Thursday, April 23, 2015

Denial as Privilege

Leaked emails from the world of entertainment have opened up a can of worms that sheds some light on an issue that's a whole lot more important than the movie business. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few days, you've heard about how actor Ben Affleck participated in a PBS show in which celebrities, with the help of genealogy experts, explore their ancestry and family history.  Evidently, during the course of this exploration, one of the pieces of information which was unearthed was the fact that one of Affleck's ancestors was a wealthy slave owner. It's not exactly shocking for a white man in America to have ancestry that connects, on some level, to the institution of slavery. What's shocking - or at least newsworthy, anyhow - is that Affleck made a concerted effort to have this piece of his family history edited out of the program. Affleck has since admitted that he is embarrassed by this piece of family history, and that he did not want a television program which focused on his family to include it.

Stew on that for a second. He went on a television show (on PBS, no less) to trace his roots and discuss where and who he came from and, once he found out he was descended from a slave owner, asked that such an unsavory piece of of his family history be edited out when the show aired. 

Ben Affleck is a jerk. 

Not because he is a descendant of slave owners - lots of people are. He's a jerk because he, and a lot of other people, fail to see that the very act of editing one's family history in this way is nothing more than an incredible example of white privilege in action.

I've heard defenders of Affleck's actions state that he should not be held accountable for his ancestors' practices, that this could shed a bad light on him and his present-day family, that he has a right to privacy. 

I don't hold anyone alive today accountable for the behavior of their ancestors. I do, however, think the biggest thing keeping racial harmony from being a reality in this country is a failure on the part of white America to own up to the fact that it has benefitted from systemic racism of all kinds. The institution of slavery was almost certainly the biggest piece of the systemic racism pie that this country has known, and the sweetness of that slice of pie still lingers on the tongues of white Americans' today. They need to own up to this, or nothing will ever get better. 

With regards to this bit of news shedding a harsh light on his family, today? I highly doubt this will pose any real problem. Other celebrities have appeared on this very same program, found out about their slave-owning ancestors, and suffered no repercussions. 

As for Affleck's privacy? If he had no desire to delve into difficult and even painful areas in his family's past, perhaps going on a genealogy hunt on national television was not the wisest of choices. 

But, now...about that white privilege thing. Some people might think I'm being a little harsh when I use that term in this context. I'm not. You see, it must be awfully nice to know one can make a few calls, send a few emails, and - BAM - be done with one's family history. And Affleck almost pulled it off. You know who can't pull that off? Who can NEVER pull it off? A black American. 

Descendants of slaves don't have the luxury of being able to erase their family histories. That, Ben Affleck, is one of the many fringe benefits of being white in America. And yes, you came this close to pulling it off. If not for that pesky email leak, you'd be that bright, shiny, superhero-playing, politically-correct actor/director whose family line is filled with industrious hard workers, fun characters, and even civil rights activists, just the way you like it. Instead, I look at you and see White Privilege Ken Doll: Denial Edition. I don't have bad feelings about you because your ancestor owned slaves. I have bad feelings about you because you tried to cover up this truth. You tried to rewrite history. And this particular history isn't just yours: it belongs to the slaves your ancestors owned. 

Here's the thing: Ben Affleck's great great great grandfather owned slaves. My great great great grandfather, Manuel, WAS a slave. If every white person erased what his or her great great great grandfather did, they'd also be erasing what was done to my ancestor. And to every slave in America. And that just won't do. 


If Ben Affleck is worried that finding out their ancestor owned slaves will be upsetting to his children, he might want to consider how upsetting it is for the millions of people in this country who, if they trace their roots back just a few generations, find that their ancestors aren't listed as residents of a house, but as property of a household. And, no, none of this is Ben Affleck's fault but, as a wealthy, white, American man, Affleck has an enormous amount of power. Using this power to cover up a piece of history that is inconvenient for him is inexcusable. 



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Seam

Once, I sat by the side of the road, and watched a great, big truck deliver the two halves of a house that was being relocated from a different spot. They cut it down the middle and brought it down one half at a time, because the house was so very big. And they lay down the halves so carefully, shifting an inch in this direction, an inch in that...until the halves lined up perfectly. And then they sealed them together so that there was a seam running right down the middle of the floor.

I loved watching them move that house. I never imagined I would live there, myself, some day. But I did.

The hallway had freshly-laid wall-to-wall carpeting. The day I moved in, I took off my shoes and took a talk all the way up the long, long hallway. Barefoot. And, through the thick carpet, I could feel the seam where the two halves of the house were joined. Thick shag couldn't hide that seam from me. It was our secret.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Magic Beans



You ask me for advice on tying up loose ends, and I tell you that I'm not sure I've ever in my whole life tied up a pair of loose ends, that my life is not tidy in that way. It's more like a field, I tell you...like a field where the crop isn't wheat or corn or barley but, sprouting from the ground, connections. To people and places and moments in time. And me? I spend my time wandering that field, noting how different it is from one spot to the next. Here, where there's nothing but shade, are just dried dandelions and dead leaves. Over there, where it rains, but the sun hides behind the clouds now and again, are delicate blades of grass, and bits of moss on wet stones. Way over there, where the sun shines, every single day, and the rain starts falling at dusk...where the worms and the birds and the bees love to gather? Over there are sunflowers with tall, tall stalks, and poppies and, where a stream runs through that area, there's wild, hearty asparagus. That's where the magic beans were dropped, so long ago, and where a beanstalk has pushed its way out of the soil, and now chases the sun, straight into the sky. It is the place where I stop and sit and lean my tired bones when walking around this field gets to be exhausting.

I wouldn't know how to tie up loose ends if I tried.





 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Trickle Down

I saw this at a burger joint, today, and realized I hadn't seen a pay toilet since 1973. The reason I remember it was 1973 is that the whole business of pay toilets was my formal introduction to the idea of feminism as an organized movement that people took part in.

Ma was home with the new baby (who was born in 1973) and my dad was taking me and my older sister to Wurtsboro, NY, where he was to photograph the artwork of an 85 year old woman who chiseled these amazing figurative sculptures out of marble and stone. We didn't own a car, so we were taking the Greyhound Bus upstate, and getting picked up by friends who would drive us the rest of the way. NYC's Port Authority was and still is a miserable place. Toilets on a bus, however, are possibly the MOST miserable places. Dad told me and Lisa to head over to the "girls' bathroom" and try to take care of any business before we boarded the bus.

I was 6, Lisa was 8.



As we headed to the women's bathroom, Dad headed to the men's room. What Lisa and I found was a long queue of women. In those days, many women's toilet stalls were coin-operated. One needed to put a dime in a slot to unlock the stall door. Lisa and I knew this because, whenever Ma encountered a coin-op toilet stall, she would pay the dime and all three of us would share one stall. On this day, at Port Authority, a huge group of women decided to protest the pay toilet system (which ONLY applied to women, with men using free-standing urinals without stalls) by limiting use to one stall. Evidently, the first woman to have used that stall on that morning, held the door open for the next woman when she was done. That second woman did the same, and so on...until every woman who stepped into the bathroom and saw all the empty stalls, with a few women waiting to use the one stall without paying, decided they would do the same. In no time at all, the only stall being used was the one that had been paid for that morning, and held open by woman after woman. Of course, the line became very long.

When Lisa and I got there and saw the long line of women, we didn't know what to do. Dad had given us a dime. One of the women on the line explained to us what was happening, and said she thought we should get in line and do the same, and save our dime. That's what we did. It was, as you can imagine, a long wait. But it was sort of nice, the way a woman would come out of the stall and hold the door open for the next woman. I didn't have the language for it then but, in retrospect, I have to say there was a buzz moving through that queue. Good mojo.

Eventually, it was our turn to go into the stall, which was a good thing, because Lisa and I both needed to pee. We both peed, and then we left, making sure to hold the door open for the next woman.

When we went to find Dad, he looked a little annoyed. He asked what had taken so long, and we explained it to him. He listened, and stopped looking annoyed and said something like, "Oh, yeah...you ran into women's libbers." I'd never heard that term before and asked him what that meant. Dad looked as if the question confused him. He didn't say anything for a few seconds. Then he said, "It means it's not fair that some people have to pay to take a pee, and some people don't."

A short time later, pay toilets were done away with in NYC.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pressed Up

Something about the way the sun was shining, and how the shoes were laid out. Maybe, too, it was the earthy fabric of the vest, draped over that one mannequin. The well-worn suitcases. The acetate lamp shades. Even the oiled canvas awning. All of it looked like you. It pulled at my heart. Quickly, before the light changed, I snapped a picture, thinking that this was as if I were snapping your portrait. If you were a shop window, you would look like this. Nobody else looks like this.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014: The Year in Review

You know the drill. My picks, random categories.

Winner of the "Political activism and kick-ass bravery are hot" award: Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokno. More than just a pretty face, but such a pretty face, all the same.



Winner of the "It's only important if it happens to white people" award: EBOLA. It's been around for ages, without making a ripple in the American consciousness. A white guy caught it and not only did it make global news, but they cured him.

Winner of the "Where's Waldo" award: Malaysia Airline's Flight 370. Too soon?

Winner of the "Drought's over" award: Toni Morrison, for announcing a new novel is forthcoming. Praise be!

Winner of the "Sorry, drought's NOT over" award: The state of California, where not even two weeks of downpour, complete with flooding, power outages, sink holes, and mudslides could end the drought.

Winner of the "Who knew watching a teen-aged boy die in a disgusting way could be so delicious?" award: Joffrey. Boy did he have this coming.  Joffrey died and everyone in the world cheered.




Winner of the "Who says sequels are always a letdown?" award: Mockingjay. Each of the Hunger Games movies is better than the one before. Mockingjay Part 1 kicked ass. The only thing that sucks? We have to wait until next year for the final installment.



Winner of "Same-sex marriage is soooo 1825" award: Charity and Sylvia. If you think you have it tough being a lesbian in 2014, this true story is downright humbling.



Winner of the "How the fuck did I miss this?" award: Skeleton Twins. You probably didn't see it. Almost no one did. You really should. Wiig and Hader are pretty terrific in this brother/sister love story. Not like that, silly!




Winner of the "Dammit, and Victoria Jackson is STILL alive???" award:  The late, great, insanely talented Jan Hooks. Damn. Bye, Jan. You were really fucking great.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Casualty



I was a preschool teacher for many years. The classrooms in which I worked always had dress-up areas. Pre-schoolers love putting on outfits and pretending to be different types of people: moms, firemen, bakers, police officers, teachers. Dress-up is for four-year-olds. So is playing at toy soldiers. How many of our young men and women - and young men and women of other cultures - have lost their lives because of men such as this one, and their penchant for playing dress-up and toy soldiers from behind the safety of a mahogany desk? 

I am not a fan of the military, as a whole. I don't understand why, when so much blood was shed in the effort to eradicate slavery in this country, any individual would willingly sign up to become the property of the government. On the other hand, I thank God such people exist because, truth be told, most people who enlist do so because they want to make the world a better place. I respect that. We all should.  Men in positions of power donning these uniforms as if they were costumes, and treating war and military service as if they were bits of play-acting is disgraceful.

Play time is over.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Fine Balance

I have an eight-year-old friend who had a big, cuddly, white cat named Jasper. A little over a month ago, Jasper's family made the difficult decision to have him euthanized. He wasn't well. He was sick, in pain, losing weight. He'd stopped purring. He looked sad. It was clear that Jasper was dying, that it wasn't pleasant for him, and that helping him along was the right thing. For Z - my eight-year-old friend - losing Jasper is her first heartbreak. She asked me, the other day, how I coped with the loss of my mother. She was hoping I could give her some clue as to how to mend her broken, little heart. I believe any question a kid asks is worth answering honestly, whenever possible. I told Z that the sadness of missing Jasper will probably never go away, but that she would get more and more used to it. I told her that she would never forget Jasper, and always love him, but that a time would come when remembering him would be more about remembering how great he was, than about how sad it was to be without him. I told her that being as sad as she is makes sense, because Jasper was a really important part of her life and that, because he's gone, her life is different, now - different forever.

What I didn't tell Z was that this heartbreak is only the first in what will be many losses, that life is all about loss and that the losses only become more frequent as we get older. She doesn't know that recently, when I was transferring my contacts from my old phone to my new one I was shocked to find so many people in my world - or at least in my address book - are no longer alive. Should I have told her that I still have the last two messages my mother left on my voicemail? Or that I don't have the heart to remove my favorite cousin's name and number from my address book? Should I have told her that as recently as last week I saw something that made me laugh and started to pick up the phone to call my friend, Heidi, who has been dead for over a year, now? I wonder if she'd understand how sad I am that the plan I had, with my old schoolmate, Joseph, to meet for a shot of bourbon when I finally get to Alaska, will never come to pass because Joseph died a few months ago?

It seems to me that we start out in life with a set of scales that are weighed down on one side by the people we have around us. As time passes, and these people leave - move or switch schools or divorce us or die - they jump onto the other side of the scales, weighing that side down a little more. Most of the time, I pay these scales no mind. For this reason, it's shocking to me to look over and notice that the two sides of the scales are closer than ever.

I'll probably never get rid of those voicemails or my cousin's phone number. Audaciously funny things will always make me think of Heidi and wish she were around to laugh at them with me. One day, when I finally get to Alaska, I'm having that shot of bourbon, and toasting to Joseph and a life well lived. I don't even like bourbon. I don't like cats, either, but I'll never forget Jasper.

  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cosa Nostra



This morning I woke up with a sharp pain between my shoulder blades.

It felt - still feels - as if a long, jagged knife had been stuck into the middle of my back while I slept.
It felt - still feels - as if the handle of that knife at some point snapped off, leaving the sharp blade inside of me.
It felt - still feels - as if that blade cuts a little deeper with each move I make.

Let me be clear: There is no heavy lifting going on, no jumping jacks. What I mean to say is that, when I inhale, the expansion of my chest to let air into my lungs causes the constant pain to become sharper, clearer, more intense. It hurts to breathe. Other things that hurt include:

Lying on my side
Lying on my back
Lying on my stomach
Sitting up
Standing up
Putting two slices of bread in the toaster

You get the idea.

I love mafia movies. Invariably in these movies, there's some WASPy, rookie cop who asks what "cosa nostra" means, to which the older, seasoned detective always answers, "It's what the Italians call the mafia...it means "our thing.""

Words and phrases lose a lot in translation. "Cosa nostra" shouldn't be translated in such flat terms. The phrase is charged with emotion - love, even. It's not "our thing." It should be something more like, "this thing of ours" or "this thing we share."

The pain of crumbling bones is not one of the things I thought I'd end up sharing with my mother. It's certainly not a thing I ever hoped to share with her, or that she ever would have hoped to share with me. But here it is. This thing of ours. This thing we share.

When I wake up on a morning such this one, and feel that knife in my back, I can't help but imagine my mother: 22 years old, pregnant, suffering from asthma so severe the doctor worries she might die in the same way her sister died - gasping for breath. He has her come in every morning for a shot of steroidal drugs. Drugs that keep the asthma at bay and allow her to breathe, and her baby to grow. Drugs that also, over time, turn her bones into brittle pieces of chalk. I imagine this as I roll out of bed. And, as that rolling movement makes the pain between my shoulder blades sharper, clearer, and more intense, I imagine being that baby who was not yet born when those life-saving, bone-crushing drugs started flowing through our shared blood stream.

This thing of ours. This thing we share.

When I put it in these terms, it's so much easier to bear.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Law #116

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1944

It's necessary, they said.
You'll sleep right through it and you won't feel a thing, they said.
We know what's best, they said
It's for your own good, they said.

A boardroom on the U.S. Mainland 

It's necessary, they said.
These women are simple, they said.
They don't know what's best for them, they said.
It's for their own good, they said.
There are already too many of them, they said.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1944

I'm not sick, she said.
But, you're a doctor, she said.
You must know what I need, she said.
I trust you, she said.

She slept through it, just as they said she would, but it did hurt. The next day it hurt. And for many days after. It hurt more and for a longer time than giving birth to her son had hurt. And it left a scar. And she stopped bleeding every month. She was 34, and she'd stopped bleeding. But, then, so did the other women she knew: her sister, her cousins. They'd all stopped bleeding. She, at least, had her son.

A Gynecologist's Office, New York City, 1963

When did you have a hysterectomy? the gynecologist asked.
I don't know what that is, she said.
You have no uterus, the gynecologist said.
I don't know what that is, she said. 
When did you stop having periods? the gynecologist asked.
After la operacion, she said.
Who performed the operation? the gynecologist asked.
The American doctor, she said. 
Why did the American doctor do this? the gynecologist asked.
Because, she said.
Because? the gynecologist asked.
Because it was for my own good, she said.