Not Everything is a Debate

Not everything is a debate. Not everything has a conclusion, a summary, a finite judgment. Our need, our desire to wrap things up — usually with a bow of I’m right, you’re wrong — is a contributing factor to the diseased communications we are witnessing at this moment. What happened to exploring together, simply wondering about something aloud? (Have we ever really done this)? Only in the safest of company are we willing to venture forth into a sphere that we are unsure of, in order to gain some kind of insight for ourselves and perhaps even for those listening.

Imagine if political debates were conversations where two or more people considered issues together and provided what they saw as pros and cons — instead of barking strident rights and wrongs at each other. CNN debate moderator: “Vice President Biden, where do you think the idea of police defunding belongs in terms of a historical perspective? How does this pressing issue tie in with our country’s history of policing, law enforcement, community policing, law and order? In a perfect world, what would law enforcement look like to you?” Now I’d like to hear that answer, to watch the requisite thought processes, witness a potential leader’s frames of reference. I think that’s how you get to know someone, come to understand if you want them to run your country or not.

Because debates require that folks be on opposite ends of a given subject from the beginning, they are mostly useful as showcases for people’s abilities to memorize, distill and articulate under pressure. All worthy skills and certainly illustrative of one’s thinking. In fact perhaps we could employ debates on dating sites, wherein instead of reading about one’s favorite romantic activity we view a short clip of the potential candidate debating on a particular subject. “Splitting the Bill on the First Date, Equalization or Escapism?”

But what if we really want to accomplish something, say, change the world? What if we want to spread anti-racist thinking or encourage empathy or illustrate listening? Then we cannot shackle our discourse into a debate mode, instead allowing it to be more like a brisk walk together. Do you know anybody who takes a discussion and turns it into a debate before you even know you’re in one? There you are waxing poetic about One Love and suddenly they say, “I disagree!” After a moment of stunned silence, you ask, “With what?” And they go back to a word or sentence that you employed and turn it into a concrete statement and then stamp it with their challenge of its veracity. You were just wondering how to get more people to think about the incarcerated, or the deported, or the poor.

Working on immigrant rights these last few years, I have received so very many responses to my letters and public comments from public officials. Concerning a recent incident said to have happened to an immigrant at our county’s detention center, I wrote to the County Executive’s assistant: “Today I’m responding, in frustration, because of the ongoing cruelty at the…Facility. According to reports [this] immigrant has faced retaliation from corrections officers simply for talking to the press about the negligent medical care he’s experienced… He is still due his free speech rights, isn’t he?” The response I received included this sentence: “It is premature on your part to assume that the culture you describe exists … even before an investigation is conducted.” Instead of an exploration as to the issue at hand, I am told that I am wrong to assume that this event even happened. Case closed, conversation ended.

Look, whether you believe Jesus was the Messiah or not, if you have ever read the Bible you will see he was a pretty good listener. Instead of saying, You’re wrong, I’m right all the time he would typically offer up an analogy, or ask a question, to those who challenged him. He liked his discourse, though it made him so tired sometimes he had to go up to a mountain or find a deserted island to rest up from it. It is hard work to listen, to take in other’s words without automatically formulating your response. I always tell my students that as soon as they raise their hands to speak they have gone from listening mode to practicing their retort. Just. Wait.

I would like to see less encouragement of the debate mode — in the classroom and in the public square. Let’s talk, get to know each other, keep the channels open. I swear more good gets done that way. We should go back and study the great speeches, the ones we are taught changed history. Those were conversations, albeit sometimes with an audience of hundreds. Let’s grow humanity together, collectively, by sharing what’s in our minds and our hearts without concern for rebuttal. No goals. No scores. No wins or losses. Except, of course, for the gains that we will make by listening to each other’s ideas.

Killing Dreams

During the AIDS epidemic I was deep into my 20-something life in New York City. I was an actor, I was in food service; gay men were everywhere. Until suddenly they were not. Little by little my friends and co-workers disappeared. I would walk down 7th Avenue South passing emaciated men, Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions prominently displayed upon their bodies. I felt like I was in the movie, The Night of the Living Dead. I had to look away. I felt sorry for them but I knew I wasn’t one of them. You see, at that point we uninformed folks were under the impression that gay, White, skinny men were the only ones succumbing to this strange new disease. Sure, we knew that AIDS could be contracted in all kinds of sexual relations, but that didn’t mean we practiced much discernment at the clubs and bars we frequented. I, for one, was reckless in these terms. It was simply the 80s: it was all about China Club, Michael Jackson, and AIDS.

In my daughter’s wonderful reading and writing group, a young man recently led our discussion based on several texts including Wayne Hoffman’s “Skipping the Life Fantastic: Coming of Age in the Sexual Devolution.” It’s a piece written in 1996 that looks at the ways that “queer lifeworlds” were changed, and really shackled, by the AIDS crisis. Gay men were essentially told to stop fantasizing, imagining, and exploring. It was time to get in lockstep with the new “anti-sex” movement. This was society’s way of policing what some considered a subversive lifestyle. It was for their own good, after all. And implicit, I think, was that it was pretty much their fault all this AIDS had happened in the first place. They had brought this disease upon themselves — and the world at large — by their impetuous behavior. These messages came not only from the “straight world” but from “the community” as well.

Fast forward, as they say, to today’s COVID epidemic. (Wow, I have already experienced two major epidemics in my lifetime; I am either old or the world is spinning out of control at an ever-increasing velocity). We learned early in this scourge — to no surprise for many of us — that African Americans were bearing the brunt of this disease. Following this “news” came exhortations indicating their culpability in the matter. From White and Black folk. Earlier this month a Michigan official said it was Black (not his word) people’s fault in Detroit that COVID had spread throughout his great state. And Black leaders are lecturing their people on egregious lifestyles.

African Americans have essentially been told to stop fantasizing, imagining, and exploring. They have been told by the media — both social and journalistic — to stop fantasizing about access to immediate health care; and to cease their imaginings of what social equity would look like right about now. And for God’s sake no more exploring the reasons behind the constant murder of Black people by law enforcement.

While the majority of White people skate through this horror holding on to job, family and home — albeit tenuously at times — African Americans (and Latinos and immigrants and the emotionally and physically disabled and the elderly…) bear the brunt of sickness and death. On top of that is heaped the blame. “We’re all in this together” comes the cry of the people. But really, not so much. If I were in my twenties today, I may well be as reckless as I was back in 1980s Manhattan, refusing to don a mask this time instead of overlooking the lack of a condom. This kind of behavior happens with privilege, a kind of lacy veil we wear (unlike a mask) that allows us to fantasize about our futures; imagine possibilities; and explore new horizons.

Those who have died of AIDS did nothing to deserve it. Those who are dying now at the alarming rate of close to 1000 humans a day don’t deserve it either. The blame belongs to our government, to corporations that put profit before public health and to anyone who looks away.

The Answer is Fear

Today’s Zoom sermon was entitled, “When Haters Hate.” Now, many of us have encountered haters. Jill Scott said it in her song, “Hate on Me” (which I hum to myself quite often as a kind of mantra): “If I could give you the world/On a silver platter/Would it even matter? You’d still be mad at me…” You know haters, like that person who wants to undo everything you’ve done just because you did it ? (So-called President Trump, Hater of actual President Obama). Or, that person who abruptly hangs up on you just because you’re speaking the truth on a touchy subject? (Most everyone who has family)!

I finally watched I am not Your Negro last night, a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. The proposed book was to be about the deaths of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Talk about having haters. These three men inspired so much hate by the lives that they led that they were murdered for living. I was thinking how often those who are hated end up coming back to us as heroes, or martyrs. They return to haunt us, to point out our weaknesses, our fears, to hold up a giant mirror to the hateful world in which we participate.

Haters hate because they are afraid. All destructive human behavior emanates from fear. So, for example, the police officers we see (and the ones we don’t see) murdering Black and brown humans on a regular basis are afraid — so afraid that they have turned to hate for protection. But what are they afraid of, we might ask. They already have the power, the weapons, the capital… Well, once upon a time in America there were White landowners who purchased African humans to work their land. These landowners had the power, the weapons, the capital… But they were scared of “revolts” because they knew somewhere deep inside (or not so deep down) that owning humans was an aberration of morality. But, man, the living was easy. So, anyway, because they were afraid of uprisings, they made sure to nip things in the bud, show the enslaved who was boss, get them before they were got. See where I’m going with this?

White folks have been practicing this hater-ade consumption for centuries. It’s the “safest” place to put their fear. And, okay, I’ll take a moment now and say not ALL White people, yes. But certainly enough that our country’s sordid history has led up to today’s sordid news where we are still seeing Whites — and even non-Whites who feel they have some tenuous semblance of power — wielding violence and turning deaf ears to those who have been marginalized by the power structure. ICE officers who kidnap formerly incarcerated immigrants, drop them outside U.S. borders, and ignore court decisions are doing so out of fear that “we” will become overrun with “them.” Law enforcement officers who kick in doors of sleeping African-American citizens and just start shooting, are afraid that something nefarious is happening in that neighborhood. Fearers turn into Haters.

James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time (a biblical reference in case you’re not familiar): “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Haters hate out of fear of pain. For some of us, hate comes in the form of being undermined by a coworker, or cut off in the middle of a sentence. But for others, hate means torture, violence, and death.

What if we were to embrace our own pain? Then maybe somebody next to us would feel emboldened enough to embrace theirs. And then, just like that, we could eradicate hate. It’s just a thought. Don’t hate.

Story Promoter

In a few weeks I am presenting a brief workshop on oral history for a local public library. Via Zoom. I’m going to explain what the field of oral history is about and show them examples of oral histories and their uses. I’ll also provide some worksheets, like a guide for the process of taking oral histories, questionnaire templates, and the all-important gift of deed that states that the person being interviewed (if they signed the document) knows what the stakes are, where their story might just end up. The library program has been entitled,” Sharing Your Stories.” My job is to encourage folks to share their stories, as well as take part in getting others to share theirs.

I got to thinking about these “stories,” as I have so often in the past. Such a benign word, story. We use it a lot in history context these days — alongside the wildly popular narrative. I really want to help people tell their stories, to emphasize the importance of their life narratives. Women especially, Black women mostly.

I applied for a Fulbright, proposing to tell the stories of African women activists. And by tell I really mean to foreground these stories — stories already told, already played out, but often just not known. I really thought I had found my niche, my safe space. I am a white woman in Black worlds: sometimes I peek, sometimes I investigate, and often I participate. All this to ensure that these stories get heard, always mindful of not taking up too much space. But then I started thinking, what does it really mean to tell a story?

“No you tell that story, you tell it so well.” That’s what we say when we know someone’s story and want it to be heard but know we won’t quite do it justice. But why would that matter? It’s the story that counts, not who relates it, right? Nope. Because agency. It’s all about agency. And this is where we white people get into trouble. We walk around with so much of it we don’t even know we have it, like the woman who wears diamond earrings on a jog.

But if someone has literally told their story — or at least one of theirs, or part of theirs — via an oral history interview, then what I am doing when I march it out in front of readers or audience members? I’m certainly not telling their story. But am I inserting myself in that story? Like when our friend is telling their story and we urge them on, “Remember to say the part about the giant red fox in your front yard…” or when we explain, “She is so modest, but she’s the one who climbed the tallest pine tree in the forest first…”

I did a presentation about listening to oral histories at a recent conference. I think I need to do one about shutting up. Like, making sure as a scholar that we present a given oral history with contextualization, but not interruption or explanation or delineation. I don’t need to explain others’ stories. Because stories aren’t little ditties that people drop from their mouths like discarded sunflower seeds. No, they are one’s heart parts, one’s soul voice, molded into a form that an outsider can understand. A slice of one person’s life pie. They know if there was whipped cream on it, not me. A story is a beginning, middle, and end kind of thing that does not need the intervention of an outsider, merely the attention.

I hereby swear to serve as an attendant to the histories I unearth. Signed, Me.

In the Out Door

Today I was going into a store — alright, a liquor store — and encountered an awkward moment wherein a man was insisting on coming out the same door, the entrance. I stood still, waiting for him to figure out he should step to the right, to the exit door, but he didn’t. Instead he flung open the glass door in front of him and ushered me in. “You’re welcome,” he said sarcastically under his breath as I walked by.

I circled right out, through the exit door, and shared with him that he was actually in the wrong, using the entrance as an exit, and thus my lack of appreciation. I’m not sure he heard me. I went back into the store once more and picked out my wine — alright, my box of wine — and brought it to the befuddled sales clerk.

Why was I so mad, I wondered? What’s the big deal about using the wrong door? Am I such a rule follower, as a friend of mine once accused? Lugging my box of Chardonnay home I realized that the reason I was so angry, why the encounter felt so frustratingly familiar, was because it was emblematic of today’s society. The person involved did the wrong thing and yet I was supposed to thank him for his willingness to acknowledge me in the process. He was entitled to that. This was all about denial, about arrogance, about seeing those around you as wrong simply because they do not thank you for being you.

As a woman I have experiences like this fairly regularly. People of color, oh pretty much all the time. Is everything about race? Yes. And then gender. And for women of color – well, “major systems of oppression are interlocking,” according to the Combahee River Collective statement. “Intersectional,” we might say these days.

So, the brown store owners requested that their customers use one door for entering and another for exiting; the white man chose to use the door he preferred; the white woman was accused of ingratitude for not acknowledging the white man’s performance of a “chivalrous” gesture as he ignored the directives of the brown people. Way too much reading into the situation, you say? I will respect that opinion. But here’s what I say: it’s a tiny illustration, a shining microcosm, of our culture.

Today I watched the coffin of John Lewis being pulled by horse and carriage across the Edmund Pettus bridge. I thought he looked so all alone; it was a lonely scene. And I thought how his soul must be so tired, exhausted by the work it took to be a Black man in this country. And he spent even more energy, calling out those who believe the country is theirs alone, who think it is their inheritance to choose their doors — and who expect thank-yous when they decide, every once in a while, to let others in those doors.

Pain is the Bridge

Today, as I walked in the 97 degree heat, I listened to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer interview scholar Eddie Glaude, chair of Princeton’s African-American studies department and author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Glaude’s sensibilities surrounding where we are right now in this world, and what Baldwin might have had to say about it, were profound. And then he went and read some Baldwin aloud, so you know things got deep.

Glaude references the term “after times” in his book which he attributes to Walt Whitman. Glaude uses this term to describe what others might call a backlash, that horribly inevitable moment when American racial progress is answered with resistance, often in the form of violence. Baldwin suffered as he witnessed the after times of the Civil Rights Movement, falling into despair, according to Glaude, after Dr. King was assassinated. There is something both affirming and devastating in knowing that a man such as Baldwin, who had seen so much go wrong in his years, could still feel so deeply betrayed.

Glaude explained that with his book he is looking to James Baldwin to help him contend with the “doubling down of ugliness” that he himself is witnessing in his America at this moment. He then shared an excerpt from Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” that included the following:

“You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”

“Pain is the bridge, ” said Glaude wearily, after reading.

The denouement of this interview may well have been a caller into the show, a man named Deforest (sic). He shared a moment he had with Baldwin many decades before. Quoting the Bible he had asked, “Mr. Baldwin, how shall we sing the songs of the Lord while in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4) Apparently Baldwin hesitated, and then answered, “I don’t know.” And then, in another beat Baldwin added, “But I simply know we must.”

I agree that we must. And those of us who bear less pain because of our privilege must also work to amplify the songs of those who continue to be drowned out. That is our personal must.

Women’s Stories Yet Untold

Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century, by Barbara Ransby, is a handbook, a history book and could even be called a self-help-book-for-the-moment. I am so grateful to the amazing couple who introduced this work to me and then took their time to create a reading group around it. This sort of thing is happening everywhere and, in ways different but no less valuable than the protests, the collaboration is powerful.

As I made my way through the Scribd copy of this book, I highlighted Ransby’s well-turned phrases, things I didn’t know, and even (selfishly) a few affirmations that my own work and thinking is on the right track. For example, my keen interest in foregrounding oral histories of women of color lies in my belief that they just don’t get enough play in history compared to men — and White people in general. Ransby’s book confirms this:

“While high- profile activists have emerged from Ferguson, and from the Black Lives Matter Movement and Movement for Black Lives (BLMM/M4BL) in general, and have gained new levels of celebrity, most have labored in relative obscurity. It is the latter group whose stories are in some ways most revealing” (77).

Then, in relating the experience of activist Johnetta (Netta) Elzie:

“First, she observed Black men taking credit for the work of Black women organizers and usurping the mantle of leadership, when the majority of those she had seen on the streets most consistently were women.” (84)

As a White woman, my job is not to tell these women’s stories. They can tell them just fine by themselves. What I can offer are the research skills and historical knowledge that help unearth and contextualize so many of these subsumed stories. I urge people to read this book, to hear the stories of women – known and not – who keep working to make this planet a humane place to live. We owe them big time and can use our own time and talents to reciprocate their labor.