A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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How Lucky We Are To Be Alive Right Now

Here we are, the ass-end of another year. I sat down yesterday to write about Salome and her veils.

Then I re-read 2016’s year-end post. Apparently I had the same idea last year.

Always ahead of myself, it would seem. And forever forgetting it.

I expected I would endeth the year in much the same way as I beganeth, but….I didn’t.

Oh, I am still angry, that much is true, but I am not blinded by my rage. I can see around my anger now, see through it. I’ve spent the last twelve months honing it and sharpening it. It is an asset I carry around with me, at all times. A talisman, an amulet I wear around my neck. A sharpened stick a la BtVS to slay demons, both within and without.

It seems strange to look backward at this year and think, how lucky we are to be alive right now, but it’s the truth. I feel more alive than I have for a long time. Sure, much of that prickly pins and needles feeling stems from sheer terror and jaw-dropping incredulity, and it is also true that in my oh-so cushioned life as a migrant I do not fear for my day-to-day existence. The shit-storm clouds gathering over the United States affect my sensibilities and my ideals, but they do not affect my day-to-day life. My whiteness, my bank account, my education levels and my opportunities protect me from the worst of it. For that I am both grateful, humbled, and very, very aware.

Geographically, I’m hobbled from putting my body in the line of fire. Congressionally I vote in one of the bluest states in the country. So I’ve spent the last year turning inward rather than outward, listening and reading, essays on race, on gender. I’ve spent the last year sitting in the messy, pants staining muck of my own discomfort, challenging myself to rise above it. Failing…and succeeding.

I am a better person for it.

So how lucky I am to be alive at a time when black American activists, writers and artists, leaders and voices are finally garnering the recognition they’ve always been due. How lucky I am to be alive at a time when all of that is there for the taking. My table runneth over with choice.

For women, 2017 was a year of validation. All the churning, gut-tingling knowledge which was systematically denied and suppressed and second-guessed finally blew the world apart in a hashtag. I won’t lie. The taste of public vindication is sweet. If 2016 was the year Salome’s last veil dropped, 2017 was the year women burned that fucker like so many bras.

As painful as it is to see stories spill out like steam rising from sewer grates, it is glorious as well. I rode out the back nine of 2017 on a wave of sisterhood unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Will this time be different? I hope so. We have almost reached critical mass, the moment when enough women are in leadership roles to affect real, lasting change. We are at the damn barricades. We just need to topple them.

How lucky I feel to be alive in a world which is finally acknowledging women, our experiences, valuing our contributions not just as a substitute for men, but for ourselves. A world where we are being looked to and asked to lead.

In 2017 I  mourned the loss of a Clinton presidency. I may have been sorely disappointed, it’s true. But I will never know. What I do know is that a Trump presidency has issued in a political, social, and economic awareness unprecedented in my recollection. The safeguards many Americans assumed would protect them are failing–in some instances, rather spectacularly. For many Americans (raising hand), 2017 was the year we stopped taking democracy for granted. Stopped assuming it was something which we, as heirs to democracy with a capital “D” were entitled to. The reality of course is that the United States of America, just like any other country, must work to retain the ideals and principles it was based on.

As an American living abroad, I get a good glimpse into how those outside the US view America. If I could sum it up in one phrase it would be this: “fun, but arrogant as hell”.

May 2018 be the year more Americans check their global arrogance at the door.

2017 was the year my family started seriously contemplating a move back to the US. Each day I question whether it is an advisable one. Tuesdays it may be a yes, but by Wednesday morning, I’ve reversed my decision. But that is for another day’s discussion.

There were lowlights: a seemingly evergreen sadness at the never-ending news cycle of violence and death. Mass shootings in the United States, trucks wielded as weapons, suicide bombings that barely register in the headlines because they’re across the world. There were personal lowlights as well. Standing in my kitchen sobbing as I struggled to reconcile the vulnerability I felt with the fear of revealing it, the sheer cliff-face ahead of me raising two young boys, heirs to the very patriarchy I thought I’d be dismantling. Failure to secure a publisher for my novel, All the Spaces In Between. 

Art by Rebecca Fish Ewan

There were highlights, like reading 1001 nights to an audience of writers at my first writing conference. It’s been a long time since I did something with only myself in mind, which benefitted only me. It was powerful, uplifting, and tremendously rewarding. Having strangers ask for a hug because your words affected them is a powerful and humbling experience.

There was Wonder Woman and the Women’s March. There were the moments my sons described me as a feminist writer to their own friends and teachers. There was a trip to Washington DC, in which I literally stood and touched the stone edifice of so many buildings and felt their solidity ground me.

And of course, there was Hamilton, the soundtrack of the second half of my year. How lucky we are to be alive right now, indeed.

****

So here I am, looking ahead at my pile of new notebooks, of schedulers and calendars. At organizers and color-coded things. I know most of them will still be sitting there come December 2018, filled with the ragged edges of torn out shopping lists and scribbled notes about bills to pay. But the possibility they contain excites me nevertheless. I will persist.

I’m about a third of the way through novel #2, young adult speculative fiction. I hope in 2018 I’m three thirds of the way through it.

I will continue to write about women, to speak out about women, to fight for women. My words are slowly reaching more people. Bust Magazine reached out to me and has published a few of my essays. A fellow writer and editor asked me to pen a craft essay, which I used to highlight how I use my sex to enhance my writing, not hinder it. A parenting site reached out to interview me about raising feminist boys. As I joked to my husband, if I keep going at this rate, in 30 years I’ll be famous.

I am solid, finally grasping on to that quivering mass of rage-woman. I can actually grab a handful now. Actually much more than a handful, but again, I need to save something to write about next year, don’t I?

I know who I am. In fact, I’ve never been more sure of who I am.

How lucky we are to be alive right now, eh?

Bring it on, 2018.

 

 

What’s the Point of Having Rights if You’re Not Going to Use Them?

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
-Donald Trump

Last year Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, refused to stand during the American national anthem. Several other high-profile athletes such as US soccer star Megan Rapinnoe followed suit. The backlash was quick.

A year later, it hasn’t abated.

Looking past the fact that blind allegiance to a nationalistic symbol is about the most Un-American thing I can think of, that forced standing, saluting, singing, and pledging are exactly the sort of things that Americans abhor in other places, because you know…freedom….the bigger point is this:

The whole point of having certain inalienable rights as defined in the Constitution is to USE them. If we’re not going to use them, why spend so much time, energy, blood, and lives defending them?

People are getting their Kaeper-knickers in a twist about utilizing rights. Are rights merely meant to sit on a shelf somewhere, kept shiny but never used? Because if so they will atrophy. They’ll wither until they are of no use to anyone. Until they die.

Service men and women have fought and died to protect the rights Americans hold dear. Those rights are whispered into the ears of American children at night. We grow up on them. We eat them at greasy spoon diners and wash them down with Bud Light. They are our bread and butter, our meat and potatoes, and apple pie for dessert.

Rights.

Not a flag. Not an anthem. Not a pledge.

Protests, such as that of Colin Kaepernick and fellow athletes do not dishonor those sacrifices. In fact, I can’t think of anything that honors them more. Citizens using the very things so many gave their life to protect.

Rights.

It may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guarantee that bitterness still tastes sweeter than what Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are protesting: daily witnessing the fact that your life doesn’t count for as much as it does if you’re white.

Of course this is not about utilizing rights. This is about certain groups using their rights. When tiki-torch carrying white supremacists march en masse we hotly debate ‘rights’. When toddlers are routinely shot dead by unsecured guns, we wring our hands over ‘rights’. When statues glorifying slavery-supporting generals are questioned, we hem and haw over ‘rights’.

But when black Americans protest? Suddenly it’s not about rights. It’s about dishonoring. It’s about disrespect. It’s about refusal to bend the knee (oh, the irony).

They may as well be calling black NFL players ‘boy’.

America! Land of the free and home of the brave! Yet the landscape of my country is very different depending on who you are. And who you are has a lot to do with the color of your skin, your biological sex, and who you love.

As a white educated woman, I lead a different life than a woman of color of the same educational background. My life is very different life from that of a white male, a hispanic homosexual, a transgender female, or a white woman living below the poverty line.

I know it’s hard to see that. It’s easy to assume that everyone else out there has the same experiences –not only the day-to-day ones, but the overreaching ones as well, the ones that link together to make up the concrete foundation of your experience. That we all have access to the same raw materials. That those bootstraps Americans love to fetishize are available in one size fits all.

But that is simply not true.

Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennet and other black NFL players protest because their America is not the same as mine. Megan Rapinoe knelt because her America is not the same as mine. Their opportunities are not the same. Their access, their power. Forget pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps. What happens when you’re not even given access to the materials to even fashion them?

Yet when they use non-violent means of protest to call attention to these very different experiences, they are criticized, told to be quiet, threatened, and called unpatriotic.

I ask you, what choice have we left for those whose experience of the United States is not the same as yours, or mine? What choice have we left for those who keep trying to pull up the damn bootstraps only to find the ones we gave them are shoddy, damaged, or non-existent?

What choice?

What are people supposed to do? If you find protests so unpalatable, so offensive, then what course do you recommend? Because nothing else has worked. Nothing.

Racism, sexism, homophobia–they are all documented issues. Yet we continue to shuffle them under the rug and stuff them in the closet. We deny, deny, deny. We shift the blame and blame the victim. And then–and then!–when people use their rights to call attention to these problems, we tell them to find another way to do it because it’s “offensive”.

For real?

260 years ago, the idea of taxation without representation was enough to go to war.

We celebrate that uprising each year with fireworks and backyard barbecues. We celebrate those protests, many of them violent, which led to the birth of a nation. But when a non-violent protest asks us to look at the messy afterbirth of that same nation?

We can’t handle the truth.

We hide behind a flag, an anthem, a pledge.

The United States of America is not post-racism. There is literally no legitimate recourse if you are a person of color.

You’re beat down, then told you’re not. You’re told to use the right channels, but those channels are blocked. You’re told it’s all in your head, it’s not as bad as you think, it doesn’t exist. And when you stand over the dead bodies as evidence, you’re told it must have been your own fault.

How are you supposed to affect change if there are people who won’t even admit change is necessary?

 

Somewhere out there there’s a child sitting and watching these athletes saying, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not alone and here is someone willing to stand up for me.”

And that is how it begins. A teabag thrown into a harbor doesn’t make too much of an impact. A ship full of tea does.

But it all has to start somewhere.

What’s the point of having rights if we’re not going to use them?

What kind of message does it send when we value a symbol over a life?

And what does it say when we have a leader who refers to someone using their inalienable right as a son-of-a-bitch?

 

 

 

To My White Friends…We Have to Do Better

If you’re white, I need you to stop for a minute. Take a deep breath. Actually, take ten, this may take a while.

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I’m not going to call anyone a racist. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone they don’t deserve whatever they’ve worked to achieve in their lives.

I’m just going to say this: We need to do better.

We’re waaaaaaaayyyy beyond the ‘this makes me uncomfortable so I’m just going to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist‘ phase of the game. You know those stories about your mother’s friend’s cousin Gert, the one who smoked two packs a day, coughed up blood for years but chalked it up to cat allergies? The one who, when she eventually went to the doctor’s, found out she had stage 4 lung cancer? That’s where we are. We are at Stage 4 racism.

We, as white people are the cause. We, as white people could have done something about it earlier. We, as white people bear the responsibility for fixing it and cleaning up the fallout.

We need to do better. Big things, little things, every damn day things. We must do better.

Do better. Stop the “…but my great-uncle was denied a job because he was an Irish red-head” anecdotes. Stop using ‘some of my best friends are black,” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Stop using ‘black on black crime’ as a justification for refusing to acknowledge the killing of black and brown men and women (or even more importantly, a refusal to look at the institutionalized racism of the judicial system itself). Stop using “it’s how things used to be” as an excuse not to change.

Pointing to a red-haired uncle on the family tree or having watched The Cosby Show growing up, touting hip-hop as your favorite music genre or being appalled by the word ni**ger does not absolve us of complicity in this mess.

Because make no mistake, it’s a mess. It’s a fucking mess. And not only do we bear sole responsibility for this mess, for centuries we’ve been forcing/asking/expecting people of color to clean it up.

Do better. Own the damn mess.

Do better. Get over the fact that being called racist may hurt your feelings. Understand those were our ancestors, not us is not a valid excuse. Know that as whites we don’t get to turn away from the cancer of white supremacy by whining about history.

Why? We forfeited the right to put our feelings at the forefront or to play the fairness game way back when the US had to go to war over the issue of whether it was ok to own other human beings to bolster our profits.

Do better. The history of racism in the United States is not told in bronze statues and marble monuments. And it doesn’t begin with importing and trading human beings, but when white Europeans thought the genocide of Native Americans was a proportionate response to needing a place to live. It’s not about statues of men on horses. It is about systematically oppressing, subjugating, ignoring, raping, kidnapping, belittling, demeaning, and overlooking Native, black, and brown Americans–not only what they have endured, but what they have as accomplished as well. Not only in the past, but ever since. Right damn now.

Do better. Acknowledge just because black Americans are not in literal chains doesn’t mean they are not still bearing the weight of them.

Do better. Stop diluting the black experience. Stop saying All lives Matter. The BLM movement does not mean the lives of white people don’t matter. ALL history, past, and present points to the opposite–that white lives do indeed matter. In fact, statistically they matter MORE than black, brown, and native lives.

This is not an either/or situation. This is an ‘in addition to’.

When whites insist all lives matter because it hurts their feelings that someone might think or insinuate their or their white child’s life doesn’t matter? That’s diluting the message. And the message is this: We have always put the hurt feelings of white people above the very lives of black and brown people.

Do better. Stop turning away from racism with ‘hey, at least things are better than they used to be‘. I know this one is true… because looking back, I did that my whole life. Post slavery, post MLK, Jr.– no one ever taught me how deeply ingrained racism is. But it’s more than that. No one taught me about black girls like Ruby Bridges. No one taught me about whites burning the busses of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. No one taught me what happened to Emmet Till. No one mentioned the Tulsa Massacre that wiped out the wealthiest black community in the United States in one fell swoop. But equally importantly, no one ever taught me of the accomplishments of Pauli Murray, Amelia Boynton Robinson, or Katherine Johnson. When listing off successful business owners, no one mentioned Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire.

As a white girl growing up I learned Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape and Rosa Parks sat on a bus and now we’re all equal. That’s it.

My history was whitewashed. The bad AND the good.

Do better. Learn the names of black women and men who have always been there making history and never getting any credit. The ones who have been begging us to listen. The ones who we’ve been tuning out because we’re only tuned to hear our white skin frequency.

Do better. It’s easy enough to threaten to wash your kids’ mouths out with soap if you ever hear them say ni**er.  It’s not so easy to teach them the sneaky, serpentine ways that institutionalized racism runs like an electric current under everything we do.

Do better. It’s easy to say, don’t treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. It’s harder to say we are treated better because of the color of ours.

Do better. It’s easy to say hey, that’s not right. But it’s harder to say, here’s how we fix it. Because that means facing up to the fact that we all of us, ALL of us, have benefited from white supremacy. Even if we didn’t know it. Even if we’re poor. Yes, even if your Irish great-uncle with the red hair was barred from applying for a job. Even if you’ve been the victim of racial prejudice. Even if, even if, even if.

I walk through my life, a white skinned woman, with all of the privilege that confers upon me. The biggest privilege of all? I can turn away from racism. I can have a few dinner table conversations with my kids and pat myself on the back. I can convince myself I’m not like those hood-wearing triple K Klansman. I’m not even like everyone’s great-aunt who makes racist jokes at the Thanksgiving table that nobody blinks at.

Or.

I can do more. I can read and listen to voices of color. I can elevate them above white voices, support them and give them an amplifier in any way I can.

I can reexamine the way that I benefit from this skin I wear.

I can do better.

I acknowledge my life is different because of my white skin. Regardless of any hurdles I have faced, those hurdles would be magnified ten-fold if I was black. None of this invalidates my life, or me, or my accomplishments. No one is trying to take anything away from anyone else. Remember, it’s not either/or. It’s in addition to.

Do better. Stop demanding people of color explain themselves or educate you on racism. Our mess. Our responsibility.

Do better. Stop refusing to look at white supremacy as a political tool that has been used to keep the power in the hands on ONE group.

Do better. Stop using the success of black Americans as evidence of being post-racism. Lynching isn’t merely done from a tree in the back woods of Alabama. Black Americans have succeeded despite every roadblock we, as white people, have erected for them. They’ve had to be ten times better to get there. Recognize it for what it is.

Do better. Start branching out. One thing I try to do is diversify my go-to portfolio. Instead of using the first white woman or man who comes to mind, I seek out a woman or man of color to  hold up as examples. Use them. Whatever the opposite of dilute is, do it. Throw some color into the pool. It’s been over-bleached for too long. Representation matters.

Do better. Realize this centuries old mess is not going to be cleaned up in a day or a month or a year. Realize you’re going to fuck up and people are going to, rightly, call you on it. Listen to what they say and do better.

Now take ten more deep breathes and do better.