(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!
This is going to be one of those times when I type and post without a whole lot of “simmering time” in between to let my thoughts settle.
I realized this morning that my election hangover is looking a whole lot like how I remember my last major depressive episodes in New York (and that hangover from those is still ongoing). I keep having to remind myself what day it is, what my life expects me to get done. I’m easily frustrated, especially when I’m in transit. I don’t want to hear the news. I don’t want to talk to people. I want to eat sugar instead of actual nutrition. I fall asleep at 8:00 and wake up at 6:30 and don’t feel like I’ve slept (that might be partly the time change). I have Amazon open in another tab on my browser right now, but I don’t remember why I opened it or what I intended to buy (I totally intended to buy something.) I’m getting caught in little obsessive tasks that I have to get done or everything will suck but it won’t get done and I can’t think clearly enough to problem solve or take perspective so I keep doing and doing and doing while my train of thought unravels further.
So. I guess I’m still a little early in this processing game. I did not think that Trump would win. I didn’t even entertain the possibility. I woke up on Wednesday feeling wrung out and couldn’t remember why for a few seconds; then I remembered that I’d spent a lot of Tuesday night crying. And then I remembered why I was crying, and, well.
I just want to watch Chopped and re-read Harry Potter and cuddle my dog and not a whole lot else. But I’m not sure where the line is between self-care and wallowing. A lot of my friends (on social media and in real life) are gearing up to fight, to protect each other. And I love that. And I want to be that. But I fear that I’m just not a fighter, and never have been. I’ve never been a get-out-and-protest sort. So I’m struggling to find what I can do, without feeling like a cop-out, but I haven’t gotten there. I don’t want to be the lame unhelpful weepy white woman. I don’t want to be the person who agrees in spirit but then doesn’t step up when I’m needed. I want to be there for my friends. The line between self-care and privileged opting-out is a thin one. I’m also walking the line between chaotic over-exposure to news and hurtedness and hiding under my covers. I keep waiting for clarity, for impetus, but my sneaking suspicion is that I’m going to have to find it on my own and I’ve never been good at that.
So I don’t know if I can hit the streets. I can write, and I can talk online, but that feels so small and petty and useless. I don’t want to get used to this new world. I don’t want to keep fighting these fights. I don’t want to keep having the same discussions and arguments about privilege that I was having a month ago. (This is part of my perspective from my own privilege, I guess: I was having these conversations a month ago, and I’m still having them today, even though the world feels different, the world is the same. Nobody is surprised by the racism of white people except white people.)
I kinda like the fighter who’s telling himself to get up off the mat even though his head’s spinning and his vision is black at the edges and he can’t feel his limbs. But I have to get up because behind me are people who are hurting so so so much worse.
Okay. Onward. Might be back with something more coherent and less pathetic later.
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.
This review was first posted on my Goodreads account over here.
It can be hard to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement. I think that, because we’ve all seen pictures and heard Dr. King’s Dream Speech, been told the broad strokes like, “The Freedom Riders did ______” and “The Montgomery Bus Boycott was _____,” it’s easy to think that it’s a story that you know. It’s kind of like the Holocaust–it’s a story that’s so huge, and been told so many times, that we forget that it took place on a small human scale, not not just a big social upheaval scale.
Congressman John Lewis’ memoir, written in the form of a graphic novel (also written by staffer Andrew Aydin, and drawn by artist Nate Powell), has been a pretty good antidote to that skittering, shallow version of history for me.
Book One starts with Congressman Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama; his early experiences on his family’s farm, his early call to ministry and social justice, his college years in Nashville, TN and the first sit ins and protests he participated in. The framing device of the story is Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, so we sort of switch back and forth between 1960-62 and 2009. Book One ends in the middle of the Nashville lunch counter sit in protests. (Book Two covers the remainder of the sit ins, Congressman Lewis’ experiences as a Freedom Rider, his elevation to SNCC chairman, and his speech at the 1962 March on Washington.)
Gone are the days when a couple hundred African-Americans can bring downtown Nashville to a standstill simply by taking up space at lunch counters, when just 80 people could fill a county jail and max out the criminal justice system for that day. We’ve expanded the criminal justice system exponentially, and become accustomed to criminalizing an enormous percentage of our populace in the process. How many people are arrested and processed every single day in mid-sized American cities?
What shocked me (it shouldn’t have shocked me, but kind of did) was not the behavior of the white people in the story, but the way that the police and white civilians worked together to attack, undermine, and refuse to work with the black people. The perpetuation of segregation in the South was truly the job of every white citizen, policeman, lawmaker, or shopowner. White businessmen closed their stores and left black customers sitting at lunch counters in the dark, undermining their own ability to earn money rather than give in to the demands for desegregated lunch counters. White police departments delayed responding to black protestors’ calls reporting violence and asking for protection, and let white vigilantes attack black people with impunity. White police officers, of course, arrested black protestors, and Bull Connor turned dogs and firehouses onto them. White people destroyed property rather than share space. I wonder how far they would have gone to protect their racist interests and power, if the federal government hadn’t stepped in. The mayor of Nashville crumbled when challenged; but Bull Connor and the mayor of Birmingham, it seems, would have happily burned down the entire South rather than give in.
The other thing that this book made me think of is that systems–whether racist or not–exist because the populace tacitly allow them to exist. We give systems power by complying with them. When you take away that compliance–when you refuse to ride the bus, when you sit at the lunch counter, when you register to vote, when you try to buy a ticket to the movies–you are upending the system’s ability to continue operating as it has. And that is the real power of nonviolence.
That’s a lot of rambling for a short book, I suppose. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Aydin, who wrote the text, have done something powerful, in spite of the relatively few words they used to do it; helped in no small part by Mr. Powell’s drawings that accompany. It’s a quick read–I got through it in about a day–but is not shallow. Quite the opposite. This is a massively important book that should be read. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I think, and I hope, that it will be read by people who might not normally pick up a memoir or a biography. If I was a middle or a high school teacher, I would be handing out copies to all of my students.
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” –Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird
Sometimes, I procrastinate posting something for so long that it becomes relevant again, or my thoughts on the matter actually change or mature. Today’s one of those days, so, huzzah, I suppose?
I sometimes have trouble getting worked up about things I should probably care about (positively or negatively). One that comes most immediately to mind is “inspiration porn” stories of people doing something nice for a kid with disabilities (This story of a boy with autism getting put in his school’s basketball game and scoring many points is a really good example; or any story of a high school senior with Down syndrome being made Homecoming Queen/King). Doing nice things for kids with challenges is just as much (if not more) about making us feel like we’re good people as it is for the benefit of the person. And, if you don’t interact with disabled people in your day-to-day and the only time they cross your path is when they’re bagging your groceries or when one of your friends posts a story like this on your Facebook wall, you may be led to the logical but perfectly erroneous impression that the best thing you can do for a person with special needs is give them one overwhelmingly awesome experience of awesomeness and make their day. I don’t have the patience for people who indulge in that kindhearted but misled attitude. I love the effort, I’m glad you want people with disabilities to have good experiences, and if you want to share them on Facebook that’s fine, but they just don’t generally touch the happy space in my heart.
On the other end, I had a really hard time getting worked up back in mid-August when a family was sent a shockingly horrendous letter about their son, a 13-year-old boy with autism.* Again, this should be right up my alley, right? Defending people with disabilities is right in my wheelhouse. If I was a superhero, I would haunt the places where adults with disabilities hang out and just wait for neurotypical teenagers to show up and start taunting them, and then I would go all Batman on their asses. But the letter really didn’t horrify me, for two contradictory reasons: one is that I think a lot of people are dismissive or hostile or annoyed by people with disabilities, though they’re obviously less caustic about it than whoever wrote this letter. To all the people who were shocked and appalled by the letter, the dark and cynical corner of my heart wonders, where have you been? Where were you in middle school when kids were calling each other retarded? Where were you when Ricky Gervais was pulling “mong faces” on Twitter, and then dismissing the opinions of everyone who was insulted by telling them they were oversensitive? Where were you when Ann Coulter called the President of the United States a retard? Where were you when Margaret Cho said that all the remaining eggs in her ovaries were “retard babies”? (And to all my queer, liberal, feminist, fat-positive friends: Do you understand why I cannot, will not, indulge in your Margaret Cho love?) Do you see how not caring about the language used to describe disabled people leads directly to bullshit like this? But on the other hand, and contradictorily, I also know that the letter writer’s feelings are atypical of the general population. I know that pretty much everyone, once they meet my sister, loves her and wants her in their lives. They want what’s best for her. They want to protect her. They want to keep her around. My sister is extraordinarily well-loved, and that love provides a buffer for me (and for her) when it comes to hostility from misinformed and maladapted strangers who don’t deserve to know her anyway. Haters gonna hate, as they say.
So yeah. Don’t really care about your hate, don’t really care about your feel-good human interest story. I’m tired of it, I’ve heard it before, I want us to have a new discussion. I have bigger worries on my plate than people thinking my sister is a one-dimensional happiness angel, or even people who think she’s a one-dimensional waste of oxygen.
All you people who post the above stories on Facebook, who want to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities: Where were you when voters in my county defeated a ballot measure that would have eliminated the county wait list for services available for adults with disabilities, and improved their quality of life? Where were you while the rate of sexual assault of disabled adults got frighteningly, absurdly high? Where were you when my parents tried to figure out how to financially support my sister when they die, so she doesn’t end up homeless or in a state-run group home or dead? Where were you while Goodwill was paying prison wages or less to their disabled employees thanks to a law that apparently hasn’t been updated since 1939? When disabled adults started living in poverty and homelessness at several times the national average for neurotypical adults?
My sister needs people who love her and care for her, yes. She needs people who respect her and treat her like a person. And she has that. But that’s not all she needs. She doesn’t need people cooing and coddling over her. She needs people who will make sure that her safety and her financial stability are high on the list of priorities. Who know that her quality of life on a day-to-day basis matters. Who won’t let her fall through the cracks. And on that score, somehow, I don’t think I have a hope of getting a million Facebook likes. I don’t have a prayer of convincing anyone in Washington that any raise in the minimum wage should also close the loophole that allows disabled adults to get paid so little. I feel like there’s nobody in the world in between my sister and a life of poverty and danger except for me and my family. And that’s not a confidence-inspiring feeling. That feeling that Samwise Gamgee had, looking down into the pits of Mordor, knowing that all that stood between Sauron and the destruction of Middle Earth was two small hobbits? And moreover, knowing that the responsibility of keeping Frodo safe fell on him, and him alone, in that whole big bad world? Yeah. That’s the feeling.
Trigger warning: This post contains references to sexual assault, degrading comments about people with disabilities, and my own personal desire to hit certain people with blunt objects. (Disclaimer to the authorities: I will not actually hit people with blunt objects, but just write about it in a cathartic way.)
I’m sitting in a coffee shop on 75th and Broadway in New York, watching the foot traffic outside on the street. I’m sipping my coffee. I am supposed to be doing homework. Instead, I am imagining setting the whole street on fire. All of them. The little old lady with her groceries in a trolley, the man tying his pit bull mix to a railing so he can come in the shop and get coffee, the nannies and their little kids, the cabbies, the FedEx delivery man. All of them. Because for the first time in my sheltered, sheltered life, I could see the straight line of connection between people who don’t give a thought one way or the other to people with disabilities, people who mock people with disabilities, and people who purposefully harm people with disabilities. Somebody hurt my sister. Somebody hurt my sister, and I blame the whole world, everybody, for not recognizing how evil people are on the one hand and how vulnerable she is on the other. People who think that now that we have integrated public schools, everything’s fine.
Everything’s not fine. I’m not fine. My sister’s not fine. My parents aren’t fine. And if I had my way, none of the people strolling up and down Broadway would be fine, either. I know that setting a city on fire is not productive, but I don’t know where to go. When I Google “special needs and sexual assault,” most of what I get in return is news articles citing instances in which disabled adults were assaulted, a few discussion forums mocking said assaults (choice quote: “Sexual contact is a beautiful thing, and this will be her first and last encounter, since she’s a downer.”). If 85% of women with cognitive disabilities are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, why can I find NO RESOURCES specifically geared towards people who occupy the middle of the Venn diagram made of “Sexual Assault Victims” and “Cognitively Disabled”? Do people who specialize in counseling sexual assault victims know how to talk to somebody with Down’s? Do people who know how to talk to people with Down’s know how to talk to sexual assault victims?
Does the rest of the world know, or care, that my sister was hurt in this way?
It’s hard for me to not be polemical. It’s hard to not be extreme. It’s hard, because I can’t destroy the man who did this to my sister, to not want to destroy everyone else too, everyone who contributes to this society in which my sister doesn’t matter.
When the Allies liberated the death camps in 1944, hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gypsies and political prisoners were freed. Thousands of imprisoned men who had been imprisoned as homosexuals remained in the camps, because being gay was illegal to the Allies, just as it was to the Nazis. Jews weren’t criminals (so they were freed), but fags were (so they weren’t).
Nobody freed the physically and/or mentally disabled from the camps. Why not? They were already all dead. The Nazis had killed them, 200,000+ between 1939-1945. They had photographed them and imprisoned them and experimented on them and sterilized them, and then they euthenized them. Hitler practiced his Final Solution on the retards before he did it to anybody else. They called it a “mercy death.”
Does 200,000 deaths compare to 6,000,000? No. I’m not saying it does. It’s less than the number of people who died in the Battle of the Somme in World War II. But there’s a general silence on the brutality with which people with developmental disabilities have long been treated by Western civilization, and it probably started in 5000 BC when babies with Down syndrome being left exposed on hillsides in ancient Greece. If people don’t know how people with Down’s were treated in the 1940s (and not just in Germany, but all over Europe and America), why should they care how they’re treated now? How do we get to see that when we talk about caring for people with special needs, we need to include adults in that discussion, and not just children? The amount of structure and socialization in my sister’s life has decreased dramatically since she graduated high school, but her need for such services hasn’t, and as a result, she’s more vulnerable–in all kinds of ways–than she was ten years ago. Who suffers the most when the economy takes a downturn? We could argue about it all day, but my money’s on the people who already can’t defend themselves, who have few resources, who are vulnerable–people already below the poverty line, people with debilitating mental illness, people with cognitive disabilities who rely on SSI and social nets to maintain their quality of life.
Tell me why I shouldn’t be enraged. Really, tell me why.
This whole string of events has gotten me to swear off the word retarded just as much as anything else, to be honest. Indifference leads to harm. It led to harm. My sister was at work when this happened, at a place that is experienced at employing people with cognitive disabilities. If they couldn’t keep her safe, who can?
The most important things, says Stephen King, are the hardest things to say. I still don’t know how to talk about this. I don’t even know what I want, really. I don’t know if I’m violating my sister’s privacy in writing this. I don’t have any answers for anybody. I don’t have any resources.
But 85% is far too large of a percentage for any society who calls itself ethical to tolerate.