Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book #39: Orphan Train

This is a triumphant story. It weaves together the lives of young woman named Molly, who is close to aging out of the foster care system, and an old woman named Vivian, who was placed with several families during the tail end of the Orphan Train Movement.

Both were at the mercy of strangers, many of whom were inclined to assume that they were wayward children simply by virtue of the fact they did not have parents to look after them.

I teared up in several places.

This may be why: the author explored a bit, though not particularly overtly, the idea of children becoming wayward as a result of being considered wayward.

They might internalize the idea and meet expectations. Or, in an effort to defend themselves, they might act out in ways that simply end up confirming the assumptions people have made about them.

Vivian triumphed, and by the end of the book it seems Molly will as well.

I think a lot about the people who don't.

But--and I'm lucky this is actually in my job description--I also think a lot about how they still can.

Sometimes I tear up in those real life places, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book #38: Negroland

Shortly after I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book (week #36), I heard an interview with Margo Jefferson, a professor of writing at Columbia University, about her new book.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (week #32), who often explores in her work the varied experiences of black immigrants in America, rightfully argued that there is danger in relying on a single story to understand people and cultures.

I agree. Ergo this week's read.

Jefferson's memoir, like Coates', is also about growing up black in America, but from a very different perspective. Jefferson is part of an earlier generation than Coates, she was born in upper-crust black Chicago rather than in a poor, tough neighborhood in Baltimore, she is a woman not a man, and while Coates' grew up concerned about his physical safety, Jefferson grew up concerned about being perfect.

My generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little or no notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public. . . . Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of 'human, all too human': our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.

Her story is not ancient history. She's not even as old as my parents. Her own parents had crosses burned on their lawns. Jefferson writes about the myriad ways she lived a life despite this framework she was steeped in, but it persists. It persists.

And in the meantime, while both she and I have felt pressure to be perfect from other quarters--as women, for example--I have never had to think about how my life reflects on the rest of white America nor have I ever had to think about how "unacceptable" behavior on the part of other white people reflects on me.

White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book #37: The Namesake

And now for a book that has been sitting on my shelf ever since it came out in paperback about 10 years ago. I'm not quite sure how I could forget I had an unread Jhumpa Lahiri, because I love her work.

She typically explores cross-cultural themes, like figuring out who we are independent of where we come from. Usually her main characters are from India living in the United States or vice verse.

As I read, Lahiri's writing kept tapping into that place in me that is hungry to know and experience how other people live. Then about half way through the book, I slammed headlong into this passage:

"She has the gift of accepting her life; as he comes to know her, he realizes that she has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way. This, in his opinion, is the biggest difference between them."

I am more like him than her. There are so many good things I appreciate about my life, but I confess I am a restless soul.

Maybe there is a part of me that is Hindi, like most of the characters in this book. I am not so enamored with the idea of life after death (perhaps I just lack imagination?), but the idea of starting fresh and living more than one life here on earth totally appeals to me.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book #36: Between the World and Me

I drove home today after a short visit to Telluride, Colorado. On the way, I passed a town called Paradox, and for the next couple hundred miles, I thought about how it was an apt word to describe many aspects of race in our society.

Even the concept of race is a paradox: it is not real (in the sense of being an artificial social construct based on the false notion of racial supremacy) and very real (in the sense of lived experiences).

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black man who grew up in Baltimore. This is his story of his experience. It is a worthwhile and challenging read.

Coates wrote this book as a letter to his teenage son. Early on, he acknowledges that he and his son have and will experience race differently--different generations, different life circumstances.

That's another paradox. We collectively experience race, but we each see (or fail to see) our experiences through our own individual lenses, all of us with our own perceptions and understanding.

And we often have a hard time believing that what other people experience can exist simultaneously with what we experience.

While I was in Telluride, a family member mentioned an editorial about the book by David Brooks. As I read Brooks' resistance to some of what Coates wrote, I found myself resisting Brooks' resistance. I had not read Coates the same way. In part, my lens was shaped by my experiences as a woman living in a patriarchal society and having empathy for the struggle to have your voice heard (all heightened by watching a screening of the upcoming film Suffragette at the Telluride Film Festival while I was in the middle of the book).

So not only do we personally experience race differently, we experience the stories people tell about their own experiences with race differently. More paradox.

Then perhaps the greatest paradox of all: we can only disappear race by seeing it very clearly.