Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Pulling Weeds

Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours?

- From Frank

If you don't know me, then you might not know this - I'm a white, middle-aged male who grew up in a city that was easily 90% white. Moreover, I'd have to go back to double check demographics, but I believe a good chunk of that remaining ten percent was eastern Europeans, mostly from the states of the former Soviet Union. Thus, same basic shade as the ninety-plus.

It was very white. Maybe two percent black, at best.

To be completely honest, I didn't even grow up in that very white city. I grew up in a small town twenty minutes north of it that was even whiter. There was literally two - two! - black kids in my school. Lisa was a nice girl and I liked her. She was friendly and cool, and I was sad when she moved away sophomore year. I was oblivious to the fact that her family essentially got run out of town (something my wife informed me of decades later). 

The other black person in our school was my neighbor, Jeff. As neighboring kids often do, we alternated between good pals and enemies. Then he moved to the other side of town around the start of high school, and ended up running in different crowds (he was more of a jock and hung with the popular kids, I was more eclectic in my associations), so we drifted apart. 

What does this have to do with the question of the week? Bear with me. A couple of things to start.

First, until I joined the Army right after high school, I was largely ignorant of black culture beyond the surface level stuff. 

Two, you'd think that'd make me a little racist, wouldn't you? Not explicit racism - the kind that joins hates groups and pronounces white pride. Or even casual but open racism. No, that belief system has always boggled my mind and pissed me off. 

I'm talking instead about implicit bias/racism - the kind that lurks underneath, often unrecognized by ourselves as we firmly believe we espouse different, progressive sentiments. We're all a product of our environment and experiences, and that can plant some seeds that grow into weeds... weeds we may be ignorant of until one pops up through the crack in the sidewalk and we notice it and say, "Now, why would I think that?" or "Why did I react that way?" or "Why does this behavior exist?"

How we respond to those weeds when we notice them (or have them pointed out to us) is a true test of character.

I certainly didn't harbor any explicit racism growing up. I noticed that Lisa and Jeff were black, but in the same way I noticed the hair color of the little red-headed girl two houses down (I married her thirty years later, but that's another story). Skin color was just another feature to me. So imagine the shock I was in for as I journeyed into adulthood and learned the reality was far different than my naive perception.

Still wondering what this has to do with the question? I'm getting there. Just hang with me for a little longer.

We all have heroes growing up. Who were some of mine? I read a lot of history, and even though the books for middle schoolers were quite literally white-washed, I found some of mine in people like Abe Lincon (yeah, how very unique of me, I know), Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, and Osceola. Of course, I was just as enthusiastic about Davy Crockett and Wild Bill Hickock, so I wouldn't say I was necessarily "woke." But I definitely dug the stories of Frederick Douglass and especially Harriet Tubman right in there with those I already mentioned. 

On TV, Captain Kirk reigned supreme. In sports, it was Muhuammed Ali. As I got older, my respect for both the fictional space captain and the real boxer and hero (there really is no better word to describe Ali) grew, since I understood some of the deeper issues surrounding each. To this day, I have a framed picture of Ali on my wall, and a ten-inch figurine (post-Liston KO) of him on my bookshelf (oddly, no Kirk, but he stayed in my heart, too).

Okay, so you've been patient enough. What's the point? Here it is.

I'm still way too ignorant of the many contributions of black men and women to our country. I'm not explicitly racist, far from it. But very fact I have to say that (or that I take the time to do so) indicates the problem, right? And one of the ways the weed of implicit bias has cropped up in my sidewalk over the years is one of egocentrism when it comes to my reading habits (far less so in music or TV/film). 

Simply put, I haven't read a ton of authors that I know to be black.

Now, truth be told, I'm guessing I have read several and not known it. For example, I wasn't aware that Walter Mosely was black when I picked up my first Easy Rawlins book. I just knew whoever wrote that book could write

That'd be ideal, wouldn't it? If I just discovered writers because of their books and their color or ethnicity was secondary or an interesting background fact? Like me recognizing that Jeff's skin color was a few shades darker than mine, but the things I most remember about Jeff was how we hung out, riding and taking care of his pony, Scotch, or how when we were warring, we stood in our respective yards across the street from each other trying to be intimidating with macho poses (he won). The only reason I'm thinking of him as black right now is because I'm writing this post.

Or is it? Hell, can I even really say? I told you my background at the beginning of this post. I wonder sometimes if I should be more proactive in seeking out writers of color (and women, for that matter). Then I think that I should just seek out good books, period. Then I'm ultimately faced with the fact that when implemented, this strategy leads me to reading books by people who look a lot like me:  more men than women, more white than not.

I know. I sound like I'm doing some of that white guilt hand-wringing that Abir strongly alluded to last Friday.

I found Abir's article very compelling. Yes, it was a little cynical, but it seems to me far less cynical than the state of things probably merits. His points focused on the industry, and this week's question is focused more on the individual reader, but the two are so entangled with each other that it is really the same conversation, isn't it? Just macro v. micro, is all.

So here on the micro end of the scale, what am I saying after all this "sharing?"

You got me. I don't have all the answers. Show me a good book and I'll read it. I just recently read the newest Mosley (with the lyrical title of Down the River Unto the Sea) and thought it rocked. Read Danny Gardner's first Eliot Caprice a couple of years ago and loved it. S.A. Cosby's My Darkest Prayer is in my TBR pile. I count myself fortunate to have met the latter two men, and hope to say the same of the first, too (hello, writer's conferences!).

If I take a close look at that admittedly tall pile of TBR books, I'm sure I'll find writers of color sprinkled in there. I'm sure I'll add a few more as I read this week's entries on this blog. I'll tell myself (and I'll mean it) that I'm adding a hopefully good book on a trusted recommendation. I'll read it for a good story and good characters, and it'll be good (or not) based on that. If it's good, I'll recommend it to others. 

Is that enough? I don't know. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it doesn't exacerbate the very real issues others have pointed out, but it doesn't exactly make me a crusader, either, does it?

So if you didn't know all of this about me before, now you do. I'm flawed, certainly. My influence is limited. I wouldn't presume to make the ridiculous, utopian statement that I don't see color. Of course I do. We all do. And while I can say it doesn't matter to me, I also can't completely escape whatever implicit biases exist under the surface, thanks to my background and experiences. All I can do is pluck those weeds when I notice them pushing through the cracks in the sidewalk (or, as I said, when someone is kind enough to point them out to me), take some time to examine them, and toss it away, hopefully better for it.

It's a process. As a people, I get that it's been way too slow of one, and this rightly causes frustration and anger. All I can do is keep at it.

And read good books. 


No blatant self-promotion this week. Instead, I urge you to read a good book. If it is by a black author, so much the better.


Susan C Shea said...

Frank, I'm sorry I couldn't comment when this was posted - I've been out with the flu. But I really like your thoughtful consideration of the question.

Frank Zafiro said...