Category Archives: Politics and Culture

A Racist Atticus and a Mess of a Book? Bring It On.

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I was skeptical when news first broke that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-shelved novel, would be published. Lee has famously refused to let her manuscript, written before To Kill a Mockingbird, ever see the light of day.

Why did she change her mind? Did she change her mind? Given her advanced age and failing health, people are concerned she’s being taken advantage of. While I know people who can’t get past those concerns, I’m willing to proceed as a reader; an independent investigation involving two Alabama agencies has found her competent to make decisions about her work.

Now as the book is being released and reviews begin to surface, people are nervous for a new reason: apparently this novel does not measure up to the near-perfection of Mockingbird. And perhaps more heartbreakingly, neither does Atticus. It seems unthinkable that a man who would single-handedly take on the Alabama justice system on behalf of an innocent black man would attend a Klan meeting, or denounce the Supreme Court who decided Brown v. Board of Education.

But I say: bring it on.

Don’t get me wrong. I condemn the sin of racism, collectively, individually and in my own heart. I don’t relish an Atticus Finch who harbored paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans in the South, or fretted that white schools would decline in quality once they were integrated.

I don’t delight in such a portrayal of Atticus, and will likely read the book with a sick feeling. But I suspect 2015 America needs this Atticus. I’ll be reading the book, not as a novel, but as an historical document. Go Set a Watchman gives us a peek into the mind of a young, inexperienced writer who would go on to write the Great American Novel. But more importantly, it will give us a glimpse into our own soul as a nation.

We’re struggling with a legacy of racism in this country. Condoleezza Rice, no bleeding-heart liberal herself, has called racism our country’s “birth defect.” The last several months have revealed to many of us what others have known their whole lives. So now what? We need to be talking to one another about this legacy. It’s painful and important.

But how? We can start by being honest about our history, ourselves, and yes, our heroes. The problem is, we like our heroes untouchable. We want Atticus to have “cute” flaws, like exasperation over Scout’s mischief, or a nervous fumbling with his eyeglasses as he shoots a rabid dog. But Atticus, at least as Harper Lee envisioned him, was a complicated, deeply conflicted man. How do his (considerable) blind spots in Watchman influence how we understand the whole character?

In my tradition, and many other Christian traditions, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe in the communion of saints.” What do we mean by that? Presbyterians don’t have an elaborate process of canonization like the Catholic Church. Rather we believe in a “great cloud of witnesses,” people who’ve gone before us who have shown us what it means to live faithfully and well. We call them saints, even though not a single one was perfect—indeed, many of them were deeply flawed indeed. And yet occasionally, they got it right. Beautifully, shiningly right.

Atticus may still be that kind of saint for us—not because of his racist tendencies in Watchman, but despite them. If it were not so, would there be hope for any of us? Our ability to succeed and thrive as a nation depends on imperfect people coming together around a painful conversation and movement: warts, flaws, biases and all. I have them; apparently Atticus had them too.

As Dorothy Day has said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” An Atticus as preserved in Mockingbird is so perfect as to be unreachable. An Atticus whose story straddles the two novels is like us. And in aspiring to be our best selves, we can be like his best self. When the heavy machinery of upbringing and personal comfort and culture grinds against what’s right, we can stand up. We must.

~

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What Marriage Equality Is Actually About

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Say what you will about Justice Antonin Scalia–he is colorful. In his dissent to today’s opinion on marriage equality, he wrote this:

Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.

(By the way Mr. Justice–the 20th century called and wants its examples back. Hippies? Really?)

Yes, there is a moral beauty and spiritual resonance in what happened today. But let’s be focused and clear about what this is about. It is about equal rights under the law.

In the words of Jim Obergefell, the man whose name will forever be linked to today’s decision:

Couples across America may now wed and have their marriage recognized and respected no matter what state they call home. No other person will learn at the most painful moment of married life, the death of a spouse, that their lawful marriage will be disregarded by the state. No married couple who moves will suddenly become two single persons because their new state ignores their lawful marriage.

Ethan and Andrew can marry in Cincinnati instead of being forced to travel to another state.

A girl named Ruby can have an accurate birth certificate listing her parents Kelly and Kelly.

Pam and Nicole never again have to fear for Grayden and Orion’s lives in a medical emergency because, in their panic, they forgot legal documents that prove both mothers have the right to approve care.

Cooper can grow into a man knowing Joe and Rob are his parents in all ways emotional and legal.

I can finally relax knowing that Ohio can never erase our marriage from John’s death certificate, and my husband can now truly rest in peace.

It is so ordered.

~

And a blast from the past: the piece I wrote for TIME almost exactly a year ago when the Presbyterian Church (USA) made the move to marriage equality.

Image: states where gay marriage is legal. Source.

The World Is Still Beautiful

Last night I posted this to Facebook with the caption

It’s a beautiful time to be alive.

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I posted it at 8:30 p.m.

Of course I didn’t know that at that moment, a young white man was sitting in an iconic black church, words of love and liberation washing over him, calculating just the right time to open fire on people whose only crime was being black in America.

It was a lynching.

As of this writing, my Facebook post had 162 likes. Many of them came in after the events in Charleston. I’m grateful for every one of those likes, because I have a hard time believing it’s a beautiful time to be alive. I’m so tired of the violence that I can scarcely even muster the energy to be outraged.

And if I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, I can only imagine what African-American friends and colleagues are feeling. A friend shared that her church is having a meeting to see about hiring a security guard, which they would share with the church across the street. I don’t need to tell you the racial makeup of those congregations.

162 people clicked a button in agreement that it’s a beautiful time to be alive., which is such a small thing, but I needed every one of those affirmation.

Because it’s true. We must fight back with beauty.

But the beauty we employ cannot be a soft, Thomas Kinkade beauty. No, we need beauty with an edge and a spine. We need Mark Rothko beauty. We need Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes and Miles Davis.

My friend Denise Anderson wrote this post. Read it and suit up.

It is a beautiful time to be alive. But only if we make it beautiful. And we have to. We just have to.

Good Morning, #Baltimore

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My middle child sings this little bit from Hairspray every time we go to Charm City—our most recent visit was just three days ago. Our family knows Baltimore primarily as tourists and day-trippers, and I’ve visited there in a professional capacity many times. So while it’s not our city, and there’s a lot of it we’ve never seen, we have a lot of affection for it.

I don’t make a habit of commenting on current events as they’re unfolding. I always feel other people say things so much better than I could. But my next planned post was going to be a muffin recipe, and… no. Just no.

Hugh Hollowell wisely advised well-intentioned people (especially white people) who don’t know what to say to amplify the words of others, especially people of color. So I’m going to amplify the words of Derrick Weston, whose post deserves to be read widely—and judging from Facebook shares, it is:

Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men. That is not a justification for violence. At my core, I believe that violence is the ultimate dehumanizing act and yet when individuals and communities have been on the receiving ends of all sorts of violence – physical violence, economic violence, racial violence, psychological violence – those individuals and communities assert their own humanity by declaring they will no longer be trampled. That is what you are seeing in the streets of Baltimore tonight.

I hear his anger and weariness, but also his wisdom in trying to see the big picture. (Read it all.) I often want to ask him what I want to ask LGBT friends who respond graciously to people who hurl the most hateful language at them:

Do you ever get weary of being the bigger person? 

And yet, they are embodying the change they wish to see. I’m thankful for that.

Anyway. If you only have time for one post, stop reading mine immediately and read Derrick’s.

But if you have time for the disjointed thoughts of a white woman 75 minutes south of Baltimore, here goes.

I’m thinking a lot about language. I’m remembering Hurricane Katrina, when a photo of black individuals taking things from an abandoned store was captioned with the word “looting” and a similar photo of white people doing the same thing was captioned “taking.” I’m thinking of the many examples of wanton destruction that take place when one sports team beats another one that get framed in completely different ways than what happened in Baltimore yesterday. (See Black People Riot Over Injustice; White People Riot Over Pumpkins and Football.)

I’m thinking about use of the word “thugs.” Robert told me some stories just the other day about the most disgusting sexism at the highest levels of Silicon Valley. When women would complain, HR would respond “He’s the CEO, he can do what he wants.”  Thanks in part to the culture these executives created, the number of women in high tech is lower than it was just a few years ago. These men operate without any regard for decency, or in many cases the rule of law.

They are thugs.

When we use that term for some people and not for others, it says something about us.

In college at Rice there was a sociology professor, Chad Gordon (may he rest in peace), who taught a popular series of classes that got nicknamed “_________ with Chad.” My husband took TV with Chad, for example. There was also Death with Chad. (Of course the most popular was Sex with Chad.)

He also taught a class on the psychology and sociology of group dynamics, nicknamed Crowds with Chad. I wish I’d taken that class. Perhaps it would help me understand the dynamics of this situation. Protests have gone on for days and have been overwhelmingly peaceful, with police seeking to contain the crowd rather than subdue it. And yet even that peaceful atmosphere could not neutralize a smaller group of primarily young people intent on violence yesterday.

A Crowds with Chad class might help me understand the crowds on the Internet, where people feel free to call people “animals” and say “run ’em over.” It’s a mob mentality out there. I’ve seen it said so many times since #BlackLivesMatter began that if people would just follow police instructions, they’d still be alive today. Since when is resisting arrest or running away from police a capital crime?

A Facebook friend, a Presbyterian church elder in Tennessee, posted the following on Facebook:

#FreddieGray matters.

America, your double standards are showing. This land was looted & its inhabitants murdered or displaced. We have consistently used lethal force to achieve political ends from the onset. Violence is & has been the American way. I am all about the #Peace, but if the youth of Baltimore stop rioting & practice nonviolence as self-defense instead of looting, they would be way more ethical & revolutionary than every role model they have in this messed-up world.

He took it down within hours because the vitriol got completely out of hand. I happen to agree with the sentiment, but even if I didn’t—how does bullying someone into silence on Facebook help anything?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the two-part series This American Life produced called Cops See It Differently. Please listen to it. It’s an important two hours of audio. It will open your eyes to the many good law-enforcement officers who take their duty seriously to protect and to serve, and the difficult position so many of them are in. (Guess what? Pretty much everybody would rather be taken to the hospital than to jail. Wouldn’t you? Unfortunately that means it’s very difficult to discern which detainees truly “can’t breathe.”)

The show may also leave you feeling very, very discouraged. It did me. The bridge we still need to cross in order to reach one another, or even just understand one another, is just so long… and riddled with bodies, both physical and metaphorical.

By the way, many people have claimed that the police problem is a matter of a “few bad apples.” I hope they are extending the same courtesy of nuance to protesters in Baltimore, most of whom were peaceful, and many of whom are taking the day off to clean up the mess someone else made. They do this because they love their city and want to do their part.

How are we, how am I, being the change we wish to see?