Pay Attention

Paying attention often requires some sort of empathy for the subject, or at the very least, for the speaker. But empathy, these days, is hard to come by. Maybe this is because everyone is having such a hard time being understood themselves. Or because empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.

~ Wendy S. Walters “Lonely in America” from The Fire This Time

Once a person truly dons this empathy, it demands that they keep their mouths closed and disregard everything they think they know. It requires them to listen with an awareness that opens their ears to something they’ve never heard before, something that sounds so unbelievable that, in any other context, they might think it fiction. When they choose to pay attention they may find that boundaries dissipate, but they may also find that, in some ways, the life they live is a fantasy and some wake up every day in hell.

Make Me Whole

These songs remind me of dorm days, MySpace and friends who encircled music and formed bonds with the melodies. They bring back memories of confusion, heartbreak, bright hope and epiphany. They recall a yearning for love, an attempt to learn love.

Your eyes are the windows to heaven,
Your smile could heal a million souls.
Your love completes my existence.
You’re the other half that makes me whole.
You’re the only other half that makes me whole.

~ Amel Larrieux, “Make Me Whole”

Now, they communicate what I can’t, remind me of what I’ve learned and what I now cherish.

We have both been broken
Bent into painful shapes
We almost let those old fears
Carry over and get in our way
But every struggle just makes
Our love get stronger than it was yesterday

~ Amel Larrieux, “No One Else”

Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things

Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things

I learned of the book Small Great Things from a black woman perusing a local Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago. She was holding it, planning to buy it because of the good things she’d heard. Other readers she spoke with seemed impressed by the author’s ability to discuss black hair even though she—a white woman—likely had no personal experience with the idea. I forgot about this conversation until I noticed the paperback in Target a few weeks ago. While I had my doubts about the book—writing race and racism isn’t any easy thing—I was now curious enough to give it a chance. It didn’t take long for me to realize that, for me, this wasn’t just a book about a black nurse facing discrimination, but a prime example of the reasons black readers are often skeptical of black stories penned by white authors.

I had my doubts about Jodi Picoult’s ability to write a black character’s experience of race. Being black in this country is a unique existence best understood through experience. It isn’t really something you can observe and truly comprehend. It is even more difficult now because racism, in many ways, has transformed from the obvious to the obscure. Sure, there are those who have no problem placing their prejudice and hate on display, but for the most part, it is unacceptable to do so. Still, some people are unable to hide their discomfort when a black man is walking behind them on a sidewalk or their fear when suddenly there’s a black person in their neighborhood they haven’t seen before. So it felt strange that the author would set her story in 2015 and focus the plot on Ruth’s encounter with a white supremacist family. There’s certainly enough racist behavior in the “progressive” white characters around her. Had that been the main focus, maybe the story could have offered a truer, more unsettling view of what it feels like to be black in America.

Very early in the story, it started to feel like the author was trying to prove something to her readers. She rattled off moments of obvious discrimination, mentions of black hair, colorism, and pressures to succeed and assimilate like she was checking off a list instead of trying to write an experience. Usually these elements didn’t make sense, they didn’t really add anything to the story. She essentially made Ruth a composite; she collected as many racial incidents as she could into this one character that was so weighed down by it, she was completely unrecognizable to me.

To make matters worse, it seemed that Ruth was supposed to be having some sort of racial epiphany—finally seeing her world as it really was. The problem is, the author seemed to forget that Ruth was black and had been all her life. She forgot that Ruth was the daughter of a black maid who still worked for a rich white family. Now, it is certainly possible for a black person to focus so hard on succeeding, on trying to fit in that she’d ignore some of the language and behavior of her white friends. However, it doesn’t make sense for this same black person to encounter a white supremacist family, have her boss respond oddly to the family’s request, suddenly be shaken out of the fantasy she created for herself and be shocked to see what the world looked like when she opened her eyes. Remember, she’s been black all of her life. And if it is also true that this woman is often followed around stores and has security check her shopping bag after leaving the register and purchasing her items, there is no way she could have been completely oblivious to her blackness all this time. It just doesn’t make any sense.

There are other elements of this story that don’t sit right with me. The plot takes strange turns. Why does Ruth’s son end up having some sort of racial epiphany himself on the same day Ruth encounters the white supremacist family? How does Ruth end up on trial for murder? Ultimately, I left the book confused. What did the author think she was doing by writing this book this way? Luckily for me, there was an author’s note in the back of the book. She made it clear who her audience was:

I was writing to my own community—white people—who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s racist…but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.

She does offer her white readers a model for their own epiphanies about race—Kennedy, the public defender. However, when she pairs Kennedy with Ruth, the composite black woman, she really only offers her white readers an out. Her readers may not be the type to clutch their purse or make offhanded comments about a black boy’s success. They likely wouldn’t follow a black person around the store. They might, however, call the police when they see a black man going for a walk in their neighborhood. They might even say he “looks suspicious.” They may even assume that a group of black kids congregating outside are “up to no good” before they see them do anything wrong. The white people she wrote into this story may still be distant enough from her white readers that they can exclaim with full confidence that they are not racist. Then when they step away from this book and see a black boy get killed by police, they’ll still say “he should’ve complied.”

Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat

Rabbit is a book I definitely recommend. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story like this one. I mean, I’ve certainly read similar ones, but this one seemed so packed with struggle and unbelievable incidents that it could’ve easily been fiction. The facts of the story are heavy, to say the least, but the light, fast-paced approach to the writing had the effect of making the story feel normal. I only wish I walked away with a better feel for who Ms. Pat is, her personality, her sense of humor.

I didn’t know who Ms. Pat was before reading Rabbit, so I had never seen her stand-up. I had never seen her or heard her speak. So, I was disappointed and a little confused when I didn’t walking away thinking of Ms. Pat as funny. I mean, there were some moments, but overall, I didn’t really understand why comedy became her career. So, I went searching and one interview was all I needed:

 

I Fell Down a Hole: In the Heat of the Night

I am currently sitting, eyes closed in a hole I created by playing the television show In the Heat of the Night in the background while writing something completely unrelated. It started, as most things do in my life, with the theme song, particularly the part of the song I’m used to hearing at the opening of an episode:

In the heat of the night
I’ve got trouble wall to wall
Oh yes I have
I repeat in the night
Must be an ending to it all
But hold on, it won’t be long
Just you be strong
And it’ll be all right
In the heat of the night

This inevitably led to me to the original film score Quincy Jones composed and Ray Charles’ recording of the same song:

Next, I found myself reading John Ridley’s foreword to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of John Ball’s novel, In the Heat of the Night. In it, Ridley describes the main character Virgil Tibbs as a “black man more carefully constructed than fully realized, an approximation of life designed to thwart a common enemy but to be of no threat to its originator.” My curiosity has been inflamed, to say the least. Now I want to know more. How did this book lead to an Oscar-winning movie starring Sidney Poitier and a television series that was certainly a familiar presence in my home? Maybe reading the book will offer some insight. I don’t know. For now I’m still in the hole, digging deeper.