February is Black History Month

In the space of one week, I attended an art exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum here in Seattle “The Fabric of Our lives: Tales of Dirty Laundry, White Sheets & Bodies–In Parts,” saw the movie Selma, and read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped.

I had not intentionally planned to immerse myself into African American history during this last week of January, but the confluence of images and stories was a great reminder of the ongoing struggles of African Americans that unfortunately we are still witnessing.

I am interested in this history as an American because we Americans need to be aware of all our history, especially those pieces we are not proud of, because they impact our present. I also have a vested interest in this history as a woman of color; this history of racism and prejudice is similar to my Chinese ancestors’ history in America, and therefore, the strength and courage of African Americans to survive and fight for their rights have paved the way for me and other Americans, who have been and are disadvantaged, different, and non-white.

Artist Anastacia Tolbert has created artwork influenced by her slave ancestry. The exhibit runs through March 22. It is provocative and uncomfortable. If you get a chance to see it, and I highly recommend it, take a break between viewings. Although it’s not a big exhibit, there’s a lot to take in and process. The paintings and other elements in the exhibit may appear benign at first glance, but the violence of white people against their slaves is the real story here and inescapable.

Selma. This is a great movie with fine actors. If you don’t know the history of the struggle for Civil Rights, then you should see this movie. If you don’t remember this history, then you need to be reminded. Again, this will be uncomfortable to watch, but necessarily so. The violence and injustice against Black Americans has continued into the twentieth century from the time of slavery.

Men We Reaped puts faces on the tragedy of racism. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we Americans are still struggling with this issue. Ward’s casual tone belies the urgency and fatalism of the characters. Despite the darkness of despair that she reveals in her poor Black community in Mississippi, her writing shines a light of love and compassion on her family, community, and the lives of the young men lost.

Ward writes:

Racism, poverty, and violence are the primary factors that encourage depression in Black men, and I’d guess that this is true for Black women as well. Seven percent of African American men develop depression during their lifetime, and according to experts, this is probably an underestimate due to lack of screening and treatment services. They will not get care for their mental disorders….Not treating these mental disorders costs Black men and women dearly, because when mental disorders aren’t treated, Black men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide, and suicide, and all of these, of course, affect not just the Black men who suffer from them but their families and the glue that holds the community together as well.

I gained a deeper appreciation for Black parents who justifiably fear for the safety and well-being of their children. This fear is profound. This goes back centuries to broken families, whether from abductions in Africa or the selling of slave children away from their parents or random killings of Black people. Black parents carry generations of grief, fear, and Injustice. And it’s a heavy weight.

Kudos to these artists for their courage in sharing and reminding us about their pain, which truly affects all of us. Until someone writes the whole history of how greed and oppression built our country, we would do well to review and understand African American history, the legacies of our slave culture, and also the many, many contributions of the Black men and women in our communities throughout America.

Aging & Going Rogue

In The New York Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor admitted:

“As for putting books down without finishing them, I do that all the time. When you pass 70, you are no longer obligated to finish what you’ve started, not a book, not a meal, not even a sentence.”

Is Keillor saying that getting old is something to look forward to? This what-the-hell attitude–I don’t have time for this. Next! I can imagine walking away in mid-sentence. “As I was saying….” But this might be more concern for senility and not just newly-found orneriness.

And is it possible to abandon the clean-plate imperative drummed into me from childhood? Not only were me and my siblings harangued by the plight of starving children in China, we six children were competing for that often non-existent extra piece of pie or seconds of stew. As a large family we certainly didn’t starve, but we were a ravenous group.

Maybe at 70, I too might be more acutely conscious of my time left on the planet. And less patient with reading something difficult to understand or just not my style. But with so many good books out there, maybe I should adopt this attitude now and not wait. Time is already too precious.

Or I can invoke my mantra: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Perhaps Keillor’s comment stirs me most poignantly as a writer and a reader.

As a reader, I usually feel compelled to read a book to the end. Most of the time, I’m happy that I continued reading even though it didn’t engage me in the first 20-30 pages. Some works have a slow start, but come together and take hold of me eventually.

I remember trying to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Some of the slaves’ experiences were so visceral, so intense that I had to put it down. Twice. I finally finished it when it was assigned for a class–and happily so. The instructor’s notes and insights helped immensely and just having others grappling with the the narrative and characters fortified me to handle the story. A communal spirit really made a difference.

Sometimes I put a book down and go back to it later. Sometimes I don’t. We all do this, right?

As a writer, I have started essays and stories that sit unintentionally abandoned in my files. No problem there in not finishing them as I became involved in other projects that I did complete. But what to do with these bits and pieces?

I imagine most writers have this problem. Perhaps it’s not really a problem, but just part of the process of writing. We have to start somewhere. I know I’ve started a piece of writing to experiment on something like dialogue. Or I wanted to see what it feels like to construct a fictional character. These were exercises.

Other times I started writing a piece, then discovered a kernel of an idea I was more interested in pursuing, and took off in that direction. Writing is often about discovery. Like starting a piece and having a sense of where it’s going only to find out it needs to go somewhere else. This is the joy of writing. Letting the writing take you somewhere unexpected.

This is the practice of writing: not everything will be finished. Not everything will be good or even close to good. This is life.