Tag Archives: race

One Nation…With Liberty and Justice For All

20th April 2013

Today as I walked into my American literature class, just having seen the interview with the Boston bombing suspects’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni, I armed myself with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a clean, new copy given to me by a former student just this morning. Not all of them were aware of what had happened in Boston; the other students aware of the news filled them in, and then I read them this:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

[As an invisible person]…you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.  – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I stopped reading when the invisible man describes spooking a man in the street and then beating the man because he doesn’t see the invisible man, saying: “I was both disgusted and ashamed…. Then I was amused: Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life.”

I closed my book and said, “Sometimes the desire to be seen makes people do unimaginable things.” Invisible Man may be a work of fiction, but fiction so often reflects real life, and I certainly believe it’s capable of reflecting real emotion, and that description of feeling so outside of society that no one sees you that you purposely “bump” against it? It gives me chills.

Mass killings are, regardless of other motives, about attention, whether that is attention to a cause or a deep-seated anger or pain. One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, reportedly said in a wrestling profile, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” Though I won’t speculate as to his thoughts, it does seem that to some extent he felt excluded, Othered, just as the invisible man does. And just as the invisible man rails against his invisibility as an act of reclamation of self and of defiance against those who don’t see him, I believe too that these mass killings are at a very basic level about the same thing.

In my class this semester, we’ve focused many of our discussions on the inability to successfully answer the question: What or who is an American?  We spent time attempting to define the word, and with each text, I try to bring us around to whether that text is exemplifying or undermining our societal norms/goals. I think it’s a valuable conversation to have.

I brought up the FBI photos of the suspects, and I asked them what first came into their minds. We talked about the underlying issues in speculating the suspects’ origins, pointing out that if we can’t define who or what an American is, how can we possibly glance at a photograph and tell? A couple stated if they could speak with the suspects that they might be able to narrow it down, but I pointed out that students in our classroom have accents and that we don’t doubt their qualifications as Americans. I explained that I don’t have the answers here. I have no better definition than the rudely constructed one we’ve updated all semester. In the end, does it matter whether or not the suspects are American? Will it change the deaths or the life-altering injuries or the trauma?

Part of what I’ve seen this week is our intense desire as a nation to know. We want to know exactly what happened, how many people are dead, what the injuries are to others. We want to know who did this and why and how. We just want to know. Because if we know, we can place blame. We can tuck this away into a particular category in our minds and feel safe. As the victim in Invisible Man, we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that the terror wasn’t in our minds and hastily push it back into the darkness. That is very much human nature.

Yet it is that same desperate need for categorization – if the suspect is [insert ethnicity here], the motive must have been [insanity, anger, hatred of America, drugs, extremism, religion] – that causes us to make others feel excluded. And this exclusion all too often makes the excluded bump us back.

One of my students said, “But we’re not like that. We’re college students. We’re open minded and tolerant.” And it’s true, for the most part. They are. But what I wanted them to understand, what I want *us* to understand, is that we can’t escape this society we live in. We can’t remove ourselves from those of us who are also suspicious of those with accents or different skin color or those who beat a woman because of her religion and what we think that means. The reporters questioning Ruslan Tsarni are us, as much as I absolutely hate that aspect of my country. Our need to know creates the need for more, and that need creates the heartbreaking moment when a reporter asks a man living in America what he thinks about a country he calls home, a question that much of this population would never be asked.

President Obama last night said in his address, “…one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on earth but also what makes Boston such a great city is that we welcome people from all around the world, people from every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe. So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let’s make sure that we sustain that spirit.” And for a moment, I wanted to believe it. Instead, I found myself hearing his words less as an acclamation and more as an invocation: Please let us be these people.

And I think, now, sitting at my computer, trying to process the terror and fear and anger and sadness and shock of this week: Please let us live up to what we so like to talk about being. Please. Please let us be these people.

Audiobook review: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

18th August 2011

Wait. YOU don't hold playing cards over your voluminous cleavage? Really? Oh, me neither.

Bond is back, and this time he’s in America, rooting out SMERSH through their Harlem contact, “Mr. Big.” Someone is selling gold coins, part of Sir Henry Morgan’s treasure, to fund socialist interests in America. Bond is sent to throw a wrench in the plans. Mr. Big is larger than life and has absolute power, partially because he is believed to be the zombie of a voodoo leader – and also because he incredibly brutal. Solitaire, a psychic, is brought in to help Mr. Big determine Bond’s plans, but she foils Mr. Big and lies as to Bond’s intentions. Cruel and unyielding, Mr. Big isn’t satisfied to let Bond – or anyone working with him – have a pass.

I wasn’t in love with this book. After thoroughly enjoying Casino Royale, which I thought was so smart and well paced, Live and Let Die felt onerous and heavy. Felix Leiter is back, and his and Bond’s friendship was one of my favorite parts of the book. However, though Simon Vance’s narration was stellar as usual, the latter half of the book seemed to drag. We knew where the gold was coming from, Mr. Big had killed or maimed what seemed like a dozen people, and here we were, following them to Jamaica for a showdown.

Plus, Bond was out of his element. America is very different from the UK, and Harlem in the 50s is unlike anything Bond has experienced. The overt racism was really difficult to get through, though it certainly shed light as to how African Americans and Jamaican Americans were treated even during that time period.

All in all, I will definitely continue with the series; this was just a bit of a miss for me.

 

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

14th July 2011

*I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of this book from Ms. Jones at BEA11. You can purchase a copy of this book pubbed by Algonquin through Indiebound.

Sometimes it is really, really difficult to write a review. Not because you didn’t like a particular book, but because you did. Silver Sparrow is that book for me, and I have saved about six different drafts of this review. So just know, I loved this book.

******

From the first line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” Jones tells a story unlike any other I have read, about Witherspoon’s two daughters – Dana, the “outside” daughter and Chaurisse, the “inside” daughter.

James spends one night a week with Dana and her mom Gwen and the rest of the week with Chaurisse and her mom, Laverne. However, Dana and her mom live with the burden of knowing about James’s other family, while Laverne and Chaurisse have no idea of James’s betrayal. But James’s secret (and quite beautiful) wife and daughter don’t remain a secret for long, and inevitably the two girls meet. Dana Lynn is curious about her counterpart – the girl allowed to be called James Witherspoon’s daughter.  Chaurisse, though, is oblivious to Dana’s relation to her. All she knows is she isn’t “silver” or pretty like Dana, and sometimes Dana has an anger that puzzles Chaurisse.

What Chaurisse doesn’t understand is the true selfishness James shows toward Dana. Once, she comes home with a drawing from elementary school. In it, she draws her daddy and his other family in the foreground and Dana and her mother in the background. Her daddy tells her she can’t draw pictures like that because it’s nobody’s business:

“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him.

He put me down from his lap, so we could look each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.”

I’m not a momma, but I had some choice words for this man when I read this scene. And maybe that’s why it has been so difficult for me to write this review. Because try as I might, I cannot forget what James Witherspoon did to the women he loves. Yes, Silver Sparrow is a story about love, friendship, sisterhood, loss and growing up, but it is also more than anything, a story of one man’s decision and the women he loves having to painfully come to terms with that choice.

 ******

Read this: immediately/as soon as possible/when you get a chance/eh-if you’re bored

jenn aka the picky girl