the twit

    9.12.2008

    approaching an afterword

    amidst a tumultuous summer, picking away at this piece of writing went a long way in preserving my sanity. as my boss is back from sabbatical and as water seems to be finding its level, i'll rekindle the occasional hope that i find a more frequent context to write (setting myself up for the requisite guilty inertia felt thereafter).

    in any case (
    verbal jigging; ms. roth: insert fuss ), this began as an afterword to a book being pulled together by my friend foster dixon (a HS teacher in birmingham, though he's recently moved so he may be a HS teacher somewhere else), and--while still ground in the book (entitled aftermath)-- it turned into an unexpected excuse to consolidate my erstwhile scattershot coming to terms with moving to MS, working at the winter institute, engaging in race and identity, etc.

    while i'm certainly excited about "aftermath" being published, and do hope that my afterword is include in some form, the text belongs here as well. whatever here is.

    (reminder: most references to "this book," "the texts," and unexplained people are in the context of the as yet unpublished manuscript for the aftermath)

    (also: be gentle, sister ray)


    ****

    I’m not from around here. Not from the South generally, and not from Mississippi in particular. I spent my youth and adolescence in the nearly ahistorical, neatly anonymous, and vastly white suburbs on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, and my college years in the academic, intellectual, and free-thinking playground of western Massachusetts. As I write this, I’m now in the midst of my fourth year in Mississippi—my tenure mostly spent shuffling between the Old South pastoral of Oxford and the New South tangle of Jackson (with significant jaunts in the Delta, the Coast, and the Pine Belt). While I possess a sincere and growing affinity for the communities I’ve come to navigate and negotiate while being here, it is nevertheless true that I did not grow up in the South, did not come of age in the South, and—in regards to the internal calculus of identity formed within the crucible of very specific history, culture, region, and conflict—I am not, and perhaps will never be, Southern. However, this is all (and can only be) a process of coming to terms—of identity unveiling itself as far more complicated than a matter of choice or assimilation. I don’t know if being Southern is up to me to decide, really; I don’t know if it’s up to anyone to decide.

    So much (perhaps all) about identity—not only regional identity but race, gender, sexuality, class, and so on—is absent without context, especially that initial context of difference: establishing and understanding some as us and some as them. In my experience of the South, the regional us/them difference still holds profound and at times central weight, even in those rare moments when Southern identity is not an implicit commentary on racial identity and racial conflict. That being said, writing this afterword (and being asked to do so with a special consideration to my non-Southernness) is like producing a very detailed transcription of a conversation that I’ve had to engage in, or at least anticipate, nearly every time I meet someone for the first time down here. Any you’re-not-from-around-here moment has its requisite follow-ups, which I’ll deal with in their usual order:

    How did you end up in Mississippi? In the abstract, I came to Mississippi because for quite some time I’d been interested in the way things like race, class, gender, sexuality, power, democracy, and community intersect, interact, and inform within the framework of educational institutions—particularly in regards to quality of service and equity of opportunity. In the concrete, I came to Mississippi to teach math in a public high school in Jackson—and came here as a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps: a two-year, alternate-route teaching program funded by the state and run through the University of Mississippi (known to many as “Ole Miss”). I certainly understand that aspects of what I just described may pique some suspicions; a nervous reminder of ideas like Yankee, carpet-bagger, outside agitator, liberal, intellectual, colonizer, missionary, adventurer seems to haunt the periphery of any moment in which I’ve been prompted to explain myself. In light of this, I should be clear about the critical reasons I came to Jackson, Mississippi (and not Cleveland, Ohio or Montgomery, Alabama or New York City, New York or Los Angeles, California or the Rio Grande Valley in Texas or the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota) to engage in education and educational issues. Quite frankly, at the time the particular program that the Mississippi Teacher Corps offered was more attractive to me than the other programs I was looking into. There was also the impetus to teach in a less urban context than my previous teaching experiences (Manhattan and Beijing)—but this succumbed to the irony of my teaching placement in the only legitimately urban school district in the state (most of my colleagues in the Teacher Corps were placed in the Delta). So, in case you’re wondering, it was not because of some misguided, romantic fascination with/criticism of the Deep South that in May of 2005 I walked off of the graduation platform at Amherst College and into a U-Haul that I would drive directly to Oxford, Mississippi, where I would start an intense two months of teacher training before finding myself at Jim Hill High School with 147 students (all African-American), no textbooks, and only the most na├»ve notions of how to help young people figure out how to solve linear systems; I did those things because I wanted to begin my commitment to thinking about education (and race, class, gender, sexuality, power, democracy, community) in America, and Jackson, Mississippi, was as good a place as any to start.

    Why did you stay? To put it simply: I like it here. I love the work I get to do and the communities I get to work with. I should disclose, however, that while I’m still actively engaging in issues of education, I’m no longer doing so as a high school teacher; now, this engagement comes by way of educational issues related to racial identity, intercommunity dialogue, and truth and reconciliation. That is, I now work as a Project Coordinator for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation—an institute based at the University of Mississippi that serves the state and region, seeking to equip communities to heal their own wounds and citizens to heal their own communities. Nearly all of the projects I work on are related to education—mainly in the realm of youth inquiry/dialogue groups, education resource development, and education policy. In regards to my reasons for not staying in the classroom after my two years of the Mississippi Teacher Corps, that’s—as Foster Dixon put it in the “Introduction”—“a whole-nother-story.”

    Born in 1982, I’m at the younger end of what Foster refers to as “Generation X” (if I’m a member of it at all). However, I am also two-to-three generations removed from the common Civil Rights era, and I’ve certainly spent plenty of my adult life trying to make sense of my identity in the context of race, class, and history. So, in many ways I share Foster’s premise and situation: there is the generation who experienced life under segregation and the end of so many laws and practices that characterized the institutional manifestation of white supremacy, the generation that grew up in the direct and immediate effects of that change, and now a generation or two (or three) living in the aftermath: pushed from behind by historical amnesia and pulled from the front by the post-racial promise, all the while having a hard time making sense of crumbling, all-black public schools; restaurants that refuse to or are reluctant to serve; crowds calling for the lynching of a black homecoming queen; and terminal degrees that are in some ways reliant on the (continued) existence of a poor, uneducated, non-white working class raising other people’s children, washing other people’s dishes, and doing other people’s laundry.

    **

    When I tell people that I work for an “institute for racial reconciliation,” I’m (understandably) often faced with at least a moment of incredulity: nearly everyone feels compelled to ask, “So what exactly does your institute do?” Well, (and this answer satisfies no one) it depends on the community; there’s not really a set list of things that we do or services we provide, nor (if you’re going to ask the nerve-racking follow up) is there a set way that we measure/define progress. The Winter Institute does not go into a community unless invited to do so, and when we go into a community we defer to local people’s leadership in determining the most important legacies of racial identity and conflict in their community and in deciding how to best engage those legacies—whether in the context of an issue that has racial conflict at its core (e.g. the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), or an issue that is ostensibly unrelated to issues of race but whose progress is impeded by historical or contemporary fissures in local race relations (e.g. getting a sewer system installed in Rome, Mississippi).

    I mention all this because no matter where we end up with communities, we almost always start in the same place with them. In reading the essays in this book I was drawn again and again to that place—bringing a diverse and representative group into the circle, and helping them to start talking with each other. For the Winter Institute, this generally requires two critical phone calls. First, a community member from somewhere in Mississippi will call up the Institute saying that fixing race relations in X-town is long overdue and it’s time to get serious about it, or that something happened in Y-ville thirty years ago and it’s been holding the community back for too long, or that there’s some issue in Z-burg that folk can’t seem to find common ground on—but for reasons grounded in community divisions unrelated to the issue itself. I’ve seen my boss and mentor, Dr. Susan Glisson, on the line with this first phone call a dozen times. She always responds in the same way: “OK. Go out into your community and pull together as many different voices as you can. Especially the voices that you feel may disagree with you on this issue. Gather community members, local leadership, young people, old people. Agree upon a place and a time to meet, and call us back. Then we can talk about how to best proceed.” The second phone call is rare.

    When we do get a call back and we do come into a community to facilitate a meeting, we always start with a process we learned from John O’Neal, a SNCC field secretary and co-founder of the Free Southern Theater, Theresa Holden—O’Neal’s longtime collaborator at Junebug Productions and the Color Line Project—and Curtis Muhammad, also a SNCC field secretary and one of the first local Mississippi youth to join the Movement. We sit people in a circle, share some simple ground rules, and ask everyone to respond—from their own experience—to the following:
    Tell a story about the first time you realized that race was the “elephant in the room”—something that everyone noticed but no one talked about, something that was big, and there, and affected everything despite our best efforts to ignore it.
    Most important to this process, called a “story circle,” is the fact that the facilitators insist that the participants reserve all cross-talk until everyone has told his or her story. No challenges, no corrections, no follow-up, no commentary; all of this can (and is encouraged to) take place once all the stories are brought into the circle, but until that time everyone is asked to tell a single story from their experience and asked to simply listen while others do the same.

    The essays in this book are a powerful reminder of how using personal narratives of “elephant” moments as a springboard for reflecting upon the legacy of race and racism in our lives and communities is—quite simply—obvious, natural, and common. Perhaps this is why people are so unsatisfied with my response to “what exactly does your institute do?” Essentially, the only thing we do in each community is help people talk to each other; after that, it’s up to the community in regards to how we’ll egnage. There is no magic wand, no convoluted and acronym-bound process, no two-day workshop, no enumerated steps or cycle. In our work, there’s hardly the claim of understanding what would be sufficient for improving race relations or achieving racial reconciliation in any particular case (again, that would be up to the community); there is, however, a firm claim of understanding what is necessary for those things: that people can talk to each other, can listen to each other, and can bring each other into the circle.

    That being said, I feel that it would be improper if I did not bring myself into the circle at this point. I intend on engaging in plenty of follow-up and commentary as I continue and conclude this piece of writing; I should not do so without bringing my own “elephant moment” into the room:
    Growing up, I never really understood why we didn’t speak Spanish at home. I mean, in a sense I’m a first-generation American whose father came from Colombia as a child—who grew up half here and half there, with dual narratives of the Kardiac Kids and dulce de leche—and in a sense my performative whiteness is hardly questionable—constructed rather seamlessly in a middle/upper-middle class Midwestern suburb. Even those visual, skin-deep aspects of otherness are—with me—ephemeral at best: my mother’s being Irish-German doesn’t really bring any melanin to the table, and the family of my father’s mother was one of sugar cane plantation wealth and European lineage (the kind of folk who end up on the getting kidnapped and shot by the quasi-Marxists side of a decades-long civil war). My father’s father certainly has some mestizo about him, but without his thick accent I don’t imagine many people would think twice about his racial, ethnic, or national identity. So, my only hope for my skin holding on to the half of me that I hardly access is that perhaps in spare moments it achieves the quality of ambiguity I’ve fantasized about since first reading Faulkner’s description of Joe Christmas as “parchment colored.” That being said, it is hard to express how shockingly pleasant it is in those very rare moments when someone assumes there’s something not white about me.

    At some point in high school, I asked my father why he—to put it quite bluntly—whitened. Why don’t we speak Spanish? Why is Colombia something that hangs on our walls but not our bodies? How can my grandmother be so full of sound and color—a tiny, erratic torrent of language and life—and he be so... so much like everyone else’s white, middle class dad?

    Then my father told me a story. He told me about a time when he was living in Pittsburg—where he and my grandparents first moved after leaving Colombia—and decided to wander down to a nearby playground to see what was going on. He must have been four or five at the time. Things started off fine—balls tossed, slides slid, objects climbed. But, at some point, my father began to speak—in Spanish, the only language he knew. And he told me that he’ll never forget the way that the other children at the playground just immediately shunned him—my image for this is always a miniature version of my father sitting on one swing under a gray sky as an empty one sways slowly beside him—and he’ll never forget the feeling of shame in having something that was a part of him, that he had essentially no choice in, create such a strong aversion in people around him, people that he just wanted to play on the swings with. My father says that it was at that point that he become determined to stop speaking Spanish, to learn English, to fit in, and never to have to feel that way again.

    Every time I tell that story I find myself focusing on something different. In this particular instance I find myself halting my typing so that I can look at my hands and try to see the parchment skin. So many emotions are in that story—anger, shame, sadness, empathy—and so many difficult concepts—passing, for instance. Yet, at its core is my father—a strong man, a good man—and he’s so sad, and so alone. And I don’t ever want him to feel that way again either.
    **

    The stories in these pages could very well have been lifted from any one of the many, many story circles I’ve participated in and/or facilitated in communities throughout Mississippi; in most of those story circles I recounted some version what I’ve written above. Of course, no one sat these writers down and gave them the “elephant in the room” prompt, but each story is nevertheless similarly haunted with those moments wherein time balloons as the storyteller bears witness to an unmistakable union of race and power—moments at once roiling with confusion, searing with anger, and thick with guilt: Jim Grimsley’s “black bitch” exchange; Patricia Hoskins’ utterance of “nigger”; Dawne Shand in a swimming pool; Ravi Howard in a restaurant; Glenis Redmond in a sundown-town. Present as well in these stories is the sense that so much about who we are or how we view the world is an aftermath to these moments. One can hardly unearth a first encounter with the intense consequences of racial identity without discussing as well the long, essential process of coming to terms: Foster Dixon walking away from Masonry; Stephanie Powell Watts looking back with pride/nostalgia at an early and “ephemeral” moment of racial inclusion; Lynn Waston feeling a deep sense of being out of place; Leslie Haynesworth confronting the “zero-sum game” of race, gender, motherhood, and opportunity; Ray Morton slowly unraveling and re-imagining white Southern identity; me halting my hands as I type.

    In “Why it Matters,” after recounting a process of discovering a possible African-American ancestry in her father’s family—which had previously been “explained away” as “Indian blood”—and encountering her father’s constant refusal to have a DNA test to determine his heritage, Patricia Hoskins offers the following:
    “That’s when I realized that even in my hometown, where everyone is white, race matters. It’s just that no one wants it to matter because that makes things too difficult; it opens a new can of worms… Race is too abstract, too inconceivable, and at the end of the day, too disturbing.”
    Here, Ms. Hoskins demonstrates the all-too-common notion that exploring the impact of race and racism upon our identities would risk unhinging a kind of Pandora’s box—even in a town that assumes itself to be all white (thus setting itself up for inevitable and innumerable historical ironies). Furthermore, this attitude of resistance, in its preemptive fear of letting race “matter,” actually gives it more ways of mattering. Race is not wholly abstract, because we experience it; race is not wholly inconceivable, because we can articulate it; race is not wholly disturbing, because we can find comfort and support in it. What this book embodies is exactly the sort of honest engagement in both individual and collective memory that will take such an “abstract,” “inconceivable,” and “disturbing” a thing as race and illustrate how it can play a central role in the specificity of our lives—thus showing it in the light of experience rather than the shadows of suspicion.

    Missing from these texts, however, is the moment after our stories have been brought into the circle. So far, we have been tilling the field—turning up the ground to see what is there—and any dialogue grown within has been implicit as best. What is lacking then in these pages—perhaps impossible to achieve in this medium—is the explicit conversation between story-tellers, wherein we all engage in reflecting upon whatever common ground and insight have been brought forth as a result of the active listening that is structured into the story circle process. In the case of this book, though, is the reader’s task to cast the seeds of dialogue: the ground here has been turned by some outstanding individuals— poets, professors, teachers, elected officials, political operatives. The soil is rich with pain, and wisdom, and hope. Hold it in your hand for a while; see what can grow. Then, if you get a moment, bring yourself into the circle—we will share what is harvested.