Hobble is my Highly Opinionated Book List, meant to give others the benefit of my reading into the subject of racism, historical and present-day, institutional and individual. In his second book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tags me as one of “Those Who Think They Are White,” subsequently referred to as TWTTAW. We are hobbled by inability or unwillingness to face reality, and quick to defend ourselves against any hint of racism, but in fact, all TWTTAW are afflicted with racist beliefs and attitudes no matter how they may hate it. The culture we live in feeds and teaches this paradigm. On that premise I recognize white privilege is in our DNA—none of us (honkies?) can ever be free of it. It is our heritage, our birthright, our flesh and blood.
Witnessing Whiteness by Shelly Tochluk holds that our denial and detachment hobbles self-understanding, so talking about race is the first step toward freedom, while resistance to open conversation about it is a form of denial, illustrating the problem. I wanted to use this book to teach TWTTAW about themselves, but true to form, there was no interest. In this small city 95% “white,” only a handful of people took free copies of this challenging book. Why is it that Blacks talk about race among themselves every day, no matter where they are?
All my young life I wondered and worried, trying and failing to understand the gulf between races. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I saw Black neighbors every day but we seemed to move in a parallel world, despite living in such close proximity. In my senior year of high school my class went on a field trip to New York City, where I saw racial mixing and mingling for the first time in my life—here were the people I wanted to know, the ones who could tell me why my hometown restricted me to a White world.
Things changed starting in the 1950’s and I took joy in breaking the rules for TWTTAW, by visiting black bars and churches, dating Black brothers, and joining civil rights protests. During the sixties racial integration happened in our schools and our streets, where we demonstrated together, shared jail cells, and sometimes died together. Of course the killers were white, but in those years they could be almost anyone from the KKK to the next-door neighbor. Now a majority of the murderers wear uniforms and police the streets in neighborhoods of any city where African-Americans try to live. During the decades of the sixties through the nineties I read Black literature—Soul on Ice, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the complete works of James Baldwin, and many Black poets. All that is history. But reading has always been my first access to learning, and the books found in HOBL are life-changing, identity-creating, rare and precious to me.
Literary critics today are awed by Ta-Nehisi Coates almost as much as they were and still are awed by James Baldwin, who spoke about the fire next time and other apocalypticism . A volume of Baldwin’s collected essays sits on the table next to my primary chair for reading and meditation and nearby are two volumes by Ta-Nehisi. These are not books I have read and then put aside. They are food for thought day by day, endlessly, not just to help me quit hobbling in the chains of racism, but to satisfy a deep hunger for innovative, original, esthetically moving use of the English language. As much as I love English, I cannot find adequate words to convey my gratitude for these volumes and their authors.
I read while seated in an internal circle of writers, scholars, and autobiographers, some long gone, others alive, commenting on their own struggles and producing great literature. I see these members of the Wisdom Council picking up and handling the stuff of life, I hear their cries of outrage and the poetry of their love. Many others deserve to be listed here, so this HOBL will be a work in progress as long as I live unless and until TWTTAW confess, repent, and atone, which is to say, the Kingdom Come. Listings in order of my discovery.
THIS IS A BLOG
Bad news, outrage, anger and grief are plentiful in most media these days. I know that’s the state of the world right now. I sympathize with people who are pleading for good news. I confess that bad news can keep me awake at night—visions of death by decapitation; debris fields that once constituted planes; phones, shoes and baby bottles strewn among metal shards; crowds of grief-stricken people weeping; protesters on the march yet again; nights lit by yet another candlelight vigil; trees destroyed for yet another strip mall; Guns guns guns, stored in closets along with boxes, bags, trunks, and backpacks crammed to bursting with fear fear fear. This is the American version of the attics, basements and other hideouts where Jews, children, elderly, gay, mentally ill and other assorted victims hid from the Nazis. Of course I prefer good news, in fact a steady diet of bad news creates a rising tide of anxiety which could kill me. You too? Well, you’re on your own to survive, but here’s one thing of which I am certain: Love is stronger than hate. Love is both fight AND flight. Love is the mantra that enabled Mandela to live in the pits of hell to the age of ninety-five.
On May 4, 1970 on the campus of Kent State University, four students were shot to death by Ohio State National guardsmen. Sixty-seven rounds were fired over a period of 13 seconds, wounding nine other students, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis. I don’t think race had anything to do with this tragedy. Unarmed, they were peacefully protesting against the war in Vietnam. Now it’s 2015 and police officers with guns are murdering Black Americans at a rate of almost one a week, ostensibly for a variety of reasons, but primarily and truthfully because they are Black. There is no more justification for these deaths than for the Kent massacre. Students on campuses across the country rose up then and they are rising up now as well. In the 70’s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born, setting off demonstrations at hundreds of colleges. Julian Bond began his distinguished career in SNCC, and I now believe there are other civil rights, social justice leaders who will be rising up in Missouri, Yale, and other schools where racism has outworn its welcome. In honor of the Kent State martyrs, I pray, Students, rise up, speak up, oust the demons of racism once and for all!
THE GRAND PIANO
Maya Angelou wrote about her childhood in rural Arkansas– readers of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings cannot miss the effects of poverty. Children who are loved and nurtured often don’t know how to tell whether their families are poor. As a kid growing up in Kentucky I knew we were not rich, and I knew my parents disagreed about money, (my mother bought things on credit and made payments that my father never knew about). But it never seemed to matter to me until the day when my music teacher said “she’s being held back by this old piano. You need a baby grand.” but when we shopped for a grand piano I got a view of some truth. This purchase was like buying a car, that is, we might not have enough to make years worth of monthly payments. My mother could have shopped alone, but she took me along “to test them out.” Pianos were not sold in department stores like shoes or curtains, but only in special outlets, like cars. We looked at many baby grands and they all spoke to me, saying things like “where do you live, do you have room for me, what do you play, please no chopsticks, Bach, I need Bach.” Then, finally, one contestant for my heart said, “Hi there, sugar,” and I replied (in my heart, of course) “Hi, yourself.” This committed my mother to three years of payments, which she had to carry to the store once a month, taking a bus downtown. And the new music teacher gave me Bach. Then, of course, Chopin. On my own I found sheet music bound in hard-cover books in the public library, and my piano tried her best to help me with everything from Debussy to Mozart to Scott Joplin. Beethoven became my lover.
The piano in the living room said to me, “hey, kid, roll your fist over the black keys, go ahead, do it!” I was scared–one finger was all I could manage, but that was enough to pick out a tune. It wasn’t quite right–some white keys had to get in too, but once I had Farmer in the Dell and Jesus Loves Me, I was hooked. And that rickety old piano knew that. So then it said, “ask for a teacher –your mother will love that.” So I did and she did and that’s when it all began. 1943, I was 9 years old and the teacher my mother found charged 35 cents for a 30-minute lesson. After 6 months she quit because, she said, “she needs a better piano and a new teacher.”
PRIORITIES FOR THOSE “WHO THINK THEY ARE WHITE”
As the gun violence continues in these United States, I am forced to think about my priorities. Friends and colleagues (white) are choosing All Lives Matter over Black Lives Matter and forgiveness over justice. This is a choice for idealism over realism. I don’t think we can afford that.
Toni Morrison says: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” And Coates says: “…racism is a visceral experience…it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.” Between the World and Me, (Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2015)
Baldwin’s letter to his nephew is being quoted widely these days—it occupies the last page of the powerful book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Coates’ new book is a letter to his son, sharing his own history with racism, as Baldwin shared with his nephew; having studied both, I believe they share a purpose much deeper than the authors’ hopes that their progeny may “live long and prosper.” They also hope for a change that cannot come without help from “those who think they are white.”
Of course all lives matter. But not all lives are threatened, devalued, subjected to a steady diet of injustice, and shortened or ended by socially-approved violence. Of course forgiveness is blessed, healthy and holy, but to forgive injustice allows it to continue. Because of white hatred and contempt for some lives, we are now living with dire consequences of acceptance extended to a barbaric system of butchery perpetrated by people (white) who do not believe that Black lives matter.
Therefore, until we as a people finally get past racist persecution and injustice, my priorities must change. Black lives matter before the ideal of all lives matter, realism must come before idealism, truth before forgiveness, responsibility before profession of innocence, a campaign for equal justice before complicity in the poverty, injury and death of fellow Americans.