Piece 33: Expanding the Antebellum Narrative

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This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

A few months ago, I found myself in the uncomfortable, surreal position of defending my stance against teaching Huck Finn – even as an option – to 21st century high school students. 

I want to be clear here: I have never read the book, and I doubt I ever will.I don’t think the book should be burned or banned. I don’t think Twain’s work is all trash.

Rather, I think it’s past time to trouble the antebellum narrative we’ve spoon fed to America’s high schoolers for several generations now. We need to question what’s considered classic and canon.

So I said so.

And then there was an argument – a question of what I’d suggest in Huck Finn‘s place, a comment that “my students know they can talk to me” – all the usual suspects.

Although I am not the most widely read English teacher, I am confident that we don’t have to work that hard to find stereotype-free content that offers a valid alternative to typical antebellum stories. Instead of continuing to tell schoolchildren and young adults that slavery was long ago and not that bad for all people who were enslaved, we can allow formerly enslaved persons’ work to speak for itself, and we can turn to present-day black creatives who are masterfully re-imagining what was, is, and could be in the future.

For Americans of a certain age, the only antebellum narrative that we know centers characters like Scarlett and Rhett and focuses on their love story, while black characters are relegated to background tropes – existing only to prop up and help develop the white leads. Even the few antebellum stories that don’t star Scarlett and Rhett are still chock full of white saviors and magical n*groes. If art reflects life or vice versa, it stands to reason that when we change the narrative we consume, we might begin to stop expecting real-life black people to behave like the tropes with which we are so very familiar.

Take, for example, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is a historic autobiography written by a woman who escaped from bondage. In her own words, she recounts the struggles she faced and trials she endured. Her prose is fluid and engaging. And her perspective is real rather than imagined.

As I was preparing for the fraught Huck Finn meeting, I asked for guidance from a historian friend, who pointed me to slave narratives that were recorded as part of the Works Progress Administration. The Library of Congress has a collection of these narratives that is accessible online. And locals can find a stash of narratives from people who lived in our area, thanks to East Texas History. Additionally, a number of local colleges and museums contain a wealth of primary sources with historic perspectives we never had access to as young students.

Can you imagine the connection students might feel to history if it were intentionally made concrete and brought near to them rather than remaining an abstract, olden time amoeba?

Just last year, Janelle Monae shined in Antebellum, a horrific imagining of antebellum life set in present-day America. The premise is that a group of white people has built an escapist business for a certain white clientele who wants to experience the glory of the old South. Black men and women are kidnapped, chloroformed, and secreted to an off-the-grid plantation to be forced into servitude for the entertainment of paying white guests.Their cell phones are taken from them to prevent their being tracked, and those who attempt to escape are dragged back to disappear into the “burning shed,” a crematorium that ensures their families will never know what happened to them. The story is dark and deeply disturbing. But as it is told from the point of view of a kidnapped and enslaved woman, it represents an alternative to the narrative we normally see.

As you think through the stories you’ve been told about antebellum life – that some masters were kind, that slaves were better off before the Civil War, that most white people couldn’t afford slaves – I hope that you’ll pause to reflect on the following questions: 

  • Before now, were stereotypical-vernacular-laden enslaved black people your only mental image of black life before and during the Civil War? What effect might that singular image have had on your expectations of black people in your everyday life?
  • Have you ever questioned the prevalence of antebellum black characters in close proximity to white characters only as spiritual guide, humble servant, or obstinate intransigent? 
  • How many books, movies, and shows have you seen that feature black characters in antebellum narratives, telling their own stories, with their own voices?
  • How might your view of American history change if you heard a perspective that’s been largely left out of history books?

I hope you’ll lean into these questions and allow yourself to be curious about the discomfort you feel, should it arise, and change – as necessary – the story you are telling yourself: about the existence of white supremacy, and about the impact that a white-centered view of history has had on American society. Keep showing up to this space, and I will too. We can and will build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

The Call is coming from Inside Our House

Source

Wednesday, January 6, is a day that will live in infamy. Scores of American citizens, having consumed misinformation, lies, and vitriol-laden rhetoric from a number of sources, armed themselves, pushed past police barricades, and stormed the capitol building at the very day and time our Congress was scheduled to certify President-Elect Biden’s November 2020 win.

I want to be clear here, and state definitively that I am utterly uninterested in blaming any group or political party for what this group of individuals hath wrought. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes restitution and reparation to every American citizen who was forced to watch in horror as they laid siege to our seat of government. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our nation’s children an explanation for their atrocious behavior, particularly if they believe themselves undeserving of a time-out courtesy of our nation’s justice and prison system. 

People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Source

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our country’s rising leadership a deep debt of earnest service, having planned and executed an attack that has resulted in worldwide shame and loss of credibility.

Too, I am utterly uninterested in comparisons of Wednesday’s events to any other type of protest except those which attempted to lay siege to a seat of government in order to invalidate a lawful election and intimidate lawmakers into halting progress toward installing the next national leader.

A quick scan of similar events that have arisen throughout our nation’s history will reveal that the only comparable event was the exact inciting spark of the American Civil War. Secessionists didn’t acknowledge Lincoln as their president. They formed their own government, chose their own president, and waged war on their own (now, former) country in order to protect their cherished ideals and values, all of which hinged on the “ holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

This is not fake. This is not staged. 

This is a horror movie plot playing out in real life, in our home. 

We cannot run up the stairs and hope that hiding in a closet and closing our eyes will cause the terrorists pursuing us to lose interest in snuffing out the life of our representative democracy. Because the call is coming from inside America’s house.

We cannot hide behind the cross of Christ and the promise of future spiritual unity and reconciliation, declaring thereby that we have transcended all the troubles of the world because Jesus saves. Because the call is coming from inside the church house.

We cannot deny that white supremacy played a role in the way rioters were treated or in the motivations they brought with them to their treasonous display, not even though we saw a scattering of people of color among them. They brought nooses and chanted a call to hang the sitting VP, all the while taking selfies with police officers who bore witness to their seditious occupation – not unlike Jim Crow-era postcards of smiling white families enjoying picnics at their local lynchings. Because the call is coming from inside American history’s house.

We cannot continue holding on for dear life to the tired notion that the rebel flag stands for heritage, not hate, clutching our pearls at valid claims to the contrary because many white people didn’t own slaves, because black people fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, because we really just love sweet tea and Jesus and don’t even see color except when it suits us. The individuals who stormed, pissed, shat, stole, and were then escorted out of our nation’s capitol building carried flags that showed their true beliefs, and even a quick look at primary sources from the Confederate states reveals exactly what their beliefs were then, and what beliefs present-day flagbearers cosign by extension: “citizens…shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” The Confederate states’ version of the American dream including keeping my skinfolk in a perpetual state of subhumanity and forced servitude. Their flag carries slavery’s ghost, and white supremacy’s still-present incarnation. The call is coming from inside the Confederate-sympathizing rebels’ house.

No matter what groups’ beliefs we hold dear, no matter how we personally identify and align ourselves, this call for terror, insurrection, even a second civil war, is coming from inside our home. It’s up to us to face the terrorists, disarm them, hold them accountable for the death and destruction they’ve caused, and build the America “that never has been yet…Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme.” 

This is our house, y’all. The unhinged aggressor won’t go away because we earnestly wish they would. We are going to have to build the house we want to live in. 

And this is not it.

Piece 25: 13th

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This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Two weeks ago, our country was taking baby steps in the direction of accepting Joe Biden as president-elect. Emotions and temperatures were flaring as caravans of Trump-paraphernalia-laden vehicles paraded up and down some of the busiest streets in our city. And my husband was having lunch at home while our younger son sat across the table from him attending his virtual Reading class. As Hubs ate and half-listened to the teacher, he heard words that have no place coming out of a teacher’s mouth in a fifth grade classroom: removing statues is taking away our history.

Allow me to provide some context I have since been granted: The lesson that day was about bias and how to evaluate news sources. There was relevant class conversation about historical figures, and a student asked how we can know today what people looked like many years ago. Statues are, of course, one way to know how people looked long ago.

To further elaborate, as I did when I spoke on the phone with the school’s principal that afternoon, I have only ever heard the phraseology about removing statues equating to taking away history from people who want to keep Confederate monuments where they are and are vehemently opposed to moving or destroying them. Thus, my husband, the white father of two biracial black boys and keenly aware of the insidious prevalence of the lost cause myth, immediately perked up his ears so as to track what else this teacher might say to her class that was indicative of a political viewpoint completely opposite to our own. He listened in not because her political viewpoint here is opposite from ours, but because as a student in her classroom, my child should have any knowledge of her political viewpoint at all.

During the course of the aforementioned principal conversation – held after she’d had a chance to visit with the teacher and review video of the lesson, I pressed past the question of context to the question of meaning. What had this teacher meant by what she said? The principal seemed to echo the teacher’s flimsy apology, reiterating that everyone makes mistakes. This, in fact, is why I provided the context of that phrase being used to defend keeping Confederate statues where they stand, which the principal responded to as if the information I provided was new to her. 

The principal – no doubt seeking to protect one of her teachers – went on to state repeatedly just how upset this teacher was because of any harm caused by her comment. When I asked why the teacher was upset even while she persisted in not providing the explanation I asked for, the principal’s response was that the teacher felt like I was “looking for something to hang her with.” Over the next few minutes of the conversation, once I made clear that such a turn of phrase was unacceptable and that should the teacher and I have a face-to-face conference, I expected not to hear such language from her, the principal owned that the phrase she had used was her own, not the teacher’s. And she apologized.

I have given you a lot of information, so let us quickly recap:

My child’s teacher made an inappropriate, thinly veiled political, and culturally insensitive comment in an elementary school reading class.

Overhearing this, my husband, who heard the comment, looped me in.

After emailing the teacher and remaining unsatisfied with the response, I was able to speak by phone to the principal about the racially loaded remark in question. During this conversation, as I repeatedly asked for transparency and clarification of the remark, what I got instead was reiteration of how upset the teacher was (see Luvvie’s post) and an apology from the principal herself for using – get this – a culturally insensitive turn of phrase in the conversation about the teacher’s culturally insensitive turn of phrase during my child’s class.

Are you still with me?

In the midst of this fraught election season with unprecedented political happenings, this teacher brought her politics into my fifth grader’s classroom. And when I called her on it, she was sad and apologetic for saying it but offered no clarifying, apolitical context or meaning for her words.

The problem here is a multifaceted one, but let’s focus on just one facet. Underlying this entire exchange between my child’s classroom, the teacher, the principal, and me, is a level of white discomfort that sees itself as being equal to or more important than the emotional well-being and innocence of my child, as well as the professionalism I have every right to expect from my child’s teacher. The relational dynamics at play here, and the expectation that I would be content with a spineless apology and a repeated assertion of how bad the teacher felt, are inextricable from the history of race relations in this country. 

Indeed, how have we arrived at the year 2020, and found ourselves confronted with a white woman who believes that when her employee’s feelings are hurt or her judgment questioned, it is in any way the analogous equivalent of a lynch mob seeking to hang a person from a tree?

This week’s suggested resource, therefore, is 13th, Ava DuVernay’s illuminating Netflix documentary that traces the evolution, not the abolition, of slavery in America.

13th unearths the cumulative impact of racial terror in America: enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, redlining, housing covenants, and the present-day iterations and results of all of the above. 

Watch it, take notes, and allow your understanding to be broadened, so that you do not find yourself in a position of equating temporary emotional discomfort with the domestic terroristic act of lynching. Watch so that you can begin to understand why I as a black mother was utterly unmoved by a teacher’s feckless political statement and subsequent tepid apology; why I remain thoroughly unsatisfied that I never received an explanation of what exactly she meant; why the situation and how it played out have left me wishing away the time my child will have to spend with this teacher; why I feel so insecure about her beliefs and how they may insert themselves into the way she implements curriculum and delivers instruction to my child and his class; why the principal’s comment makes me worry about the water cooler talk my child may overhear if he indeed were on that campus attending school; why I am genuinely concerned about the faculty culture of the school he attends. 

Our words have meaning, y’all. It’s incumbent upon us to consider the words we choose to use. And to own our mistakes in as transparent a way as we can when we inevitably say the wrong thing.

To be transparent myself, I will share an anecdote: A few days ago, I was talking to a family member about doing what I said I’d do even though my teenage son wanted me to consider doing something else. But that isn’t what I said. Instead, I told this family member that I had “stuck to my guns.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I replayed them mentally and felt nauseated. Had I just used a violent, war-related phrase to refer to how I had made a decision and not backed down from it? One quick moment’s reflection showed me that this expression could be quickly and easily replaced with appropriate, precise language. I could easily have said that I stuck to my convictions or simply that I did what I said I would do, conveying the same meaning in a way that isn’t potentially problematic. 

As you watch 13th and reflect on your own words and perceptions, I hope you will consider the following questions: 

  • What idioms do you use without really considering the meaning of their words? 
  • Have you ever conflated being asked to stop and think about your word choice with being physically attacked?
  • When have you allowed people around you to use language that makes you uncomfortable without calling them out on it? Who benefits from such allowances? 
  • Have you slipped up and allowed your political views to seep into your workplace? How have others responded? If you are a leader in some capacity at your job, are the people around you truly able to express concern, offense, or harm caused by what you say, without fearing repercussion?

This is a heavy piece, I know. Not every aspect of unlearning racial bias work must be this deliberate and careful. But when such deliberation and care are required, we’d best take the time to do the work well. I’ll see you here again soon, so we can cultivate peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 17: Between the World and Me

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Two weeks ago, in piece 16, I shared a few podcasts I listen to that keep me aware of points of view different from my own. I asked when you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where that resistance comes from. Such an introspective state of mind and active focus on your physiological reactions to new-to-you ideas is necessary for this week’s suggested resources, which begin with a thorough examination of the case for reparations to be paid to black Americans.

To me, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those rare writers who is able to weave literature from nonfiction prose. I find his writing style to be so keen that at times I am astonished that words can arrange themselves in the way he manipulates them. He takes current and historical events that at a glance seem mundane because of the analytical takes I’ve read on those same events before, and he makes them shimmer with the newness of his own unique insight. My introduction to Coates’s writing was a lengthy, weighty Atlantic article entitled “The Case for Reparations.” Because I am a slow, deliberate reader, it took me several reading sessions to make my way through Coates’s meaty treatise. The lens through which he clarifies how black Americans arrived at the here and now from the there and then, is sharp & crisp in its focus. For those reasons, “The Case for Reparations” is the first resource I am suggesting this week. I hope that even if you find the title off-putting and do not agree with the article’s thesis that you will read it anyway. It is at once poetry and prose, historic lens and current events examination, objective portrait and intimate biography. Let it teach you, hurt you, change your mind.

Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me captures the emotional struggle black Americans endure when they have the talk with their children – especially their sons. In this book, Coates writes a letter to his teenage son, who at the book’s outset is heartbroken and confused over the outcome of the trial following Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. Although Between the World and Me is a slim volume, the emotional weight of its honest portrayal of black American life; the tenderness with which Coates approaches these difficult subjects on behalf of his beloved adolescent son; the bleak, necessary acceptance of black Americans’ disparate, disproportionate mistreatment across time and geography, kept me from taking it all in at once. Instead, I bought the book, began it, and then put it down and walked away – feeling eerily like a stranger had soulfully penned the thoughts in my head, some of which I’d never even admitted to myself. Coates makes connections in this book that resonate with rumblings of turmoil and confusion I’ve at times felt within but been for varying reasons unable to give voice. Thus, Between the World and Me is the second resource I am recommending this week.

Between the World and Me borrows its title from a poem of the same name, written by Richard Wright. Like Coates’s writing in “Reparations” and in his book, Wright’s acuity is disarming and at times devastating. If you’re able to read this poem without tearing up a time or two, maybe take another pass at reading it; you might be missing something between the lines. Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me” is my third resource recommendation this week. Read it slowly and deliberately, with an open heart and a focused eye. Rather than getting and staying lost in the juxtaposition of abstract and concrete images and symbolism, yield to the larger truth represented in Wright’s words: a collective black American history of lynching, dispossession, and utter shock at continually being dehumanized for the sole crime of possessing black skin.

As you read one or all of these resources in the coming week, I hope you will sit with these questions: 

  • What are your feelings and thoughts regarding reparations? Have you studied the topic and how the American government has historically addressed this topic?  If your emotional response is defensiveness or self-preservation because you don’t want the government dipping into your pocket to right wrongs you haven’t committed, have you questioned why you feel that way?
  • Is it possible to truly move forward in a positive direction as a country, if we haven’t collectively done the work of examining our past, warts and all?
  • In your own life, are you able to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships without reparative, restorative work when disagreements arise and hurts are inflicted? 

Come back next week, y’all. We’ll keep working to examine our past in light of our present and our present in light of our past, actively seeking to create peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 14: Where Does it Hurt?

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This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Last week, I asked if you have diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond sources I have specifically recommended here. While I am writing this series primarily with materials I’ve read, watched, and listened to over the past three or four years, I’ve found that when I conduct my brief research each week, I find fresh voices to follow. I’ve begun to follow several women of color on social media whose words and work are agitating the too-long accepted status quo, pushing their audiences to think and feel more deeply, and pulling them into a dialogue and a cultural awareness that will ultimately liberate marginalized people groups from the unhealthy, unrealistic expectations the dominant culture has placed on them for centuries. This week, my focus will turn toward several people of color who are actively involved in justice work. I hope you’ll join me in following them.

A year or two ago, a friend recommended the podcast “On Being” to me. I was not at that time a regular podcast listener, so I wasn’t optimistic that any could keep my attention, particularly since one of the specific episodes my friend recommended contained names of people I’d never heard of before. Even though the host was award-winning journalist Krista Tippet, I’d never heard of her. And even though the interviewed subject of the episode was active in SNCC during the Civil Rights Movement, including marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge herself, I had somehow never heard of her either. This week’s first suggested resource is Ruby Sales’ interview on “On Being with Krista Tippett.” I’m so glad I took her my friend’s suggestion and listened to this episode, though, because Sales’ message has stayed with me. Near the end of the interview, Sales opens up about a pivotal moment that taught her how to help young people – particularly young activists – to heal. While getting her hair done one day, Sales asked this question of her stylist’s daughter, who was clearly in pain: Where does it hurt?

As I have plugged into a few local efforts, a key motivation for me has been young people. So many young adults and teens are paying attention and participating in current movements and uprisings in this country. And each time I feel a surge of pride at their activism, I feel immediately after a sense of heaviness that this is the cultural climate they have inherited. The problems we have not fixed, the segregated water fountains our parents stared down, the civil struggles our grandparents watched unfold with baited breath: all of these comprise this generation’s inheritance. We haven’t fixed this for them, so they are forced to try and fix it for themselves. The burden we ourselves never wanted our children to bear is waiting in their future to yoke them, and bearing this burden doesn’t at all promise to be an ultimately liberating endeavor. 

Each time I see a young person step into a position of leadership in social justice, I hear the words of Ruby Sales, recalling the young activists she’s worked with who have wondered aloud how black adults could have thrown children into a den of people who don’t love them. I picture Elizabeth Echols and Ruby Bridges marching resolutely into freshly “integrated” schools while hateful mobs bore signs that advertised their desire to keep black students out of their schools, while spit and rocks where hurled at black students, while National Guards made a show of protecting and escorting students even though in some cases they blatantly allowed deplorable, trauma-inducing actions to be visited upon these children.

And even in my pride and admiration at Naomi Wadler and Vanessa Nakate, as well as their contemporaries and fellow activists, I cannot forget the pain in the question Sales has heard in her work: how could we send our children into a world that doesn’t love them?

Naomi Wadler became an internet sensation overnight in the wake of the Parkland shooting on Valentines Day & Ash Wednesday a few years ago. The student-led movement that followed, with Emma González and some of her classmates at its forefront, culminated in a nationwide student walkout and rally in Washington, D.C. The speech Wadler gave at March for Our Lives was soul-stirring and incredibly insightful. At the time of her speech, Wadler was only 11 years -old. Her Twitter page – which showcases her unique, incisive voice and work – is this week’s second suggested resource.

Vanessa Nakate’s activism is rooted in climate change-related work. In her own words, this young woman became interested in the impact of climate change when she was getting ready to graduate from high school and began to research problems facing Uganda. Having never been taught about climate change in school, Nakate quickly realized the wide-reaching impact of climate change on her home: food insecurity due to droughts, deadly floods, desperate families marrying off their distraught teenage daughters to old men because they have no hope of being able to feed and care for them. 

Putting her newfound knowledge into action, Nakate joined Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and organized Uganda’s first walkouts to raise awareness of climate change and pressure governing officials to take action to help people whose lives are so adversely impacted by climate change. Nakate’s passion, vision, and persistence are inspiring. To see her love for her people and country, and how this love has motivated her to fight for global change, is astounding. This week’s last suggested resource is Vanessa Nakate’s Twitter page as well as the two organizations she has founded: Rise Up Movement and 1 Million Activist Stories

This week, I want to leave you with questions that will facilitate future-centered introspection. 

  • What actions are you taking to make the world a better place for our children than it was for us? Are you holding your breath and hoping for change or actively seeking ways you can get involved in making change happen?
  • Do the children and young adults in your life find an audience with you when they wish to express their griefs, woes, ideas, and hopes regarding the distressing events we often see in the news? Are you listening to the young voices around you?
  • Where in your community can you step up and support young people doing important work? What needs do they have that you can provide? How can you come alongside them and join their work?

Our babies, the babies they may have one day, and the babies of those babies – all deserve a future brighter than our present. Let’s keep showing up for our fellow human beings – including the future ones – by working diligently toward peace, by pursuing it one piece at a time.

City Council Special Session

meeting room

When I came home from work today, I quickly prepared the remarks below to share at a special (virtual) meeting of the City Council this evening. I share my words here so that should I be quoted or referenced, the entirety of my message will be here, published on my own platform, in its entirety. I have removed the names of specific people I referenced since I didn’t seek their permission before sharing here.

My name is Querida Duncalfe, and I live in Longview, Tx. I moved here twenty years ago to attend LeTourneau University, met my college sweetheart, married him, and together we have made Longview our home. It is for this reason – that Longview is our home – that I speak to you today.

Photo by Emre Can from Pexels

I’m incredibly grateful for the efforts of innumerable individuals who have answered this call for justice in our city. Even though they have been verbally harassed, threatened, and outright ignored by county commissioners, they have persisted. They understand, as do I, that Longview is home to a rich, diverse group of people who love this city and each other. This warm, inviting city that has become become my home, has no ideological place for a 35 foot tall statue dedicated to so-called “confederate heroes.” 

I hear the argument that this is not a city council issue and it should be left to the county. As a citizen who recently reached out to my elected representatives and has yet to receive any response aside from deflection and “it’s not my job,” I want to share what may be a helpful analogy. To be clear, I generally dislike using analogies; in my mind, the only thing like racism is racism – there is no adequate comparison. Therefore, I won’t attempt to make an analogy about racism, the Confederacy, the Civil War, or even monuments and statues in other places.  Instead, I will attempt to speak to your elected position in our city.

I am a year-ten teacher, it is my job to teach the students entrusted to my care. It is also my duty to do my best to meet the needs they present to me. When students and parents bring concerns to me that I cannot personally address, it would be completely unacceptable for me to tell them that their problem isn’t my job. I am duty bound to pass along their concerns and needs to administrators who can help or intervene – and this is true regardless of my perception of the relative magnitude of the problems they present. In this city and county, are our elected officials not duty-bound to hear and address our concerns rather than dismiss them?

I hear, too, that the statue represents history. It’s vital to note too that the statue doesn’t represent all of Texas history. There are more appropriate, joyful, meaningful historic events that can be captured and memorialized in its place.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

I hope and pray that as citizens who have not felt they had a voice before, continue to come forward, that you will listen to our calls for action. Remove the monument. It does not represent the onelongview I call home. It has no place here.

Thank you for your time.

Piece 10: 12 Years a Slave

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

As this series has taken shape, I have begun each week’s post by answering a question or two that I posted to you the prior week. So I’ll share with you what makes people worthy of the title “hero” in my eyes. To me, a hero is a person who is consistent, trustworthy, and visible in the lives of the people who love them. A hero is true to who they are and treats others with kindness whenever possible. A hero leads with ferocity and integrity. In all they do, a hero leads by example. Heroes are people like Solomon Northrup and Beyoncé.

Years ago, when the movie 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, I had no idea it was based on Solomon Northrup’s real life experiences. With only Oscar buzz and the movie’s title as my informers, I assumed 12 Years a Slave was another antebellum revenge fantasy. Following its release, the beautiful, talented, and undoubtedly deserving Lupita Nyong’o received an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. And even in my joy and excitement at witnessing Nyong’o make history with her win, I felt a deep underlying sadness at the nature of the role for which she had received this critical acclaim. The one thing that had kept me from seeing the movie was not what I suspected was a revenge fantasy, or even the particular type of weariness that arises from repeatedly seeing the same trodden-down narrative of black people play out on the screen; rather, I was held back from seeing the movie by the anecdotal knowledge that Nyong’o’s character had a brutal rape scene. As a personal practice, I don’t watch or read anything that includes that particular kind of violence. This isn’t a critique of actors or writers who portray such scenes; I am simply too visual a person to put those kinds of intimately sexually traumatic images into my mind.

So I avoided 12 Years a Slave even though I wanted badly to see this beautiful actress’s award-winning debut role, even though I was a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, even though it was a movie telling a decidedly black American story – which is typically exactly the type of movie I want to see. I kept 12 Years a Slave at arm’s length until I stumbled across the fact that it was based on a true story, and I became interested in that story. The first resource I recommend this week is Twelve Years a Slave – the book, not the movie. I remain resolved not to see it, especially after I listened to this memoir – which does not include the brutal rape scene depicted in the film. The character and the crimes perpetrated on her while she was in bondage are between the lines of Northrup’s prose, but graphic details of brutal, forced sex acts are blessedly absent. 12 Years a Slave employs the kind of language that 21st century Americans like myself almost have to cut with a fork and knife in order to digest it. His vocabulary and sentence structure are educated, expansive, and positively drenched in his inherent sense of dignity and a dogged determination to win back the freedom stolen from him; none of that language includes a detailed description of sexual assault. 

The second resource I recommend this week is Beyoncé’s Black is King. Where the popularity and overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave illustrate a disturbing American fascination with glorifying black pain – even if doing so means manufacturing some of that pain, as the opening scenes of the film do – Black is King diverges. Black is King tells a story of love, hope, and a steadfast connection that transcends time, space, and even remains once our physical bodies die. Black is King skillfully weaves African artists, imagery, religion, scenery, and timeless beauty, to exalt black joy, black strength, black dignity. To study these two stories and the popular response to both is, I believe, to see with fresh eyes the expectation of the dominant culture in America. Black people are always expected to be submissive to their pain and struggles while observers who are not themselves on the margins with black Americans cry for a moment and then move on with their lives: never changing, never changed.

Truly, what Black is King aims for – and I believe achieves – is an unapologetic, unflinching display of black beauty. If our cultural response to such a stunning feat is to criticize Beyoncé’s wardrobe, to point out that the only white actor in the film is a butler, or to condemn as heresy the visual album’s audacity, then we show the black people in our lives just exactly how we expect them to view themselves and by extension, how we view them: as broken, as weary, as vessels through which to filter our own pain – and nothing more. [Bonus: Lupita Nyong’o makes a brief, glorious, affirming cameo in Black is King.]

As you decide which of these suggested resources you have the time and emotional breadth to absorb this week, I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Recall your favorite books and movies that feature black characters. What stories are being told about those characters – are they in pain, struggling, or being helped out of a struggle, particularly by characters who are not black?
  • How often are you taking in stories, books, and movies that showcase black people telling black stories? 
  • Where in your own mind and heart are you celebrating the prevalent cultural narrative that black Americans are situated rightly only when they are in pain, shepherding non-black people through their pain, or magnanimously forgiving others for pain inflicted on them?

Keep sticking with this hard, necessary work. It’s worth it to show the black people in your life that you are doing the work it takes to show up for them, alongside them, with them. Meet me back here next week, and we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 5: Strange Fruit

Peace by Piece

TThis post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Last week, I left you with several questions about how black people are represented in media that you consume. When I sat with the question about interracial couples and how often they are depicted as dynamic characters, without their differing cultures as a major plot point, I came up with almost nothing. Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series technically meets the requirement, as does The Mindy Project, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.

breakfast or nah?

In all the many shows and movies I watch on a regular basis, interracial couples rarely appear, let alone as major characters primarily focused on something other than their differing cultures.

On the question of brand representation, I remember an odd conversation I had with a friend years ago, when Cheerios released a commercial featuring an interracial couple and their child. When I saw the commercial, all I saw was a commercial that was maybe a bit refreshing in its casting. But the friend whom I talked to about it mentioned backlash on her Facebook wall – and presumably, from some online publications – from people outraged by “political correctness” and a perceived attack on their own values.

I know, it seems preposterous. And it is. But in a country where this type of representation is so rare, we should almost expect such a reaction until a majority-white consumer base is accustomed to seeing ads that are not designed to appeal only to them – something marginalized Americans are accustomed to from their earliest experiences watching TV and reading books.

This week, we’ll shift our focus from representation to strange fruit.

During the past few weeks, several men across the country – predominantly black men – have been discovered hanging from trees, dead from apparent suicide. Our country’s history of inciting terror in black communities by lynching black men in the dead of night, by popularizing postcards that glorify these hateful murders, by carrying out riots in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, should be enough to poke holes in any authority’s theory that no foul play is at hand in these men’s recent deaths. And yet, suicide is exactly what these authorities preliminarily suggested, pulling back in order to reevaluate only after having pressure exerted on them by public outcry. 

I am recommending two podcast episodes this week:

Code Switch’s “Claude Neal: A Strange and Bitter Crop” time hops to tell the story of Neal’s tragic murder while following poet L. Lamar Wilson as he uncovers Neal’s story and runs the path along which his mutilated body was dragged before being hung in front of the courthouse.

Isadore Duncan

My second episode recommendation is “Unfinished: Deep South.” This brand new podcast will unveil the story of Isadore Duncan, a financially successful WWI veteran who was brutally murdered, and whose family later fled their home with none of the financial wealth their patriarch had labored to earn because all pertinent records were destroyed when Duncan was murdered.

Here are some questions to sit with this week:

  • In what ways have you pushed back against the idea of black autonomy and equality in your own life?
  • Have you tried to silence or minimize the opinions of black people when they have disagreed with your own?
  • Will you devote the time this week to researching your own city’s history of racial violence? What will you do with that information when you find it?
  • What action have you taken to tear down the vestiges of racial terror in your own community?
  • In what ways might you have unwittingly ignored or encouraged violence against black Americans asserting and exercising their own rights to protest, vote, and otherwise carry out their civil rights?

This isn’t quick or easy work that we are doing. But it is necessary to build a better country for ourselves and for future generations. Keep at it, and come back again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.