In 1971 Alma Routsong, aka Isabel, Miller published a lesbian novel entitled Patience and Sarah. It’s the story of two women who love each other and refuse to be denied that love by family or cultural biases against such relationships. They lead a quiet and fulfilling life together, touched by moments of humor and argument. At the end of the narrative, the author reflects on just how unlikely such a life story still was by saying “You can’t tell a gift how to come.” I’ve remembered that line all these years because it keeps being the best way to describe how I am feeling about yet one more unexpected event or realization. It came to me again yesterday after I had attended my regular 12-step meeting (currently via the magic of Zoomland). At this meeting, we spend the first half listening to someone reading who and what we are about and then someone else’s talking about a step or tradition. The second half of our hour is devoted to small groups where each person speaks to the step of the day and then shares how our week has been in relation to the program we are working.
Someone with more electronic savvy than I breaks the 30+ assembly into a bunch of small groups, each of us appearing in our little Zoom box as we are connected. I wait eagerly to see who will be in my group and am often delighted to see a face I know will have helpful things to say. Yesterday, however, two of the three other women were members I hardly know and with whom I have never been in a small sharing group. The forth person is someone with whom I do have slight context. So I was a little guarded as we began to share. What happened next was a total “gift,” wrapped in paper I hadn’t recognized as beautiful.
The first speaker took advantage of an option I’ve never witnessed being used in the meeting, i.e., she used her time to ask for feedback about how she was to grieve over a recent death. The other women said things that moved me to tears and showed me a willingness to be vulnerable just because a fellow member asked for help. So I finally spoke a little about my way of reacting to my own grief by saying that I decided some years ago to stop speaking about or hoping for “closure.” I shared that at one point I had written the word on a small piece of paper to which I struck a match and watched as it burnt out in a saucer in my kitchen. Once this exchange had occurred, the rest of us spoke about whatever we wanted to say about the step or our lives. It seemed to me the level of sharing reached a depth seldom reached even when I’ve been in groups with folks with whom I am so much closer than I am with my three Zoom-boxed women.
I kept hearing one or another of them saying wise and clear-eyed things about how hard she is working to stay minimally calm and hopeful even as the world around us is increasingly divided and chaotic. We all agreed that the program helps us in ways we never could have imagined, so maybe if I’d remember Isabel Miller’s last sentence in time, I could have introduced it into our little Zoom space. I’m pretty sure my tiny cohort would have nodded or done a “thumbs up” to show me they felt as I was feeling–our time in that break-out space was truly a “gift” and we none of us would have expected it when we saw the others being attached to our screen. But the gift came anyway…. Just as it did to Patience and Sarah.
These days, I am washed over by all the losses of my own, of my friends, and of my country. Like many others, losing a world with scheduled events and responsibilities has not led to my being able to do things I used to say I was “too busy” to accomplish. Being less “busy” means I lose days or whole weeks without making progress on any of those projects and activities I began setting up for myself when the pandemic regimen began. This lack of motivation to do even things I relish, e.g., painting walls or being in my beloved garden for hours on end, propelled me eventually to set up a couple of Zoom sessions with an old therapist. She introduced me to “behavioral therapy” and I set up an Action Plan where I’d write in a little spiral notebook just one thing I was going to do on a given day. Cautioning me against self-sabotage, I didn’t try to have one per day; maybe three in a week. This broke through some lassitude and I finally did things like lay down bags of mulch in my garden so weeds wouldn’t thrive, though I’d remained frozen about the bag so long that the weeds it was to prevent had returned. So an activity that might have taken a few minutes–cutting open the bag, pouring out the mulch, and spreading it lovingly with my gloveless hands–took the better part of an hour. But I did it and felt proud of myself for moving off that particular dime.
I’ve continued to list more projects in my little notebook and even complete some of them. So now I don’t berate myself for procrastination. But my next hurdle made more difficult by not being able to be in other people’s houses or have them in mine turned out to be how to cope with the fact that too many of my old and good friends were having their serious health issues or coping with serious health issues visited upon those they love. But I knew where to turn for help on this kind of loss: I attend a 12-step program that teaches me to concentrate on my own side of the street, and how to love and support someone important to me without being consumed by their pain or sadness. So I worked my program hard and have been able most days to know where I start and stop in relation to those closest to me. And, of course, I turn out to be a better friend because I understand that their pain and sadness is their pain and sadness, not mine.
Then those of us in Minneapolis have had to face the callous murder of George Floyd by a white cop who clearly felt a horrible sense of rightness as he kept his left hand in his pants pocket and his knee on another human being’s neck until and after he stop breathing. Mr. Floyd’s senseless killing became the next in a nightmarish list of names of black men and women shot or otherwise killed by police who almost always go unconnected or punished by the essentially white justice system. All this constitutes loss for me–of the specific and beloved human beings whose lives have been cut short just because their skin is black, and of even a vestige of equality under the law. So I do listen to these individuals’ families and legal teams. And I read books by the likes of Ibram Kendi or Isabel Wilkerson or Resmaa Menakem or Claudia Rankine.
Finally, there’s the world of America in 2020, ruled by a despot who lacks three components I have long argued make us human beings–he has no brain, he has no heart, he has no soul. I understand that it is best if I listen very sparingly to news, even presented by PBS since they must report the same facts as other sources. If his face and voice show up when I turn on the TV, I mute immediately so as to avoid fury and meltdown. But I know what’s happening to what we think of as our democracy, flawed and imperfect as it surely remains. And loss on that large a scale is frightens me. That hovering fear got measurably worse when RBG died and he and his Republican minions raced to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court that means Chief Justice Roberts will lose control of that body. So, even as I wept over the inevitable lost battle over all the cancers that have been visited upon Justice Ginsberg, I looked for ways I can be active.
This last level of loss–of institutions and practices long adhered to by leaders with whom I might not agree but whom I could count on to respect those institutions and practices much of the time–staggers me. A friend with whom I walk once a week said recently “Things I thought were solid have turned into liquid under this president.” That metaphor leaves me putting my smaller losses into perspective even as I honor that they are real losses. And I now believe lots and lots of us are grieving. So we need to think in those terms and not ward off feeling how it feels to be grieving. I want to reach out in ways I still can to tell those who matter to me that they matter to me. And I want to listen to whatever it is they choose to share with me, offering them silent support and promising not to get tired of hearing what hurts. That way a few of my “solids” cannot be melted by the heated rhetoric from the man in the White House or by the ghostly presence of the virus, or by fact that more and more white people in this country are able to admit that institutional racism exists all around and inside us.
With no movie houses open, a friend and I decided about a month ago to watch a bunch of Spike Lee films in chronological order. For me, most of these viewings were first time events. I’d tried to watch “BlacKkKlansman” shortly after it became available on Netflix, but at that time, I just couldn’t deal with all the horrible names black people were called as Lee set the scene with “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” moments. Now I’ve watched the whole movie and had a lively discussion with my friend, part of which I want to write about because I think Lee is doing something important about skin color as a major determinant of identity. Ron Stallworth, a black man hired into the overwhelmingly white police force in Colorado Springs, is sent under cover to a speech by Stokely Carmichael just as he was becoming known as Kwame True. Intrigued by some of what he heard, Ron pushes his superior officer to let him investigate the Ku Klux Klan. He will speak by telephone with local Klansmen (and eventually to David Duke, the Grand Wizard) while a white fellow officer, Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, will meet with and become accepted by the group.
One of the first things about this story that draws me is this doubleness. No black man could possibly become a member of the KKK, so Flip is crucial as the public face of this investigation. But the intelligence driving the investigation is a black officer who teachers his white twin how to use negative epithets about black people that will appeal to the Klan: “monkey,” “coon,” “mongrel,” and, foremost, “nigger.” What Flip isn’t ready for, however, once he is in a room with Klan members, is the flood of similarly awful epithets about Jews yelled out at him. Flip is Jewish but has never thought about it, thinking of himself as just another white man. In the movie, it’s when he has to say all the awful words about his tribe that he awakens to being Jewish in a country that lumps his sort in with blacks and gays.
Once accepted into the local chapter, Ron emerges as a future leader since his vicious racist rants over the telephone and in person convince the current head that he’s found a replacement. We then get a serious of fierce and hilarious telephone calls between black Ron and David Duke in which Lee makes a telling point about the role of language in a racial world. “They” surely don’t talk the same as “we” to white supremacists. So Ron goads David who declares that he can tell he’s speaking to a proper white man: Ron asks Duke to give him an example of how he can be so sure and Duke says it’s in how Ron says “are.” White people just say a one-syllable word–ARE–while “coons” say “ARE-UH,” making it a two-syllable word and giving themselves away to people like him and Ron. Lee’s edgy humor at the ridiculousness of this logic lets our black policeman win the day.
As long as the Klansmen can’t SEE “Ron,” all the black twin has to do is mimic speech and emotional disgust. So, when black Ron is sent to guard David Duke who is visiting Colorado Springs to initiate white Ron into the group, Lee’s point about skin color takes center stage. Duke is horrified to have to accept anything from one of “them,” so when black Ron asks white Ron to take a picture of him with “Mr. Duke,” revulsion overtakes the Grand Wizard. He feels physically defiled to have been touched by a member of the racial group he would like to obliterate from the face of the earth. (At one point in the movie, Duke says what they need to do is get someone elected to the White House so things can get settled properly. Surely this comment is not lost on anyone watching the movie in 2020 America.)
Finally, Lee once again, as in several other of his films, presents in clear terms how women are treated by many men. The Klansmen are fiercely homosocial, though we do meet the wife of the head of the chapter. Of course, she has subjugated herself completely to “her man,” fawning over him as he barely acknowledges her presence for most of the movie. Several times, she reminds him that she stands ready to help him/them at any time and in any way. So late in the film, when the Klan decides to put an explosive in the mailbox of black Ron’s home, it is the wife who volunteers. When it is she who gets caught by the police for blowing up a car–she can’t squeeze the explosive into the mailbox and frantically finds a Plan B so she can finally do something for her husband, I credit Lee with showing us that the men may talk loudly about how they hate all blacks, but they don’t do anything the least bit risky, leaving that to the woman they have ignored and erased.
The two actors playing private and pubic Ron Stallworth develop a friendship that is strong and believable. What Lee has done in this movie, in my estimation, is demonstrate that skin color may make all the difference in a radicalized culture, two individual people can work through, around, and out of that confining and destructive box. So Ron and Flip are the huge winners, even if their very white bosses make them drop the investigation and destroy all the evidence of what they’ve found about the odious KKK members in their community.
Recently, a white woman taking part in the increasingly violent demonstrations by progressives in Portland, OR, screamed something like “I’m a single mom and you’ve forced me to leave my child and come stand with these demonstrators.” The “you” in her statement, of course, are the federal troops sent to Portland by the president to quell violence. This single mom seems to me to be establishing herself as a special ally to victims of racial injustice. So her remark is patently about her and not the people of color who live under the yoke of that injustice every day. Her loud assertion also announces that she is “special” and so should be honored and appreciated for all she is giving up to “stand with” individuals whose lives are in constant danger. She and those like her who see themselves as saviors rather than allies may well qualify as a special spin-off of Robin Diangelo’s “fragile” white people.
On some college/university campuses lately, progressive students who adhere to a “cancel culture” approach to people who disagree with their politics or who argue for having thoughtful conversations among people of differing persuasions often assert that such remarks “threaten my safety.” When I read this, I flashed to the white supremacy card cops play when under investigation for killing yet another black person: “I felt my life was in danger.” Juries seem to collapse once they hear this, abandoning any serious attempts to determine guilt or innocence. Surely the progressives who feel their safety “threatened” by words others utter about their views mimic the defense hauled out by the very police they putatively despise and protest against.
When Women’s Studies was just beginning to become part of college and university curricula (the 1960s and ’70s), I attended national conferences of feminist faculty, overwhelmingly white at the time, and listened to colleagues who were intent on creating what they called “safe classrooms” for their students, especially students of color. This seemed like a romantic dream that smacked of arrogance and “saviorhood,” and once again to be about the white faculty person rather than a student who might feel hyper visible because of subject matter that mirrored their lives. Sometimes I offered my skepticism at our being able to do that, since such students had no reason to “trust” me just because I declared on opening day that I was building a protective bubble for the 50 minutes of our class. Those remarks were not received positively; I was seen as a pessimist, as someone unwilling to embrace the new aura created by feminist pedagogy.
It is very hard to resist feeling “special” if I, as a white person who could make an “A” on lots of tests intended to measure racist attitudes and behaviors. I want to step in, take over, recommend, get credit, stand apart from the “real” racists currently emboldened by a mean-spirited egomaniac with lots of power. What many black thinkers and activists say I need to do is keep my mouth shut and listen or read what life is like trying to survive and flourish in America if your skin color isn’t “white.” When I do that, my specialness evaporates because I understand that I still harbor and sometimes express or act on deeply embedded attitudes and beliefs taught me from infancy. I am anything but singular–at best, I’m just one more white person trying to lay aside those embedded attitudes and beliefs so that I am able to ACT in new ways that might one day allow me to say I am anti-racist today, anti-racist tomorrow, anti-racist forever.