Friends, family, teachers, and WITS writers packed Cathedral Coffee on a Wednesday afternoon for the end-of-residency reading and celebration. Depending on which WITS writer each student worked with, they presented a different genre: poetry, playwriting, or storytelling. The poets were from Renee Mitchell’s class and worked with WITS writer James Gendron. The playwrights were from Matt Boyer and Shawn Swanson’s classes, and they worked with WITS writer Jeffy Denight. At least two students performed in each dramatic piece, which all contained charged emotions and plot twists. Mr. Swanson also wrote a piece, which his students performed. The storytellers were from Melissa Kennybrew’s class, and they worked with WITS writer Arthur Bradford. None of the storytellers used notes (we were very impressed) and told stories of injuries, sucesses on tests, and Mrs. Kennybrew told a highly entertaining story about meeting her husband, who was also in the audience.
We want to thank Cathedral Coffee for continuing to be a great space for these readings, and to thank everyone who participated. It was a lovely reading and we’re so happy that everyone had a great time!
Monday night found three different classes from Lincoln High school at Literary Arts to celebrate the end of residencies for their Writers in the Schools authors, Bettina de Leon Barrera, Lisa Eisenberg, and Mark Pomeroy.
Barrera worked with Trevor Todd’s classroom, a group of intrepid students that put together a Spanish-language magazine. She read a couple of pieces, in both English and Spanish, including a Neruda poem. She discussed how when she worked with students, she liked beginning with a word or emotion, and going where the word or sound moves you.
One student read a moving essay that she had translated from its original Spanish about the complexities of her home country, Honduras. About the complacency of its people until a hotel is destroyed. About the complicated feelings while moving to a new country. Other students read their journalism articles, including a piece about the effect of El Niño in Peru.
Many students chose to read their work in their native language, Spanish, including a few “I am” poems.
Trevor Todd shared a piece from a student who was unable to make it, about human trafficking in Portland.
Mark Pomeroy who worked with Amanda-Jane Elliott’s “cheeky” class, read from a personal essay about speaking to a classroom of high school students after the events of Sandy Hook, and recalling wise words from a former philosophy professor.
Amanda-Jane Elliot also chose to read a personal essay that began from a prompt given by the Oregon’s Writer Project: writer about writing. She read a piece about letter writing, trying to make it in the world by sending a letter to near-stranger halfway across the world.
Lisa Eisenberg shared completed comics from students of Emily Hensley’s class who couldn’t make it. After, she showed a work in progress about what makes a good school.
Students shared work from across all genres. One read a dystopian story. Another an extended metaphor poem. There was journalism, and non-fiction, and fiction, and poetry.
Many thanks to the classes of Lincoln High School for sharing their beautiful work at Literary Arts, for their teachers for leading them and sharing their own work. We are very excited about the possibility of so much diversity across genre and language to be submitted to the annual anthology.
This week, I found myself driving out to Gresham to visit Ms. Alethea Work’s second period class of 38 students. Before the students got to work, Ms. Work wrote an Anaïs Nin quote on the board, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”
Local author Emily Prado was visiting as part of the Literary Arts Writers in the Schools (WITS) program to wrap up her time with the students this spring. She began the class by showing them the variety of opportunities they have to engage with the writing community outside of their classroom. Students can submit their work to the Kay Snow writing contest sponsored by Willamette Writers on the River in Corvallis. Students were also reminded to continue working on their letters to local politicians.
At the beginning of the term, many students were concerned with finding ways to organize their writing, and writing more persuasively. Prado took that concern to engage the students in writing letters to an elected official. She invited a local politician who was able to discuss what kinds of letters and writing they find influential.
Students have been working on writing short stories during Prado’s residency. During the class time, students focused on peer review, and seeing how their short stories were or were not successfully reaching their audience. As the students passed their stories around for review, they were encouraged to jot down three compliments and three suggests to each of their classmates. I could have been in a collegiate-level workshop. Ms. Work’s class was graciously supportive, excitedly talking about their friends’ work. “The very first line shines!” “I’m not sure there’s a theme behind it yet.” “I think you need a comma here.” “This pulled me in.” They are writing in a variety of genres, but were reminded to look at word choice, organization, and clarity, and others as a way of strengthening the stories.
I would like to thank Ms. Work and her students for welcoming me into their class. And Ms. Prado for taking the time to explain how and why she structured her classes. At the end of the period, students were reminded to submit these stories to the WITS anthology and, I for one, cannot wait to see the final project.
Before his lecture at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen spent an afternoon with over 100 students at Reynolds High School. Two students gave a polished introduction to Nguyen, one of whom mentioned that her father was also a refugee from Vietnam.
Nguyen began by asking how many other students had parents who were born elsewhere, and about half the students raised their hands. When he asked how many students themselves were born in other countries, it was only a handful. “I came here when I was four years old as a refugee,” said Nguyen. “What do you think is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee?”
Students were shy initially, but Nguyen drew them out. “Immigrants are looking for opportunities,” said one student. “They’re going to a new place to find more opportunities, for work and freedom and stuff.”
“Refugees are leaving because it’s unsafe,” said another student.
Nguyen nodded. “Okay, so the difference is that immigrants come from with a stable lifestyle, and refugees are seeking help. So, what do you think of when you think of refugees?” Many students spoke at once. “Boats?” he said. “I’m hearing boats. And camps? So when you hear refugee, you think of camps and boats.” The students giggled nervously. “My father came here on an airplane, so he was fresh off the plane.” Everyone laughed. Nguyen smiled. “I ask you to see what comes to mind because I’m a refugee, and you might be thinking, ‘He doesn’t look like a refugee’ because you see something different online; you see boats, and starvation, and camps.”
Nguyen noted that it was important to him to identify as a refugee and told the story of how he came to the United States. “My parents were on the losing side in a war, which is a huge incentive to leave.” He mentioned that his earliest memories were of being separated from his family as a four-year-old, since each family member had to have a “sponsor” in the US. “My son is four years old, and I can’t imagine losing him for a few months.”
“Another question,” he said with a grin. “What is the distinction between an undocumented immigrant and a refugee?” Students were more stumped by this one, and everyone finally agreed that refugees are people who don’t have a choice. “There is a legal definition of refugee, and it implies that we owe them something as a human being,” Nguyen continued. “In 1975 it was in the interest of the U.S. to bring Vietnamese refugees here to prove that Communism was bad and the U.S. was good.” He explained that the term refugee is a loaded term, and that we don’t always want to classify folks as refugees because it implies “we owe them something.” But the term immigrants has its own implications: “People think about heartwarming stories of seeking the American Dream.”
He told about going to another high school where the teacher had mentioned that several students in the class were refugees. But when he arrived and asked for a show of hands, no one would raise one. “I get it,” he said. “High school is awkward enough without being that refugee kid.” But this was precisely why Nguyen felt it was important to assert himself as a refugee–he wants to show that “we can be writers, too.”
Nguyen began asking students about their own writing, and talked a few into sharing their work in front of the students. One young man read a poem about wearing a mask to hide his true feelings. “I think that’s universal,” said Nguyen after the applause had died down. “I grew up feeling like I was an American at home, spying on my Vietnamese family, and outside I felt Vietnamese spying on my American friends.” He praised the student’s bravery. “I can guarantee most people in this room feel the same.”
“It’s interesting that you didn’t identify as a writer at first,” Nguyen continued. “Because you are a writer! Writing is anything you put down, whether on paper pen, computer, or even graffiti.” He mentioned the Instagram poet Rupi Kaur, and that she was selling more books “than probably anyone on that shelf,” he said, gesturing toward the stacks. “Perhaps you associate writers with dead people who wrote books,” he continued. “But writing is changing. You don’t need anyone telling you what is permissible to write.”
Another two students were brave and shared a dramatic scene of a father and son in a hospital, and a flashback to the father talking to his deceased wife. The piece garnered enthusiastic applause again from their peers.
“I’m assuming that was not autobiographical, right?” Nguyen asked. “Was that based on other people you know?”
The student explained that he had taken parts of himself and infused them in each character. Nguyen nodded. “That’s what writers do.” He explained that a very important piece of writing was also applicable to life, “and that is empathy. What do you think of when I say empathy?”
“Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” offered one student.
“Right,” Nguyen agreed. “And it’s different than pity.” He explained that pity was too far away from the other person, whereas empathy “is about getting closer. It’s a good human skill.”
Nguyen told the story of seeing a sign as a kid in San Jose that said “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” The sign referred to the Vietnamese grocery store that his father had opened. “Those nine words are an age-old story,” Nguyen said. “Here is how it works: American is the hero. Driven out of business is the drama, which every good story needs. Vietnamese is the villain. The sign is asking you to empathize with the American. It appeals to fear and, in a weird way, empathy. The story is saying that Americans–which did not include me–can empathize with each other, but not with the villain.” The students were silent, enrapt.
“This is why I became a writer,” Nguyen continued. “I knew that if I didn’t tell my story, then this other story would go uncontested. Storytelling is crucial.” He motioned toward the student who had introduced him, whose father was a refugee from Vietnam. “We are changing the story for the next generation.”
We want to thank Viet Thanh Nguyen for being such an engaging speaker, and the students for listening, participating, and sharing their own work. We also want to thank the teachers at Reynolds High School, particularly Teresa Brandt, for their help setting up the author visit. Reynolds also brought students to Nguyen’s lecture that night through our Students to the Schnitz program, along with over a hundred other students from four high schools. We’re definitely looking forward to next year’s author events with local high schools!
This past week, I had the pleasure to stop by Dana Vinger’s classroom at Benjamin Franklin High school and observe WITS author Cari Luna as she led a lesson focused on political writing with Ms. Vinger’s seventh period class.
For a warm-up writing exercise, students had to consider a contemporary political issue and write a speech for a character to deliver at a political rally. Students chose to write about a variety of topics, from marijuana incarceration, to the president, to climate change, to immigration, to the men who call themselves incels.
Luna then led a reading of an excerpt from local author Leni Zumas’ acclaimed Red Clocks. Students looked at how fiction can use everyday life and events to explain politics. Using the personal, “makes [politics] feel immediate and real,” Luna explained.
As a group, the class then came up with potential, politically charged story lines to expand later during the class period that weaved together a specific place, character, and political topic.
Lastly, the class spent time working on their stories that they had been creating during Luna’s time at Franklin High. She emphasized the importance of crafting a detail or concrete thought to help bring their stories to a close. Students from Franklin High will be reading from these stories May 16th at the Bipartisan Café.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Dana Vinger, Cari Luna and the students for their warm welcome. Based on the writing that they were capable of creating within a short class period, I am excited to see what they will bring to the reading and to the Literary Arts student anthology.
Broadway Books was, as always, a lovely venue for Grant High School students to share work they created during Writers in the Schools (WITS) residencies this semester. Students in Scott Blevins and Courtney Palmer’s classes worked with WITS writers-in-residence Jules Ohman and Claudia Savage, both of whom came and shared their own work alongside students. Mr. Blevins also shared a piece he had written during the residency. Topics varied widely, but parents featured in many (good, bad, and absent). A story about being a “bad Russian” elicited a lot of laughs from the audience, who was warm and attentive to every student performance. We want to thank everyone who came and participated, by reading or by listening, and we’re looking forward to sharing Grant student work in the WITS anthology!
It was a hot and sunny afternoon when students from Meek @Alliance High School gathered at Miss Zumstein Bakery and Coffee Shop in NE Portland for a WITS reading. These students were from Ms. Taramasso’s class and had spent the semester working with WITS writer Laura Moulton. As always, cafe owner Anya had put out sweet baked goods for students to munch on as they shared their pieces. Student work was mostly personal, but still ranged widely in tone and subject. The writers shared stories of gentrification of their neighborhood, wily cats, creating art, and how one-size-fits-all education systems don’t work for everyone. Teachers Ms. Taramasso and Mr. Ferguson both read student work, and WITS writer Laura Moulton shard an excerpt from a longer piece she has been working on through her project Street Books. Everyone’s work was fantastic, and we are excited that a couple of students are submitting work to the annual WITS anthology so we can share it widely!
Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Guide: Satya Byock
On the night of our first rain in Portland in three months, I made my way over to Literary Arts downtown, wondering to myself about my company for the evening. Who uses their free time to read a difficult text about Holocaust war crimes? Who commits to Sunday night discussions about the philosophy of evil? Would anyone show up to this thing? I’d been a philosophy professor for about a decade, and had struggled to find students interested in reading and discussing difficult texts. Worn out on pulling teeth, yet still in love with philosophy, I set my sights beyond the academy for intellectual stimulation and a community of interested readers, thinkers, and dialoguers. In just four weeks time, I found myself in the midst of a transformative process with my fellow “Delvers,” in which I was coming to understand that in times of tragedy and injustice, in feelings of powerlessness and frustration, and in the middle of an overwhelming desire to hide . . . there is reason to stay awake and aware. There is an obligation to speak up. There is a way to push back.
A Community of Thinkers
As I waited for my first Delve seminar to begin in the lovely conversation room in the heart of the city, folks started to trickle in and soon it was a full house. We squeezed in around our table, introducing ourselves, cracking open our books filled with underlined passages, and ready to dive in. So, who comes to a seminar on the banality of evil, you ask? People still plagued with questions about the rise of Nazism, asking “how could it happen?” People nervous it could happen again, and wanting to understand the human psychology and historical steps behind it. Children of families involved in the war, who had suffered great losses. Retired lawyers prepared to follow every step of Eichmann’s trial with a fine-toothed comb. Graduates of the New School, where Hannah Arendt is a legend. History buffs quick to recall the details of WW II and memories of watching Eichmann’s trial on TV. And, of course, loyalists of seminars led by Satya Byock! As we introduced ourselves and told our stories about why we had come, the depth of intellectual, emotional, and ethical-political interest surrounding this text was clear. I knew I was in the right place.
To help us dive in, Satya proposed two questions for us to consider. Was Eichmann anti-Semitic? And, in what way was Zionism a component of his work? We struggled through the question of how one of the major organizers of the Holocaust might notbe anti-Semitic. And yet, “hatred” was not exactly a character trait we were finding in Arendt’s report of Eichmann. What was going on with this guy? We found Eichmann, early on in his efforts to deal with the so-called “Jewish question,” to be strictly concerned with moving Jews out of the country. In as far as Zionists had the same goal, they found modes of pragmatic cooperation. Eichmann’s solution to the “Jewish question” was “putting firm soil under their feet so that they would have a place of their own, soil of their own” (56). Eichmann even believed he was “helping” Jews by organizing their departure. But it became clear, in Arendt’s report, that Eichmann’s “collaboration” with Zionists wasn’t out of some goodness in his heart. It was out of a desire to make successful career moves.
We found ourselves fascinated by Arendt’s description of Eichmann as someone who seemed to have no core principles or ideologies. He was mostly an unthinking “joiner,” a follower of orders, and a careerist, in her report. We started to get a taste of what we wondered might be the point of the book, given its subtitle – that evil need not be grounded in deep thought, deep hatred, or deep . . . anything. What we find so monstrous might be . . . empty. I felt my stomach sink.
New questions quickly sprang up. What if evil is easy, ordinary, even normal? What if it comes from a lack of thought and choice – and what if that’s the most ordinary thing? Is acting as a moral agent, then, an extraordinary thing? If evil is banal, is goodness then extraordinary? How do you resist evil, if it is such an empty and ordinary thing? We weren’t ready to formulate answers, but I was thankful to have found a group that felt the weight and urgency of the questions.
Conscience, Morality, and Law
One of the most fascinating reports by Arendt was on the shape-shifting language used by the Nazi regime. Code words and rigid language rules proliferated. Deportation was referred to as “resettlement,” or “labor in the East.” Killing by gas was referred to as a “medical matter.” The extermination of masses of human beings, as is well known, was called the “Final Solution.” A whole apparatus was in place for shielding participants from reality, and those in the ranks fluent in the code language were called “bearers of secrets.”
The effort at deception and self-deception raised a good question about whether conscience among the Nazis was alive or dead. To have to utilize a language that creates a mental division between what you are doing and what you know about murder suggests a recognition, on some level, of the horrors in which you are involved. This made us wonder: Did Eichmann have a conscience?
We found all the instances in which Eichmann recoiled at the physical extermination of Jews. When he first heard about the “Final Solution” he said he “lost all joy” in his work, and confessed that poisoning Jews with gas was “monstrous.” He said he was not “tough enough” for it and it all upset him too much. Yet, one suspects that what Eichmann regretted was not so much that the events took place, but that he had to hear about it or see it. Poor Eichmann did not like the hardship of bearing witness.
Arendt’s judgment was that Eichmann had a regularly operating conscience for exactly four weeks. But what made it fail? Eichmann had his own story to tell about morality and conscience – a story about what they had once meant to him, and what they had become. Morality had been a matter of following a rule and not making any exceptions. It was about being tough enough to resist any inclinations that might tempt one away from following the rule. Eichmann proclaimed that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts and definition of duty (and even produced a reasonable formulation of the categorical imperative during his trial!).
But, Eichmann confessed, the moment he had been charged with carrying out the Final Solution, he ceased living according to Kantian principles. The moral law (the one he could will as a universal law) was replaced with the Fuhrer’s law, which was now state law. Eichmann was a practiced rule follower – and he followed his new rule without compromise. He adapted the Kantian formula to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were at the same time that of the legislator or the law of the land. In other words, do as Hitler would do. Do it without exception. Do it even when your inclinations tell you not to. He said he knew, at this point, that he was no longer his own master. But at least he was a law-abiding citizen, and he seemed proud of that.
Eichmann reported that his turn of conscience happened at the Wansee Conference, when he saw the “extraordinary enthusiasm” for the Final Solution by all present. He said: “At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt” (114). He saw no one speak against the Final Solution. The good, respectable people of his society all sang a chorus of acceptance for it. This soothed his conscience and set it at rest. Arendt, with her sarcastic, yet sad tone, comments: “Who was he to judge?”
Furthermore, Eichmann was enamored with Hitler’s “success.” Eichmann had a kind of wild admiration for someone who could climb the ladder of his career so quickly and so well. Eichmann saw Hitler’s professional achievements as proof of his authority, and as further support for why Eichmann should submit to his word.
At this point, you could feel the chill in the room. Descriptions of our own culture’s tendency to worship wealthy, successful businessmen, and to so easily follow “winners” of power, money, and fame, began to circulate. Worry rose up in the room for the way we ride the wave of popular opinion, and avoid being the one to stand out and go against the tide. And that all-too-familiar phrase from those who believe they are apolitical, or ultra-tolerant — “Who am I to judge”—was unnerving. We began to answer: “You are a human being responsible for taking a moral stand, and responsible for this world that you are helping to create (whether you recognize it or not), that’s who!”
The discussion turned to the importance of deciding where you take your stand, the importance of staying informed about what is going on in the world, and saying, doing, living your “no” in the small and big moments of your life. We talked about taking a knee. We talked about speaking up against institutional racism. We talked about reporting sexual harassment. We talked about the deep problems involved in insisting there’s “nothing we can do” about mass shootings or about climate change. I, myself, felt deeply disturbed about the ways in which we educate for obedience and simple rule-following in our country, creating students who listen for the formula that will deliver the grade, and the recipe that will make them money. This kind of education has become so prevalent, that one often senses resentment when one asks a student, to read, investigate, deliberate, critique, create, and take individual responsibility for their work and ideas. By our next session, all these troubling thoughts and conversations had seeped into our daily lives. Testimonies of difficult choices, tensions with family members, and risky moments of speaking up in one’s professional life were becoming prevalent. We all agreed: This text changes you.
One of Arendt’s most controversial claims in the book was that the moral collapse of the time period was so widespread that it included not just the perpetrators of violence, but also the victims. Arendt argued that even the Jewish leaders cooperated in the destruction of their own people and called them “voluntary bearers of secrets”. She recounted their aid in compiling lists of Jews and their property, distributing badges, rounding up Jews, and putting them on trains. In their attempt to save some people and plead that “exceptions” be made, she saw a disastrous and implicit acceptance of the “rule,” which spelled death for the bulk of Jews.
This was a really difficult issue for the group. We wondered: Can you blame the Jewish leaders for trying to save some people when the whole ship was going down? How do you negotiate with your murderers? Perhaps only by trying to agree with them on some point in order to get them to spare some of your people? Or, should you never try to negotiate at all? This led us into an extended conversation about what productive resistance looks like.
It was in Denmark that Arendt found a model for resistance like no other. It marked “the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent actions and resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence” (171). When the Nazis told the Danes to use the yellow badge, they responded that the King would wear it first. The Danish government officials declared that they would resign at the first sight of anti-Jewish measures. The Danes would not accept any Nazi attempt to distinguish between native Danes and Danes of Jewish origin. They declared that since the Jews living in Denmark were no longer German citizens, that the Nazis had no claim on them. In other words, they were prepared to protect Jewish refugees. And so, as Arendt says, “none of the preparatory moves, so important for the bureaucracy of murder, could be carried out, and operations were postponed until the fall of 1943” (172). And when Nazi plans for raids began, the Danish government officials informed the Jewish leaders, who communicated with their community to go into hiding. Danish citizens took in their neighbors, ready to protect them. Citizens refused to open their doors during raids. Wealthy Danish citizens paid for transportation to safety in Sweden for those who could not afford it. Dock workers refused to repair German ships. Resistance was a united front throughout Denmark, from the ranks of the leadership to the average citizen.
And the results of open, organized resistance? The results of strong leaders that defended their people? The results of an unwillingness to divide up human beings into hierarchical classes? Arendt reported that the Germans exposed to this resistance began to change their minds! They started to question the Final Solution and “their ‘toughness’ had melted like butter in the sun.” It had been “nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price” (175).
Arendt reminded us of a truth we knew from the playground. The bully is insecure and backs down when you stand up to him. She also reminded us that it is essential to organize and not to let in the forces that would distinguish between those deserving and not deserving of equal rights. Arendt’s message was an empowering one: A counter-tide in opinion can change minds. We may be subject to influences of power, but we can be the spark of counter-power as well.
One Nation Still On Fire: James Baldwin and Jesmyn Ward Guide: Béalleka Makau
*This blog article will appear also in the Oregon Arts Watch in 2018.
I want to write about a dead elephant.
As a scribe, my tuition was comped for the sold-out Delve, “One Nation Still on Fire,” which was the only way I could afford the seminar. And even though it started on November 20, 2017 and ended on January 20, 2018 – on the one year anniversary of the presidential inauguration of a demogogue – it has taken me months to process, a flight to a different country, and the space and distance from Portland for me to even begin. After three months, and missed deadline after deadline, I offer this painstaking reflection and these thoughts faltering, unfinished, heavy, and loaded…
In the change between fall and winter, the eighteen of us bridged the turning of a year by reading and discussing two books: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jesmyn Ward’s curated and edited essay collection The Fire This Time. We also attended Ward’s Portland Arts & Lectures event on January 18.
Published in 1962, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time contains two letters, one to his nephew “My Dungeon Shook” and the other about his crisis of faith “Down at the Cross.” Even after fifty years, Baldwin’s observations around race relations remain all too relevant, as if he penned them yesterday. In 2015, Jesmyn Ward, in response to George Zimmerman’s murder of baby-faced teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, edited the book The Fire This Time: a new generation speaks about race. Contemporary Black scholars, authors, and poets joined the omnipresent conversation that Baldwin and so many others have started, lived, still live, and still suffer because race remains a harbinger of so many other social ills, inequities, and human injustices in this country.
A conversation, it seems, that many white folks are still coming to the table to join—late.
My frustration was compounded by my experience in the seminar as a person of color unpacking and talking about race in a room that was 77% occupied by highly-educated and well-meaning white people. A frustration that was visceral. Trying to convince others on a reality backed by history is a crazy-making feat. Hearing the same thing or having the same conversations about race with different and multiple white people, can do that – it can make you feel like you’re a broken record. It can make you feel broken. Who is the famous person that defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results?
In Isabel Wilkerson’s essay “Where Do We Go from Here?” she writes:
We may have lulled ourselves into believing that the struggle was over, that it has all been taken care of back in 1964, that the marching and the bloodshed had established, once and for all, the basic rights of people who had been at the bottom for centuries. We may have believed that, if nothing else, the civil rights movement had defined a bar beneath which we could not fall.
But history tells us otherwise. We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address.
In Claudia Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” she observes succinctly, “The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings.”
The dead elephant isn’t just about America’s racist founding. Nor is it just about the delusion of a post-racial America. The dead elephant isn’t even about how white Portland is, despite the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the country.
The dead elephant is the burden that people of color bear, in varying degrees, for being non-white in America – and which white people do not.
White people are still able to choose when and how they decide to talk about race, and when and how they decide to care. It’s important that the seminar was offered. It’s important that the seminar was sold-out. It was important that we delved into both these texts, together. But Literary Arts is an incredibly safe place for white people to wax poetic about race. It’s a space designed and reinforced to make white people feel smart, as if their minimal intellectual efforts to have these “talks” and to read these “texts” is somehow enough.
The room at Literary Arts reminds me of what one of my white friends said upon moving from Portland to Los Angeles. He said, “Even though the people in LA seem more intellectually dim, the people are far more racially and ethnically diverse compared to Portland.” To him the cultural diversity was much more valuable in expanding his perspective. In a world that already centers whiteness first and foremost, he said, “It’s much more dangerous for a white person to only be surrounded by other white people.”
I wonder how many people left that room changed. I wonder how many people left more aware of their whiteness and their complicity in this racist country we’ve all inherited. I wonder how deep the texts and our conversations seeped; if the words of Baldwin, Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others found root in the tissue, in their bodies; or if everything just stayed on the surface of their intellects. I wonder how many people left still thinking about, and most importantly, feeling what we had discussed together. Whether those white people chose to bear the load, or whether they left more stubborn than ever defending their innocence, preserving their own comfort, leaving the burden where it’s always been: on the shoulders and backs of people of color.
As Baldwin so eloquently asserted, “…whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Blackness and whiteness are inextricably intertwined in this country. One does not exist without the other, and the inability for white folks to acknowledge this is what Baldwin called, “…the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Before I go much further, I am not black and I am not white. I do not have the experiences of either. Though the way that the hierarchy of race works I am much closer to the experiences of white people than I am to black people. I am a Chinese-American woman raised by immigrant parents in a white suburb in Oregon. I grew up in Portland’s particular brand of whiteness – which is polite, microaggressive, and indirect. I have navigated whiteness expertly, because there was a period of time when I had so much internalized racism that I thought I was white. Being a lighter-skinned Asian aided by the model minority myth, has provided me with specific opportunities and access compared to other people of color—and it is my responsibility when moving this conversation of race and racism forward to acknowledge this privilege. I have not suffered in the same way as other people of color, but all people of color have suffered under white supremacy. After years of assimilating, feeling ashamed of being Asian, losing my language, compromising and minimizing myself to fit into whiteness, which often meant being an ornament, a sidekick awkward and ugly, and then suddenly inappropriately sexualized, othered, fetishized, and tokenized all these years—I know I am absolutely, not white.
It could also be argued that good white people suffer under white supremacy. It’s dehumanizing: what kind of white savages have time and time again oppressed and re-oppressed others for their own selfish gain?
This post is not about hating white people. Though in my most immature moments, the frustrations are hard to tweeze out. I still have a lot of friends who are white, who I love and have loved, learned and lived with. For some, I have shepherded them into the awareness of their whiteness, have gone through the painful dismantling of their perceived innocence, and have helped them into the understanding of what their whiteness means in the context of this unjust country—and this has always been a deep labor of love.
However, my labor of love and patience for other white people to understand all of this weighted history and how it frames our present is not infinite, nor is it indiscriminate. I am human. I have a threshold.
When I entered the seminar space that first night on November 20 into a room full and eager to discuss the “literature,” I was already dealing with my disillusionment and anger at the rigidity and self-righteousness of individuals. After recent eruptions in the social justice community, I had started questioning the effectiveness of my resistance work. I was constantly being confronted with the same circular, nearsighted, and myopic conversations, the vernacular of social justice speak, the rhetoric, the infighting, the hubris, the self-righteousness—I was losing my faith that this fight against white supremacy would ever be reached. And to the degree that my fellow Delvers were unaware: their whiteness, and their naive ignorance about their own whiteness and their well-meaningness around the literature and about race in particular, all but confirmed my despair and hopelessness that things would ever change.
It was pointed out by our guide Béalleka, that only three of the nineteen essays in The Fire This Time talked about the future. Another Delver recounted author Ta-nehisi Coates’ comment at the most recent Wordstock Book Festival about how difficult it was for him to have hope or to imagine a future when the present looks so much like the past.
It was either our first or second session together when Béalleka asked us what Ward meant by the words, “I burn, and I hope.”
I have been seeking an answer inadequately since that question was breathed into that room. But I know it has something to do with the dead elephant.
The dead elephant makes up the scaffolds in which we exist, and which bodies are ordered socioeconomically, socially, professionally, and politically. The United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but the wealth and income gap is becoming more unequal. According to a 2015 Forbes article, a typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black household. Portland is not much different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) 81% of Portland residents are white, and with the exception of Asians, people of color face higher unemployment rates and lower wages than white workers, and are employed in lower-paying industries.
White supremacy is not just the KKK, or lynchings, or police shootings, or extreme violence, but that is part of its monstrous history and its present. White supremacy, in its silent form, is insidious. It’s economic. It’s social. It’s in policies and redrawn district lines. It’s how resources are allocated. Who gets infrastructure and well-paved roads and who doesn’t. It takes the form of the faces we frequently see in film or on TV, and the faces that are omitted. It determines who gets published and who our literary gatekeepers are (in an independent study that Lee & Low Books released in 2015 about 80% of folks that worked in publishing identified as white). It defines who gets to teach our ethnic studies courses. It’s in curriculum. It’s in how culture is defined. It’s in who gets the job; who gets to keep their jobs; who gets to own a home and who gets to accumulate wealth and equity to pass onto future generations.
As Carol Anderson in her essay, “White Rage” affirms, “It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets to face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors, who cast its efforts as noble…”
In addition to the large institutional and cultural structures that shape our lives undetectably, it’s deeply personal. Our identities are tied to our ability to know and access our ancestry. The stories that are told and shared and passed on, are a privilege. It requires an undisrupted lineage, one that isn’t peppered with displacement, war, slavery, rape, destitution, poverty. Some of us don’t know our pasts because they’ve been suppressed or erased or unknown. This is a direct relationship of whether you were a victor or a victim in this white-supremacist history.
Inspired by Jesmyn Ward’s essay, “Cracking the Code” about her search for identity, we started one of our sessions with a writing prompt asking us to trace our ancestral history as far back as we could remember. I didn’t have much. My mom was a refugee during the Vietnam – or American – War, depending on which direction you’re looking. My family history is one of dark unending holes. The traumas of my mom’s past have resulted in many consequences including my little brother’s generalized anxiety and my depression, among other things that reach deep into the dark.
Ward notes, “It’s impossible for most black Americans to construct full family trees. Official census records, used by so many genealogy enthusiasts to piece together their families’ pasts, don’t include our non-European ancestors.” (91)
After we were done writing our memories down, our guide Béalleka asked us to share our histories with the person sitting next to us. My partner was a very kind and well-meaning ethnically-Irish man, who traced his entire family back to a single patch of land. It was impressive. I shared mine, and after I was done he responded with, “Well that’s very sad, Jenny.” He meant well, I know. But all of a sudden, just like that I felt unseen and pitied. I wasn’t looking for sympathy. My history, as incomplete and pockmarked as it was—was still mine. It was my mother’s, my brother’s, my aunties, and uncles. I felt a pang of shame. Then anger.
In the essay, Ward takes the 23andMe DNA mail-in test to confirm her blackness, but she finds something else:
I had thought that my genetic makeup would confirm the identity that I’d grown up with—one that located Africa as my ancestors’ primary point of origin, and that allowed me to claim a legacy of black resistance and strength.
So it was discomfiting to find that my ancestry was 40 percent European […] and less than 1 percent North African. For a few days after I received my results, I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.
After our pairs, our guide opened up the discussion to the group. A well-meaning and engaged white woman raised her hand excitedly to share. She said that she had also been inspired by Ward’s essay to take the 23andMe test. She nearly squealed as she continued her story. She mentioned the dark skin and dark hair of her great grandmother and grandfather. She used the word, “olive.” She used the word, “black.” Then theatrically she dropped her shoulders and said, “But when I got the results back, I’m all white.” She deflated into a caricature of herself. Béalleka, our guide, asked, “Well, what was so disappointing about that for you?” And this woman replied, “Oh, I guess I was just hoping for some Indian or African blood.” Then Béalleka probed further, “Why wouldn’t you use this opportunity to investigate your whiteness?” Then this white woman, as well-meaning as them all, responded, “I guess I just wanted something more exotic.”
A friend once said to me, “The reason why race is so hard to talk about, and to talk about rationally is because it’s in the body. It’s literally our DNA.”
Something unhinged in me that evening. There were a few other comments that were made, and the conversation continued until I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. I interrupted the 77% white room and said to this woman, “I’m really sorry, but in full transparency I have to admit that I really bristled at your use of the word ‘exotic.’ That word has been used to other me, fetishize, and sexualize me my whole entire life.”
I was furious. For the rest of the evening I couldn’t focus. I thought of colonialism. I equated every single white person in that room as a colonizer. All it took was one person’s seemingly innocent and playful gesture in thinking that they could turn race into something that they could just have. As if race were something a white person could adorn themselves in, like a pair of earrings for a special occasion. I thought of gold. I thought of Christopher Columbus. I thought of all the violent things between.
In Kevin Young’s piece, “Blacker than Thou,” about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who posed as a black woman and was fired from being the president of the NAACP of Spokane, WA after her identity was exposed, he investigates how her deception is a direct indication of her whiteness and privilege. Young says:
[…] an array of attempts to be not just someone else as anyone might, but to be exotic, even in her birth (which she said was in a teepee or tipi). When asked directly on the teevee if she was born in a teepee, she answered, “I wasn’t born in a teepee,” emphasis allowing that maybe, just maybe, she could later say she was born near or under one. The hoaxer is always leaving the pretend teepee door ajar. (114)
Language is slippery. When white people want something or they want to escape their culpability around race, it is like watching them construct the slip n’ slide of racism—oh, isn’t racism fun for me?Of course, no white person actually thinks this. But their ignorance doesn’t take away from the facts and statistics that mark them as the historical benefactors and perpetrators of white supremacy.
Part of the frustrations with a well-meaning white person is that their intentions are in the right place, but a well-meaning white person is impotent to our greater need for change. At worse, they siphon our attention and energy from the issues that really matter. For people of color that exist in this white-supremacist reality, who struggle against it, who work to tilt the scales back toward justice, we don’t have time for the well-meaningness of white folks. We need white people to ask the same probing questions. We need white people to be just as suspicious of these systems. We need white people to challenge racism in every corner of their lives, because it’s often where it’s most prevalent and self-reinforcing. We need white people to care more about the common good, than they do about their own comfort, shame, or guilt.
I’ve been thinking about why white people are so resistant or defensive when confronted with their own whiteness, and I think Baldwin observes this in his essay, “Down at the Cross”:
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
I assume, that despite a white person’s wealth or position in life, that they recognize on some deep fundamental level that white supremacy challenges their basic sense of what it means to be a good person. I would argue that the gravest thing at stake for a white person in ignoring history and how their whiteness is complicit in this history, is the one thing that money or power can’t buy: their humanity.
On the evening of January 18, I came alone to Jesmyn Ward’s Portland Arts & Lecture. I saw some of the Delvers in a nearby row. The lights in the great hall dimmed. A beautiful and gentle Ward walked up to the podium under spotlight. She spoke about her children. She talked first about her daughter’s birth, and how she came out lighter-skinned than she had hoped. Then she talked about how she cried when she found out that she was having a boy. In the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall occupied by a mostly white audience, I heard echoes of suppressed laughter and chuckling.
I assume that the white mothers in the audience must have thought that they were in on the joke: that little boys are harder to raise than little girls because they’re rascals. But Ward, a Black woman, a Black mother bearing a Black son was not speaking about that. She spoke about mourning his mortality as soon as he was conceived. When would she have “the talk” with him? When he was seventeen, the age that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Or at fourteen, the age Emmett Till was beaten and lynched to death. Or at twelve years old, when Tamir Rice was murdered by officers at gunpoint. “No,” she said. “She would have the “talk” with him, much younger than that.
The dead elephant is the burden that black people bear in America – and which white people do not.
These issues are large, historical, pervasive, and insidious. They bleed out from our cells. They effect how we live, how we relate, how we love, who makes it into a literary space to discuss race intellectually, safely in a temperature-controlled and warmly-lit room. It determines who fills the auditorium to hear the first woman and the first person of color to be awarded the National Book Award twice, speak. It determines the safety and voyeurism of a white audience watching a Black woman talk about her Black babies. These systems make the reality of a white-dominant space still possible in contemporary literary Portland. The weight of these realities and inequities are felt, rippled out from the center and from the invisibility of white privilege, in white ignorance, in the well-meaningness of white people thinking that they’re always the center of every human experience.
Claudia Rankine in her essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” shares an exchange between her and a friend:
It’s extraordinary how ordinary our grief sits inside this fact. One friend said, “I am so afraid, every day.” Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be—has to be—so much more careful. There is not life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children?
This isn’t about sympathy, or pity. Pity is a subtle way of separating yourself from another person’s plight, because to feel sorry for someone you have to feel that you are better than them. What this is about is genuinely caring about another human being. Rankine continues her thought:
This is the question that nags me. National mourning, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, is a mode of intervention and interruption that might itself be assimilated into the category of public annoyance. This is altogether possible; but also possible is the recognition that it’s a lack of feeling for another that is our problem. Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.
It’s not that some of the white Delvers didn’t try, or that some weren’t intelligent and sensitive. A very small percentage of the 77% in the room were deeply aware of their whiteness, while most were well-meaning, and another small percentage were resistant and deeply ignorant.
There were moments in the seminar where I felt like I was swirling. Where I read the words of Ward, Wilkerson, Rankine, Anderson, Young, and many others, and was met by the whiteness of the room. I watched, felt, and experienced these authors’ observations about whiteness unfold in real life, right before my eyes with the well-meaning white people in that room. Where Baldwin’s words, written over fifty years ago were a prognosis of a reality we were all currently living—but a reality that was only shared by a small percentage of the room. I was consumed with the fissures and dysfunctions of society, which spilled over into my ever-eroding faith in humanity. I felt demoralized, how many more words and convincing do we need before things will ever change? We were trapped in a vortex.
One evening I said out loud, “I’m losing hope.” And another person of color fiercely interrupted me and jabbed her finger on the table emphasizing, “I..
The seventh annual Verselandia! featured 21 students from 12 different schools competing for glory in the city-wide high school poetry slam at the Schnitz. The audience was our largest (and loudest?) thus far.
Here are the five winners and the schools they represent:
1. Lucinda Drake, Franklin High School
2. Nikole Davis, Grant High School
3. Jolly Wrapper (Joneyo Prom), Jefferson High School
4. Ari Lohr, Wilson High School
5. Kalyn Street, Franklin High School
We want to give a huge shoutout to all the participating students, including the alternate poets and our sacrificial poet from Reynolds High School. Also thanks to our crew, including judges Cindy Williams Gutierrez, Tea Johnson, Dan Sheniak, Rukaiyah Adams, and Jonathan Hill, as well as our timekeeper Ramon Pagan and our math masters Mona Schraer and Mary Rodeback. Anis Mojgani was a fantastic emcee, and we couldn’t do this event without the work of those who run the qualifying slams: Ilsa Bruer and Julie Morris at Benson, Bryan Smith at Cleveland, Sandra Childs at Franklin, Paige Battle at Grant, Leigh Morlock at Jefferson, Jenny Owen and Stephanie Thomas at Lincoln, Nancy Sullivan at Madison, Kiva Liljequist at MLC, Betsy Tighe at Roosevelt, Cassie Lanzas at Wilson, Frank Thomas and Alethea Work at Gresham, and Stuart Levy at Parkrose.