SOL Tuesdays: Some thoughts on The Marrow Thieves

It was my librarian friend who pressed the book into my hands. I wasn’t sure I had time. We just started the school year.

She knew.

I began reading The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Fiction often throws me into disorientation which I somehow resent. I feel feeble-minded for not being able to keep up with the cast of characters and imagine them, each distinctly in my mind’s eye. Fiction can make me feel ‘less than’ sometimes: less than a strong reader, less than an attentive reader.

I read this story anyway which begins with the opening of a big bag of Doritos.

The fiction of The Marrow Thieves takes us into a dark, vicious future not very far away and every inch fathomable. That is both its magic and its grip. The tale it tells of another wave of destruction of indigenous populations across North America by none other the white colonizers. It’s a pillaging of a population which still maintains the ability to dream by those who have lost that same capacity. The native people are hunted for their bone marrow where their dreams are held.

I think it is the comprehensive idea of destruction that grabbed hold of me and did not let go. The narrative takes place in a time when climate change has wrought irreparable damage and environmental devastation defines landscapes more than anything else. Migration, resource scarcity, disease and insanity become the norm. And these are related as “The Story” told by the leader of a ragtag group of children and teens moving north through the bush evading “Recruiters” and others who might harm them.

One passage blew me away: “Soon they needed too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms.” (p. 89)

It’s often necessary to read about the struggles of others to understand what struggle even means.

I cannot remember reading a book and feeling so much fear, hope and kinship with the characters. While I prayed for resolution, I hardly expected it, though Dimaline’s writing which weaves story lines so gracefully offered reward enough regardless of the outcome.

My library friend knew I was ready. This was the fiction I needed to better see reality.

Mirror, Mirror, in the Words

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Have you ever caught a view of yourself in the mirror that surprised you? Where you suddenly notice a detail that betrays what you perhaps were feeling but you thought couldn’t be seen? That’s kind of what happened to me the other day, but the mirror I saw myself in consisted of words; a series of tweets, actually.  And each tweet seemed to bring that surprising detail into sharper and sharper focus. Then there were tears.

The tweets by Sonia Gupta described what’s at stake for people of color who decide to speak up against injustice on social media. She emphasizes that it’s not a show, and not about likeability or boosting follower counts but about claiming our right to exist in a society that recognizes us as fully human and worthy. She suggests that for those of fighting now, that we will not likely see significant change in our lifetimes; that “it’s a marathon we’ll never see the end of.” I think that’s the sentence that landed with a hard thud.

All of a sudden I had strange picture of myself ‘out there’ doing what I do: supporting, encouraging, reasoning, questioning, sharing, hearing, persisting and then crumbling under the weight. For some minutes I felt weak and deflated. Naming what was going on helped me recognize myself as both fierce and vulnerable these days.

The glimpse in that unexpected mirror reminded me of something I experienced in graduate school. Part of our coursework in Group Dynamics included attendance at a weekend Tavistock Institute. In a nutshell, a group of people convene under an artificial social structure which somehow forces participants to engage with each other and explore the elements of social organization: roles, authority, boundaries, tasks, and leadership, in the process. There were large group sessions as well as smaller group meetings where the structures given varied from nearly rigid to almost no structure at all. My whole cohort of 50 attended and another 30 or 40 people from another grad program were a part of this three day event.

A lot can happen in 3 days and being in close quarters with strangers and friends all bound to this emerging social structure we couldn’t quite understand but were constructing minute to minute – let me just say, it turned out to be pretty intense. Some folks behaved in surprising ways – they got loud, they broke rules, they challenged authority, they withdrew entirely, they broke down, they rose up. The experience proved quite unsettling for some. One breaking point came for me when I confronted the roles I had taken up in this process.

Leading up to the weekend there was a lot of excitement and also concern in my cohort about what might take place, how we might respond to this experiment of sorts. I distinctly remember being a voice of reassurance, counseling others not to worry, that we would be fine. During the weekend we were frequently asked to acknowledge the roles we were taking up in various settings. At some point it dawned on me that I, one of a handful of black women in my cohort, had taken up a “mammy” role in responding to the worries and fears mainly of my white male classmates before and during the institute. No one had asked me to take up the role, per se. I enacted it myself, with no particular forethought.

I can’t remember what event or words triggered my awakening. But I sat weeping for several minutes in the wake of that realization. Ever since then I have developed a greater sensitivity of how I select and take up various roles in different contexts. Sonia Gupta’s thread of tweets made me think deeply about the roles that I take up on social media. While my inclinations to nurture and support others remain strong, I have also become fiercer in my resistance to the social and political status quo. I find myself angry more often. I’m ready to fight.

And that new readiness – to fight, to assert, to push back, to protest – has me feeling like I’m holding my breath a lot of the time, trying to stay functional and constructive. But underneath there is sadness, fear, rage and exhaustion. Those are as real as my desire to assist and uplift. That the balance has become so delicate is perhaps the reality I hadn’t yet confronted.

image via Pixabay CC0

 

Reckoning With Resistance

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Today my mind has not strayed far from the awful crimes being committed against asylum-seeking families arriving at the southern border of the United States. Yes, my outrage is selective. Yes, the previous administration had a tremendous deportation machinery of its own. Yes, this preying on brown and black people by a white supremacist political structure in the US has deep historical roots. Yes, this policy-mandated behavior by immigration officials is entirely American and cruel at the same time.

The hard truths about this situation rest snugly embedded in a larger political context which features steady the erosion of democratic norms; rampant corruption and profiteering off the backs of the most vulnerable; a depressing exposure of historical illiteracy of the American populace, all wrapped up in a climate of fear, exhaustion and despair.  These hard truths are not the enemy.  Bitter realities, such as they are, show us the monsters of our own making – either through our silence, complacency or even active encouragement.

One of the hardest reads of my day centered around asking the question how was it possible for people to practice the cruelty necessary to carry out genocide on their neighbors and fellow citizens then (in WWII) and now. From the subReddit stream of AskHistorians:

The descent into cruelty and abhorrent deeds is one that in almost all historical situations is not caused by one individual’s personal cruelty but by a socially and political accepted mindset of necessity and acceptance of cruelty.

The reality we must face is recognizing our real and potential complicity with the cruelty proposed, enacted and denied by authorities, politicians, and everyone else who determines it better and safer to ‘get along by going along’. We are or will be regularly confronted with choices which uphold or further the cruelty rather than confronting and demanding its end. Hearing the audio of screaming children, seeing footage of caged children and teens, reading first-hand accounts of those directly involved either in the processing or being processed – these all provide ample evidence of awful realities – in snapshot form.

Feeling both hobbled and blessed by my geographical distance to the unfolding crisis, I tweet my desperation through the day. I try to refer others to meaningful threads. I comment on my own inclinations in posting widely on this topic. I throw stick after stick onto Twitter’s outrage bonfire and I question my own integrity in doing so. There can be no self-satisfied way to confront human rights abuse from afar. Discovering and applying my best resources to offering assistance require time and thought. (Truth without comfort: This is one battle among many, I can and should plan for the long haul.)

Perhaps by tossing my twigs on the outrage fire I seek to add my voice to the masses who resist a mindset prepared to normalize long-term detention of children and families seeking asylum in the United States (or in other wealth Western countries – see Australia). To resist a mindset that consciously and deliberately turns its back on upholding human rights. To resist a mindset that says my voice – my living-outside-the-country, black woman of substance voice – doesn’t count.

I am learning resistance. I am embracing resistance. I am struggling in my resistance. But I will persist. I must persist. We must persist.

Thank you.

image via Pixabay CC0

A Few Words About The End

balloon-2697686_1920 you run holding your breath to meet it

crazybusypreoccuiedjustonemorethingpressed

and the exhale that follows is both public and private.

At some point the air is out

the bright balloon that you were that bounced through the last days

so visible, animated and claimable

is suddenly inert, deflated, floppy.

There I am on the sofa

There I am in bed

in the middle of an afternoon

wrapped in a coma-like sleep where the tensions fall away from my body

one after the other

layers sliding off and dissolving into nothing.

What it means to be done.

Finished.

Released.

Into the summer of my independence.

Our Work Is Everywhere We Look

I have extended family who engage in rich conversations about a variety of social and political topics per e-mail. I feel so grateful for these exchanges even if I may not add my voice to the mix very often. I love the fact that at least 3 generations are involved in these dialogues in the most loving and generous atmosphere. Recently, one family member offered the video commissioned by Starbucks on the history of African-Americans in public spaces as a point of discussion.

The written conversation that followed was insightful, nuanced and wide-ranging. While watching the video, all kinds of emotions came up for me. I identified with a number of statements, particularly those of black women. But one impression that has stuck with me since viewing the video almost 2 weeks ago: It’s the white male talking about how he leaves his house, without a care, without a worry about how he will be seen or judged. As he says: “I can just do my thing.” It stuck because that sounds like my life in progress. That’s mostly what I feel like when I leave my apartment in the leafy green neighborhood of this Central European capital which claims to be the city with the highest quality of life in the world.

I have lived here for almost 30 years. Vienna is home. I speak German, my 2 sons have dual citizenship, I work in an international environment that is both financially secure and socially elevated. I have more layers of privilege and comfort than can be named in a single blog post. I am healthy, able-bodied, straight, and married. My immigration status is secure. So the white guy in the video talking about being able to do his thing  most clearly mirrors my own experience far away from the country I grew up in.

And it feels daring to write that. Like I’m not supposed to say that I’m doing alright. I am a Black woman, after all. But that’s just how internalized stereotyping works. Even if I am living the dream in many ways, a second hidden script in my head, reinforced by plenty of mainstream media, suggests that I’ve been falsely cast, I don’t deserve to be here, this scenario is not replicable. The existence of this second script should not surprise anyone. While I can usually usher these idea right back out of my head once they arrive, their steady recurrence indicates a connection to the much greater influence of anti-black and sexist bias in North American society at large. The phenomenon of internalized inferiority extends far beyond my individual experience and I need to understand that.

Meanwhile, on another front, my friend Valeria Brown raised a question on Twitter to White people that stopped many in their tracks.

My first response to the questions was “Uh oh, I wonder how this is gonna go…”  It was the kind of question that made me instinctively hold my breath. Maybe because I know that there is no good answer. One respondent called it “jarring mental exercise.” When pressed for a number, responses ranged from $0 (assumption of futility of being heard in demanding compensation) to tens of millions of dollars. Go through and read the various responses which trickled in over time. It is a sobering experience to say the least.  And Val reposted the question a few times.

I’m sure for many giving an answer felt like stepping into a trap. It could not end well. One respondent commented: “This question. It’s gonna break people.” And Val talks about that when she listed her take-aways a day later. Among them she noted:

and

The whole of this experiment is still working in me so I can hardly imagine the impact it had and must be having on Val. One more observation she makes is that based on several responses, one would have the impression that to be Black must necessarily entail poverty, poor health and education outcomes, extreme violence and so on. It was hard to hear and take in and process and I say that as someone speaking from a remarkable distance in a number of ways.

So on the one hand, I get to be here in Europe living my best life (Hallelujah!) and still be deeply enmeshed in the effects of US specific anti-black racism coupled with rampant sexism. I work in a very White and international environment, where awareness of racism among students can vary greatly. As a topic of formal adult discussion, racism hardly surfaces and if so, mainly in response to a specific incident.  At graduation last night where no less than 5 black or black-presenting students in a class of about 70 received their diplomas, 4 of them mentioned their involvement in the Diversity Club (launched this year to address some racist incidents) as points of pride. (While gathering their diploma, a brief descriptive statement was read about each graduate.) Hearing that was such a necessary reminder that my work, our work, is everywhere we look.

Graduation Day 1983 with Mom

When I graduated high school, I knew all about how to conduct myself in ways that would make White people feel comfortable around me. As one young woman in the documentary video described:

“It’s not like I can mute my actual physical blackness, right? So I just assume that people can see a particular thing when they see the color of my skin, so everything else has to be, like, perfect and clean and as blended-in as possible. It’s really just an arsenal of different masks, you know?”

I know that issue of presentation as a young Black person in a predominantly White setting. Back in the early 80’s, I don’t remember putting much thought into it. I simply followed the necessary rules and codes to stay socially afloat, to be able to run with the friends I valued and it worked. My understanding of those codes and rules have afforded me all kinds of conveniences which stretch into the present. I fit in because I choose to. At every turn I display (and have displayed) those behaviors which indicate to my conspicuously White environment, “hey, I get you and it is highly unlikely that I will put your comfort on the line by talking about race and confronting you with your deeply held biases of which you may or may not be aware.” That’s a rule.

Val’s question fundamentally challenges that rule. Folks are immediately uncomfortable because the truth is so much harsher than tossing around the phrases about ‘doing the work’ on social media. Val put a big stone in our path and our job is to do more than admire it for its magnitude and rough surface. We have to move the stone. Upend it. Or chip away at it, feverishly.  But none of us will move ahead if we can’t answer Val’s question AND bring more folks in to the drive to move this stone out of our path. One way or another.

The layers of privilege which I enjoy right now are not guaranteed for generations, although I will do my best to insure that my children and grandchildren benefit from these as much as possible. Yet the more significant legacy would be for me, my children and grandchildren to go through life recognizing our own privilege and using it to deliberately open doors for others to move up, ahead and forward in their lives.

I’ve reached a stage in my life where I think about the future in terms of what I will leave behind besides environmental destruction, political instability, social unrest and mounting inequality. Realistically, words and ideas will be most of what is left. Words that nudge the stone, ideas that call people to join the struggle. That’s a legacy I dream of.

Stuck.

As in failing to move forward. Failing to make visible progress.

Stuck. As if plastered to the spot.

Willing and unable to pull the lever, unlock the lock, or do whatever that thing is you do to start something rolling.

Scrolling through social media, clicking and stabbing at so much emptiness. Pausing occasionally to say please and thank you and hmph.

Stuck.

Release. My release when it comes

will be sudden and unexpected as if it had been there the whole time and saying, “what do you mean you were stuck?”

“That’s ludicrous.”

This is no way to approach writing a substantive piece of work that people should read and congratulate me on.

No way at all. Stuck.

Creativity on hold. Backed up communication channels. System blockage.

Remembering: No one is waiting up late for this.

There is no stop watch running.

Tomorrow is another day.

I’m stuck.

And I am.