(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)
“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.
If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.
My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.
My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.
A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.
It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.
One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.
Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.
In this entry: Uncanny X-Men 237 & 238, the second two issues in the X-Tinction Agenda crossover event. Prepare to board the Mutant Train! Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by Rick Leonardi (237) and Marc Silvestri (238), inked by Terry Austin (237) and Dan Green (238), lettered by Tom Orzechowski, edited by Bob Harris.
When we left off (in issue 236), Rogue (who is being “steered” by Carol Danvers, who has apparently been lying dormant in Rogue’s mind ever since Rogue touched her one time) and Wolverine, who have had their mutant powers stripped from them, are trying to escape from Genosha. To this end, they have stolen a military jet magistrate aircar and are flying away. We open issue 237 over international waters.
Also, I don’t think I said this last time, the Genegineer’s name is Phillip Moreau. His last name is Moreau. Because that’s not symbolic at all. Just kidding it totally is.
Anyway, it transpires (after the Genoshan military boards the stolen aircar) that Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers aren’t on the jet after all. The whole thing was (presumably) a distraction to give Wolvie and Rogue/CD a chance to rescue Madelyne Pryor and Jenny Ransom, who are still prisoners of the magistrates and in danger of having their brains mutilated by our resident wielder of banal evil, Dr. Moreau. We switch scenes to Wolverine, who is lurking on the street watching a documentary propaganda broadcast about the history and goals of Genosha. “Sounds wonderful, sweetheart,” says Wolverine to the television, after listening to a perky red-headed lady wax poetic about Genosha’s iron ore deposits, its low levels of poverty, its status as a contender for the “breadbasket of the world” title, “pity it’s a crock.” He and Rogue/CD observe some magistrate patrolmen pulling petty power trips on a mutate garbageman, and Rogue/CD convinces him to not murder the magistrates with his claws as it would blow their “keep quiet and wait for reinforcements” plan.
While they’re in a bar causing a diversion and stealing magistrates’ badges and credentials, Wolvie and Rogue/CD happen upon a drunken Phillip Moreau, washing down his sorrows in a cop bar on the wrong side of town, and getting knocked cold by the off-duty magistrates, who don’t take kindly to him causing a ruckus in their bar. In retaliation, they dump his drunkenly unconscious body on the “mute train,” the commuter train on which mutates ride to their barracks at the end of the day. The magistrates dump Phillip on the train, and Wolverine and Rogue board as well, curious to see what the “mute train” might be.
Meanwhile, out of some kind of…I don’t even know what, the Genegineer has called Mutant 9817—that is, Jenny, his son’s fiancee—to his office. He explains to her that her father falsified the results of her genetic exam, and that she’s a mutant, and as such she much has “a responsibility to the community that bore and nurtured” her to give herself over for “processing” and a lifetime of servitude. “It’s slavery!” cries Jenny, utterly distraught. In fact, Jenny’s lines throughout the whole two-page scene consist of statements like “Why am I here?” “But I tested normal on my genetic exam!” “oh no oh no oh no,” “Why me? It isn’t fair!” “It’s slavery!” “Does Phillip know?” She is in shock, nothing but tears and questions. The bulk of the word balloons (and it’s Chris Claremont, so there are a lot of word balloons) are of the Genegineer, lecture/pleading with Jenny to clear his own conscience, explaining to her why her life is over. At one point, he says, “Believe me, this is as hard for me, as for you.” Somehow I doubt that, Genejerkface. She’s giving up her whole existence because you deem it necessary, and after you buzz on your intercom to have her taken away, you’ll never think about her again. It is objectively, demonstrably, not harder for you. But, in a glorious demonstration of blindness to the consequences of one’s actions, he says it anyway, and he really believes it. He believes that this really is as hard for him as it is for her. He calls it “our sacrifice,” even though he is sacrificing precisely nothing. He believes that slavery is necessary. He believes that the benefits of taking children away from their families and brainwashing them and putting them to labor outweighs whatever momentary discomfort he might feel from his dull, crippled conscience. He does not think that Genosha would survive as the paradise that it is without the brutality and coercion that laces underneath every single inch of the island.
The whole scene is gross. Versions of it happen all the time in the real world, and it’s gross then, too.
The issue ends with Wolverine vowing to “bring this flamin’ country down,” and at this point I can’t say I’m opposed.
Issue 238 opens with a “transcript” of a telepathic interview done on Mutant 9818—aka Madelyne Pryor—immediately before she somehow destroyed the examining team (“torn to bits,” is how it’s described). Exactly what Madelyne did or how is vaguely unclear, but evidently in her own mind she garbs herself in what can only be described as Skimpy Hellfire Goth, and this is totally about female empowerment and not about the 1980s being a boobs guy at all. (There’s probably a whole essay of my mixed feelings in here somewhere, about how I love that Madelyne is smart and brave and fighting back even though she has no conscious access to mutant powers, but also I could never cosplay as her because come on, and also I don’t want to police or judge what another woman decides to put on her body, butakshually Marc Silvestri decided what she would be wearing, and also come on) (being a female with SJW tendencies who also loves comics can be complicated sometimes, and Hellfire Madelyne Pryor and Emma Frost are two of the ones who make it seem complicated).
Furious and/or frightened, the Genegineer storms down to the cells to yell at Madelyne for murdering his interrogation team. In the process, he has the same conversation with Madelyne that he had with Jenny in the last issue, but Madelyne is mature enough and experienced enough to fight back. “What I think and feel and want don’t really matter, do they? I was condemned the moment I arrived here,” she tells Moreau. He tries to feed her the line about how the Genoshan way of life must be protected, and how the mutants on Genosha “want and care for nothing.” “Except freedom,” she says, from where she sits, in her cell, behind bars. “What are you so scared of?” she asks. “If you system’s such a marvel, why not share it with everyone?” He feeds her something about secrecy being Genosha’s strength, a bullshit line that he probably actually believes, but Madelyne’s not having it.
“What is necessary, is done,” says the guard who has escorted Moreau down to the cells.
“Seig heil to you too, sweetie,” Madelyne cuts back.
We switch to Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers, who have ended up in the mutant barracks (the end of the line of the mutant train that they boarded the previous night), which—though none of them have seen it before—is a rude awakening to Phillip Moreau, and nothing new to Wolvie and R/CD. Phillip is having the realization that my dad had when he was a kid in the 1950s in Louisiana: that the people that he saw cleaning houses and doing menial labor went somewhere at the end of the day, and that sometimes the places they went weren’t very fancy, or very nice.
“Tell me something, boy,” Wolverine asks him, “Where’d you think the mutants went at night, after they quit work?”
“Home, I guess. Same as anyone.” (But for Phillip, who has a very narrow field of experience, “home” has a very narrow definition.)
“Live and learn, kiddo,” Rogue/Carol tells him. “Welcome to the Mutant Settlement Zone. A prison, by any other name.”
“Like keeps to like, that’s what I was always taught,” says Phillip, really thinking about what he’d been taught for maybe the first time in his life. “The mutes–sorry, mutants, no offense–they naturally preferred the company of their own kind. Their own way of life, their own place. Is that so wrong?”
“You tell us,” Wolverine replies.
Rogue/Carol says (and I’m truncating this a bit), “You never wondered about the uniforms mutants wear?…[It] makes the slaves easily identifiable, then guarantees a social environment wherein they’re almost totally isolated. If no one befriends them, no one can feel sorry for them. Effectively, they become extensions of their jobs–perceived not as people any longer but organic machines. And who cares what happens to machines?”
When I first read this, it made me think (as it was probably supposed to make me think) of slavery, and segregation, and Jim Crow. But as I was reading it again and writing this essay, it made me think of retail workers and cashiers. And sure, that comparison is a little shallow, a little low stakes. But who thinks about where a cashier goes at the end of the day, and what kind of life she can buy with her $10/hr? Who thinks about the folks in the agriculture supply chain who pick our food and work in our slaughterhouses? How isolated is a community of transient farmworkers from your daily life? (If it’s anything like my daily life, they might as well live across an ocean.) What’s the separation that’s happening today—and not organic separation, either, not like “Oh I live far away from Irish people in Irelend” separation, remember that the Genoshan power structure keeps the lives of the mutates a secret on purpose—that keeps you from seeing the people around you as people?
I do know this, though—in my experience, increasing my knowledge of an issue or a country or a culture or a person, when I hear from those people themselves, has already brought me closer to human empathy. Never further away. If the knowledge you gain hardens your heart, then you might be doing something wrong. There’s a Ta-Nahesi Coates quote that I can’t find right now, about how slavery was only ever “acceptable” if you didn’t ask black people what they thought. Phillip, basically, has finally opened his ears to the idea that the mutants might have different ideas about this whole system than the magistrates do. His father, even though multiple mutants and his own son try to tell him what it’s like out there, refuses to hear.
Back to the story…
Wolverine, Rogue/Carol, and Phillip are found at the mutant barracks and arrested and brought back to Hammer Bay, the capital city, and to Phillip’s father (and the guard captain, whose name I don’t think has been mentioned). Phillip immediately confronts his father about what he’s seen and how horrifying he found it. “I’ve seen the camp, Dad, it’s a prison! Why hasn’t the country been told?! Why won’t you level with the people about the regime you force the mutants to live under?! Those mutants are Genoshans, too, just like us—They deserve the same benefits, the same chance for happiness and success the rest of us accept as a right!” Phillip is basically a baby ally, truth and justice bright in his mind, sure that if only everyone else could see what he’s seen, they would all be just as horrified as him. I appreciate that Phillip has basically had one hell of a 24 hours (at this time yesterday, remember, he was out for a run and happened upon his girlfriend’s family being arrested), so I really shouldn’t judge what kind of ally he might turn out to be, but he’s also doing the annoying this of jumping on a social issue only after it’s affected him personally. I guess any reason is a good enough reason as long as it gets the kid in the fight, but if other humans could do this a little less, I think we would aggravate each other a lot less.
The Genegineer repeats his argument about how it’s for the good of all Genosha that mutants are enslaved, and about preserving the Genoshans’ peculiar way of life, and then asks—as his son asked at the barracks, though he doesn’t know that—“Is that so wrong?”
Wolverine, tellingly, answers the question differently this time: “If you haveta ask, bub…there’s no point in answerin’.”
Side point: “I’ve been a slave,” Wolverine tells the captain of the guard, who is basically telling Phillip to shut the hell up until he knows better than her what’s what, “Didn’t much care for it.”
“That will change,” the captain tells Wolverine. “When Wipeout’s erased all memory of your old life–oh yes, he does that too–and the Genegineer’s established a new one, I guarantee you’ll love it.”
“Not hardly,” says Wolverine, “I’ll die first.” When I first read this, I thought Wolvie was just making a Wolvie threat (and the captain and the magistrates present certainly hear it that way), but it also occurs to me that Wolverine is seriously injured, and if Wipeout fails to restore his healing factor, Wolverine really will die. I felt really cool about reading the dialogue this way until I got to the next page and Wolverine made explicit text out of the subtext.
Just as Wolverine is basically making a suicide bid for freedom, the rest of the X-Men arrive, literally blowing the doors off the place, and in short order rescue Madelyne Pryor, a mutant baby who was also in the prison (oh hey, look who else throws babies into prisons!), and Jenny Ransome, who is looking much more muscular but who hasn’t had her mind wiped yet. Rogue/Carol takes Wipeout hostage, and Psylocke uses him to restore Wolverine’s healing factor. Wolverine and Phillip briefly disagree over whether they should burn Genosha to the ground or give the Genoshans a chance to mend their ways. Storm goes with Phillip’s way, though with the added threat to the Genegineer and the magistrates that if they don’t listen to Phillip, she’s not opposed to taking the Wolverine Option at a future date. They explode the Hammer Bay Citadel to emphasize the point.
“My son, I beg you—consider what you’re doing!” says the Genegineer. “You’ll destroy everything we’ve worked lifetimes here in Genosha to build!”
“But, Dad, if the mutants aren’t free, then maybe what you’ve built isn’t worth saving,” says Phillip, looking a little sad. He goes through the portal off Genosha with the X-Men, seeking asylum for himself and Jenny in America.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The trade paperback continues, though it skips ahead to issue 270 for Further Genoshan Adventures. I’m not sure if I’ll continue forward; the latter adventures are decidedly more boom-pow-bam and less Claremontian Discourse On Justice, and my own analysis consists more of being annoyed by Wolfsbane and how Rob Liefeld can’t draw feet. So it might be funny but probably wouldn’t be that interesting. I dunno. Maybe I’ll write something else and post it in less than two months!
“Well I’ll tell you one thing that I know. You don’t face your demons down, You gotta grapple ’em, Jack, and pin ’em to the ground.”
–Joe Strummer, “Long Shadow”
Every June, I go to a conference in the mesa country in northern New Mexico. There’s a couple hundred people of all ages, no cell phone signals, sleeping in rustic cabins that have spiders and occasionally rodents, bitey juniper gnats, no cars. It’s great.
The high school and college aged kids stay together in their own building, and most of the rest of us only see them at mealtimes or maybe for an hour or two a day. They do their thing, and their thing is good. In less than a week they assemble and foster a community so strong it carries them the rest of the year (or at least it did, when I was part of that group, and I see no signs that it’s changed with the passage of time. If anything, the creation of social media has helped them keep the community connected over the rest of the year). This year, even though I never saw the kids for more than an hour or two a day, I found myself buoyed up every time I was with them or thought about them. They are such a great and fantastic group of kids (they are not all kids, as the age group goes up to about 22, but I considered myself a kid when I was part of the group and the terminology stuck). Strong and funny, grappling with the world, struggling and dancing and listening to each other. They’re not angels, they’re just regular human teenagers, and they amaze me. I am in awe of them even though/because I know they struggle. I know some of them have mental health issues or substance abuse issues. General life-as-a-teenager issues. Some of them have lost dearly beloved family members, and that shreds you at any age. But they’re stunning people all the same.
It’s hard to even try to describe how happy they make me, partly because there’s no way to do it without sounding hokey, and partly because I’m afraid that if they knew how much someone was watching and enjoying them, it would make them feel self-conscious and weird and they would stop being so fabulous. But they’re the light of the world, okay? They’re great and amazing. I see differences in how I was as a teenager/young adult and how they are now and they are so far ahead of me and so wise. I can’t wait to see these kids run the world. That’s what I was thinking that week, six months ago, in June 2016.
And then on the drive home, still going in and out of cell service, I started checking Twitter and Reddit and found out about the shooting in Orlando that had happened the night before. And just like that, all my rosy and optimistic thoughts about The Youth, they all evaporated, replaced with dread and sorrow and regret.
Because I was supposed to make this world safe for the queer kids of the future, black kids of the future, Latino kids of the future, Muslim kids of the future. I was once The Youth, and I charged myself with changing the world. But I haven’t. We haven’t. Shit like Matt Shepherd’s murder and the shooting at Columbine, those were supposed to be the high water mark of shittery. Not the floor. Michael Brown’s death, Trayvon Martin’s—hell, Emmett Till’s—were supposed to be the cultural turning point. Not the beginning of a new season of violence on black men. And now we have these beautiful kids—queer and not—that are going out into a world that isn’t safe for them. And what do we do? What do I tell them?
So I’ve been carrying that around with me, trying to figure out how to write about it, trying to find some wisdom, and in the meantime 2016 carried on being the oozing Vogon of a year that it is, and now it’s December and some aged orange troll is going to be president and it’s so much worse. I admit that I was one of those who was just waiting for the election to be over, because I assumed that Clinton would win and we could all move on with our lives. I did not give one second of thought to what would happen if Trump won. (This is, incidentally, me showing off my White People Problems, because when I read post-election reactions of PoC on Twitter, I was reminded that African-Americans—particularly older African-Americans—have always known just how racist America is, and that white people still don’t know.) A bunch of old white people who will die before the world fully catches on fire have burdened us (and the world) with a 70-year-old man-baby who may very well destroy the country and/or the planet and/or all the civil rights gains we’ve spent the last 100 years trying to attain, and we’re going to be paying for that decision for decades. Now it feels like I have to fight the battles of my mother and grandmother all over again. And I still don’t know what to tell these kids, these kids who don’t even know how amazing they are.
In my worst moments, I think that maybe we should be raising our kids to be harder. If I had less of a “saving people thing” (as Hermione puts it), if I didn’t care so goddamn much, this wouldn’t be so hard to live through. I know there’s some that do that, that teach their kids to encase themselves behind walls so that the world can’t crush them. But then, I don’t know the difference between hiding your light and extinguishing it. Maybe there isn’t one. I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you, you beautiful kids. I’m sorry. I wanted the world to be different. I assumed it was different. Getting bruised by the world is inevitable, and nobody can keep you safe from that. But now I’m worried that you might just get crushed, and that’s different.
I don’t know what to do to survive this, to fix it.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine when we were 17 or so. She’s social justice-y like me, and in our fabulous teenage naivete we both felt like the larger historical battles against injustice were done. Slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow was over, women could vote and have abortions. It seemed like the last big cultural battle left was gay civil rights, and then after that we’d just mop up some of the leftovers that hadn’t 100% gotten the message about how we do things now, places like Jasper, TX. But, we thought, we could relax. It was done. We just had to finish what had been started, tackle the totally surmountable problems of injustice in Palestine and famine in Africa, and we’d be good. The world would be good.
But progress isn’t inevitable. I learned that this year (more importantly, I learned that that was a thing that I thought was true). There is no moral arc of history, there’s nothing about our culture or species that says we can’t also go backwards, erase everything we did fifty years ago. There’s nothing in our culture or history that is assured. We are stuck in this shitshow for the duration. Water goes over the wheel and right straight back into the same fetid pond.
I don’t know if it’s a silver lining, precisely, but there is one small comfort in the whole “progress is not inevitable” truth: we need you. We won’t be okay without you showing up and demanding better of us. You can’t sit this one out because on some lower level you think it’ll happen with or without you. It won’t happen. We won’t move forward.
So do the thing.
Write the story. Go to the protest or the city council meeting. Start the band. Sign the petition. Plant the garden. There are millions of things that won’t get done unless we do them.
One of my favorite shows is The West Wing. And one of the most famous and quoted pieces of dialogue, from anywhere in the whole series, is in the second season, when Leo (the White House Chief of Staff) convinces Josh (the Deputy Chief of Staff) that it’s okay to need help. That it’s okay to not be okay. This is the story that Leo tells Josh:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I’ll be honest: I don’t know the way out of the hole. I don’t know if anyone really does. What the United States is trying to accomplish, has been trying to accomplish since our infancy, is knit together many disparate groups into one cohesive and just whole. It’s not something that’s ever been successfully done, on a large scale, in the history of the world.
But I’m in this hole with you. Because you’re my friend. The rest we’ll figure out together.
“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival
I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.
One of the things that is both bad and good about working at a library is that you get to see these little chunks of people’s lives. A piece of the whole. Since I mostly re-shelve books, for me that often looks like going through the bookdrop and finding a little pile of books on “parenting through divorce,” or “how to file for bankrupty,” or “understanding your autistic child.” When stuff like that happens, I typically say a little prayer for that person, hope that they’re finding the support that they need, and move on.
But sometimes, it’s more complicated. Sometimes, it’s a homeless guy trying to tell you about all of his problems getting housing assistance, and he’s asking about help applying for jobs and he has a resume and you look at his resume and you have this sinking feeling that nobody’s going to hire this guy, but you don’t say that, because you’re really not qualified to edit people’s resumes. Sometimes, it’s a guy who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse trying to figure out the internet enough to apply for jobs online, jobs that don’t require any computer skills, and you think, This. This is what the digital divide looks like it is a huge fucking problem and I don’t know any way around it except to teach what it is to double-click, one person at a time. And also indefinitely extend their computer time because they’ve never used a keyboard before and it takes them ten minutes to type a single sentence. Sometimes it’s that.
I heard most of this second hand, but we had a group of teenagers (like 13- and 14-year-olds) playing games on our public computers. They were a little loud, as teenagers tend to be. Our security guard talked to them, but they apparently didn’t get as whisper-quiet as another patron on the computers would have liked, because he went outside and called the police and told them that a kid was “talking about buying ammunition.” (The kid may have been talking about ammunition, but if so it was computer game ammunition, and I’m pretty confident that the surly customer knew exactly what the kids were actually talking about.) The customer didn’t tell anybody that he’d called the cops, so the first we knew of the whole situation was when four cops came in to the library, made a beeline for one of the kids (one of the only black kids, as it happens), hauled him out of his chair, and started searching him.
The kid looked fucking terrified. The cops hadn’t explained themselves to us, but more importantly didn’t explain what the hell was going on to the kid, just hauled him up and started putting their hands on him. He’s fourteen, and he’s got this look on his face like he’s sure he’s about to get shot.
They didn’t find weapons, obviously. The kid was playing a game. They didn’t really apologize either, just shook his hand like, “Haha, still friends, right?!” and left.
I assume that the cops were responding to the description that the customer gave them. Why the customer picked out the black kid, I don’t know (the disgruntled customer was also black). But to the kid, and to everyone watching, a bunch of cops just marched into a public building and beelined straight for the black kid.
To the cops, they were being prudent and cautious, and maybe trying to catch a suspect in the act of looking at ammunition online (which is a crime since when?), to the rest of us, they were grabbing and terrifying a kid who might be obnoxious but who is not (to the best of my knowledge) a criminal of any sort. I want everyone to feel safe in the library, and when cops march in and haul people out of their chairs at the public computers, that undermines that goal.
And as an employee of the library, I can’t really go up to the kid and say, “Dude, that totally sucked and was racist and I’m sorry,” because then I’m speaking for the library. And what black kid wants a random white woman to label his experience, library employee or not? What commiseration can a total stranger of any race offer? “Oh, so you saw this racist shit go down, recognized it as racist shit, and did nothing, but now you want cookies from me for recognizing it? I think not.”
I know a lot of white people with this problem. We’ve gotten better about seeing racism, maybe; we’ve gotten better at listening to our friends of color and at reading blogs about the experiences of people of color. We want to be compassionate and woke while also being cognizant of when we’re overstepping, when we’re taking up too much space, when we need to shut up and listen instead of taking over a situation. We want to help create safe spaces but are painfully conscious that sometimes our mere presence feels unsafe. The fear of doing the wrong thing leads to doing nothing–but that is also the wrong thing.
First world problems? Oh god, yes. I swear this is not some poor-me-white-girl sadness rant. I’m just trying to articulate the rock-and-hard place spot that some liberal progressive whites (or at least, this liberal progressive white person) can find themselves in. And trying to meditate on how to move past it (this is where the entry ends on a disappointing cliffhanger, because I don’t have the answer to that question). I’m not so bad on the internet, where we so often talk about things that happened instead of being asked to react in the moment. But reacting in the moment–not just to racist shit, but to all violent shit and not-okay shit and people-who-need-our-help shit–is part of what all of us humans need to get better at. I work in a library, I work in customer service, I work with the public, and part of being good at that is being able to recognize and talk to people about their own experience when they want me to.
Postscript: The incident I described above happened about a week ago, and I’ve seen the boys in the library since then, playing their game and talking to each other. So thankfully, they were at least not so badly scared/unwelcomed that they stopped coming to the library.
I did not write this. I got it from tumblr user makingfists. They’re deactivated their account, though, and I really don’t want it to disappear, so I’m posting it here. Hopefully makingfists doesn’t mind. I relate to this story SO MUCH and want to keep it.
It’s like this…
You’re fourteen and you’re reading Larry Niven’s “The Protector” because it’s your father’s favorite book and you like your father and you think he has good taste and the creature on the cover of the book looks interesting and you want to know what it’s about. And in it the female character does something better than the male character – because she’s been doing it her whole life and he’s only just learned – and he gets mad that she’s better at it than him. And you don’t understand why he would be mad about that, because, logically, she’d be better at it than him. She’s done it more. And he’s got a picture of a woman painted on the inside of his spacesuit, like a pinup girl, and it bothers you.
But you’re fourteen and you don’t know how to put this into words.
And then you’re fifteen and you’re reading “Orphans of the Sky” because it’s by a famous sci-fi author and it’s about a lost generation ship and how cool is that?!? but the women on the ship aren’t given a name until they’re marriedand you spend more time wondering what people call those women up until their marriage than you do focusing on the rest of the story. Even though this tidbit of information has nothing to do with the plot line of the story and is only brought up once in passing.
But it’s a random thing to get worked up about in an otherwise all right book.
Then you’re sixteen and you read “Dune” because your brother gave it to you for Christmas and it’s one of those books you have to read to earn your geek card. You spend an entire afternoon arguing over who is the main character – Paul or Jessica. And the more you contend Jessica, the more he says Paul, and you can’t make him see how the real hero is her. And you love Chani cause she’s tough and good with a knife, but at the end of the day, her killing Paul’s challengers is just a way to degrade them because those weenies lost to a girl.
Then you’re seventeen and you don’t want to read “Stranger in a Strange Land” after the first seventy pages because something about it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. All of this talk of water-brothers. You can’t even pin it down.
And then you’re eighteen and you’ve given up on classic sci-fi, but that doesn’t stop your brother or your father from trying to get you to read more.
Even when you bring them the books and bring them the passages and show them how the authors didn’t treat women like people.
Your brother says, “Well, that was because of the time it was written in.”
You get all worked up because these men couldn’t imagine a world in which women were equal, in which women were empowered and intelligent and literate and capable.
You tell him – this, this is science fiction. This is all about imagining the world that could be and they couldn’t stand back long enough and dare to imagine how, not only technology would grow in time, but society would grow.
But he blows you off because he can’t understand how it feels to be fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and desperately wanting to like the books your father likes, because your father has good taste, and being unable to, because most of those books tell you that you’re not a full person in ways that are too subtle to put into words. It’s all cognitive dissonance: a little like a song played a bit out of tempo – enough that you recognize it’s off, but not enough to pin down what exactly is wrong.
And then one day you’re twenty-two and studying sociology and some kind teacher finally gives you the words to explain all those little feelings that built and penned around inside of you for years.
It’s like the world clicking into place.
And that’s something your brother never had to struggle with.
I’m near the younger end of my cousins. I have four cousins younger than me, and twelve that are older, so when I was a kid and we went back to Louisiana to visit them, I was almost always one of the youngest ones there. So sometimes, while my parents talked with their siblings, I ended up doing not-entirely-age-appropriate stuff to entertain myself. Like when I was seven or eight and ended up in my cousin Daniel’s bedroom digging through his X-Men and Spider-Man comics and reading them. I didn’t know anything about the X-Men canon. It was in the middle of Chris Claremont’s epic run on the series, and a lot of it went over my head, but a lot of it settled in my subconscious, and planted seeds in my memory. I certainly learned the names of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey. When Fox started airing the X-Men animated show in 1992, I was all over that shit like white on rice. The universe became clearer, and I started reading X-Men comics more regularly (but still pretty piecemeal, since I didn’t have access to a comic book shop) and assembling the universe in my head. The X-Men and the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. Sentinels. Senator Kelly. William Stryker.
(Note: It was a mystery to me what X-Men story I had read first, because all I had was a memory of a single panel: of Nightcrawler lying unconscious and bleeding from his ears while the other X-Men stand over him in concern and a vague understanding of mutants as an oppressed minority rather than a crew of superheroes. It wasn’t until recently that I read God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and realized that that was the comic I had read decades earlier at my cousin’s).
Early on in the Fox series, there’s a plotline in which two scientists discover a “cure” for mutantism. I forget how the X-Men find out about it, but they do, and their reactions all fit their personalities and personal histories. Wolverine immediately sees it as a tool to eliminate mutants’ powers and neutralize the perceived threat of mutantkind; Rogue, not so much. As one of the mutants whose powers are both an ability and a curse, Rogue (as well as Beast) tend to be the most ambivalent about their mutations, and tempted by the idea of a cure. Peaceful, optimistic Charles Xavier disagrees with the very premise. “Don’t say ‘cure,’ Moira. Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with,” he tells Moira McTaggert, one of the scientists. (This is the same plot line that Joss Whedon would handle for his run writing the Astonishing X-Men comics in 2005). It is, basically, the neurodiversity argument, only written in 1992 for a grade school-level audience.
I think it’s this storyline (and others like it), rather the ones that deal with a planet in danger or intergalactic space war, that drew me to the X-Men. Pretty early on, I picked up on threads that I translated into the X-Men being code for people with disabilities. One of the earliest questions that I remember being asked about my sister (besides “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s it like having a sister with Down’s?”) had to do with whether I would change her if I could. Magically suck the extra chromosome out of every single one of her body’s cells. I don’t remember how young I was when I first heard about the high abortion rates for fetuses with Down’s, but it’s been in my head since at least middle school. And even though I never witnessed people being cruel to my sister, I did witness neurotypical classmates of mine being cruel to disabled kids at my school, and being mocking in general of anyone in special ed or remedial classes. It became really easy, in my head, to equate “Do mutants have the right to exist?” and “Do people with disabilities have the right to exist?” To see “retard” and “mutie” as linguistic cousins. The fear and hostility that mutants experience when they interact with regular Homo sapiens sometimes feels familiar when I hear people talk about people with disabilities. The parallel ran so deep in my head that I was honestly surprised when I got to high school and college and started talking about the X-Men with other people and realized that for them, the parallel was between straight people and queer people, or white people and people of color. That there might be many parallels had honestly never occurred to me, so deep and solid was my understanding that “mutant” was code for “disabled.” (This was before I read Chris Claremont’s statement that for him, mutants could stand in for any outsider population. In the introduction to the trade paperback version of God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont says, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders; they represent the ultimate minority.”)
It crystallized slowly for me, over the course of years. Not all–or even most–storylines have to do with mutaphobia, after all. The X-Men fight against Magneto and fight against the Shi’ar (and fight with the Shi’ar), and there’s the Phoenix Saga and numerous interpersonal dramas and secondary mutations and all that. To read the X-Men is to get to know them from the inside first, their individual histories, their powers, how they feel about those powers, their flaws and foibles, their courage and tenacity, their creativity at solving (or blasting through) problems. You know the X-Men as individuals, make friends with them, and as the stories pile up it slips your mind that the rest of the comic universe world doesn’t see them as individuals, but as a blanket population. You don’t always have to be aware of the fact that a small but significant percentage of the non-mutant population hates mutants, fears them, and wants them dead.
I came to knowledge of my sister’s disability in much the same way. I was three–almost four–when she was born, so I didn’t have any concept of what Down syndrome was. She was just an eating, pooping, crying (and eventually giggling) machine. Your basic human baby. By the end of elementary school (when she would’ve been around seven and me around eleven), I had a pretty good handle on the definition of Down syndrome, but I had an even better knowledge of my sister. I knew how much she loved Barbie and Full House and that cheese was a fundamental dietary building block. I knew her love and her smiles and her stubbornness. I knew how much she was distressed by bees (and flies that might be bees) and automatic garage doors and anybody crying. I knew her. It’s hard to put all that aside and look at my sister from an outsider’s point of view and remember that there’s people who think that my sister is a waste of space. That she’s stupid. That she’s a burden on society and/or my family and that she shouldn’t exist. And there’s people out there who don’t think those things, but who are happy to tell me such things over the Internet because they know it’ll get to me.
I truly believe my sister is a gifted person, though not in the academic way that most people think of when they label kids “gifted.” Her gifts are of a more abstract sort: a deep and instinctive knowledge of chesed, of loving-kindness, of human joy. But the same genetic error that gave her those gifts also gets in the way, too. Gets in the way of her desire to live independently and have more friends. Gets in the way of my family’s desire that she live with economic stability and a reasonable amount of personal safety. Would she welcome the chance for a cure? I honestly don’t know. Like Rogue, her extra chromosome is both a gift and a curse. She can do many amazing things, but also misses out on a lot of opportunities that are easily available to “normals.”
It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the other parallel. The angry one.
Because people with disabilities get abused at disturbingly, shockingly, unacceptably high rates in modern America. And every time I see it, in the news or wherever, it makes the muscles in my arms harden, and I stop breathing, and start looking for something to hit. Of course there’s never anything to hit. In those moments, though, I wish I was the mutant Pyro, so I could literally set the world on fire. In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, when Dr. Rao announces a cure for the “mutant disease” on television, Wolverine’s claws come out and he can’t retract them. “She called us a disease. Do you know how that feels?” he says.
Yeah, Logan. I think I do, at least a little bit.
I would set the whole world on fire. I understand Magneto’s fury in the face of human intolerance and bigotry, and why he’s given up on humans and on Charles Xavier’s idealism. Xavier wants to teach people tolerance and compassion, but that is the long fucking way around the problem, and in the meantime people are straight up fucking dying and why do I have to talk to you about not calling people retards when those same people are getting murdered? I don’t have time for that bullshit. It would be so much easier, so much more satisfying, to just throw cars at people and silence them.
When it was my own sister that got hurt, it didn’t feel like enough. Her getting hurt by somebody else felt like the end point of a long chain of dealing with the stupidity and apathy of “normals” and the inevitable vulnerability and invisibility that disabled people experience because of it. There had been decades of people asking, in so many words, “Why does your sister exist?” And then someone came along and decided that she existed to be his victim. He picked a vulnerable, invisible person, and he did it on purpose, because he knew he could get away with it. He thought she wouldn’t fight back. And he was largely right, because how do you teach somebody to defend herself when her default setting is that everyone is her friend?
And that is when I understand the anger that allows Magneto to channel enough power to lift an entire football stadium into the air.
That is when I understand the Scarlet Witch’s anger and desperation when she says, “No more mutants.”
That is when I understand Pyro throwing fireballs, because that’s what I would do, that’s what I wanted to do, to set the whole fucking world on fire for leaving my sister helpless and invisible and vulnerable to somebody who decided to hurt her.
I want to incinerate the world. I want claws like Wolverine’s. Because that’s the biggest thing that X-Men in the Marvel Universe have going for them, that’s their trump card. They can do astonishing things. Uncanny things. Amazing things. They can save the world when no one else can. And that’s a really good argument in favor of their right to exist. When all else fails, when morals and ethics and human compassion fails, mutant usefulness is still there. My sister, and people like her, aren’t stupendous. They aren’t awe-inspiring. They do not astonish, unless you’re willing to examine something quieter and more subtle than telekinesis. Given the chance, much as I like to imagine myself as one of Xavier’s noble X-Men, I’m probably closer to one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. More interested in defending, in fighting, than explaining. At least where my sister is concerned. Because it makes me so, so angry, the way this world treats the most vulnerable people in it.
But there’s this: I think Magneto feels very alone. At least, on days when I want to blow up the world, that’s how I feel: like nobody cares about this–either not enough or not at all–except me. And if their apathy was neutral, it wouldn’t matter. But apathy isn’t neutral. In the vacuum of apathy, people like my sister get hurt. They die. They’re left all alone. And that is when I have to go for a walk and calm down until I can hear the Charles Xavier voice in my head again. The one that insists that normal humans are worth teaching. The one that believes that humans and mutants can co-exist. The one who would never commit genocide, even though he has the mental power to make everyone’s brains ooze out of their earholes. I remind myself that I’m not alone. That there’s a lot of people–and not just in my family, either–who love my sister, who want to help her, and who are helping her.
My sister loves me. And I love her. She never gives up trying to do anything you ask her to do. There is nothing on this earth that could shake her faith in me. And maybe that makes me selfish, to want to keep that. Almost certainly it is. No more selfish than keeping her around because she’s the only one powerful enough to fight the Brood, but hey. We haven’t had much luck with convincing the world that the ability to love is enough of a utility to exist in a capitalistic society.
Sometimes I think about Ian McKellan (who is, as far as I’m concerned, Magneto’s alter ego) and the fact that, despite dealing with homophobia on a personal and professional level his whole life, he has not himself turned into a supervillian. The fact that, in spite of all they’ve been put through, oppressed minorities in this country (whether it’s disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, mentally ill folks, people of color, etc etc) have, without exception, never turned into evil supervillians. (I know I’m generalizing here, but keep in mind that this is what I tell myself in order to not let my heart get eaten by a murderous rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and cut me some slack.) Sure, there’s warlords in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico and Kim Jung-un in North Korea, and they cause enormous amounts of heartache and human damage, but they’re not exactly on the world-endangering level of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull. From a power and world domination standpoint, Barack Obama is the closest thing we have to a supervillain. Maybe Donald Trump. From the oppressed minority contingent, we don’t get Magneto. We get Martin Luther King, Jr.; a human of intelligence and courage that we certainly did not ask for, let alone deserve, but are so fortunate to have had in our midst. We get Helen Keller and Harvey Milk and Nelson Mandela. Bayard Rustin and Vincent Harding and Temple Grandin. Artists like Toni Morrison, Leslie Feinberg, Maya Angelou, Jeremy Brett. We get the beautiful people that I know from the progressive/leftist/anarchist organizing community in Denver, who have taught me about putting love into action and validating and standing up for yourself and others. We get community groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement and the AIDS Quilt and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. And that’s just in this past century. The world is full of thousands and thousands of heroes that we don’t deserve, and often don’t recognize while we have them among us. And that is the truly amazing, awe-inspiring, human superpower: The fact that, in the face of oppression and systematic violence and apathy, more often than not, humans choose to love and hope. They default to trying to teach other humans to be better. The fact that we have as many heroes as we do should send us all to our knees.
Thousands of Charles Xaviers walking among us, disguised as regular people. I like that.