From Personal

On Stephen Brophy

I knew Stephen Brophy for about fifteen years, but I only knew him well in the past three or four. It was my great pleasure to have coffee with him several times a month at Pavement and later in his apartment at our co-op. He was my neighbor, my friend, my mentor in radical politics, and my advisor in love and life. So I want to tell you a little about my experience of this extraordinary person. Read more

Artistic responsibility

I wrote this originally for the Race & Fiction Writing member page, but I’m moving it here since it’s something I really care about. Emoji smiley face.

A few of us discussed the matter of Dana Schutz’s painting at the April meeting. For me, the issue comes down to artistic freedom versus artistic responsibility. (One of our values being “both/and,” I’ll note that these are not necessarily in opposition.) Something I realized after the meeting was that while I had taken pains to present both points of view in the handout posted here, in fact the artistic freedom (“for the painting”) argument is amply represented in our white-dominated culture. What’s lacking, I feel, is a broadly understood argument for artistic responsibility. Therefore, I recommend that interested folks check out “The Case Against Dana Schutz” by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye at The New Republic. Speaking personally, the great effort it took to open my mind to the idea that I should, need and ought not to write on whatever subject inspires me—to take on board that I might not have a right to do that, and, perhaps more to the point, that I can lovingly and thoughtfully choose not to—the very difficulty of taking that step reminds me how powerful white supremacy is.

Edit: A letter from L.M. Williams in the April 24 issue of The New Yorker makes the point with clarity.

Much has been said in Schutz’s defense about art as empathy and the importance of resisting self-censorship. These are fail-safe points in discussions of artistic freedom, and they sidestep a foundational problem: the decision to make art without regard for the lives involved, and no matter the consequences. Even well-intentioned artistic empathy can become a form of trespass when it comes uninvited and replays the damage done to the people with whom the artist seeks to stand. The kind of racist violence depicted in “Open Casket” still happens, and still goes unpunished. Protesters, in asking, “Where are the images of Till’s murderers?,” are asking why America memorializes hate crimes against its black citizens by gazing at the victims instead of by holding the perpetrators accountable.

March to fascism no. 3 and last

I had my best laugh of the week yesterday while listening to NPR. In a solemn voice, the presenter read out the recent Presidential tweet about “the very sacred election process.” I guffawed aloud upon hearing this. Thanks, Trump!

Anway, I’m retiring my three-post March to Fascism tag. See, when I started it on January third, I really thought we all needed to keep a sharp and educated eye on the White House in order to recognize and call out signs of incipient despotism. That turned out to be totally untrue. A three-year-old under a blanket could recognize this administration’s incipient despotism. The lunacy of it all is in my face every single day from morning to night. I recommend VSB and Luvvie as commentators who can ease the pain for a few moments at a time by expressing our national predicament with concision, insight and outrage.

Personal mottos of 2017

I’m not following you, I was going in this direction anymotherfucking way.

Currently my Twitter bio. Said by a homeless woman with a gift for language who hangs out on my street.

Don’t punch girls and I don’t punch a clock

I’m not really cool enough to use hip-hop lyrics as mottos, but it’s true that I don’t punch a clock. Or, as I put it to my neighbor this afternoon, “I have an expensive twenty-hour-a-week not-working habit.”

Pecan, mince, humble

This one is courtesy of my friend J., responding thus to my offer to eat humble pie: “I prefer pecan. I know not everyone likes the savory pies, i.e. pecan, mince, humble, but I’m sticking to my guns.”

Five years in

It’s coming up on five years since I gamed my way into the “Undoing Racism” training offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (I traded on my affiliation with a community development organization to get in for free). Around the same time, I was also becoming involved with an anti-oppression group within Occupy Boston, where I met some people whose friendship and guidance I still treasure today. In the time that followed, I passed through what you might call the first fire of a white person’s race consciousness. I recorded perhaps too much of that experience on this blog, about which a journalist on Twitter once said to me, not unkindly, “I think what you are doing on your blog is called Working Shit Out.”

I wanted to write something brief to address where my thoughts are today and why I now blog about race much less frequently. (I blog less frequently overall, but that’s more about the evolution of my views on self-promotion since I published The One-Way Rain, as well as my dissatisfaction with my nonfiction voice.) Well, if I had to condense my journey since 2011 into a few sentences, I would say that my mind has moved towards complexity and away from the laborious naming, typologizing, explication, and apology that characterize many of my earlier blog posts. I hope I am moving away from dogma and towards greater understanding. Thank you to everyone who has given me love and hours of conversation and shown me what living consciously and self-questioningly can look like. And thanks for reading.

My bridge was gapped

In Austin in 1995, when I was twenty-four, I knew a vivacious young woman with black hair and black eyes, L., who was the object of many a crush. You either were crushed on her or resented her, or both (I was of the first party). It was also at this time that I carried on a strange flirtation with a curly-headed blond guy named M. who was in a relationship with another girl. Hard as it is to believe now, I was ignorant of the politics of relationships and didn’t know things were going to get complicated. Read more

The horrifying digi-children of the future

No, I like small children. I really do. I’m always staring at them out in public, grooving on how these teacup humans are transparently emotional, so openly interested in the world. Then one day I was walking down the street and I saw a kid in a stroller, couldn’t have been more than ten months old. And I could see her little pudgy hands up in front of her face, and I thought, “How funny, she looks like she’s holding a phone.” Until I got closer and saw she really was holding a phone. I went around the corner and into a café, where I met the husband of a friend, who was breakfasting with their two-and-a-half-year-old son. At a certain point he gave the boy his phone to keep him quiet. “He’s better at using it than I am,” he observed to me. The next weekend I was on a bus behind a mother in her thirties and her lively toddler son. I was impressed by how present she was with him, how intelligently they conversed. But she started talking with another adult, and when he kept interrupting she dialed up a game on her phone and gave it to him. Read more

Doesn’t anyone know what a typewriter is anymore?

FYI, I have been thinking about race and fiction-writing a lot a lot.1 And I started what was going to be a very authoritative blog entry on two books by white authors with a lens on white supremacy, A Free State by Tom Piazza and Charlie Smith’s brutal masterpiece Ginny Gall. I spent a couple-three hours on that one. But I couldn’t seem to circle in on what I really wanted to say, and I realized for the umpteenth time that I’m not a nonfiction writer and decided to go watch “House of Cards.” Read more

The backpack incident

Ever been smacked in the head by your own whiteness, assuming you are white?

I’m in the supermarket waiting to buy a pound of salmon when I realize someone is trying to get my attention. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” she says to me. She is a brown-skinned woman with her hair in a ponytail. “I was just admiring your”—here I assume she’s going to say “coat,” as I am wearing a truly awesome garnet-colored vintage bouclé coat—“backpack.”

The thing about my backpack is until recently it said “Black Lives Matter,” discreetly, in Sharpied letters on gray canvas. Last week I got a paint pen and operated on the letters until they were much more noticeable. Aha! I think. “Oh, thanks!” I say. Read more

The Trojan horse of Ice Cream Star

Last weekend I had the strange and wonderful experience of reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. I had put off starting it because the whole thing is written in an invented post-apocalyptic dialect and sometimes you just don’t feel like doing all that work. Well, it was work, in the best possible sense—immersive, rewarding and exhilarating, the best kind of reading there is. In fact, you can get a feel for Ice Cream’s language and grammar within a few pages; what’s really dangerous about the book is the way it gets a feel for you. My truest life is reading and writing fiction. I read a new novel every few days, but this one reached me in a place where books don’t usually go. I think that’s in part because the half-alien language is a Trojan horse that carries the book’s beauty and despair straight into your heart. Read more