“I always liked to arrange things. I guess it’s my only real vocation. By putting things in order, I create and understand at the same time.”
— The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector
In a similar fashion, I am calmed and comforted by arranging. I feel a strong correlation between the appearance of my home and my mental state. But I like this extra component that G.H., in Lispector’s fashioning, adds: that order brings both the ability to create and understand. I have always felt this innately but never made the direct connection. I enjoy creating, but unlike stereotypical “creative types” (e.g., my sister, an artist who thrives amid piles and piles of objects), I have always needed the prerequisite of order. Otherwise, for me, there is no creation. There is no understanding.
There were a few famous novelists stalking around town last week. On the way home from the library the other day, I feel fairly certain that I saw our old landlord haranguing one of these novelists on a street corner. Old Landlord was talking and gesturing and Famous Novelist was listening silently, tight-lipped, while Old Landlord’s patient dog was sitting by a hydrant. I wanted so badly to pull over and eavesdrop. I don’t even know if I saw what I thought I saw, but I wanted to see it, and so now I have.
To end on a grave note: This is the only thing we should be talking about right now. Black lives matter. Say it every day.
And then, fellow whites, let us think about this for a moment, in humility.
I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect in the personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.
— James Baldwin, “The Price May Be Too High” (1969)
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
— Peggy MacIntosh (1988), quoted in What Does It Mean to Be White?, by Robin DiAngelo (2012)
I have been thinking about this quote so much this week. I read African-American writers all summer but had been lulled into this sense that I was somehow removed from the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America, that it was not about me, a white woman; it was a cause to care about and advocate for but somehow outside my purview or even responsibility. DiAngelo’s book was an experience of having the scales fall from my eyes. I have been thinking about white complicity for some months now, but nowhere nearly as deeply as I have upon reading What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. I have so much more to say and process on the subject, but I feel like (a) I’m having a personal awakening, and (b) I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long. Please forgive me. Forgive me for my lifetime of white blindness. I am working on myself.
And it is always good to be outside oneself, to focus sincerely on someone else and her life or his experiences.
I whipped myself into a brief rage today over something very trivial, a benefit that I was usually given that was temporarily taken away (only for a day!), and I was angry until my (weird/genial) coworker asked me to touch his hair and assess if my curly-girl recommendations were working, and I thought, Oh, this person is ridiculous, and I am being ridiculous, and everything is going to be fine. Drink some green tea and get over yourself, Self.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward
The End of the Story, Lydia Davis
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach
In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way: A Graphic Novel, Stéphane Heuet
I don’t know what to do about cops who keep murdering black people.
But I do know that I live in a bubble of white ignorance. I am ensconced in privilege because of centuries of racism, building up like a geological shelf in this country. We add a thin layer of progress and then cover it up with more hatred, more fear, more terror.
I have the freedom, in America, to live in this awful blindness. I am not afraid to pass a police officer when I walk down the street. I am not afraid to drive, anywhere; I do not have to wonder, when I drive to the grocery store or to my office, if today is my last day. I am not afraid that my brother will be mistaken for a criminal and murdered in the street on a sunny afternoon. I am not afraid that my sisters will be arrested for an imaginary traffic violation and then be found dead in a jail cell. My life is not under constant threat from my fellow citizens. I have the undeserved freedom to not fear these things.
I do know that I am afraid to talk about race. I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. I am afraid of being misinterpreted. This fear seems to characterize most white people. And so we stay silent.
Our silence is what helps keep racism alive and well in the United States.
White people, we have to talk to each other about race. We have to stop pretending that we’re not racist, that we don’t know anyone who is racist, that we have X number of black friends. Stop.
We have to eliminate racism in our communities by starting these conversations with each other. We have to rebuild bridges that we have been aloof and indifferent enough to watch burn. We have to help each other overcome our collective lifetimes of bigotry, brought on by comfortable ignorance and comparative freedom.
The quieter we are, the more complicit we become in this evil.
I feel totally wrecked, having just finished Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, which Wei left us (along with many other gifts) last weekend. We talked a lot about race that weekend, even though three-fourths of us were out of our depth. I feel the same way I did that night as I do now, having finished these poems: weak and weepy with frustration—frustration at myself, at cyclical injustice, at my own culpability and ignorance. What is to be done? How can we make up for all of the evil that has gone on and continued to go on in our nation’s desperate bid to maintain white supremacy?
Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.
This novel is supposedly William Faulkner-lite, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. To my deep and unutterable shame, I have slogged through The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! with no pleasant memories of either. However. This? I really liked.
Light in August is the accessible proof for the claim that some make, that Faulkner is the greatest writer of all time. After reading this novel, I find that to be a plausible statement. I wanted to believe in Faulkner’s unmatched greatness after having read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, but I only pretended to understand that claim, in the same way that I pretended to understand ranking Ulyssesas the greatest novel ever written. The works are too dense, difficult, and vast for me, and so I nod quietly and assume their genius without attempting to comprehend. This, however, was comprehensible and a solid and clear proof of Faulkner’s brilliance and his unblemished standing in the Western canon.
The novel, published and set in 1932, concerns a small town in Mississippi with a cast of complicated and contentious characters. The lack of progress, poverty, and dismal state of race relations made me think that this book was set in the late 1800s. I was shocked when I realized that it was intended as a portrait of the contemporary deep South. But Faulkner knew it like no other. Light in August follows three interconnected characters in this town, judiciously examining their motives and propelling their dark and fascinating destinies.
A young white woman, Lena, arrives in town, alone and very pregnant, searching for the father of her baby. She knows him as Lucas Burch, and he last promised that he’d “send for her” once he moved down to Mississippi, a promise that we soon learn he is no good for. While looking for Burch, Lena meets Byron Bunch, who quickly falls in love with her. Byron Bunch helps her find Burch, who is now going by the name of Joe Brown. Brown has been living with a strange and secretive man, Joe Christmas. Christmas more or less becomes the central character of the story and it is his sad and perplexing fate that we become most concerned with.
Christmas becomes involved with a white woman in town, Joanna, the daughter of a famously abolitionist and thus unpopular family. Their relationship is built on a desperate and erotic dependence and is, to say the least, twisted and unhealthy. Through a series of unfortunate events, Joanna’s house is burned to the ground and she is found inside, murdered and nearly decapitated. The killer is on the lam and is suspected to be Brown or Christmas. Faulkner never clearly tells us who killed Joanna, but the townspeople are convinced it’s Christmas and commence a man hunt for him. Their desire for Christmas’s life is intensified when it is revealed that Christmas is half-black. I won’t give away everything, as I nearly have, except to say that this is not a happy story. Faulkner doesn’t peddle shiny endings. He writes the recognizably gritty and honest stories and captures the darkness of both Mississippi and the human condition.
I happened to be reading Light in August while I was reading The Help, which was one of the worst (and easily most overrated) books I read all year. This was a fascinating juxtaposition. Light in August helped shine light on all the ways that Kathryn Stockett failed in her feel-good portrayal of Mississippi some 30 years later. Faulkner provided a brilliant contrast to Stockett’s fairytale world, in which all people are 100% good or 100% evil, and in which you finish the novel feeling really good about white people saving the day for black people. Faulkner is too honest to perpetuate that terrible myth. Unsurprisingly, he is vastly more insightful than Stockett in his reading of human nature. In the dark and uncomforting universe of this novel, people are complicated and imperfect. Their motives are not immediately apparent. No one is purely good; no one is purely evil; no one is easily summed up in one line, like you can do with all of Stockett’s two-dimensional characters. People are not so simple, he reminds us. People, both white and black, are full of mixed motives, mystery, and promise. Faulkner lifts the veil and forces us to focus on this uncomfortable truth.