A 2020 Planner

At the end of last year, I bought a 2020 Planner. Isn’t it lovely?

I had a good reason to buy one. And no, it wasn’t so I could schedule my days, track my goals, and do all that other weird organizer stuff that people usually use planners for. (Note: I tend to be friends with weird organizer people. Also, I marry them.)

No, I liked the idea of filling in a planner for a fictional character. This one promised lots of space for that.

I mean, you could even rate each day, track your goals, write to-do lists, track your water intake… It was perfect for developing an entirely different person in an entirely different life!

But of course, this the year that things went so haywire that even the phrase “2020 Planner” is a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out this planner and flipped through the few pages where I’d jotted down some initial thoughts. The planner fell open to December 2019, and I wrote at the top, “This month I saw one article on Facebook about a new virus in China.”

My fictional character faded from view as I paged through the blank calendars and began to write notes. Everything began shutting down this week. It was hard to get toilet paper. I made masks for the family and felt a little sheepish, but figured it was a good policy.

And then came June, when our old national sin of racism flamed to the surface again after George Floyd’s death. DJ and I attended our first protest, and I saw white friends finally see truths that the black community has been saying for generations.

But I also saw other friends repeating the same old defenses — the same ones I wrote about in my current novel. Many claim to be Christian, who insist that we must repent as soon as the Holy Spirit shows us sin, and our entire duty is to obey God and let him handle the consequences, Yet when it comes to the hard work of repenting of a history of racism, they can’t manage to let go of their political loyalties enough to do so.

I ended in August, when homeschooling is suddenly mainstream, masks still political statement, and the presidential elections looming.

I also noted that I’ve decided to set my novel aside until the end of the year. 2020 threw me off-balance. I feel like I need to reconsider everything from my setting to my characters to the scope that my story takes in. I hope to fill in the rest of the planner at the end of the year, and maybe I’ll be ready to engage with the novel again.

As I look at this accidental journal, I’m glad I took a couple of hours to fill it in. I didn’t set out to write an overview of this year; it just happened. And I think that’s a fitting theme for a 2020 Planner.

Racism Is Bigger Than Me

The recent Amy Cooper incident snagged something in my brain.

Amy Cooper is a white woman who was approached by Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, and asked to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park. She protested (although the rules clearly stated that dogs should be leashed), so Christian said, “You won’t like what I’m going to do.” He took out a dog treat — apparently he carries them because owners will leash their dogs to prevent them from eating a treat from a stranger’s hand.

This made Amy angry. As her words grew heated, Christian began filming her. Furious, she called 911 to report that she was being threatened by “an African American man.” While on the phone, she finally leashed her dog. Christian said, “Thank you,” and ended the video.

Once the video was posted, Amy caught hell from the internet. She lost her job. She did apologize, and she said, “I’m not a racist.”

I’ve been thinking about her a lot since I watched the video. Because, see, I’m not a sadistic officer who gorges on power to the point that I kill a man. I’m not a belligerent, trigger-happy vigilante who shoots a jogger in my neighborhood. But an ordinary white woman, frustrated by quarantine that’s kept my dog housebound, embarrassed and alarmed and angry by a strange man filming me — I saw myself in Amy Cooper.

She says she isn’t a racist. I seriously doubt she’d get in a truck with a gun and track down a black jogger. In fact, I thought it was interesting that in the video, she uses the term “African American,” not even “black.” In everyday life, Amy Cooper probably isn’t racist.

But she didn’t like it when someone pointed out that she wasn’t following the rules. In fact, she took great offense to it, to the point that she was willing to lie to the authorities about being threatened. And while Amy Cooper might not personally be a racist, she knew how to leverage a racist system against Christian.

She says — twice — “I’m going to call the police and tell them that an African American man is threatening me.”

It’s not even so much that she identified him as African American. That’s necessary in some contexts: “He threatened me. He’s African American, about 35, clean-shaven, wearing a blue shirt.”

But no, she was using his race as a weapon against him. She knew that by saying an “African American man” was threatening her, she had ratcheted up the alarm level. The confrontation was no longer between two people; it became a scared white woman vs. an angry black man. And history can tell you how that story usually turns out.

I doubt Amy wanted Christian arrested, and I doubt she revels in the idea of injustice. She was just angry, affronted, and wanted to punish him for making her uncomfortable. She reached for the closest and easiest way to do that — a little lie, a little reminder of his vulnerability, and Christian would regret that he ever approached her and her dog.

So yeah. I see myself in Amy Cooper, caught publicly behaving in a way she’s not really proud of. Like Amy, I’m not a racist. But this entire incident highlighted to me that there’s more to racism than me. There’s an entire power system that I can draw on as a white woman. That’s the racism that oppresses and kills black people, while exonerating and benefiting white people.

And that system is too big for me to dismantle. In fact, I’m not even sure how to identify what needs to change. I might even be reluctant to change it because it would impact the comfortable life I’m used to. That’s a slow, difficult revelation, an ongoing conversation I have with God and myself.

But I can see what five years ago I didn’t believe actually existed: that I can punish a person for being black and making me uncomfortable.

Christian Cooper, thanks for your poise and civility — and presence of mind to capture an encounter for the rest of us to see and understand. Amy Cooper, I hope this life disaster becomes something redemptive in your life. I’ve learned from it. Let’s both become better people.

Not Just One Square

“I know it sounds like I’m just making it all about race, but if you see it as part of a bigger pattern…”

She waved a hand at the quilt spread out under the light.

“Just one square of cloth isn’t anything. But you put a lot of them together, and over time you see the big picture. … You look at the big picture over the last forty to fifty years, you can see that it wasn’t that Larsen didn’t know JJ. He knew him well enough to see he was black.”

I wrote these words in my novel long before the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. In fact, my character, Carondellay, isn’t even talking about murder; she’s talking about much more ordinary, everyday injustices.

Yet, sadly, the words ring true.

It’s a pattern, it’s a problem, and white people need to acknowledge it. The heritage that was handed down to us — our heroes, our ideals, that which we hold sacred — is mixed with injustice and oppression.

Fortunately, all is not hopeless. We can work to make it right. And we should.

Tragically Current

It takes a long time for a story to get from seed-of-inspiration to bloom-of-book. I’m always worried that by the time I finish, my chosen subject will be outdated and I’ll have wasted two to three years of my life.

And in the case of my current novel, I didn’t even set out to write a book. I wanted to write a short story about two present-day women who discover an old quilt, and each thinks it belongs to her grandmother.

For diversity’s sake, I decided that one of the women would be black. Instantly, my story tangled up with complications.

There was no way I could write a story about their grandmothers — a white woman and a black woman in the 1960s — without taking race into account. No story would be simple. I could always say that the two women had crossed racial lines and became good friends; but that came with its own problems. Not necessarily because they wouldn’t want to, but because existing society had ways of punishing people who tried to cross that line — violence for blacks, social ostracism for whites.

And then I realized how recently that society had existed. It was within living memory. I myself was born in the late 70s when the great Civil Rights battles were still raging. I was thirteen years old before I realized that it wasn’t morally wrong for a white person to marry a black person. I was stunned at how we white people treat this heavy history as long past, when I now could see how it still oozes like toxic waste in our culture even today.

I pondered my newly-complicated story and was faced with two options:

  1. Embrace the challenge, face the wrongs and injustices that my people perpetrated, and commit myself to honest research about what life was then, and how it affects life now.
  2. Change the black character back to a white one.

I’ve spent two and a half years writing — and being — a “friendly white girl” who has to come to terms with the existence and effects of racism. I have nothing new to add to the black voices who have spoken up about their realities. But, it turns out, I have a lot to say to white people, especially Christians, who consistently downplay, deny, or vilify those who bring up this “old history” or “won’t move on.” I have, in fact, a whole novel.

And just in case I wondered if the subject was passe… Two months ago, in Georgia, an unarmed black man was killed by two white men. According to available evidence, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when accosted by a father-and-son duo who say they thought he was responsible for recent burglaries in the area. It’s unclear exactly what happened, or whether their suspicions were justified, or really anything except that Arbery was shot. That’s because, until now, no arrests had been made, and no investigation had been launched.

It’s that last part that rips the wound wide. It’s part of a pattern that was pieced together a hundred and fifty years ago and is still intact today, even if (thank God) we’re tearing at the seams now. These men weren’t immediately arrested and investigated because they had connections and friends among authorities. That’s an old, tired story. It was true for my fictional grandmothers in the 60s, and it’s apparently still true now.

In all honesty, I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed, nor do I really know what it’s like to actively oppress. But I thought, institutional racism is kind of like being in an abusive family. What would be like to be the victim of blatant abuse, but have the rest of the family downplay, deny, or vilify me for speaking up?

And then I realized that, against the backdrop of that quilt of mysterious origins, I had my story and my protagonist.

I’m just sorry that the concept isn’t outdated by now.

Dear ____, Love Sara.

Dear Blog,

I’m so sorry. Between homeschooling, writing a new novel, and — you know — living, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

I don’t understand how you can say, “I’m working on a new novel, and here’s my first chapter!” Everything I write is in a state of flux until its final edit. I mean, I just changed the main character’s name and her bike’s name. Just not ready to share anything yet.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear AOL Instant Messenger,

I read recently that you have officially passed away. My friends and I don’t use you anymore, but we mourned your passing. You were the social savior for all of us cult kids in the 90s. I’m not even sure I would have gotten married without AIM access to keep in touch with DJ.

I will wave a sad farewell as that little door-closing sound makes it final slam.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

It’s going to be an excellent story when I’m done. A friendly white girl learns how racial injustice in the not-too-distant past still affects our lives today. So far I have two love interests, a narcissistic grandmother, and at least three Jane Austen references. Ha, I see you baring your teeth in jealousy. That’s right. It’s going to be good.

The bike’s new name is Imogene, by the way.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Enya,

I found out that you released an album as recently as 2015. You were my guilty indulgence in the 90s, along with AIM. I was supposed to be listening to “godly” music, defined by our Revered Leader as any music that emphasized beats 1 and 3 in the rhythm line. (I didn’t make that up.) But you usually didn’t have a driving rhythm line, so I could justify listening to you — despite fears that you were spewing New Age spiritism all over my fragile Christian soul. Thank you for giving me some relief from choral hymns and harp music.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Misguided Readers,

What do you mean, does my  main character run a cute little shop and interact with colorful characters? Do you really expect me to write cute little bumbling romantic scenes? Do you even need a final piece of folksy feminine wisdom to wrap everything up? Oh horrors, I’m not the women’s fiction you’re looking for.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Grammar Nerd,

Okay, yes, I know. The second sentence of this post should begin with “among,” not “between,” because I listed more than two reasons. Thank you for your contribution. Nerd.

Love, Sara.

The Fable of the Two Game Players

The other day while playing the game Castles of Mad King Ludwig, I decided to challenge myself by playing what I guess could be called a Phantom Double Solitaire version. (The official rules don’t actually spell this one out.) I set up a second “player” to build a castle against mine, and we’d see who won.

I, Player Green, always gave myself the first choice for which room tiles I wanted to buy. I also got to choose my own bonus cards (the bonuses at the end often decide the winner). Player Yellow got to buy whatever she wanted to, but only after I did. She also got bonus cards, but I didn’t look at them so I didn’t know which tiles would actually maximize her points.

Other than those two conventions, we both stuck to the rules. I played Yellow’s turn with as much dedication to winning as I played Green’s.

In the end, Player Yellow (the second-choice player) finished in the high 80s. That’s a very respectable solitaire score. As for me, Player Green, I scored one of my highest scores ever, 130.

In my mind, Player Yellow was dissatisfied with our game. But why should she complain? She could start by being grateful she was even allowed to play. Secondly, both of them played the game by the same rules. Thirdly, she got a decent score — not as high as Green’s, sure, but nothing to complain about.

Green didn’t cheat, didn’t do anything to sabotage Yellow. She just played the best she could.

Well, okay, because she always got first choice and got to choose her bonuses — it was easier for Green to get ahead and stay there. Good decisions paid off better, good luck went farther. Bad decisions didn’t set her back quite as far.

Put simply, Green had an advantage — a privilege — that Yellow didn’t. And Green won by 50 points.

There’s a not-very-subtle social justice moral to this tale, if you wish to see it.

The Parable of the Hidden Figures

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Hidden Figures. I thought I’d state that outright before I got into my detailed discussion of it. (Otherwise known as “SJ can’t watch a movie without completely picking it apart.”) (I’m a terrible movie date.) (But I don’t give spoilers.) (And DJ still loves me anyway.)

Hidden Figures is a parable for white people.

Granted, it’s based on black people’s experiences. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all actual black women who achieved success in the halls of NASA, which in the 60s was simply clogged with white males. The reason I say it’s a parable — a fictionalized story meant to illuminate truth — is because the movie shows what ought to happen rather than a strict adherence to what probably really did.

The black community knows exactly what life was like in the early 60s. They don’t have to be reminded of segregation, demonstrations, violence against them, and the quiet but suffocating refusal to allow black professionals to advance in their careers. The white community is the one who needs to see it and feel the futility and injustice. This movie does that. By giving the viewers three good women to sympathize with, we “become” those women and understand the obstacles they faced. This is the power of fiction.

But, being a Hollywood parable, we get the advantage of seeing it play out before our eyes. The entire movie takes place over a period of about two years. In theater time, of course, that’s about two hours. So in two hours we get to see these women pursue their dreams, demonstrate their capabilities, and win the respect of those around them. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Just that the results weren’t so gratifyingly immediate.

Another “parable” aspect was that the movie showed several white characters who saw their error and paid due respect to their black colleagues. It made the movie easier to watch for those of us who have a sneaking fear that we would have upheld that system had we lived then. The white community of that time, while definitely top-dog, was also under pressure. They lived under the regime of a segment of society that truly despised anyone who wasn’t white; for the ordinary, peace-loving person, it was a risk to cross racial lines.

So really, the white response in that movie was much more mid-21st century than mid-20th. And while it’s not exact history, I think it was a good way to show how we today ought to respond.

(Another 2010s vs 1960s aspect of the movie was that nobody smoked. In reality, you probably couldn’t walk into any of those offices, men’s or women’s or white or colored, without forcing your way through the smog of cigarette smoke.)

All that said, I truly enjoyed the movie.

It follows the storylines of the three women, all with different ambitions. Dorothy wants the title and pay that comes with the supervisor job she’s already doing. Mary wants to become an engineer, a near-impossibility for a negro woman in segregated Virginia. Katherine — who is really the focal character — is a brilliant mathematician assigned to calculate the numbers that will get John Glenn into space.

Apart from the story, the movie is visually fun to watch. They recreated the 60s in good Hollywood style. The dresses, hair, decor (all that ugly dark paneling!), and technology looks just right. Which probably just means that it looks like what I vaguely remember of “old lady houses” and other Hollywood sets, but anyway.

The family life is portrayed as warm, with young black men who want the very best for their wives and children. Religion is present, acknowledged but not overdone. The pale colors of the surrounding set often highlighted the brown skin of the women. A few camera shots managed to communicate, “Look at aaalll these men! White men! It doesn’t look quite right, does it?”

It’s easy to see the frustrations these women faced at work, from Dorothy’s sweet but chilly white superior, to Mary’s sassy fashionista facade covering her stifled ambition, to Katherine’s half-mile hike to the Colored Bathroom every day. (The director is furious when he finds out her plight. “At NASA, we all pee the same color!” is one of the best declarations of equality in the movie.)

The story touches only lightly on the oppression, violence, and injustice of the era. And I think that some people were happy to ignore that reality yet again. I saw one comment about the movie that said,

“Those women were facing real issues. But they were faithful and stayed on task, and presto! It all worked out.”

No, honey. The “presto” part is because this movie isn’t history, it’s a parable. If you come away thinking that they had it “kind of bad,” then you need to do a little research. Ever browsed photos of of riots, attacks, and black men hanging from trees? They had it “kind of bad” in the same way that cancer makes you “a little sick.”

These women were extraordinary, and it leaves me wondering how many more black men, black women, and simply women in general, didn’t manage to break through with their gifts and abilities. It was a time of smothering injustice, and it’s not all resolved yet. I hope this movie, with its funny moments and gentle indictment of white superiority, can inspire the white community to understand and acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and show them a way to amend the wrongs of the present.

White Oblivion

stocksnap_q621it4pyjThis past Monday night, we listened to an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound and poetic “I Have a Dream” speech, read in a raspy Batman-like rumble. (DJ has a cold.)

Most of it went right over the kids’ heads (although Bookgirl probably caught a lot of it this time around). I’m glad that DJ makes a point to read it every year anyway. He and I need to hear it and understand where we’ve come from.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in South Mississippi. We were a lower middle-class white family, somewhere between belle and redneck. The “desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” that King references in his speech wasn’t the Mississippi I knew. I was vaguely aware that things had been bad “back then,” but it wasn’t anything I recognized in my world. The white community didn’t teach its next generation hate and anger.

It taught us oblivion.

We — my white friends and I — didn’t understand how recently segregation had been the order of the day. It simply wasn’t discussed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dismissed with a slight shrug of distaste. I didn’t know anything about Rosa Parks until my sixth grade English teacher, a black woman, dedicated a day of class to her. Thanks to Norman Rockwell’s painting, I knew about Ruby Bridges and integration, but not the seething hate that surrounded her. I was married before I learned about the Detroit race riots (thank you, Dreamgirls). It was last year while researching for a story that I looked up “race relations 1972” and discovered that things were still really nasty in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand a lot of things. And as I got older, none of these facts were concealed from me. The white community simply didn’t bring them up.

Later in the evening of MLK Day, I got myself some ice cream and sat down with what I consider leisure reading — a 1963 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. At first the significance of the publication year didn’t occur to me. But I began reading an article about how families could make the most of their money, and King’s words came back to me.

I read, “It’s sad but true that a great many homes in America today are below the standard of what their owners should have and can afford.” And a thought crept in, You don’t mean the “the negro’s basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” do you?

I read, “A packaged weekend ski trip that includes bus transportation, four meals and two night’s lodging, rental of ski equipment and tow charges, costs only $37 per person…” Assuming you aren’t denied those meals and lodging.

I read, “Traveling by car offers the advantage of convenience and savings on transportation costs for a large family… Motels and hotels charge about $9.50 a night for two…” Two WHITE PEOPLE. The words were a roar in my head.

This magazine, a “family magazine” for “Americans today,” was written only for white people. And I’d never really thought much about it, because I’m part of the club, so it’s easy to assume that everybody gets the same benefit.

Outright black oppression at the hands of white supremacy isn’t really history. It’s still living memory. It’s a charred field barely covered over with new growth. More and more I realize that we can’t expect our nation to “move on” from a catastrophe that’s still hot to the touch.

I want healing. I want to see things change. And I’m trying to start with myself. I never singled out other races for hate and disgust. I’ve worked hard to shed some toxic ingrained attitudes of white supremacy.

But I can honestly say that what I’m mostly guilty of is something that’s harder to see in the first place. I’m guilty of oblivion.

So this year especially, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m glad that we still have his words that make us stop and acknowledge the truth we’d been taught to ignore. May oblivion not blind us to the plight of our neighbors and fellow humans.