what I've been reading

Yesterday I met a dear friend to watch the documentary,Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am at a small theater in Nashville. Before the film, we met for a drink and talked about all the things. This friend and I stumbled upon each other near or in our 40s, and we have been making up for lost time since. She is brilliant and fierce and compassionate and reflective. She is curious and challenging and knows who she is and isn’t. Time together feels abundant, full of possibilities and lament, hope and outrage. She makes me better.

So does Toni Morrison. I’m so sad her voice has reached its coda. Spending three hours together and with Morrison, we explored ALL the ways to be a human, to love and to hurt, to be torn apart and put back together again. Time well spent.

Of course I am biased. I love books and think words are magnificently powerful. I rarely regret any moment I spend with a book in my hands. In the film, a Morrison scholar, like a precious disciple, suggests that the written word is the only real medium that allows a person to immerse themselves in the skin of another. Books help us to dive deep, to witness and share the thoughts, histories, hopes, fears and emotions of a character. Good characters are precise in a universal kind of way, and he thought Morrison wrote people better than anyone.

In the spirit of losing (and understanding?) ourselves by immersing our thinking in someone else’s context, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve read in the past couple of years. Particularly for those of us hoping to understand and confront the racialized society we live in, these texts help. (And stun, and shatter, and inspire, and undo, and motivate, and educate, and satisfy.)

Happy Reading.

Recent-ish Books Worth Reading in the Quest for Racial Justice

Addressing our Historical Gaps

Stamped From the Beginning Ibram X. Kendi

Academic, thick, and accessible. A well documented and contextualized account of racialized understandings in America.

 

The Color of Compromise Jemar Tisby

History of the Church’s action and inaction regarding racial oppression. Truth-telling that demands the church reckon with our past.

 

Stony the Road Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Academic essays and photos discussing the history of black resistance. Gates is a rare scholar determined to teach us all, convinced that his work is relevant and meaningful for each of us. He is right.

 

Waking Up White Debbie Irving

Personal account of a wealthy white woman studying the origins of racial inequities interwoven with research explaining the history of those disparities (informative and personal).

 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria Beverly Daniel Tatum

Academic, but from a social science lens mixed with observational research. The 2017 Introduction is one of the best pieces I’ve read on historically contextualizing our current moment.

The Color of Law Richard Rothstein

Deep dive into the history of segregation at the hands of our government. Academic but accessible.

Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge

Clear about her own boundaries and determined to educate, she covers the reality of and paths of resistance against structural racism in Britain. Includes a fabulous chapter on the nature of the interaction between feminist and antiracist activists.

  

Personal Accounts of Experiencing/Overcoming Prejudice and Valuable Advice on How to Engage the Work

How to be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi

Just got it…can’t describe it yet but expect to devour it shortly. He is an incredible thinker and communicator.

White Awake Daniel Hill

Story of a well-meaning, woke-ish pastor who tried to start a multicultural church in Chicago, and learned a lot through his failures as he learned to be antiracist as a Christ follower.

I’m Still Here Austin Channing Brown

Personal account of the cost of being “the only one” in many white, church/non prof spaces. A love letter to black women saying, “I see you. I hear you. We’ve got this.”

 Between the World and Me Ta-nehisi Coates

A letter from a black writer to his son about being in his skin in America. Morrison called it “required reading.” Wow.

Dream With Me John Perkins

Reflection on how to reconcile communities without hurting them from a legend in community development.

 

Finally, Fiction

I’ll only say here that I recently reread Morrison’s Love and Home, and both are brilliant. The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved get all the love. They are indeed wonderful. But so are the others. Pick any book she wrote and wrestle/read your way through. You might just come away understanding your town, the people who share it, and yourself, a little better.

an announcement

Two years ago I launched ExpandYourUs with the unwavering support of my family and the massive technical support of my sister. Since then I have written essays every week. Always prompted by the goings on in the world around us, sometimes they are thoughts on how we might better think about the way we live, or how we treat each other. Sometimes they are filled with outrage at how mean we can be to vulnerable others. Sometimes they attempt to contextualize our current moment with a retelling of histories often erased. Sometimes they are a lament, and other times they celebrate the good.

I have learned that each of you readers can surprise and delight me when you engage with this work. I have learned that it IS work to write and revise on a weekly deadline. I have learned that reading someone else’s thoughts every week can feel impossible, like getting through the New Yorker before the next one arrives! I have also learned that I am not invincible, and that sometimes I need to rest.

Therefore! On this two year anniversary of sorts, I’ve decided to publish an essay every other week, slowing my production significantly. I hope this will both improve the clarity and effectiveness of the writing, and that it will incentivize you to pause and read more often! I’m also working on a way to post an audio file each week, so you can listen to a ten minute reading of the essay as you go about your day. (Let me know if you are a tech wizard and have ideas!).

Since this feels like a juncture of sorts for me, I’ll also say that I’m so very grateful for the curiosity you have shown me as you allow me to help us think about the way we think about each other. I remain convinced that each of us are capable of living in ways that improves the lives of those around us. Indeed, each of us sacrifices for others all the time in beautiful ways. My hope is that we will simply expand our circles so that we care about more people, seeing them as our brothers and sisters. As I’ve grown fond of praying, “Expand my capacity to care about all of it. Help me never see a living soul and utter, ‘Not my problem.’ Everything matters. Amen.”

aim higher: on guns and manners

This weekend dozens of lives were lost to what is often called “senseless gun violence.” Having experienced the horror of watching a loved one lose his life, I know pain can be significantly worse when the death feels senseless. I grieve with the families who lost sons and moms and cousins and neighbors, all the more because the grief, still so new, feels infinitely avoidable, reversible even. The ‘senseless’ nature of what appears to be random violence strengthens the shock, and we sit stunned: surely this could not have happened. Again. 

But it has, and we can argue about the many ways to make sense of what has happened, and what continues to happen—over 250 times in 2019—in our country. The shooter in El Paso offered his own attempt at making sense of his actions, posting his thoughts about the world and what is wrong with it. He, echoing certain sentiments of our President, believes that people who are not white are what is wrong with our country. To that end, making all the sense in the world, he decided to kill as many of the problem-makers as he could. Makes sense.

Others blame the power of the NRA and the strong legislation they have passed for decades to protect the free will and rights of gun owners. They will make sense of the deaths by blaming the lack of universal background checks for gun buyers, or trade show loopholes, or bump stocks, or gaping deficits in our mental health coverage and treatment. From this perspective, the resulting violence makes sense. 

I’d like to offer another explanation in an effort to make sense of the world around us. It fits here in this series examining the gaps between the things we know to be true and the things we continue to accept, senseless as they are. Outright violence toward others makes sense when we recognize that as a society, we have chosen good manners over the good. Despite the fact that we believe some speech is uncivil, hateful, and even dangerous, most of us rarely choose to speak up when we witness it face to face. Instead, we stay quiet, preferring good manners, and leave the hate lingering, unchecked, in the air.

We, collectively, prefer peace keeping to peace making. 

Imagine men, gathered around a grill in a backyard, kids playing nearby. One of them shakes his head and whistles when another mentions the name of a young and attractive teacher at the neighborhood school. The whistler goes on to say, “I wish she’d teach me a thing or two.” The men laugh, some uncomfortably, knowing that teacher has been objectified in demeaning ways.

Imagine a group of women discussing a friend whose kids go to a school with a wide variety of races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. They say, “Can you imagine? Think about all the bad influences the kids will have to deal with. They won’t be able to go to playdates or anything!” The women nod knowingly, while a few just look down, uncertain how to respond to the prejudices and assumptions the other women accept about a community they don’t know. 

In both of these instances, we often choose to let inappropriate speech go unchecked. When we stay silent—even knowing it is wrong—we honor the evil spoken by others. We believe the lie that it would be bad manners to express discomfort with another person’s dehumanizing stance. We assume we would be the ‘bad guy’ if we speak up, and instead protect the person whose bigoted perspectives and poor assumptions abuse an entire gender, race or class. 

Schools now teach that we all have a part to play in stopping bullies; indeed, bystanders have many options if they want to help. And yet, how often do adults simply look down, mouths closed, while speech that demeans others is muttered around us? We tend to think more highly of ourselves and our good citizenship than we deserve. We like to think we are like Spiderman: good, responsible stewards of all the power we have been given. Instead though, I’m afraid we horde our power and abandon our values if they threaten our comfort.  

I understand that no one wants to be the jerk who makes the barbeque uncomfortable by confronting the sexist man demeaning his kid’s teacher. On the other hand, Seriously?! We would rather not say a word of caution than to allow a “great guy” to freely and shamelessly objectify a woman while his daughters play nearby? This kind of thinking helps preserve the hateful thinking of those who demean and hurt others. When we privilege the status quo and our comfort over the safety and dignity of all people, we create environments where a white supremacist mass murderer can believe his thoughts echo the thoughts of most other white Americans. Instead of normalizing words that dismiss or hurt others, could we normalize challenging such thoughts? Could we all have the courage to speak up and say, “What do you mean by that?”, or “I don’t agree; can you help me understand what you are suggesting?”

Last night our neighbors stopped by, and as the conversation turned to the killings of the weekend, we sensed a shared desperation: What do we do? What can I do to stop this madness? Voting, lobbying and education were mentioned; marching and calling out in protest was suggested. Perhaps the hardest, bravest thing each of us can do is to simply challenge the lies told in our presence. Take responsibility for what is uttered around you. Sure, start a non-profit, and call your Senator. In the meantime though, be the person you hope you are. The next time a friend or acquaintance says a terrible thing about other people, speak up immediately to challenge that assumption. Instead of thinking it is bad manners to “cause a scene”, make it bad manners to be a white supremacist. Make it bad manners to tell a racist or sexist joke.

If we stop our silence, perhaps we can help identify those who want to annihilate certain types of people, getting them help before they hurt others. Their destructive thinking should stick out in all the worst ways, not get lost in what a lot of people say because no one ever asks them to stop.