How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Gave His Iconic “I Have a Dream” Speech in Detroit First

I’d wager that most of you didn’t know that before the March on Washington, DC, was the 125,000-strong Great March on Detroit. And that’s where 25,000 people first heard this iconic speech in Cobo Hall (now Cobo Center).

For the complete audio and text of his speech in Detroit, click here.

May we all take time today to remember a great man, a great minister, and a great Christian who made the greatest sacrifice for a great cause.

I’m pleased to say that this June 23, 1963 event is a turning point for two characters in my current WIP. And I’m extra pleased that I happen to be writing that chapter the very week we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s what I call Providence.

Adventures in Shameful American History

If I’ve been absent from the blog lately, it’s because I’m steadily checking things off my end-of-year to-do list, including much reading. I’m finishing up preliminary research for my novel and have spent much of the last six months exploring the very violent history of race in America, from pre-Civil War through the 1960s. And despite having minored in US history in college, it has been jaw-droppingly eye opening.

In school, we generally learn about the slave trade, the escalation of slavery with the advent of the cotton gin, the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation (whose 150th anniversary we have recently noted in this country), and the very beginnings of the period known as Reconstruction (maybe). During this time we learn to love Frederick Douglass, the former slave who ran in white circles, and to appreciate, but be slightly suspicious of, the more dangerous-sounding W.E.B. Du Bois. We then briefly consider the Industrial Revolution before we plunge into a string of wars overseas–the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Finally we circle back around to the race question. How have the descendants of those freed slaves been faring all this time we’ve been focused on lands across the oceans? Apparently poorly. So we read about the Civil Rights Movement and learn to love a pacifist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. and learn to be wary of people who preach revolution like Malcolm X. At least, that’s how it went when I was in my mostly white high school.

We get the arbitrary bookends of a struggle, as though Civil War were the beginning and Civil Rights were the end, which, obviously they weren’t. But even if they were the beginning and the end, what happens when we read just the first and last chapter of a book and nothing in between? We might be able to figure out what happened at the end, but we won’t understand why. Most importantly, we will not have had any way to identify with or even develop much empathy for the protagonist because we haven’t seen his struggles clearly. We’ll be given a clue here and there in the last chapter, but we won’t really know what those clues truly mean.

This is what happens when educators and media focus on the grand moments in history (like the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and yet neglect to help people fully understand the very long story that connects them, the frighteningly grim realities that tie those singular pretty moments together. We watch the stage being set and we see the moments before the final curtain, but while the play is being lived out on stage, we’re standing outside the theatre having a smoke.

So what happened while we weren’t paying attention? What happened in the years between Emancipation and I Have a Dream? That’s what I’ve been reading about. Day after day, week after week, I’ve been reading. And I have been stunned at all I never really allowed to sink in.

As a young student, my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was that it was about fairness. It wasn’t fair for one group to be treated as second class citizens. I never really understood how far beyond “separate but equal” or belittling speech or dirty looks the issue really went. The photos in our history books of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs cannot begin to help a person understand the sheer magnitude of the continuous suffering of black people in America.

Our books should have shown children picking up severed toes and fingers of lynching victims as souvenirs. Because that happened.

Our books should have shown people strung up and tortured for nothing more than baseless accusations or because they were nearest person with dark skin that the crowd had handy. Because that happened, at one point every four days.

Our books should have shown close-ups of anguished faces of bereft mothers, wives, children, and brothers. Because that happened with heartrending regularity.

Instead, we saw blurry figures seated at counters or standing in lines or walking down the street. Always from a distance too great to see the expressions on their faces.

And what could never be shown in a photo, but that can be drawn–slowly–from 1,000+ pages of interviews, statistics, newspaper clippings, and historical inquiry, is the psychological terrorism that lay beneath the outright terrorism. The confused and hurt minds of children growing up under a cloud of invisible and arbitrary rules, worried that even the smallest infraction could be the catalyst to their own death or the deaths of loved ones. The utter lack of any sense of self-worth that generation upon generation must have felt. The hopelessness.

But we don’t have time for real history. We only have time for soundbites and headlines. And so we don’t understand times past and thus we don’t understand the present time. We think, “Why are they so angry? Why can’t they just be patient? Why can’t they let things right themselves naturally?”

The more I’ve read, the more I realize that, had I been alive and black in the 1960s, I almost certainly would have been militant. I now understand those figures in history that I had been subtly taught to stand in judgment of for their confrontational writings and speeches. I think I would have admired Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to organize a nonviolent movement, but I would have found it hard to undertake personally. And I now have even more respect for the incredible individuals who did take part in peaceful civil disobedience and did not retaliate when they were attacked, hosed, bombed, and beaten–an almost supernatural forbearance.

There is no denying that the history of this country is one steeped as much in violence and oppression as any other in the history of the world. We like to believe that we are different. But we aren’t. We are not somehow above it. We pretend we are and we sit in judgment of societies that make no attempt to hide their violence. We decry genocide while we recently (in my parents’ lifetime) often stood but a hair’s breadth away from it. We focus on ideals and gloss over realities.

When you take the time to read deeply about slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, the Great Migration, race riots, and all the many political maneuverings carried out in order to subjugate, separate, and even annihilate the descendants of slaves in America, you see the awful truth: our history isn’t pretty.

But, you may argue, my ancestors never owned slaves, never lived in the South, never this, never that. I know. I can say the same about mine. Many of mine weren’t even Americans until the 1940s. The reality is, though, that if you live in America, its history is your history. We cannot avoid being formed by it. The present realities of our lives and our relationships with those people who look different than us are partially a product of that cumulative history, whether or not we had anything to do with it.

The thing is to not ignore it. Pretending violence and racism and subjugation do not exist does nothing to negate them. It is simply refusing to acknowledge the flames even as the house burns down around you. We should be able to learn about the past, talk about the past, and use the past to inform the future. A better future.

As I finish my initial research (right now I’m reading the incredibly readable and fascinating The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration) I am sobered, stunned, stupefied by the past–and yet I’m looking forward to working through our history with fiction. Sometimes the best way to display the truth in such a manner that others grasp it and allow it to change them is through stories. And I have a story to tell.

I only hope I am up to the task.

A History of English in 10 Minutes

Have you guys seen this? I love reading about and discussing word origins (or making them up when information isn’t readily available) and I love studying the development of the English language. So many intriguing questions…

How did we come to have the largest vocabulary of any spoken language, along with thousands upon thousands of archaic words that have fallen into disuse and create an endless source of material for those page-a-day calendars? What makes English so unique and adaptable? How did English become the international language of business and commerce?

Do yourself a favor and watch this great little history over your morning coffee or at your lunch hour.

Taking Your (Literary) Place in the History of the World

SoutheastAsiaMonday as I was tutoring my Chin friends, the two school-age boys, Moses and David, expressed their frustration with learning to write in English. Both are making strides in speaking and understanding speech, but in their classwork they find it difficult to transfer their newfound confidence with the spoken English word to paper. During the discussion that followed, David (14) said “English is too hard. I have to write a poem. What is a poem?”

What is a poem? What a question. I tried to answer this question by comparing poetry to other forms of literature. For instance, I said, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel (long fiction) and there are short stories (short fiction) and poetry would be even shorter, often rhymes, and usually follows some sort of pattern or rhythm. Then I began to recite some Robert Frost to give him an example.

I got confused looks in response.

David was recently supposed to read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class. I’m pretty sure he got to at least chapter 10 and as I looked through the book (which I haven’t read since I was his age) in order to help him with an essay a few weeks ago, I really felt for him. It would be hard enough to read a novel written in “proper” English for someone who just started to learn the language two years ago. But that book is written in dialect. Oh, my.

We got through our lesson, I answered some questions about how to buy airline tickets for a trip they are taking to Texas for a friend’s wedding, and then I got in my car and began to drive home to start making dinner. It was on the drive that it it hit me: The Chin do not have anything that can compare to the vast body of literature, both past and present, that exists in the English language.

They do not have libraries filled to bursting with novels, plays, short stories, poetry, histories, religious works, or diaries in their native language, one of almost 50 spoken by their ethnic group alone. The only written works I have seen in the Chin language they speak are the Bible and the English-Chin dictionary. I’m not sure what else exists out there, but their language did not even have a written form until at least the 1800s, so there can’t be much.

As a native English speaker who grew up with a history and a body of literature that is written and read, I can hardly conceive of not having hundreds of years of thought to access at the turn of a page or the click of a mouse. It is not that these lovely people do not have a history, it’s that they cannot access it.

Over the past couple years as we have met each week I have explained various American holidays, which often entails explaining American history, which then occasionally requires a lesson in world history. As a history buff and a history minor in college, I know all of this information off the top of my head. But when I ask my friends the history of their own country, I can get very little information from a time before the oldest in the family (at age 42) was alive. I cannot fathom knowing only what has happened in my own lifetime.

Why do these people not know their history? The biggest reason is because in Burma/Myanmar they were impoverished and persecuted. You don’t wile away the hours reading or even talking history when you are struggling every hour of the day to make a living from poor soil and avoid harassment by a military regime. The secondary reason is because no one wrote it down.

When you write, whether you write personal letters, diary entries, emails, blog posts, self-help books, novels, or histories, you preserve a small part of life for the generations that will come. If your words survive on paper or in digital form, people who live long after you are gone can surmise how you lived, what was important to you, what you feared.

When you write, you are in a small way immortal. That’s powerful stuff. It should cause us to examine what we are saying to posterity when we write, when we post on Facebook or Twitter, when we choose to put our nebulous thoughts into little black characters on a page.

What history are you writing? What legacy are you leaving? Does it say something important? Or will the generations to come find ours a trivial generation not worth studying?

My Chin friends are writing themselves a new history in a new country with new freedoms and new challenges. I hope my own small contributions to the vast body of literature in English will be so brave. And I hope yours will be as well.