough cultural variety to even hint at slavery or civil rights. We were assigned Atlas Shrugged, however.
Earlier this month, the President whipped out a certain holy book for an uninvited photo op in front of an Episcopal church. To make this happen, protesters were violently cleared from a Washington, DC street while they asserted that Black lives matter. Police brutality was used against people peacefully protesting police brutality. We must see and hear these stories and turn up the volume on these experiences, especially when they are not important to the President. The Bible didn’t seem very important to him, either. He certainly didn’t crack it open and start reading.
In front of the White House in Washington, DC, a street mural with the words “Black lives matter” has been painted in protest of continuing institutional discrimination, government-approved violence, and unfair incarceration of Black people throughout this country. There is an inclusive movement to rebuke these unacceptable societal norms. People are declaring these precise words of empathy because other people continue to refuse acknowledgement of a simple truth. Black lives matter. This is a logical fact in a multicultural nation, but it’s also a hopeful prayer for our humanity. Now this fact and prayer is appearing on streets across the country.
Yet, like the Vice President today, refusing to say these words often results in the response, “All lives matter.” Oh, but if that were true, mightn’t you also agree that “Black lives matter?”
If you were to tell your boss, “I am bleeding” and you’re going to the hospital, they should never say, “All people are bleeding.” That’s not a good answer. It’s not helpful. It fails to acknowledge the seriousness of your problem.
Before the current protests, before the pandemic, in public places for polite society (read: coffee shops), and on more than one occasion, I heard other white men declare emphatically that institutional racism doesn’t exist.
This willful ignorance is harming and killing people.
Our current racist institutions are contributing to a disproportionate amount of Black coronavirus infections that lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “non-Hispanic black persons have a rate approximately five times that of non-Hispanic white persons” for hospitalization due to COVID-19 due to longstanding inequities in the health care system, including access, insurance, and untreated or undiagnosed problems. The CDC acknowledges that minority groups are targets. “History shows that severe illness and death rates tend to be higher for racial and ethnic minority populations during public health emergencies than for other populations.”
In my home and in my classroom, we say Black lives matter because they do. Ignorance can only be scoured away by constant truth. Like protesters in the streets, we also wear masks for the safety of others. Not wearing a mask actively says you don’t value others’ health and safety — and it is also questionable whether you value your own. A society that protects each other equally can avoid further fracture. Education is a big factor in making this a reality.
We often use literature and the arts to communicate our true feelings, our needs, and our stories. We read and write literature to gain perspective and to understand or empathize with voices different from our own. Giving a platform to those voices is the next step.
If you’re a teacher, this gives you a responsibility and an opportunity. I teach English as a Second Language to both new Americans and international students. Presenting literature that provides context for the struggle for equality isn’t always easy, but confronting reality gives all students some tools to deal with American-brand racism. Contrary to the idea we sell, America isn’t a perfect union; it’s a work in progress.
That’s why choosing a curriculum that includes James Thomas Jackson’s “Waiting in Line at the Drug Store” highlights segregation and shows us the underpinnings of today’s power inequities. Stories from The School Days of an Indian Girl by Zitkala Sa reveal how Native American people’s lives were interrupted through assimilation schools. For asylum seekers today, America continues its unfortunate tradition of separating children from their parents. In a classroom, we can explore the code-switching built into Spanglish through the poetry of Richard Blanco’s “How to Love a Country.” And if a student wants something funny and serious at the same time, I would recommend Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, set around the time of the Rodney King verdict which acquitted police officers whose violence against King had been captured on videotape. As much as I might love a certain American classic, our inclusive world can’t be limited to J.D. Salinger’s existential nihilism and a sprinkle of Shakespeare. Teachers are gatekeepers and our canon only expands if we demand it through practice. We have to walk the walk.
I am an editor at The Citron Review, a national and international journal. There, we proudly support writers who are brave enough to share their art and stories with us. We want to be that brave, too. As the United States struggles for justice and equality, we must champion civil rights wherever we can. Underrepresented voices must be heard. That also means inviting, then publishing, a diversity of voices in order to write an equitable world together. There is no excuse for refusing to make room.
We must not be afraid of new forms of literature, new delivery systems, stories that don’t follow the paths we learned in school, and language that doesn’t sound the same as what we grew up with. As an editor, I am only as good as my ability to listen for new sounds, stories, and expressions of exactly what matters. Otherwise, I prop up a status quo which leaves people behind, unheard and trapped. I cannot be anti-racist if I do not allow other voices to expand my perspective.
Striving to be anti-racist means analyzing my own life and work, especially knowing that I’m a product of systems that have not listened broadly and often listened not at all to the diversity of our own nation. My blind spots have blind spots.
As a writer, I write fictionalized versions of life honestly, but being honest must include throwing myself, my education, and the origins of my own ignorance under a bright light.
My responsible elders, guardians, and teachers saw life through a perspective which our society can no longer afford and should no longer accept. This perspective simply did not value other cultures as equal. Part-xenophobic, part-ignorant, part-devaluing, my developing lens started out cloudy at best.
On the most inclusive days, the dominant culture would find new cultures novel. Isn’t that quaint? Isn’t that cute? How weird and different!
And we were supposed to joke about difference so aggressively. At least, I was touchy about ethnic jokes right away, being I’m half Polish. The punchline is we’re backwards. I’m Irish, too. The punchline is we’re all drunk. I didn’t like it then, but at least my mother could explain why these jokes hurt people. Disabilities were supposed to be hilarious, too, but having a kind, smart uncle with cerebral palsy makes you wonder why.
Upstate NY’s dominant culture had absorbed the Irish and Polish under a White Umbrella. None of my discomfort ever foretold ongoing discrimination and life-threatening violence. However, white folks telling jokes about Black folks reflected inequalities that hadn’t changed for lifetimes and remained unchanged.
The White Umbrella blocks a view of basic humanity. It’s limited and it’s incomplete. It protects a status quo by disallowing any challenge to accepted norms. How else should I come to understand playing a dance-party Nazi in the middle school performance of The Sound of Music? Sure they’re bad guys, but we’d better sell the hell outta that waltz! Our motivation as Nazis: it’s a party, after all.
Under the White Umbrella in a less-than-diverse high school, my job was to assassinate Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. My character was Hindu Harry. Cairo Fred also lurked nearby. The whole joke was that a white kid was wearing someone else’s culture in order to assassinate the hero. The selection of this play assumed big laughs were coming — and got them. Isn’t that turban a scream?
So, if we’re looking with fresh eyes at our literature, we must question the wealth-gap in publishing or the distribution of awards. And if we’re looking at popular culture, we must recognize our favorite movies for previously-ignored stereotypes – or misogyny for that matter (ahem… John Hughes). If we are wondering why we didn’t notice the blackface on Saturday Night Live, surely the White Umbrella gives us that blind spot. Yes, these blind spots are ever-present for a dominant culture. That doesn’t make them acceptable. It never should have been. But identifying the blind spot makes it actionable.
When someone is in pain, acknowledging this pain is necessary for healing. Healing is also its own journey, and it begins with action.
By writing characters who reveal these failed systems which built my own blind spots, I can represent this world as the problematic place that it was and is. The casual nature of my own community’s racist actions and words played out largely unchecked throughout my formative years. This results in writing which fails to recognize racist behavior. A careful reader friend once asked me why a character pointed out the ethnicity of another. My tepid response: because that’s what that guy does. I was at a loss to explain where that even came from. It had merely been a character trait, and when examined closely reveals a character seeking power over another. You know, like in those universally accepted good old days.
A rejection of nostalgia for systems which subjugate those without a voice must be paramount. Writing flawed characters without this flaw is a lie. The conversation about true change must come from many directions. Creators of content, writers, artists, and musicians share this responsibility.
Literature gives us an opportunity to connect, learn, teach, fight for change, and heal. In a 1979 interview with The New York Times, James Baldwin said, “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world….The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
Being on an editorial team, I can insist on diversity when hiring. Together, we can select the widest expressions of humanity — the unheard stories. Sadness, grief, hope, joy, and humor should never be driven by one cultural definition. These are unique emotional responses to living in this world. And we must ask our readers to encourage any unheard friends with stories to share them. We must be listening.
This is why we say the names of victims like Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and countless other victims of systemic racism. We cannot refuse basic dignity for our neighbors, coworkers, and communities. We need survivors.
Perhaps this is why our Vice President refuses to say the words. He has no interest in helping. Perhaps he, too, read Atlas Shrugged, but still sees selfishness as a virtue. Perhaps he believes sowing division and growing hatred keeps him elected.
To those who refuse. To those who deny. To those would erase, we must continue saying: Black lives matter. More people must hear. And for those who didn’t hear it before but are willing to change, we can repeat. November is coming for those who refuse to hear. Voting is one way to be heard, too. Protecting our voting systems against segregation, limitation, and discrimination is another. Holding all leadership accountable for actions which oppress is a step toward replacing our broken systems. We will need to take many more steps. We must not go backward.
*Portions of this post first appeared in the 2020 Summer Issue of The Citron Review in an altered form.