Black Hair

“Um…thanks, Anne.” That was Allison Keyes’ response to my taped comment to her really fierce essay about how much she loathes having her hair touched.

Yup, I know. Fernham is not exactly your source for thoughts on black hair. Believe me, I know the limits of my expertise. But I was listening to Tell Me More last Monday. Guest host Allison Keyes read an essay about why she hates having her hair touched—and how often people touch it. It was far from the usual NPR fare: she was still imagining a mainly white audience, but she wasn’t gently helping her audience understand. She was irritated. And she meant for us to identify with her irritation.

I liked it so well, that I fired off a quick email comment to the show. I was one of 400+ people to do so. Imagine my surprise, then, to get an email from producer Lee Hill. Could he call me to record my comment?

Frankly, I was very surprised but mostly thrilled. Here is what I said:
Thank you so much. I am so enjoying your great piece on touching hair and just wanted to add a tiny little footnote that might amuse you: I am a 43 y.o. white woman. I grew up in Seattle where I was bused for voluntary desegration but my middle school bus was racially integrated. I'll never forget the day when a black boy pulled my long, straight hair out and passed it round as "white girl hair." It was funny. It hurt. I got it. I never touch anyone without asking. But I get why people are curious. Thanks for a sharp, strong essay.
Hill called me to confirm I had time to talk, called me back on a recording line, and I recorded my comment.

It was really exciting for an NPR fanatic like me and the lukewarm “um, thanks Anne” is thanks enough.

You can hear me here. More to the point, you can hear Allison Keyes’ essay here and learn more about her here.

Household Help

Between The Known World, Wench, and Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, I have spent many, many hours of 2010 imagining slavery and servitude. Let me be very clear in saying that I in no way conflate one with the other. The idea of humans owning other humans is shudderingly abhorrent.

Nonetheless, and among many other things in their books, Alison Light, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Edward P. Jones all ask us to focus our imaginations on a small, domestic interior with two women, a master and a servant or slave, and the intense, fraught power relations contained within the smallest gestures. These scenes—in which a slave in The Known World backs up against the wall as she listens to an older woman lecture her newly widowed daughter on the folly of freeing her slaves, in which an infertile mistress fawns over her husband’s children by a slave while the mother must look on stoically—helped me better understand a much more benign but also beloved pair of scenes in Mrs. Dalloway in which Lucy, the beloved maid, and Clarissa, bicker in gestures—that’s the best way I can think to describe it, for no words are exchanged:

And Lucy, coming into the drawing-room with her tray held out, put the giant candlesticks on the mantelpiece, the silver casket in the middle, turned the crystal dolphin  towards  the  clock.

and then, many pages later...

"And how," she said, turning the crystal dolphin to stand straight, "how did you enjoy the play last night? "

Now, the scenes I referenced from Jones and Perkins-Valdez are grand in their significance; this one is in more of a minor key. Even so, through that crystal dolphin—a little gift to Vanessa, whose nickname was Dolphin—signifies the rigidity of the power dynamic between servant and mistress. Lucy likes working for Clarissa and she swells with pride at the thought of how much Clarissa’s guests will enjoy the party. Turning the crystal dolphin is an act of creativity or rebellion, perhaps, but when Clarissa turns it back straight, it’s not a conversation: it’s a power play. The mistress wins.

It’s really Alison Light who reminded me of this detail, for she found a fragment in the Monk's House Papers in Sussex which document Woolf’s own observation of the phenomenon:

“But in Bloomsbury the servants were not victims or drudges, and Woolf noted that even her char moved an ornament on the mantelpiece at Monk’s House to leave it ‘askew’ each day, a symptomatic act which, Woolf imagined, showed the desire for ornament and her thirst for art (it might equally have been an assertion of independence” (151)

I will only add that we hire a woman to come clean—every other week—and one of the first things I do when she leaves is to adjust all the ornaments that she has moved while dusting. I mean no insult in observing that she has a particularly rigid sense of symmetry. My aesthetic is, like Lucy’s, more askew.

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I told my mom to read The Known World, though I hadn’t read it. My mom had been bugging me to read it and I did. Somewhere in the middle of reading it, I read Tayari’s post about Wench and I knew that it was the next book for my mom and me.

Once again, my mom read it first and loved it. Now I’ve read it, too—and already leant it out to a friend.

Wench is based on a real resort in 1850s Xenia, Ohio where slave masters would take their slave mistresses on vacation. The three-part book focuses on Lizzie, one of four women who come together each summer to share stories and struggles. This is a serious novel but also a pleasurable one—it won’t break your heart and pull out your guts the way some other books about slavery do. Instead, it pulls you in to the incredible friendship among women, the way women need to learn to be true to each other and not depend on men.

What Perkins-Valdez does so amazingly is to offer up the story of all the confusing emotions of a young slave, Lizzie, who becomes her master’s mistress as a teen-ager. What is it she feels for him? Can you call it love when your lover owns you? When, on the last day of your “vacation” he ties you to the porch and leaves you a bowl of water like you’re a dog? Of course, it’s not anything we would want to call love, but it makes you think hard—very hard—about human attachments and marriage. Lizzie’s situation is an extreme version of what marriage was for many women for centuries: total economic dependence, lack of property (of course, a slave was property), utter lack of legal stature, utter lack of rights over one’s own body or to one’s children. If that is your situation and you’re still a human, mightn’t you soften a bit? Find some loyalty or affection for an owner who is attached to you? Find some ways to love and mother your children, to figure out—desperately, anxiously—ways to get your lover-owner to promise to free them?

I’m not surprised that this book is getting a lot of buzz (it's in its fourth printing already, last I heard!): it’s a wonderful story about the power of women, of a mother’s love, of friendship. You can read more about it here and here. And, if you're in New York, you can hear her read--and support Girls Write Now while you're at it--on February 26th.

Those Cute, Cute Foreign Orphans

I’ve been riveted by the whole sad debacle of the imprisoned missionaries, jailed in Haiti for taking children across the border without permission. The conversation seems to have changed, ever so slightly, in the past few years, towards a better understanding of how best to help and away from the kind of imperious behavior that these Americans seem to have displayed. (Though, I hear that Angelina may be on the ground in Port-Au-Prince…) From the first, CNN interrupted its “disaster porn” coverage of the earthquake to remind people that the best course of action was not to swoop in and adopt a little Haitian baby, even as endless heart-wrenching stories of accelerated adoptions already underway fueled our hunger to reach out and help.

I was reminded of this wonderfully biting satire by Binyavanga Wainaina (who wrote that great Granta piece, “How to Write about Africa”): 
Hello kitty kitty kitty¦ Are you an orphan? Are you Sudanese? Chadian? Are you a sub-Saharan African suffering from mild mental retardation? Are you an African woman suffering from the African male? Would you like an Oxfam biscuit? Organic antiretrovirals? Have you been raped? You might not know it, but you are an orphan, a refugee. Can we fly 103 of you to France to be loved? We can breastfeed you. We can make you a Darfur orphan. Even if you are not. If you are black and under 10 years old, please come talk to us.
Come kitty kitty.

Isn’t that fantastic? Especially in light of this Haitian story, in which some of the children reportedly still have parents(!). I love “You might not know it, but you are an orphan.” As with the longer piece on Africa, he cuts right to the core of blind sentimentality, the 21st-century Mrs. Jellybys, so sure that they are offering the best help for those whom they are so sure are desperately in need of it. You can read the whole piece here.
Or, as
a commenter in the Times writes: 
Don't play poker with a guy named Doc. Don't eat in a restaurant named Mom's. Don't go hiking without a compass near the North Korean Border. Don't travel to Iran to participate in anti-government demonstrations. Don't take a busload of kids across the border without their parents' permission. That's what my Daddy taught me.

The Known World

I’ve been battling a cold and, today, though I felt better than yesterday, I took advantage of it’s being a school day (and my being on sabbatical) and just went back to bed.


I lay there and, in one swallow, finished the last hundred pages of Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece of a novel, The Known World.

Lately, I read about books, recommend them to my mother and my mother-in-law, and then heat up the orange mac for the kids while toiling away at some para-literary activity (marking papers, selecting essays for a textbook, downloading articles for an article I’m writing). My novel-reading days are too few and far between. If life in at 70 is as kind to me as it has been to my mom and mother-in-law, I may, perhaps, have a chance to catch up!

But my mom begged me to read The Known World so we could talk about it. I did. And I can’t wait to call her.

Mishna Wolff’s I’m Down

Ooh! Dang, she just capped on you!
Ooh! Cap!
Man, that was cappish!

There was no surer way to irritate my parents in high school than a few slang words. Dog, doggish, cap, and cappish were prime offenders; mention them during dinner and you could see my parents squirm. It brought me great joy to demonstrate, on a nightly basis, to my parents, how very uncool, how very white, they were. This, of course, was not news to them.

I never was good at capping, but it was a big part of my life, especially in high school.

Out of the blue, my sister sent me a copy of Mishna Wolff’s very funny new memoir of growing up in Seattle, I’m Down. I read it with great pleasure in about a minute. It’s about a white girl who, among other things, learned how to cap.

It’s not really like reading a book—it’s so slight and fun and lively—but it is a really fun and interesting memoir about race in America, one that reminds us that behind the big narratives of race are a million idiosyncratic stories and that some of them, like Wolff’s, are touching and very funny.

The gap between the glamorous brunette in the author photo and the gangly, awkward teen with the biggest Afro I’ve ever seen on a white person signals the journey Wolff made, from her father’s house to the New York she lives in now. When Wolff’s parents divorced, she and her sister remained with their dad (in the house he’d grown up in), a man who, in her telling, really thought of himself as black (all evidence to the contrary). The neighborhood was now almost entirely black, as were his girlfriends and the guy friends with whom he played hoop and dominoes and to whom he sold dope. While Mishna’s little sister embraced her surroundings, accepting her father’s half-baked home remodeling projects, happily joining informal dance troupes and dressing up, Mishna was nerdy and nervous, worrying about grades, and struggling with her parents’ divorce and her father’s happy embrace of neighborhood life.

Eventually, her mother gets her enrolled in the IPP program (a souped-up honors program that Seattle Public Schools started after I graduated) and Mishna has to bridge the divide between the unhappy affluent children of divorce (no skiing this weekend! Mommy’s depressed!) and the mouthy poor children of divorce (hang on to your step-brother, the back door of the van opens when we hit a pothole). I particularly loved a poignant scene where Mishna, the absolute worst player on her amazing basketball team, runs into a white friend from school. Neither girl knows quite what to do, but Mishna snubs her school friend, with her upper-middle class "it's just a game" attitude and actually tries to score. It's not a kind choice, but it's the right one and it feels true to the conflicting loyalties of adolescence.

In more serious hands, this wouldn’t be as funny a book. There is a lot under the surface that I would like to know more about: How serious was that pot farm in the basement? What happened to the little black girl with glasses, the other smart nerdy kid in Mishna’s neighborhood? As a Seattleite, I wished for neighborhoods—it seems like this was Rainier Valley-ish, somewhere south of the Central District where I went to high school—but I was always wanting to know the name of the high school, the street. As a writer, I wanted to hear more about class, happiness, ambitions, and low expectations. Somewhere in this book is an insight about race and class privilege. Moving between worlds as she did, Wolff saw how easy it is for the affluent white daughter of an alcoholic mother to make it, debt-free to the liberal arts college of her choice where she will, of course, be free to mess up her own life or not. At the same time, the poor black daughter (or the black-identified white daughter) of a pothead will have to claw her way to that same spot. There are no middle class black people in this book, though one of her father’s girlfriends is nearly middle class—and a source of great (if temporary) hope for Mishna.

In all, this is a really wonderful light read about an ordinarily heavy topic. And besides, she gives a shout-out to Ezell’s Fried Chicken! Right across the street from my beloved Garfield High.

A review here. A clip of her reading about capping here. Her very funny website here.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

In honor of the Martin Luther King Holiday, I wanted to remind you of Charles Johnson’s wonderful short story, “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” from the collection of the same name. Here’s how Z. Z. Packer summarized it in her 2005 review of the collection:
In this story King stays up working on an overdue sermon, and when he looks into the refrigerator for a late-night snack he finds ''bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England . . . a half-eaten Mexican tortilla . . . German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice . . . macaroni, spaghetti and ravioli favored by Italians.'' Struck by how something as basic and elemental as food can represent the interconnectivity of life, King basks in this revelation only to be brought to earth by his loving wife.
My husband and I had the privilege of hearing Johnson read this story at a conference in Seattle a few years back. It was fantastic.

Enjoy the day and honor the legacy of Dr. King.

Forgetting Haiti

''Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it's unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this.''--Edwige Danticat (via Tayari)

It’s easy to forget about Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is so hard to think about—even before this latest castatrophe—that, unless there is a hurricane or a new novel by Danticat, it’s easier to focus elsewhere.

Eight years ago this month, I spent three weeks on a service-learning trip to the Dominican Republic. We had been scheduled to go to Haiti, but the events of 9/11/01 worldwide and a coup d’etat in Haiti led my university at the time to prudently shift the trip to the more stable DR, the Eastern and more prosperous half of the island of Hispaniola.

It was one of the hardest times of my life: my husband and I read and studied Michele Wucker’s amazing book about the island, Why the Cock Fights; we read Edwidge Danticat’s stories of Haiti and Haitian-Americans, we read In the Time of Butterflies. We longed to lead our students on a trip about social justice. Instead, we worked with an orphanage in Monte Cristi, on the Haitian border, to build a wall. 

That wall became a metaphor for the barrier between the kind of aid work I believe in and the corrupt, self-congratulatory, neo-imperialist mission excursion that I found myself on, but not able to lead.

For all that was hard, I must admit that I was not sorry that we didn’t go to Haiti. My husband’s scouting trip to Haiti, in the summer of 2001 (before plans changed) had been intense and life-changing for him, but his stories of the rural mission in Northern Haiti that would host us, of the drums at night, of the village that was little more than a collection of shanties, made me painfully aware of how ill-equipped I am to comprehend the gap between the poorest in the world and myself. 

In 1804, Haiti became a free nation. The second democracy in the Western Hemisphere. In the two centuries since, it has failed—and we have failed it. I don’t want to make a catastrophe—or a nation—into a metaphor. I hope and pray for better days for Haiti. I texted “Yele” to 501501 twice this morning, sending my $5 two times to Wyclef Jean’s nonprofit. But when I see the Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. on television last night, mainly concerned with reassuring us that the first lady is fine, I boil with outrage at the intractability of a problem—theirs and ours—that I do not begin to know how to think about solving.

My college friend, the brilliant Annie Seaton (now a Dean at Bard College) suggests that this catastrophe—the earthquake and all the things (poverty, deforestation, buildings without re-bar in the concrete, political instability, racism) that make this earthquake so horrifying—is a result of the Enlightenment. I think that maybe she’s right. Maybe, as she suggests, we should all read Susan Buck-Morss on Hegel and Haiti and, while we pray for the victims, the survivors and all who help them, we should also try to think our way to a more just world, one in which Haiti would not always and forever suffer.

Even More on Jessie Fauset

Ethelene Whitmire, a professor at U-Wisconsin, Madison, popped into the comments to note that Fauset’s fourth and last novel is being reissued by Rutgers this fall. Thank you! It sounds like a darker—more realistic?--version of There is Confusion, edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (also of UW):
Comedy: American Style, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s fourth and final novel, recounts the tragic tale of a family’s destruction—the story of a mother who denies her clan its heritage. Originally published in 1933, this intense narrative stands the test of time and continues to raise compelling, disturbing, and still contemporary themes of color prejudice and racial self-hatred. Several of today’s bestselling novelists echo subject matter first visited in Fauset’s commanding work, which overflows with rich, vivid, and complex characters who explore questions of color, passing, and black identity.

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s introduction places this literary classic in both the new
modernist and transatlantic contexts and will be embraced by those interested in earlytwentieth-century women writers, novels about passing, the Harlem Renaissance, the black/white divide, and diaspora studies. Selected essays and poems penned by Fauset are also included, among them “Yarrow Revisited” and “Oriflamme,” which help highlight the full canon of her extraordinary contribution to literature and provide contextual background to the novel.
I can’t wait to read it.

Stevie Smith & Betty Miller

I’m reading Frances Spalding’s biography of Stevie Smith and every chapter brings me a little gasp of excitement. Her Novel on Yellow Paper is a favorite book of mine.

Yesterday’s find was the strong speculation that the woman Orwell bragged about having sex with in a public park was likely Smith.

Here is today’s: Smith was a libelously autobiographical writer. Novel on Yellow Paper begins “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends” and she did, indeed lose many friendships over her thinly veiled accounts of marital spats and her confusing frankness (and anti-Semitism) toward her Jewish friends. One such friendship sundered was that with Betty Miller, author of Farewell Leicester Square (another of my discoveries this summer). Smith spent the weekend with the Millers and then commemorated it in a short story portraying the Millers as burdened by the sense of English anti-Semitism, Miller herself as a suppressed wife, and Miller’s son Jonathan (the Jonathan Miller) as a brat.

Betty was not pleased.

I don’t doubt it.

More on Jessie Fauset

If Jessie Redmon Fauset is remembered at all, it is as the author of Plum Bun, which, I suspect, many know vaguely as that other novel about passing that is not Nella Larsen’s Passing. But Fauset (1882-1961) wrote several novels and served as the literary editor of Crisis magazine from 1919 to 1926: the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke may have edited The New Negro (1925), but Fauset must have played a huge role in publishing and promoting the talent of all those writers we know from that anthology.

Though you may not have noticed it, I did: I was unfair to Fauset last week by leading with my criticism of her energetic and ambitious first novel.

Actually, and in spite of its many flaws, I was very moved by the book and I think it’s an amazing novel to revive during the age of Obama.

The plot is unwieldy but full of wonderfully cinematic scenes. If you are a screenwriter in search of material, I recommend mining There is Confusion.

The Marshall family, the four children of Joel Marshall, are the book’s heart. Joel Marshall is a very successful caterer, a self-made man, living in a large prosperous house in Manhattan—at first, in the 50s and, later, in Harlem. Rich as he is, he regrets that his success came in mere catering and hopes for more—for greatness, for ambition, for real intellectual and political achievement, for his children.

Of his four children, only Joanna shares those ambitions and both she and her father are somewhat surprised to find that her talent lies in singing and dancing: once again, the family’s dreams of a new Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth are checked by both their talents and the lack of opportunity.

Joanna is one of three young people whose maturation the book details. Her story contrasts with those of Maggie Ellersley, the daughter of a laundress who hopes that marriage to a rich man will raise her from poverty and Peter Bye, the scion of freedmen from Philadelphia, who must overcome his father’s anger and laziness to become the man—and the physician--Joanna deserves to marry.

Part of the book’s failure is also what makes it so continually interesting: Fauset spends a lot of time explaining her world. She has her earnest young people engage in long, DuBois-ian conversations about talent and how best to spend it. They walk the streets of New York, experiencing both freedom and discrimination. Fauset explains the differences between the social mobility of New York—both within the black community and in a tentatively integrating bohemia—and the intense social hierarchies of elite black Philadelphia, where the daughters of freedmen work hard not to aim too high, but simply to remain eligible brides for the appropriate sons.

I had hoped to find a new novel of the Harlem Renaissance to teach this fall, tiring as I have of Larsen. I am really excited about this one, about which I cannot stop thinking

First novels, Race, and the MFA

I was about 100 pages into Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924) when Short Girls came. Both are great stories of young people striving in the face of racism, but only Nguyen’s is an easy, lovely read. Both Fauset and Nguyen show their characters experiencing and, as important, reflecting on racism. Both women take a deep interest in helping—it does feel like that’s the right verb even though it’s slightly absurd—their female characters find both love and work that will fulfill them.

When I finished Short Girls, I returned to Fauset and, somehow, really got involved in the story and finished it with great pleasure. Still, it cannot be said that this, Fauset’s first novel, is flawless: it’s overplotted, it’s got too many characters; it’s too talky in parts.

I kept thinking about the difference it would have made if Fauset had an MFA. I don’t think MFAs can create talent, but they do seem to help writers prune their manuscripts, think about their audience, focus their purpose. This is a somewhat disheartening conclusion, and I want my literature great more than competent, but, over and over again while reading Fauset, I would think, oh! If some fellow reader, if some instructor, could have helped her smooth that over, edit that out, how much better this book would be.

Amazing the difference that those 80 years have made.

UPDATED to say: What I wanted to add here is that Fauset herself knows this: there is an incredibly affecting scene late in the book. The protagonist has finally gotten her dream job, dancing in a Broadway show. It's an integrated cast and the exposure brings her, for the first time, into a bohemian group of friends, many of them white. She wonders at their accomplishments: how can they have done so much when she's been dancing all this while. Then she thinks back over all the time she's spent overcoming obstacles put in her way by racism: finding the dancing teacher who would teach black students; getting him to agree to a special class when white students refused an integrated one; finding 10 other black dancers to join her, etc. She things ruefully about all she would have done had she not had to beat down her own path.

Short Girls

I remember our neighbors’ pride, the mother’s need to assert her status as hostess while living in a house owned and furnished by the church, and, reading Short Girls I recognized immediately the daughters’ discomfort when the well-meaning family of sponsors shows up at the father’s citizenship ceremony. Somehow, I can’t quite explain it, but I rejoiced inside to hear Nguyen’s explanation of the awkwardness from the inside. Maybe it’s as simply as a relief in the great fact that we have a Vietnamese-American writer who can explain to everyone, even those who haven’t seen it themselves, the utter lack of interest a child might feel in a sponsoring family. I love the honest ingratitude of children, even grown ones.

That citizenship ceremony is the heart of the book and it’s where the separate lives of the Luong sisters reconnect. This book, like Sima’s Undergarments for Women, has a plot structure that is designed to soothe and please: things are a mess at the beginning and you have, from the start, some sense that, somehow, things will improve. The party that we know will bring the sisters together happens a little more than halfway through the book: I loved that I couldn’t predict the aftermath of the book, but that, from the start, I had eager hope for what I knew would be interesting. That is a deeply satisfying kind of story to me these days.

Van Luong is the good sister, an immigration lawyer, but her husband has left her; Linny, the bad girl, is reconsidering her affair with a married man. Since they’re both in their late-twenties, a lot of the plot’s conflict revolves around figuring out a way to find a life partner, but that is not the only thing. I love how Nguyen promotes their search for satisfying careers to equal importance. Linny’s job, designing recipes for “You Did It Dinners,” one of those catering places that helps working mommies assemble casseroles is a wonderful job for a slacker girl: she’s gifted at cooking, but, lord, is this how she’s going to spend her life? Making up non-threatening burrito-bake recipes for other women to assemble? And when Van’s husband blames her for losing a hopeless immigration case, her utter collapse of confidence, too, seems like just the kind of folding of confidence I saw again and again among my ambitious friends at the first big career setback: the decision that, oh well, I really didn’t want to do public service/litigation/inner city teaching, I’ll just settle here.

The novel is mercifully free of faux-exotic details—and mocks those white friends who want them—but there is a deeply realized sense of the Vietnamese community of Michigan, its development, how it revolves around the family that got rich first, how the Luongs, by buying a house a few neighborhoods away, lost touch with its center, how it looks now (in 2003) that some of the children of 1975 have children of their own.

Van is an appealing but hard to know character: there is something deeply private about her; even up to the end, she seems a little unknowable in her studiousness. That meant that it took me a while to feel at home with her—even as I was in the novel’s world from the very first page—a fantastic scene of the young abandoned wife, worrying that she’ll forget the alarm’s code because it’s their wedding date. But, as the novel unfolded, I learned how much stock I was to take in little clues—that Van would never tell us, that Nguyen will never tell us—directly why she became an immigration lawyer, but that, in her poring over post-9/11 rule changes we could infer her deep ethical commitment to working for immigrant rights.

Multicultural in Seattle

Nguyen’s novel showed me a lot about what it might have been like to be on the other side of some of those fleeting friendships I had with Vietnamese kids growing up in Seattle. It got me remembering the first wave of Southeast Asian immigration to our city.

At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.

Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.

This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.

In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.

We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”

My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.

That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.

Michael Jackson, Cynthia Hinds, and the Green River Murders

I’ve been silent on Michael Jackson’s death, though I’ve been so relieved that the shock and sorrow of his death has brought the greatness of his music back to me: it’s been wonderful to listen and listen again to all those great songs.

For me, the memory of Michael Jackson is all bound up with second grade and a girl in my class then who was murdered, Cynthia Hinds. Cynthia loved the Jackson Five.

I have been thinking about her and recently, I found the essay I wrote about her death back in 2003 when her murderer was sentenced. Cynthia was one of the victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Murderer. The Green River Murders were a series of serial killings of prostitutes along a lonely strip of highway south of the Sea-Tac Airport.

In 2003, I wrote:
Cynthia Hinds and I were in the second grade together at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle. We were not friends. She envied my ability to read with ease; I envied her beauty. Looking back at our class picture, I can see that she was a wide-eyed, buck-toothed girl who had yet to grow into her looks, but to me, at seven, she was the prettiest girl in the class. Beautiful. She had cinnamon skin, huge brown eyes, and long wavy hair that she wore in a ponytail on the side of her head, tied with thick, fuzzy red yarn. Hers is still the hair I think of as the prettiest I have ever seen. …

She was good at dancing. Everyday, we did Soul Train. I ran between the two swaying lines of classmates, trying to get it over with; Cynthia thrived on the attention. She loved the Jackson Five. One day, Ms. Pogue asked us to write a little composition, finishing the sentence: “If I could invite anyone to dinner, I would invite…” While I wrote an essay on Abraham Lincoln, Cynthia was getting Ms. Pogue’s help with the spelling of Michael and Jermaine.
There is a lot to say here—about my nerdiness and aspiration, about her love for the Jackson Five and my sense that I wouldn’t know what to say to them (let alone remember Marlon, Randy, and Tito’s names or tell them apart). (Funny to imagine being more comfortable with Lincoln than with Jermaine Jackson, but with Lincoln, I felt more confident: I had a lot of questions to ask him and I knew a lot more about him, having read the D’Aulaire biography dozens and dozens of times.) Lowell was a very integrated elementary school: no one race dominated and we thought and talked a lot about race all the time.

I also remember that Cynthia pinned me to the wall every day for a little over a week and kicked me in the butt. No matter which exit I used, she found me, gave me one kick, and walked away. Eventually, the teachers got control, and I was freed.

Even after elementary school, I remembered her—how pretty she was and her animus to me and all the confusing feelings connected with that, with knowing that I was smarter than she was, knowing (duh!) that just by my being white, things (what things I couldn’t have said) were easier for me than for her. So I was shocked to see her picture on the front page of the Seattle Times as a murder victim in 1982. There I was, in high school honors classes and this girl who had been such a part of my second grade life was dead.

I think back to that intimidating Soul Train line in second grade and remember loving Michael Jackson in spite of my fear of dancing in public. I think we all loved Michael Jackson. I still do.

Inauguration Celebration

I must admit, the Rick Warren debacle took the wind out of my sails. I tried to view it pragmatically, but the anger and pain in the voice of a good friend washed all those excuses away. Her sense of having been betrayed--just as she (a Hillary supporter) always knew she would be--, that same sense of defeat and betrayal among many of my friends, added to my own disappointment, were too hard to overcome for much of Christmas.

That flatness has faded. I am excited again. I read on Jezebel that Obama’s letter to his daughters in Parade magazine was unbelievably adorable; Girls Write Now’s Twitter feed confessed to tearing up. On the strength of that, I decided to read it. But it didn’t come up on my iPhone before the train drifted out of range. I read it aloud to my 6 y.o. daughter as part of her bedtime reading, tears streaming down my face. She thought it was nice, but beloved children are used to hearing our outsized hopes for them and their future. It’s the grown-ups, parents or not, who understand the odds against those dreams coming true and the faith it takes to commit yourself to working toward dreams in spite of those odds.

The next day, I asked her to write a letter to the President. She came up with a sweet, noir note that makes Jersey City sound like Dodge:
"Dear Presudint Obama I am vere happy that you are going to be our
Presudint love Olivia age 6
In a town wer crims are arownd evre cornr ples make those crims stop."
That is, in conventional spelling:
Dear President Obama, I am very happy that you are going to be our President….In a town where crimes are around every corner, please make theose crimes stop.”
I find this both odd and dear: not a letter for the ages, not really about a top pressing issue for the nation or even for our lives here. Still, I’ll stick it in an envelope with our fervent prayers for some of the promises of this election to be fulfilled.

I have been thinking since November about what this Obama victory means. Those thoughts are on two tracks: one is about race and identity, one is about competence and ideas. As for competence and ideas, I am moved and humbled and also angered to feel the tremendous relief of knowing that Obama’s election brings some grown-ups back to Washington. On the one hand, he calls us to be more engaged in our country. On the other, I can relax in the assurance that my President is not actively seeking ways to begin wars, to circumvent the Constitution, to ignore the entrenched problems of poverty.

As for race and identity, I am so relieved to move a new generation into the White House. It’s moving and meaningful to me, as the working mother of two little girls, to think that my concerns are not far at all from their concerns. For all that is incredible, outsized, and amazing about the Obamas, I have more in common with them than with any other First Family in U.S. history. Selfishly, this makes me hopeful that issues that matter to me will also naturally occur to him to work on. But I have not failed to notice race, of course. And that matters more than I can say with any great intelligence or insight.

I do however, think about two crucial facts of my elementary school days and how different they will be from now on: Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. Both celebrations, central to my schooling forever, were always accompanied by some grouchy, skeptical racist mumbling from somewhere in the back of the room. Now, think how that curriculum can change to shut up the doubters. Even in the most conservative corner of the most conservative state, the narrative has a happy and victorious chapter. This is not the whole story, by any means, but it’s a useful piece, especially for those children under ten: to be able to say, “….and then, 40 years after 1968, Barack Obama was elected President.”

I keep thinking about the shoebox diorama I lovingly made in my 4th grade class. Toilet paper rolls for tree trunks, moss growing on the north side of the tree, Harriet Tubman running sure-footedly through the forest. What is Mrs. Goings thinking this week? What would Harriet Tubman make of this? I was raised on hope. I’m a sentimental West Coast girl. I can’t say this moment surprises me, but it moves me deeply and I do think it changes the world for the good in profound ways.

What will my daughters’ dioramas look like?

The Untelling

I finished Tayari Jones’ The Untelling a couple weeks ago and it’s only the vagaries of making the transition from summer back to teaching that have kept me from writing up my enthusiasm for the book.

I knew from the combination of humor and passionate ethics on her blog that I would love her novel; her reading at the Girls Write Now benefit only confirmed that feeling. It was just a matter of getting to the book…

There is so much to love about this novel. Ariadne, the protagonist with the burdensome, ambitious name, is a young Spelman grad, drifting through her twenties. She doesn’t really know herself if her job teaching literacy for a community organization is a testament to her commitment to social justice or a symptom of her lack of ambition. She has a nice boyfriend, a locksmith and this character, Dwayne, is one of the book’s real pleasures: a lovely, lovely, settled young man, utterly confident of himself and his place in the world in all kinds of ways that unsettle Aria.

Tayari is really genius in writing about class: the scene in which Aria sits and watches as the pregnant teen from her literacy class does calligraphy to address envelopes for her roommates wedding invitations is so rich. A regular middle-class girl, newly graduated from college but without family money to draw on, Aria looks in wonderment at both women and sees clearly how strange each is to the other, and, most distressingly, how far she is from either. This seems utterly right to me: so often, we skate along assuming equality and suddenly someone mentions their sailboat, or that they’ve reached the time of the month when it’s down to Ramen and tuna, and we’re brought up short—or, worse, see that we’ve brought someone else up short. Again and again in The Untelling, Tayari captures those economic complexities and brilliantly articulates the specific prism of the young, gifted black women who’ve gone to Spelman and remained in Atlanta, expecting their Morehouse man, expecting a lot of themselves, and caught in a richly conflicted relationship to all the various neighborhoods of their city—this one too bourgie, that one too ghetto, this one uneasily gentrifying, that one stubbornly down at the heels.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you because I think you should read it yourself. I know it’s a few years old now, but seek it out. I gobbled it. It’s an important book, a lovely book, with a real plot, rich characters, and a deeply satisfying ending.