“It is on the day that we can conceive of a different state of affairs that a new light falls on our troubles and our suffering and that we decide that these are unbearable” - Jean-Paul Sartre, 1956, pp. 434-435.
Matt de la Peña in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech wrote about self-definition and grace. He talked about the tangle of ethnicity and race that underscores the tenuousness of belonging and not. He opened and closed his speech quoting Denis Johnson, author of Jesus' Son: Stories who ended this collection of short stories with the voice of a recovering drunk and dope addict--the narrator of "Beverly Home"--who tells us boldly, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us" (p. 133).
I think about that line--the idea of belonging, about being a "people like us" and its relationship to the power of the imagination. What we can imagine can be. But how do we imagine that which we have not experienced? That which is beyond the scope of our present selves? Maxine Greene has so eloquently written about the need for us to become (other)wise and how engagements with literature and the arts helps us to do so. de la Peña credits reading basketball magazines and later novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others with becoming an author. He tells us even when he was reading Basketball Digest, he was "in it for the narrative."
Now think about all that nonsense about text type percentages school children must read that David Coleman, the Common Core architect, foisted on United States schools. (You remember the set of standards that were going to save the world). For de la Peña, like so many others, it was narrative that resonated. Narrative that informed and inspired, alongside later reading works by authors with whom he shared a common heritage. Seeing ourselves in the stories we read helps us to open windows and peer at lives we don't know as well. Reading literature helps us to develop our imaginations.
Narrative always matters and perhaps these days when Black men are being killed at the hands of some police and the murder of police is increasing--our need to understand, even appreciate other has never been so necessary.
Engaging with literature and the arts opens us to seeing not only what we are and presently are not, but also such engagements inspire us to more generously map what we are becoming and might become. Other stands apart until we have language to name and isn't this the role of the arts to help us name Other and to find a foothold in what might first feel unfamiliar? It was Greene who wrote, "The arts, it has been said, cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world."
Hold on to that thought for a moment.
I'm mulling all this over as I read de la Peña's speech miles away from my home. It is late in Paris and the news of two more deaths of young black men at the hands of White police officers--this time in Minnesota and Baton Rouge and the deaths of five white Dallas police officers at the hand of a single African American male shooter who we are told wanted kill white people have been splashed across the French daily newspapers. All of these deaths and aggressions have me thinking more and more about home and race and the almost mythical narrative that resurges each and every time there is a death that is labeled, race-driven. The narrative offered says, we are a nation divided as if white and black represented the totality of definitions of selves in the US and that we neatly divide by those imposed racial lines. We are far more complicated than white and black. Such thinking locks us into situating the world as a duality. Choose X and you cannot choose Y.
That is the first myth and a dangerous one for it situates Other as being something permanent. I think that's what de la Peña is getting at in his speech. Other is malleable, changing. He tell us,
When I sat down to write the text of Last Stop on Market Street, this troubling mindset was rattling around in my brain. Nana, the wise grandma in the book, is urging CJ to see the beauty of his surroundings, yes, but she’s also steering him toward something much more fundamental. She’s teaching CJ to see himself as beautiful. To see himself as worthy. “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”I love that language--the "steering him toward something much more fundamental" especially these days after more deaths have rocked what we may have mistaken as a foundation. We need not be built on the social constructs of race. We can be better than such narrow definitions of self and other. These divisions are fueled by fear and ignorance. These murders show a crumbling facade. But it is not the permanency of race at odds here, but rather the shifting stance of Other that we need to understand and embrace. Some police officers, like others in the country, when confronting young Black men and women read these entanglements with 'Other' as a threat. The lone shooter who executed five police officers read whiteness and police as threats.
History tells us that there has always been an Other and there will always be someone cast as other. How we define and attend to Other matters--as does our willingness and capacity to become (other)wise. I believe nothing is as important as this ongoing commitment to developing ourselves. I want to suggest here that engagements with literature and the arts represent a central way to understand and even embrace Other. These initial steps can help us to identify the institutionalize nature of racism that (in)forms all of these grotesque acts of violence and motivate us to take the necessary steps to reduce and end systematic racism. Privilege is so hard to recognize when it is what normal most feels like. It hard to see privilege as a negative force when you benefit from what those privileges afford. But let's not mistake the connections between racial privilege and racial violence. These acts of violence are rarely limited to personal matters, but rather are fueled by what is systematically learned. If the only way Other is known is through media portrayals, racist ideologies and ignorance--then killings will continue at this alarming rate. Black children, men and women will continue to be murdered by the very people sworn to protect. Retaliation for these deaths by killing police officers will continue, if not, increase. The divisions will grow deeper, more permanent and become a truth we think is rational.
We must want for more and act--not on racial lines, but as a people invested in love.
We have new narratives to learn--narratives like the one that powered de la Peña's journey from a "[a] half-Mexican hoop head" to imagining himself an honored author. His work as author tells us that he did imagine "that there might be a place for people like us." He imagined this and made it so. To conjure what we don't know or feel we can't have requires us to exercise individual and collective imaginations in order to reshape the stories we have been taught that are so very wrong. We must first say out loud that these stories are not our truth.
African American people are not threats.
White police officers are not murderers.
Yes, in every set there is the exception, but it is not the exception that we need to use as definition. This just keeps us isolated, not talking, not putting our hands and hearts together to solve these matters of the greatest importance. These murders cannot continue. Black men, women, and children must be able to walk about their lives without the threat of death. Police must be honored, loved even, and respected. When we step into the shoes of other, we are afforded the rare opportunity to re-see the world and this so often fuels our desire to act with love--a force far greater than hate and ignorance.
Seeing Other shifts the world and during such shifts, we may feel terror and want to abort this work of routing out racism from our institutions--from the very narratives we teach ourselves and our children. I'm reminded of an image that happens at the beginning of "Beverly Home." Johnson's main character observes,
"And sometimes a dust storm would stand off in the desert, towering so high it was like another city— a terrifying new era approaching, blurring our dreams" (pp. 137-138).I think about this image and how it resonates--how the terror of what is new, unnamed and unfamiliar can be unsettling and alarming. It can scare us and make us want to turn away and blindly continue to blame someone else for all that this makes us feel. I think here about the dreams we have been taught to honor and know we need new dreams. We must learn how to name Other as human, as sacred friend, as most precious being we would lay our lives down to save. We must see what privilege costs and be willing to equalize opportunity and income. We have so much to gain.
The thing I have most learned from grieving this last year, is that grief is an equalizer par none. Rob's death has taught me the power of love in ways I know to be true. My capacity to love is without limit--just like you. It also has taught me that grief is no stranger. Grief recognizes all and does not tiptoe around others based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or income. Grief strips us bear and without our finery perhaps it is easier to recognize ourselves as kin.
We all matter. We are lovable and deserve to be loved, respected, and safe-guarded. I know that the grief in the ensuing months and years that these survivors of those murdered must now live with will be the most apt expression of what it means to be human. We are all frail and strong in the face of death.
But we need not experience such awful loss in order to act. To act just takes our will to rebut the crappy and dangerous narratives that are already multiplying that recast Other as evil, as wrong, as non-human.
Let's tell new stories. Let's tell them loud especially in the presence of lies. Let's tell these stories consistently and with great care. We can do this.