Saturday, June 20, 2015

Right now.

I can remember what it felt like to be sinking and suffocating in my grief while life carried on for other people. I did what I could to shut it out. I imagine the person who invented the DVR and the ability to fast-forward through commercials had no idea what a gift that would be to people who are too broken-hearted for the pathos of diapers commercials. There is no easy time to lose a baby, but right before Christmas felt especially cruel.

I'm on the flip side of that right now--June is the month furthest from my grief and summer is now associated with all my happiest moments--Zuzu, Coco, and David's birthdays, my own birthday, our wedding anniversary, time off work, and time for vacations.

I've always been aware that the opposite is true, for some of my friends lost their babies in summer months, when sun-lit evenings felt interminable instead of welcoming, and radiant morning sunshine felt like it was mocking their pain. At least in December it seemed more natural to curl up in a blanket on the sofa at 5pm and not emerge for hours (or days).

I'm reminded of the painful juxtaposition of beautiful weather and great pain when I think about the terrible murders in Charleston. I'm glad my kids aren't old enough to know about this, but my stomach clenches up tight at the mere thought of them living in a world where some people are so full of senseless hate.

There is a part of me that feels removed from the sadness, that wants to shake off the bad news and turn my focus elsewhere. There's a part of me that just wants to turn the radio dial or click away in my browser and read something benign and superficial before going outside to enjoy a lazy summer day.

But there's another part of me, a bigger part, that knows none of us is really removed from what happened. Just two weeks ago, I listened to my students talking frankly and openly about their experiences with race in relation to Toni Morrison's short story, "Recitatif." We talked about how fear looks like anger. We discussed one sociologist's theory of "white spaces" and "black spaces" in this country, and a soft-spoken black guy in my class commented wryly that maybe that's why a golf shop hadn't returned his calls about his job application. Is there a whiter space than a golf course?

I think my students understand the adversity and struggles caused by racism in this country, but they always want to locate it in the past. I'm not sure that they fully grasp the idea of white privilege and the ease that is carried with it today.

And so I try to show them by making them read. I can't solve race relations in St. Louis, Charleston, or anywhere else. I can't eliminate hate. I can't protect my own kids from growing up and reading headlines and hearing news reports. But if you want to have a conversation about race, you might try reading (or listening to) one of these texts and starting there:

Cool Like Me by Donnell Alexander -- I taught this once and had a student write in the comments that no matter how I handled this material in class, anything that contains the n-word is offensive. I respect her opinion. I also think sometimes it's important to read texts that are offensive. I finally got brave enough to teach it again last semester, alongside Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and my students LOVED it.

"Recitatif" by Toni Morrison -- I loved Toni Morrison's interview on Fresh Air, and I love this short story. It makes students really uncomfortable sometimes, precisely because of the way she describes the two main characters, one white and one black, without ever revealing which one is which.

If you're on the go and want to listen to something, I can't stop thinking about this chapter of This American Life's podcast on the Birds & Bees. It's titled, "If You See Racism, Say Racism," which also reminds me of what my friend Kristin wrote this week.

Speaking of black and white spaces, this story is more than twenty years old, but problematically relevant today, particularly in St. Louis (I knew Professor Early when I was in grad school).

This is another essay I've taught (shameless pandering to student athletes, perhaps, except it's also well-written and important).

And I can't link to the full text, but I cannot say enough good things about this book. I wish I could make everyone read it. This review captures it well: "The book explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected, and the emotional costs for the artist who cries foul." I lose patience with my students when they want to say that's the way things were "back then." The "illusion of justice" is a great phrase, and one I'll borrow for the classroom. My white students really want to believe that we live in a post-racial America. I am encouraged by their optimism, but also frustrated by what sometimes feels like willful blindness to reality.

Right now is the season's of someone's grief. Right now is the season of great injustice. Right now requires us to make an effort to make a difference. What happened in Charleston was the work of one sicko with a gun, but he was also armed with a legacy of racism, and we can't ignore that fact, either.


  1. I never comment, but I want to tell you this is brilliant, and appreciated.

  2. I would like to take one of your classes one day.

    Thanks for the links.

    That episode of This American Life might be their best yet - all three sections, but yes, the part on racism especially. I've heard W. Kamau Bell tell that story before on another show, but to hear it again, and then to follow up with the interview with the young woman and her father was really something.

    Speaking of something, Jon Stewart last Thursday was something else.

  3. Great perspective on our interconnectedness. Will definitely read your recommended book!
    "...when sun-lit evenings felt interminable instead of welcoming, and radiant morning sunshine felt like it was mocking their pain." YES. that's it. Wish summer and fall wasn't always heavy with this feeling. It's a bummer whenever it happens though. Endless days of sun that ended on the day we had her memorial (Nov 7) where it poured rain for the first time since before the summer. Felt appropriate.

  4. Funny to read this today, Brooke, when I had just mentioned to Justin this morning that if my baby had to die, I'm glad she died at the start of winter. I could hibernate in my house, I didn't have to see anyone. I welcomed the darkness, and early bedtimes left a little less time for thinking.

    And now, in this pregnancy after loss, I'm appreciating that it's summer. Summer seems to fly by, and although I still don't particularly want to make conversation with neighbors, I'm grateful for it's speediness.