Apartheid, Racism, & Mixed Race People

Comedian Trevor Noah is a very funny guy. But he can be very serious too. His memoir Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood helped me understand apartheid, which he calls “apart-hate” for good reasons. 

According to Noah, “Apartheid was perfect racism.”

He describes the horrors of this system:

In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.

In other words, American racist policies contributed to the suffering and oppression of black South Africans in the twentieth century. This is a legacy of shame for all involved.

NoahNoah was born in 1984, ironically in an Orwellian police state that was South Africa. His status was complicated because he was mixed race. This wasn’t supposed to happen with anti-miscegenation laws in place. As the offspring of an African mother and European father, Noah came into the world as evidence that a crime had been committed. He writes, “…[O]ne of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race.”

While his stories are hard-hitting, they’re also heart-warming. He deploys his humor strategically. Despite his struggles and hardships, I felt uplifted in recognizing that his story is actually about how the love of his fearless mother contributed to his survival and success.

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In a racist U.S., mixed race people also face challenges. Not so much in Hawai’i although other racial issues persist.

Anti-miscegenation laws were designed to prevent different races, primarily Blacks and Whites in the U.S., from fraternizing socially and producing mixed-race children. Black people were not supposed to be equal to Whites; they weren’t supposed to be as human as Whites, so these laws were another attempt to dehumanize them, to mark them as “other.” In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these laws were unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. 

Hawai’i was one of nine states that never enacted such laws. In any case, they could not have been enforced, especially between military personnel and the local population when hordes of white men arrived in the islands in the late 1930s in advance of a likely war with Japan.

James Jones’s novel From Here to Eternity features these relationships. While his depiction of local characters are flat and caricatures more than realistic, I believe he accurately describes the predictable racial tensions. 

Another view of these racial tensions is recorded in Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History. In this book, John P. Rosa, professor of history at the University of Hawai’i, reveals the tragic consequences of racial conflict and the resulting racial injustice when military personnel accused several local boys of murder in the early 1930s, subsequently killing one of the boys. 

According to Rosa, these events galvanized the different ethnic groups into what has become Hawai’i’s local culture. Hordes of white servicemen, a transient population, arrived from the mainland where segregation laws and racist attitudes toward nonwhites were in place. How the military conducted itself in this case was a precursor to events during World War II when martial law was imposed in Hawai’i. I believe a case can be made that such military control was racially motivated.

An undercurrent of tension in varying degrees between locals and White people continues today. Male White privilege that justified colonization of the islands and eventual removal of its queen in order control the government to promote business interests, as well as the above incidents, provide the context for such tensions. 

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Remembering a Beloved Author

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

Toni

She made me think about our country’s dark history of slavery, the American identity tied to these atrocities and other acts of emotional and physical abuse against nonwhite Americans, and the legacy of these events. She made me think hard and deeply. Her words pierced my body, compelling me to comprehend the pain of those oppressed.

I don’t remember where I first heard about the novel Beloved, but I tried to read it twice and had to put it down. Morrison’s words were incomprehensible, full of such power and generational pain I was not accustomed to at the time.

In 1993, I was a working adult determined to complete my B.A. at the University of Washington, Bothell. I elected to take an Independent Study course on Black American Literature. Reading The Bluest Eye introduced me to Morrison’s literary ethos and gave me a context for appreciating and completing Beloved.

Here’s an excerpt from a response paper to Beloved for that class:

Can any form of violence, even one based on a mother’s love, be a real solution? In this novel, Sethe chooses one form of violence (death) over another (slavery) and ends up with another form of violence that harmed all the people she loved (Baby Suggs and her children) with alienation, fear, and mistrust. And yet, given the history of violence that is synonymous with slavery, which was the context for her decision, did Sethe really have any other choice? Furthermore, what does this history of violence against blacks say about America and present-day problems that black Americans confront?

Reading Morrison is often challenging. She asks readers important questions, some they’d rather not think about or might not have ever considered before. She requires critical thinking beyond her characters and stories, often pushing readers into uncomfortable places, forcing their minds and hearts to open in new ways.

Reading and re-reading her words are often necessary to appreciate the complexity of her characters and the unfolding story.

Morrison writes about black lives that hold true for many people of all colors. She appeals to our humanity while revealing our inhumanity to each other. Her truth-telling often promotes discomfort, yet it’s a necessary discomfort that can result in transformation. She gives us darkness so that we can recognize the light.

I, like so many, have been changed and blessed by Morrison and her fearless commitment to the truth about our violent history, women’s lives, and issues of equality that still haunt us.

In a Washington Post article (August 9, 2019), Michelle Obama says:

For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions.

Here’s a link to an interview of Morrison with Pam Houston from Oprah.com: “Precious Moments a Writer Lives For.”

Note: Thank you to artist Nina Krebs for giving me permission to post this portrait–a painting/collage with book titles on Morrison’s blouse and excerpts from pages of her books haloed in the background.

On the Shelf

Someone wants to publish your manuscript. Hooray! Break out the champagne and confetti! It’s every writer’s dream. The book is tangible proof of all your hard work. It’s a BIG moment!

As the publication date approaches, the worry begins. Will people buy the book? Will they like it?

The author does her best setting up book events and readings, asking for book reviews, using social media. She taps into her networks and informs her various communities about her book being published.

My communities include North Seattle College where I tutor, various writing groups (Hedgebrook, my personal writing group called The Cake Quartet, It’s About Time Reading Series, Jack Straw Writers Program, other writers I’ve met at various conferences), the ta’i chi group at Lake Forest Park, residents in my apartment building, my mahjongg group. I was surprised when I listed these various groups and began reaching out to inform them about my book. They were excited for me and eager to support my book.

I printed out promotional postcards and informational flyers and distributed them. I also gave them to friends to give to their friends.

So far, I’ve promoted my book in Portland, Seattle, and New York. I recently did a reading at Elliott Bay Book Co. here in Seattle. This historic bookstore is a literary icon, so I was very pleased to schedule this event!

Authors can do a lot.

However, there’s also a lot that’s out of their control. For example, placement of books on book shelves is up to the book store.

EB author shelf

The more visible the book is, the better the odds for book sales. Because I did an event at Elliot Bay, they placed my book on the shelf for their book events.  The top shelf is pretty nice placement! (I’m aware that this will change as more current events occur, but I can say I was on the top shelf at Elliott Bay, even if only for a short time!)

At Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, I’ve been on their bestsellers shelf since early June, at least that’s when one of my friends spotted it and informed me. I am

TPB best sellers

the store’s #5 bestselling book! Very cool for a debut book and non-professional in marketing. I guess networking works!

Here’s something else I do. I prepare for each book event with the intention to give my best reading. I hope to bring a piece of Hawai’i into the room, to interest the audience enough so they buy a book or two. Maybe for gifts.

I want bookstores to sell books, especially my book!

I arrive early so I can personalize the podium. Since I like colors, I bring a few things from home. A colorful cloth that evokes the tropics or a brightly feathered hula implement. When the audience walks in the room, they will immediately get a personal glimpse of who I am when they look at the front of the room.

Testing the mic and getting a sense of the room are also important tasks to ensure my comfort.

Bookstores and booksellers are an author’s friends. It’s important to have good relationships with them. I send thank you cards after each reading and let them know I appreciate what they do, that they’ve made the time to promote my book. After all, we are partners in this book business.

My book is now available as e-books in all formats. It’s wonderful to offer these options to readers.However, I’m sorry I cannot sign e-books.

It’s at book events, whether at stores, schools, libraries, or private homes, where I get to meet my readers. It’s very moving, both humbling and exhilarating, to see the faces of readers who have spent time with and money for my book, especially when they have connected with some part of my story.

 

 

 

 

 

Being an Author

Being an author requires marketing and promoting your book. It’s another side of myself I am getting to know. I am still not completely comfortable with this New Self, who’s always focused on her book, but so far she is behaving herself and not being totally obnoxious!

It feels like the cells of my body are rearranging themselves to accommodate this New Self. My old self did not feel comfortable in the spotlight, but would gladly support others to take the center of attention.

At AWP in March, I was handing out my publicity postcards to people I’d just met at the Portland Convention Center, leaving them on information tables, and so on. I had to make self-promotion part of my daily life.

PL portrait

Portland Reading

I first went public as an author of The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir at Passages Bookshop in Portland to a SRO crowd in late March. The reading featured several Willow Books authors at an off-site event during the conference.

Having printed lots of postcards to help promote my memoir, I unabashedly distributed them. The book cover is visually attractive and I hoped it would get people’s attention and generate interest in the book.

I was nervous about Seattle book launch scheduled for Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park on May 2. Since May is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I wanted to connect my book to this national cultural observation. It seemed to make sense even though API Heritage Month is not hugely recognized. LFP poster.jpg

I wasn’t sure who would actually show up although I was talking to people in all my various communities. And, yes, handing out postcards.

I planned and rehearsed my reading.

I made arrangements to serve island-style snacks like taro chips, mocha crunch, coconut candy, and butter mochi cake. Hawai’i people love their snacks! My friends helped me with the shopping and displaying/arranging the snacks for the reading with table cloths, ti leaves, plumeria blossoms.LFP book display snacks

As more and more people arrived, additional chairs had to be added to the original 40 already set up.

It felt overwhelming: So many people wanted to support me and my book. Longtime friends, my mahjongg sisters, colleagues at North Seattle College, people in my tai chi group, my neighbors in the apartment building where I live, and of course my writing friends.

Writing friends in Santa Barbara and Atlanta sent a bouquet of flowers. My Seattle friends surprised me with several lei, which touched me very much. 

LFP audience of friends neighborVery humbled and grateful for the SRO crowd standing in the aisles between bookshelves, I began the reading with an ancient canoe chant. I felt the aloha in the room during my reading and later as I signed books.

A friend came over from Pt. Townsend. Other

LFP ti leaf

Showing the book cover and a ti leaf. My mother used many of these to make the ti-leaf skirt shown on the cover.

friends came from the Eastside whom I had not seen in decades. It was a wonderful evening of surprises! I could not have wished for a better book launch and celebration for my book.

A definite celebration because people understand how dang hard it is to get published by any traditional press. It can take years, which it did for me.

Here’s the thing. There are no guarantees when you’re a writer. You can only keep writing, keep learning your craft, keep submitting, ride the emotional roller-coaster, and just keep going. Persevere is the mantra if a writer wants to become an author. Or as they say in Hawaiian: Kulia!

 

 

2019: Year of the Book

 

Mark your calendars!

March 1, 2019: Publication date for my memoir

Mid-February 2019: The public can pre-order copies from bookstores

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have had moments when I seriously doubted that The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir would ever be published. But persistence (or stubbornness) paid off.

It’s been a strange time. Between signing the book contract and the present, I have felt in limbo. I’ve been developing new writing, gathering information on marketing and promoting the book, sinking back into the manuscript during the editing process, and basically feeling like someone with multiple personalities.

Receiving the final artwork for the book cover helped to ground me. This was something physical, an important milestone in producing the book. I began to feel this is real, this is happening!

TA-DA! Here it is:

lava cover edit

 

In a bookstore, a well-designed book cover can determine whether a reader picks up a book or not. I love this cover and hope readers will too! MAHALO to the graphic artist at Aquarius Press for a terrific job.

Note: My mother made my ti leaf skirts for hula performances, as all mothers did in the 1950s. We had several ti plants in our yard, and I remember watching her cut the leaves with stalks long enough to bend. She used string to weave the stalks together. When it was done, she shredded the leaves into strands. I don’t remember if I was nervous about performing on a stage or any of the dances, but I remember the swish of these green skirts.

 

Women’s Stories Now

When author Stieg Larsson introduced readers in 2005 to Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I was mesmerized by this gritty, fearless, whip-smart character. I believed then as now that women experienced vicarious pleasure when Lisbeth took revenge on those who tortured and raped her, when she outsmarted everyone who tried to limit and control her. Whether they had been sexually harassed or assaulted themselves, women identified with her; Lisbeth became a cult hero and the Millennium Series became a global phenomenon.

The women speaking out against sexual predators may not be Lisbeth, but they are surely courageous in revealing their stories, their vulnerabilities, and trauma. Many of these men are powerful and wealthy. They have been successful in their fields, while these women have carried their shame and pain for many years, maybe decades. Their lives have been unequivocally altered. They have suffered in innumerable ways: emotionally, financially, etc. And yet, they are stepping into the public spotlight to tell their stories.

Because the few have become the many, more women are coming forward. And I suspect more will come because in this cultural moment, they are being heard. Believed. Instead of being dismissed, ignored, demonized. Both men and women are recognizing how some workplaces have been toxic for women and the pervasiveness of these attitudes that devalue women. The conversations include both men’s and women’s voices because these horrendous behaviors affect all of us.

Thanks to New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohy who broke the story about Harvey Weinstein on October 5, 2017. Remember their names! These women’s investigative reporting began a cultural revolution. So many voices could no longer be silent and broke through the dam created by power and privilege.

#MeToo is just one example.

Now Marti Noxon has created Dietland, a new TV series on AMC that taps into women’s stories, our complex lives, and the things/events that impact us. It’s based on Sarai Walker‘s novel and had been in development for two years, before sexual harassment and assault became part of our national dialogue. In an article for The Atlantic about Noxon, Sophie Gilbert describes the book:

…[A] guerrilla group of women kidnaps and murders men who’ve been accused of crimes against women, ranging from institutionalized misogyny to violent sexual assault. But that’s just the subplot. The rest of the novel deals with toxic beauty standards, the weight-loss industry, a magazine called Daisy Chain, rape culture, feminist infighting, and the coming of age of a lonely, 300-pound writer named Plum.

So, I was gobsmacked to see frequent commercials during the breaks for an online discount designer fashion site. Hello?? Yes, this show probably gets a huge female audience, but is anyone at the ad agency following the show’s themes?

Noxon is a writer, producer, and director of TV and film. She has worked on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, and Mad Men. In Dietland, women are channeling their rage to fight back at men and institutions that diminish and harm women. That’s not easy. The guerrilla group is called the Jennifers, and they have announced a list of men they are targeting called “The Penis 100.” 

Not sure who is on this list in this work of fiction, but unfortunately, we women can come up with plenty of names for such a list. Forget the border wall, we need a Wall of Shame for these names. 

If you have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, but have felt despair about how the government has oppressed and controlled the women and children of Gilead, Dietland may feel like an antidote. But don’t be fooled. Patriarchy and misogyny are still rampant in this series. The feel-good message offers women intelligent enough to fight back and send messages that they are not buying into the marketplace standards and values of what women should be and look like. These issues are systemic and not simple to fix, but meanwhile the show offers women revenge fantasies. 

Yes, we all should feel despair that safety and equality for women is far from a reality, but we shouldn’t feel hopeless. Nor powerless. The stories are coming. We need to pay attention, listen, support, and honor the storytellers whoever they are, wherever they are. The more that women tell their stories, the more power we garner to dismantle the status quo of toxic masculinity that prey on women and children. All the cultural warriors, both fictional and living, are inspiring us to fight back, speak up, and cry out for justice.

Hidden Figures

What a great title for a missing part of American history. This is the untold story of the vital contributions of African American women to American aviation and the NASA space program. Untold because historically women have been diminished or ignored, moreso women of color. In other words, this is a story of inequality based on race and gender.

Hidden FiguresStill playing in movie theaters after opening last December, the feature film based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly has struck a resounding chord in our culture. It captures the American can-do spirit with female protagonistsintelligent, strong women of color who don’t take “No” for an answer. I can’t think of another movie in recent years with female main characters working in a math and science environment.

I was mesmerized watching Taraji P. Henson in the role of Katherine Johnson writing math equations and solutions on a blackboard with supreme confidence. She was simply demonstrating what she knew, but also informing the room full of men that a black woman has just as much intelligence as they have. And maybe more.

The film has adapted a small section of the larger story of these women who worked as human computers verifying the computations of white male engineers. This was during the time of segregation so they worked as a separate unit from white men and women. Some of these hidden figures later advanced to work as peers with the men. The encouragement of their forward-thinking, enlightened parents permitted these girls to study and enjoy math. Most ended up as teachers; some heard about better-paying jobs in the federal government aviation program in Hampton, Virginia, which later became NASA.

After seeing the movie and reading the book, I experienced feelings of immense triumph for these women and women in general.  A sense of sadness followed. I was thinking about many other girls and women who don’t have opportunities for education and therefore can’t discover their talents, skills, and passion. This is a loss for individuals, yes, but also for our society and country. The women in Hidden Figures made significant contributions to their families, communities, and our country. How many people’s ambitions and potential are thwarted because of racism, sexism, and other biases?

Imagine if each American child has the same opportunities for education regardless of class, race, and gender. 

Imagine if they have the freedom to explore their talents, to challenge their minds without fear of failure and shame.

Imagine if each female is unhindered by sexual harassment or assault or any kind of sexism that would make her doubt herself.

Our current rape culture on campuses, in our armed services, in our families is destroying lives and compromising human potential. Many women don’t report these crimes because the system does not provide fairness, support, or justice to most victims. Few perpetrators are punished. In fact, victims are often blamed and punished for being raped.

The April issue of The Atlantic Magazine features an article that reveals how qualified women are still facing gender bias in the workplace, specifically in computer science. “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” reminds us how slowly attitudes are changing. As we’re encouraging girls to enter STEM programs to provide skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math, thus providing higher-paying jobs for women, the work environments in these fields sound all too similar to what Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson faced in the 1940s and 1950s.

The old boys club is alive and well, with all its ploys to keep women “in their place.” Women    in male-dominated fields today, like technology, are finding a hostile work environment where they are being blocked in getting promotions and creative opportunities. The article describes a survey of women in technology: “84%…had been told they were too aggressive; 66% had felt excluded from key networking opportunities because of their gender; 90% had witnessed sexist behavior at conferences and company off-site meetings….” And so it goes.

Gender bias still exists and is detrimental to individuals, society, and our country. It pulls everyone down, wounds and weakens our democracy. It’s true that there have been moments of success and triumph when a woman has stepped forward out of the shadows and been recognized for her talent, courage, or contribution. But many of these stories are still hidden. I wonder what would have happened to John Glenn’s space flight if Katherine Johnson had not provided the accurate computations for his return to earth. She did and he became an American hero. Only now decades later, she is receiving the recognition she so rightfully deserves.