Given all the static this past weekend, public and personal, I chose not to post on Saturday as I usually do. But that doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been churning. It has, and here’s the big idea, not new, but worth repeating: writers have a unique opportunity to engage in the public debate. We can apply the same four words that I preach to other writers: commit, discover, create, connect.
How to be heard in the uproar, to add our voices to the millions? The four words can clarify our beliefs and our ability to contribute to the health of our communities. We begin when we COMMIT ourselves to the causes that raise our hackles and our blood pressure. We DISCOVER our strengths and talents to change or to preserve what matters most. We CREATE a clear statement of our own beliefs, and we CONNECT through our writing with friends, colleagues, and the opposition. We listen, and we “keep calm and carry on.” This worked for England during the horrors of war; it will work for us.
Now that the marchers are safely home–and I thank all of them–we have an even greater responsibility to use our gifts wisely. We are better than name calling and outshouting the haters. We are better than ridicule and unfounded accusations. We are better than ignorance and mindless complicity. We are even better than pink hats. We are not lightning strikes. We pull the plow the whole length of the garden plot. We are parents who know that the job of raising a democracy is a life’s work. This I believe.
Characters live long if they catch the devoted attention of readers. Characters act and react and please and disappoint. “Don’t open that cellar door!” But the character opens the door and out leaps. . . a lost child. Characters take risks, and writers take risks when they breathe truth and texture to a character. When they avoid the cliche, the stereotype.
I will long remember Ivoe Williams, the lead character in Jam on the Vine, a debut novel by LaShonda Katrice Barnett. I’ve written before about my need to understand black lives because I grew up mostly in small towns in Maine where black people were not so much invisible as fictitious. There was a rumor that a black family had once lived on Durgintown Road in Cornish, but I never saw a black face until, oh, I guess when I started nursing school in Providence, RI. I read only about white characters, like Alex in The Black Stallion. That was as black as my early reading got. Then I went to grad school in Georgia. Finally, black faces, but not in my subdivision. Division–oh, the truth in that word.
So here I am, wondering what to do to educate myself, to find and uproot my hidden biases. Ivoe helps. She is a young black woman with who starts her own newspaper and puts herself on the front lines of the race wars in America in the early part of the 20th century. She’s braver than I am. And I care about her because Barnett shows me the close up I need to care about Ivoe, her parents (her mother is Muslim), her siblings, and her lover, a woman named Ona. I’m often scared for Ivoe. There are doors I wish she would not open. But she does. One of those doors is in my head.
Barnett has taught history and literature at prestigious colleges, so her cred is real when she writes about riots, lynchings, arson and other evils that Ivoe confronts. I will read more books like Jam as part of my education in American culture. Confrontation is emotional; education is essential.
READ FOR EQUALITY
It’s past time to think about inequality in the publishing business, the people of color under-represented in libraries, bookstores, on school reading lists, and in kiddie lit. The problem lies partly with white editors who “can’t identify” with characters of color. And then there’s the Market Effect. Publishers too often assume that only people of color will buy books written by blacks, Asians, or other non-white authors. Well, even those white readers who would read these books cannot buy what is not available.
And more than ever the U.S. public needs the Other Voice in order to humanize rather than demonize the rich cultures that lie outside the pale. Yes, the pale. Too many white readers, agents, editors and the like have walled themselves inside a white-literature ghetto. Like Plato’s cave people they see a shadowy reflection of a reality more diverse and textured than they can imagine.
One meaningful action all readers can take in these divisive times is to READ FOR EQUALITY. Learn about the black lives that we say matter. And if the bookstore or library has a sickly white pallor, say something. If the reading list a child brings home from school is mainstream white, suggest colorful additions or substitutions. Browse reviews of books from outside the knee-jerk best seller lists.
I won’t take to the streets and I have too few black neighbors to make face time a positive choice, but I have some control over what I read. And now I have the hot links I’ve posted below to help educate me about those who don’t look like me, who may not live as I do, but who can tell a good story, write a good poem or memoir and show me what matters in black lives.