Thursday, June 25, 2015

Charleston, Sorrow, Silence, Speech

Here is where I am coming from. I am an American in Canada. I am the daughter of working-class Baptists, descended from German, Polish, and an unspecified southern mix of immigrants, as well as probably Cherokee--though most Americans seem to claim as much. (It's part of the folk culture, I think, a way to feel less bad about Manifest Destiny since it blurs the line between "us" and "them.") I grew up outside Detroit. I am a white woman with a PhD in English, focusing especially on women writers, postcolonial literature, race and gender, and religion. I am preparing to teach about the Middle Passage, Native American jurisdiction, and NAFTA in a Saskatchewan classroom this fall, via texts like Beloved (Morrison), The Round House (Erdrich), and The Guardians (Castillo). I am raising a little girl. I am learning to care for another gardener's perennials in a house newly purchased.

I have no right to speak, no platform to speak. I am uneasy at the thought of self-aggrandizement--using tragedy as an excuse to write and receive affirmation, the rush of accumulating social media likes and shares.

The horrors pile up. I watch them. I comb my daughter's hair, blinking back tears. Brutality, rampant prejudice, death, shrill arguments that leave no space for actual listening. Not to mention the under-reported and unreported tragedies, the deaths-by-drone, the Elsewhere sorrows.

I observe, mostly silent, doubly removed as an expatriate, while Canadians lose crucial freedoms, its leaders seeming to shrug off serious suggestions to ameliorate the effects of its own wicked history--while my own country, day after day, exports news of its bloodbaths. I am not the one to speak, the suburban white woman, young and untried.

Mostly, then, I listen. I follow friends who compile Black sources, Indigenous sources; I read up. I donate funds to organizations that seek to undo injustices. I attend events when I can. I am helping to plan a conference that will do a tiny local part in these larger conversations about structures of power and justice and hope. I bake bread. I weed the flowerbeds. I read some more.

Lately, though, I feel that my silence might be a rejection of responsibility. I feel, deeply, intuitively, uncomfortably, that I may need to share a few words with my corner of the internet.

Here is what I know: I know texts. I sit, figuratively, at the feet of womanists, postcolonial feminist theologians, novelists. I read and re-read their stories and theories and laments, seeking not to idealize or idolize or romanticize them but to learn from painfully-earned wisdom. I have painfully-earned wisdom of my own, as well, but it is different. I am seeking to gather together the various wisdoms, to learn from more than myself.

A crucial insight: If there is one inescapable point in Toni Morrison's Beloved, a complex and nuanced novel, it is that the history of slave trade in the Americas will come back to haunt. Everybody should be reading Beloved. Everybody should be reading The Guardians. Everybody should be reading The Round House. Not just my students in Transnational Literature--all of us. We need these stories to confront us and challenge us.

A following crucial insight: I am culpable. As a white person who benefits from a system that holds my skin colour as neutral, as regular, as default (see the "flesh"-colored crayon I grew up with; hold it next to my skin), I am implicated in a racist system. Never mind that I was born in the 1980s; never mind that I grew up in racially diverse schools; never mind that I read and study African-American literature. I benefit from a structure that hurts others, symbolically and materially, emotionally and spiritually. (Parallel: never mind that I've only been in Canada for three years. As a white woman, a university professor, I am implicated in the whole history and system that stole land, livelihood, culture, and self-respect from Aboriginal peoples and now blames them for the troubles that follow.)

I'm not saying I'm personally guilty, or that we should wallow in regret and self-hatred. I'm saying that I benefit while others struggle. And I am left to wonder: what does self-divestment look like? What role does lament play? How do I raise a child in this world, this broken and brilliant world, raise her to know the history and lament it and also feel the nourishment of hope and community? What are my responsibilities?

This is what I sense: I should keep reading. I should keep listening. I should stand before my classes and admit the gaps in my knowledge even as I seek to teach them texts about Others--without idealizing Otherness to the point that we no longer see the particular Others and their particular joys and pains (always a temptation: see Aunt Jemima/Mammy; see Strong Silent Tragic Native). I should raise my voice with others. And sometimes I should step back and let others do the talking.

What are your ideas, friends? How do you confront the privilege and deprivation within you and around you?

Reading suggestions:
Seven Ways to be a White Ally
The Crunk Feminist Collective

No comments:

Post a Comment