Confessions of a Bookaholic: Race, Civil Rights, and #blacklivesmatter

For the last few months I have been trying to educate myself a lot more about the racial tensions and battles in the United States, both in the days of yore, and also yesterday. As more and more black people are being targeted with unnecessary force I want to try to understand as best I can the history, what has changed, what has not changed, and the current situation. It is not light reading, my heart is heavy and I get angry, a lot, at the things I read. I imagine this will be something I continue to study as I try to understand. I started with some biographies and autobiographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to understand a little more of the historical context of current problems, the difference between civil disobedience/peaceful protest and Malcolm X’s more violent activism. I also read John Howard Griffin’s monumental book Black Like Me, and I’ll be damned, but all four of those books discussed, extensively, how a black man should act when white police were around. Honestly, it’s the SAME problems that are happening on streets and in parks today. The New Jim Crow truly opened my eyes to the nitty-gritty problems in our criminal justice system, which I felt conversant in having watched all available seasons of Law and Order…uh, it’s not like that. Not at all. And I am embarrassed that I knew so little about what truly happens on a day-to-day basis for men and women who are arrested for drug possession, drug use, or, you know, just being black and in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” We have so much work to do, and while I may not have all the knowledge and details and background, and I certainly don’t have the memories of my own racial oppression to work from, but I can still be an activist. I can still try to understand and speak out against the unspeakable atrocities that are happening to citizens of this country.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (4 stars). Firstly, this is not an autobiography, but a chronological collection of MLK Jr’s writings and speeches detailing his work towards racial equality in the US, up to his death. Secondly, I listened to the audiobook version, and many of the speeches are actual recordings of MLK’s words, complete with gritty technology and crowd noise. I really appreciated this book, I liked hearing MLK’s own words, I think the only speech I had heard him voice before was his “I have a dream” speech. I also really liked how detailed he was in his letters, opinion pieces, and other writings to detail non-violent protests, but I also really like how specific MLK gets about what will happen if there is no response to non-violent protest (spoiler: things will turn violent; Nelson Mandela came to the same conclusion; Gandhi did not have to come to that conclusion because the government in India made sweeping efforts to correct social and racial injustice around the country). I would now like to read an actual biography of MLK to fill in a lot of the details that are skipped in this collection.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable (4 stars).  I knew very little about Malcolm X prior to reading this book and I appreciate the author focusing on the ways that Malcolm changed and transformed his public persona throughout his lifetime. From a criminal, to a minister and teacher for the Nation of Islam, to starting his own Islamic church (branch? organization?)…from militant protests to a more inclusive and civil dialogue, Malcolm X was constantly adjusting his politics and his protests. I am still processing said politics and trying to figure out my opinion. I think there are a lot of comparisons between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, their very different protesting style and brand of activism, and I think that both have valid points. Malcolm X was representing urban poor, which is a very different demographic from small Southern towns where MLK worked. Malcolm had zero formal schooling, and prided himself on being just like the people he worked with. MLK had a doctorate and his friends were similarly educated. I’m not saying one is a better leader than the other, I’m saying they are very hard to compare. Also, as a middle class white girl from the American West, I feel like I cannot make a judgement call on what Malcolm X or MLK Jr were to the different groups of people who followed them. I have a lot more reading to do.

Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers (3 stars). This is a decent biography…for children. Malcolm X had a pretty rough life, and while his drug use and dealing is discussed, as is the fact that he was a “burglar” there isn’t much real talk about the horrible conditions and lack of opportunity Malcolm had in his early years, or much about the violence he preached in his middle years. He is a super controversial character, and part of his appeal to so many inner city black men is he had lived their existence and had served prison time for his crimes. This book doesn’t necessarily deny that, but it definitely doesn’t go into detail about the realities of his options, choices, and decisions when it comes to drugs, women, violence, and theft.

Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin (4 stars). I am so conflicted on my rating for this book; on the one hand, I am furious that the first-person narratives from people of color, of their every-day experiences are not taken as seriously as this book where an upper class white man essentially goes into black neighborhoods in the south in an elaborate “black face” disguise and writes about it is taken seriously. Now, that isn’t John H. Griffin’s fault, necessarily, and I think he makes a lot of excellent points describing the differences between his experience as a white man and a black man in the same neighborhoods in the same couple of weeks. Griffin’s experiment was in 1959 when segregation in the South was still very prominent in many cities and towns that Griffin visited. Also, some of the racism and action he came up against is still prevalent today, and that is something–as a white person–I need to deeply consider. I think this is a must read book.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (5 stars). This was such a difficult book for me to read, the text is dense and full of statistics and stories, and the content is…heartbreaking doesn’t seem to cover it. Alexander discusses changes throughout the last 30 or 40 years in policing, the war on drugs, minimum required sentences, and how the vast majority of policies on a state and federal level surrounding those topics put people of color–the vast majority young black men–behind bars and with a felony record that bars them from many social services, job opportunities, and housing options, which, in turn, turns them back to a life of petty crime in order to survive. I am still processing this book, but in a time of so much unnecessary police brutality, in a time of race discussions and arguments, I think everyone needs to read this book.



Love, Actually

After a week in the mountains of Montana with very little cell or internet service, I was greeted with a rough re-entry yesterday as I read report after report of the Orlando, Florida domestic terrorist attack on the gay community, interspersed with thousands of words on the Brock Turner/Stanford rapist trial and sentencing.

My heart physically ached, both for the victims and for society at large. This is our America.

I come from a religiously conservative place and the majority of my family still clings to a “Christian” idea that The Gays are destroying families and tearing the country apart, most still have not accepted Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling legalizing gay marriage nation-wide. Some are actively campaigning to repeal that ruling and do so in the name of God, or of Family, or whatever. To be fair, some have made the leap from this narrow-minded un-Christian viewpoint to a more tolerant stance, and a very few have stepped up to the activist level of fighting for equality among hetero and homosexual humans. Very few.

Likewise, the vast majority of my family and hometown community vehemently boycotted and opposed Target and other retailers over their non-discriminatory bathroom policies, claiming knightly ideals of protecting women and children and ignoring underlying transphobia, hatred, and fear. However, nobly fighting for protections for women and children has yet to move to a place where they want to actively protect their loved ones from rapists and sexual abusers. I mean, in theory, sure, but white, heterosexual, vaguely Christian/Capitalist/clean-cut rapists are beyond their scope of imagination. You know, men like Brock Turner. So the idea of vocalizing disdain for Turner, his father, or the wrist-slap sentence is too “other” for them. Turner looks too much like the guy next door, and rapists living next door is too much to think about. But, men dressing up like women and entering bathrooms at Target to molest their daughters, THAT is super likely to happen.

I realize that not all areas or communities have this baggage in their immediate reality, but I do. And it has been so infuriating the last week or two to see the giant dichotomy between where I am and where they are, to see such blatant hate and prejudice–disguised as “protecting The Family”–flooding my social media feeds. To see dozens, yes, dozens, of people who share my genetics rant and rave about trans-friendly bathroom policies, yet say nothing about someone essentially getting away with raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. To see the same people invoke the morals of God to protest gay marriage, but who nonchalantly “Pray for Orlando” is making my blood boil. Sit down. What kind of “Christian” are you!? Praying for those who are hurt yet refusing to stand up and protect them in the first place is the most hypocritical kind of fuckwit. I suppose it is possible that some who protested Obgerfell vs Hodges a year ago have had a legitimate change of heart and now align more with gay rights groups and are LGBQT friendly, but I highly doubt it.

I have to sometimes force myself to stop thinking about all the ironies and inconsistencies, this pithy hashtag activism with zero action behind it, and–more often than not–using those status updates as a smoke screen for deeply held bigotry and hate, labeled “tolerance” but, in actuality, just straight up homophobia/racism/sexism. I have to force myself to close the screen and walk away from devices or I literally become so upset I begin to foam at the mouth. Ok, perhaps not literally-literally foaming, but close enough. I get agitated, my face and neck turn red, my hands start to shake, my eyes leak, and I either start pacing and yelling at no one in particular, or I get so pissed off that my words turn into grunts and definition-less exclamations of anger and frustration.

The world, ya’ll, is fucked. I see so much hate and fear, so much division and focusing on differences and opposition, and so little value placed on love and compassion, on celebrating the similarities between humankind, and allowing humans to be their own selves.

It is exhausting. I am exhausted.

I do understand that while there is this scary underbelly of fear and hate, there are also beautiful pockets of love and empathy, of genuine caring and friendship. I see both sides illustrated clearly in the current Presidential primaries, and in my (more curated) social media feeds. The friends I have made as an adult hold opinions similar to mine. The strangers I follow online are not bigoted, racist, sexist bastards. Many are activists in their own right, fighting for equality and peace, and I love and cherish them for their views and their determination to not give up the fight.

I often think of the Mr. Rogers quote about helpers, always look for the helpers, they will always be there. I see them, I see you. I see your faith in humanity, and faith that a small group of people fighting for love and tolerance and equality can create nation-wide change. I see you. And I am sorry for doubting, for allowing the ugly fears to get me down; I’m sorry for letting those statements cause despair and hopelessness.

We may be few, we activists, but we are relentless. In the end, love wins. Right? It sometimes seems like that isn’t enough, that it isn’t fast enough, that too many people will be hurt in the interim. But, like all great stories, in the end, the good will conquer evil, the love and hope will defeat fear and anger. Right? Please assure me you believe this too,  that we are not fighting in vain. That eventually  the seedy underlying fear and hate and anger will dissipate, that humans will be safe from each other regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or anything else.

Love wins, right? Eventually, love wins.

Harriet sig

Feminism, Sexism, and Gender Equality: Fight the Bigger Fight

This week has been exhausting. I do not usually engage in online battles, and I certainly do not try to host them in my own online spaces (in this case it was Facebook). But, over the course of the last few days, I have been going back and forth on bathroom policy, specifically, on where people are allowed to legally pee.

Here’s a thought: Fight the Bigger Fight.

Stop freaking out about bathrooms and big box stores. Start freaking out about Rape Culture and the wage gap, the lack of affordable child care or paid maternity/paternity policies at the vast majority of US companies. Start freaking out about the lack of women in STEM, teachers not calling on girls or challenging girls to excel in math, science, or other “difficult” subjects. Start freaking out about the misogyny of menstruation, the fact that women in pain are often not taken seriously. Start freaking out about the emphasis on appearance instead of performance that women face every. single. day. Start freaking out about the systemic degradation and objectification of women, younger and younger women. And then DO something! Yes, I understand there is a very small chance that a predator dressing up as a woman could enter a women’s restroom and peep at or–heaven forbid–assault a woman or child. But in the time it has taken me to write this post how many women or children have been sexually abused? Exploited? Objectified? Used? What about the statistic that says 1 in 3, or 1 in 4 (depending on your source), of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That’s 25-33%. That’s a LOT of percent! I believe it is safe to say that 100% of women will be sexually harassed at some point in their lifetime. FIGHT THAT FIGHT, dammit. Yes, it’s harder than blithely throwing up a “Boycott Target” post. But it’s the only way to ACTUALLY protect women and children. Fight against the actual perpetrators and the institutions and social contracts that protect them.To be clear, I am not saying “ignore this issue (women or children being sexually assaulted in bathrooms) completely.” Never once have I said “the women who are boycotting Target are somehow less than in their thinking.” And never once did I criticize a Christian or otherwise conservative group collecting and posting incidents of people being attacked in bathrooms. I said “Fight the Bigger Fight.” Humans being sexually attacked and assaulted in public is a symptom of a MUCH larger societal disease. Take on that disease, don’t try to band-aid just one of the millions of ways sexism, misogyny, and benevolent patriarchy pervade our society.

I will fight for women’s rights and for justice when those rights are taken away. I want predators to be punished and I want the punishment to be such that other predators take pause before committing sexual assault, I want them to even decide “Ya know, the risk is too high, it’s no longer worth trying to molest or rape a woman because the reporting and investigation process is such that I will most likely be caught and punished to the full extent of the law.”

In ADDITION to that, I want women to have equal opportunity and equal rights in other areas of their life that have nothing to do with the gratification or pleasure or sense of power that our magic bodies can somehow give men, both our lovers and violent, predatory strangers. I want women to be seen for MORE than their body. I want them to succeed and excel in every other aspect of their lives, and I want society and the law to support that instead of hinder it.

Am I concerned about a woman being attacked in a public bathroom by a sexual predator who is dressed up like a woman? Yes. It is possible that such a scenario could happen,  no woman (or man) should ever have to experience sexual assault. Do I think that boycotting Target will actually do a damn thing to reduce that likelihood? No. I don’t. Not one little bit. If women stayed home at all times, and were lucky enough to not have sexual predators or abusers living with them IN their homes (fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, sons, etc), then they would always be safe. But that is not the world I would ever want for a woman, for myself, for my stepdaughter, for my sisters or nieces or friends or their children.

Boycotting is not the answer. Change is the answer. And to create change you have to fight the bigger fight. We–women and men–must actively women’s rights, equal protections, a reduction of exploitation and objectification, and harsher punishments for those who abuse, exploit, and objectify women. Is that harder than boycotting Target? Yes. If enough people demand a better society and governmental law will it lead to actual change? Yes. (Funny how that works). I want to encourage activism and women AND men taking a stand, fighting for women, and doing so against the every growing mountain of sexist bullshit. Will this activism lead to an egalitarian, gender-equal society within my lifetime? Maybe not. And I cannot explain how angry and fundamentally heartbroken I feel while typing that statement. But will I stop fighting for drastic and fundamental change? No. I won’t. Because I want a better world for myself, for my friends, for all of our daughters and granddaughters, our nieces and sisters and mothers. I want a better world for my sweetheart, for my brothers, my father, my friends, for all of our sons and nephews and husbands.

There is a line in the movie The American President where Michael Douglas says that, as President (in an election year), he should only fight the fights he can win. His Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen, responds with “You fight the fights that needs fighting!”

Fight the bigger fight. Fight the fights that need fighting.

Harriet sig