Monday, February 26, 2007

Am I the Racist Here?

Reading books written by black authors, especially female ones, disturbs me more often than it doesn't. Because while some black authors are content to wholly blame whites for racism, many black women writers point also at the malice in the hearts of blacks.

Maryse Conde, in Crossing the Mangrove, ignores almost entirely (for the first couple of chapters at least) the racism of whites, concentrating on the fury of malice produced by the black community. And what disturbs me is I find myself murmuring, "You're right about the malice." Especially during Mira's commentary on the males of her community, and the defiant, hateful way they look at her because they are ashamed of their own nightly fantasies regarding her. A man cannot respect in person a woman whom he has debauched in his head. Because I am a white girl, friendly and full of smiles, I meet this same brand of malice more often than I ever meet genuine friendliness. It is a basic racism combined with a powerful imagination running in the wrong direction, and so I politely do not mention it (because then I would be called a racist for noticing).

But it never quite seems to fade. Black men cannot be colorblind around white women--if they are ugly, then they are spurned because they are ugly; if they are beautiful, they are spurned for beauty. If they are average, like myself, there is only a sliver of hope. I cannot win with them. Some black women I can converse with just as I would any other woman. I find in them the same freedom I feel in my own soul, and so rarely am allowed to be free that way. Talk with them is no sweeter than with any other kind-souled person, but the memory of it is bittersweet, for I wonder as I remember what it is that keeps others from being that way.

It is clear that the tension between the black and white races is still strong in pockets, a nasty surprise for people who aren't expecting it. I dislike it as intensely as I dislike drugs, elitism, legalism, or fanaticism of other sorts. I think people who fall deep into those waters are accepting a craziness that is slimy and putrefying. If I think like this, can I truly be as nice as my words? Is the willingness to bridge the gap with friendly or sweet conversation on my own part enough? Or will I be damned for noticing, and resenting it. After all, hate and racism are just resentments which have been let run free too long.

It is one thing to be insulted or shunned by someone who is not much different from you--it's almost amusing actually. It is entirely different to be insulted (even if the insulter is merely using their eyes and tone for it) by someone who (a) is doing it because he sees a vast difference between you and (b) sees no need to translate that into an ambassadorship, i.e. a reason to act well instead of shoddily. It is almost the same as the rude treatment one receives in a foreign country, as if by speaking to someone you have entered a world not your own (even if it most certainly IS your own, and you weren't raised very differently or far from each other).

I was bullied, threatened, and robbed by black and white girls alike in school. I see that kindness or roughness is the same coming from either race. There was only one exception: Doogie Golatt. He was everyone's clown, and for some reason didn't feel the need to be anything but devilishly teasing and sweet to anyone else the whole time I knew him. I'm sure he had his moments, but I never saw them. We weren't that close, I was too far behind the line or something.

Maybe that's what they're trying to tell me. Stick to your own people, stop expecting so much. But ironically enough, that IS racism!!
I wonder if we will ever graduate away from these inadvertent messages of punishment and snobbery. And's nothing new you know. People will hate themselves, no matter what you say or do.

Even I hate myself sometimes. Maybe Heaven is as simple as not ever hating yourself. Don't you think that streets of gold are incomparable to the promise of never hating again? Hate's this disease that begets itself.

It's all very well to say what hate is. How do you get away from it?

Well. I get away from it through the joy of others. Pam certainly shares joy enough.

I get through it with gadgets that delight me with their delicate, clever uses.

I get through with music that brings me back, brings me back to moments I didn't know I would treasure quite this much. And every time I remember them, I imbue them with more happiness than before.

I get through it all with your smile, or your hand on my shoulder, your arm around me briefly in hello and parting.

I get by on the jokes of my family.

I get by on my father's smile, which is so beautiful.

I get through on my mother's delight in little things like a cream or candle that smells so very good, or a new recipe.

I get through it when my brother and I prowl each other's rooms at night when the world is down to us, and even sleep is avoiding us. I get by on the conversations he shares with me in a heartsick way sometimes, and though we are cast down, we are cast down together. We brush each other off, and realize that we're not so far down as we were. Somehow.

I get by on the green woods around my house, and the midnight gaze of stars.
I recover surrounded by books I have read, who promise to be just as wonderful or horrible whenever I like. I get by on books I haven't read yet who promise a new adventure, once I can't stir myself beyond the room or into a textbook.
I get by on submitted a finished bit of work, and knowing that I've done the best I had to do.
I get by in my soft, sweet-smelling bed, and the steady gazes of felines support me with their enigmas. I get by on calendars which assure me that, as far as they know, there are other days coming, with nothing written on them, no certain future lying in wait, but a misty one that slides in around me and enfolds me in its coolness, touching my skin in the morning with newness.

I get by on the abbey, and her bells and beauty. I don't allow myself many visits, and it has only grown more precious over the years.

I get by on illustrations of children's tales, on silly rhymes and the way my mother reads them. They live with her breath.

I get by on cinnamon, and spice, and everything nice. On ice-water and red wine, on my dad's barbeque and my brother's grin. On the way my mother cocks her head to the side, then props her head on one palm when she's thinking about what she'll say next, or just digesting what someone else is saying. Or when she's had more than one glass of wine, the way she looks at candleflame as if it were showing her all the happy things that got her through, and maybe some sad ones too.

And I know I'm not alone, which is much different from how I felt living an hour or three away from my family, in the world of concrete that is the city. An ocean of grey, and the green that desperately pushed its way through here and there enough to make you turn your eyes away in pain. I'm not alone, and my needs are honest ones. And I remember the God I loved, and tenderly draw myself into the things I loved about Him, in the hopes that one day I won't need proof, that clever satire won't pull me so easily from good things. That I'll find the balance between divine law and human understanding.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reader Response -- Remembering Babylon

Remembering Babylon

I loved the writing I found here, with the below quotes especially. Malouf seemed to be emphasizing the pressure that the world inside our heads exerts on the physical world we perceive. Sherry Turkle said, in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet :
I have argued that Internet experiences help us to develop models of psychological well-being that are in a meaningful sense postmodern: They admit multiplicity and flexibility. They acknowledge the constructed nature of reality, self, and other. The Internet is not alone in encouraging such models.
Gemmy seems to be a complex combination of simpleton and shrewdness. The difference between him and both of the cultures he finds himself half-in is that he does not know how to unlock himself. The point of being a bridge is to create a road between two societies, right? You must show each society the advantages that can be had from alliance, then make it possible. The easiest way to do that is to demonstrate one's own usefulness. The town didn't recognize a need for Gemmy, and he contented himself with only showing his skills to those who were not influential, the night-wandering, people-shy minister, and a kid in the community. His work for Jock was unskilled labor, anyone could do it. This added to the willingness of the community to keep him outcast, both communities actually. The aborigines saw him as a drain on resources, somewhat.

The point is, Gemmy was more ghost than person. More spirit than man. His affect on others was as subtle as any vision. Indeed, once Jock took him in, he was suddenly sensitive to many other things in his life. As a character to whom things are done, instead of one who does things, Jock got to see the true natures of his fellow civilized men. When a person has thrown himself down at your feet, it takes enormous strength of character not to walk all over them. The fact that Gemmy does not speak beyond a few quotes adds to his ghost-like status. He thus is more like a defining birthmark to his adoptive family instead of a separate entity. So the novel is not so much about an isolated man and his affect on the community as it is about a fork in the way of a civilization. While the aborigines were largely unchanged by Gemmy's presence, the European settlement would have been vastly different without him, wouldn't they?

A question haunts me. What does it mean that the Europeans allowed Gemmy's presence to change them all somewhat, whereas the aborigines seemed able to isolate and neutralize his affect on them? Janet became a nun who studied bees, and Lachlan became a politician. They seemed suited for these things even without Gemmy's influence. But there was a...settling that came into every member of the McIvor family due to the things done to Gemmy. Janet received a sort of inner peace with herself during the evening when Gemmy was taken and abused, because of the moment she shared with her mother that Lachlan did not. Lachlan was then affected because he realized that there was something he wasn't included in. Every character was faced with a new part of themselves that they had to come to grips with, and lay to rest. The fact that they DO it leaves me wondering if they would have felt as complete without Gemmy's intrusion on their lives.

Although Gemmy's influence matures the other characters in the novel, he himself remains unchanged and a bit incomplete. The Gemmy at the beginning of the novel and at the end are not appreciably different. He does not create or grow himself in the way that the other characters do. He doesn't portray himself purposefully, as people do on the internet. We draw optimal pictures of ourselves constantly to each other, but Gemmy never did. He let others draw him any way they wished, and what they ended up drawing was a creature of their worst fears. They drew him as scapegoat, in a very Christian mentality, whereas the aborigines seemed to just live around him, as if he were a pet.

lady madonna

Key Quotes

Gemmy is first shown at the fence between the European settlement, and the aborigine lands, about to fall onto the white side while three European children watched.

"The creature or spirit in him had spoken up, having all along had the words in there that would betray him and which, when they came hooting out of his mouth, so astonished him: Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object."(p.33)

Gemmy contemplating Janet:

"She was a puzzle to him. He could never be sure what she was thinking. He knew the boy's thoughts because he wanted them known. His power lay in your recognizing that he possessed it. It was a power that belonged to him because he was a boy; because one day, the authority he had claimed in raising the stick to his shoulder would be real. The girl's power was entirely her own. She needed no witness to it."(p. 36)

"He was a parody of a white man."(p.39)

The settlers:

"For at any moment--and this was the fact of the matter--they might be overwhelmed."(p.42)

"What you fix your gaze on is the little hard-backed flies that are crawling about in the corner of its bloodshot eyes and hopping down at intervals to drink the sweat of its lip. And the horror it carries to you is not just the smell, in your own sweat, of a half-forgotten swamp-world going back deep in both of you, but that for him, as you meet here face to face in the sun, you and all you stand for have not yet appeared over the horizon of the world, so that after a moment all the wealth of it goes dim in you, then is canceled altogether, and you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you so far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is that you may never go back. It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly and the encounter was an embrace."(p.43)

Gemmy's influence on the McIvor spouses.

Was he changed? He saw now that he must be, since they were as they had always been and he could not agree with them. When had it begun? When they agreed to take Gemmy in. That was the simple answer, since it was from that moment that some area of difference, of suspicion, had opened between them. But tht emore he thought of it, the clearer it seemed that the difference must have always existed, since he too was as he had always been; only he had been blind to it, or had put it out of his mind from an old wish to be accepted - and why not? - or a fear of standing alone. He had never been a thinker, and he did not now become one, but he began to have strange thoughts. Some of them were bitter. They had to do with what he saw, now that he looked, was in the hearts of men - quite ordinary folks like himself; he wondered that he had not seen it before. What the other and stranger thoughts had to do with he did not know. It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always ina communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone. Wading through waist-high grass, he was surprised to see all the tips beaded with green, as if some new growth had come into the world that till now he had never seen or heard of. When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brough to the scene, was a lightness in him - that was what surprised him - like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him, but was also exhilarating; for a moment he was entirely happy. But he wondered at himself. A grown man of forty with work to do, standing dreamily stilled, extending his hand, palm downwards, over the backs of insects, all suspended in their tiny lives in a jewel-like glittering. Another time, by the creek, he looked up, casually he thought, and saw a bird. It was balanced on a rounded stone dipping its beak into the lightly running water, its grey squat body as undistinguished and dusty looking as a sparrow's (but there were no sparrows here), its head grey, with a few untidy feathers. He was sitting, himself, on a larger stone, also rounded, eating the last of a sandwich, his boots in mud. But what his stilled blood saw was the bird's beak drawing long silver threads out of the heart of the water, which was all a tangle of threads, bunched or running; and his boots had no weight, neither did his hand with the half-bitten lump of bread in it, nor his heart, and he was filled with the most intense and easy pleasure: in the way the air stirred the leaves overhead and each leaf had attached itself to a twig, and whirled yet kept hold; and in the layered feathers that made up the grey of the bird's head; and at how long the threads of water must be to run so easily from where they had come from to wherever it was, imaginably out of sight, that they were going - tangling, untangling, running free. And this time too the intense pleasure he felt had a disturbing side. The things he had begun to be aware of, however fresh and innocent, lay outside what was common, or so he thought; certainly, since he could have found no form in which to communicate them, outside words. (p.108-109)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Lee Smith's "Artists"

The lyrical descriptions in this book brought me way back, deep into the memories of when I was a child and my great-grandmother was still alive.

I saw again what looked like a cavern of a house; her tall wooden house in New Orleans, the way the wood floors seemed to refuse to carry heat even when you'd been sitting on them for hours, the geometric toys, catching doodlebugs in the tiny plot of patio with the two trees I remember. One day when I visited with my aunt and mother, my aunt reached up to the trees that hung almost over the street, brushing the cars at rest beneath them with purple, pink, and white petals, spreading pollen. She took down a bud, and said, "It's a fairy purse. Look," and I looked as she pinched it open along the cracks. "Inside is a spare dress," as she spoke she pulled out the unbloomed flower petals, "and some fairy gold." She let the seeds roll in her palm as my cousin and I watched, fascinated. Aunt Mary had never really left Girl Scouts, and this was probably one of the things she learned in that community.

The grandmother in the story dressed much like my great-grandmother. Her jewelry was very fine, it was hard to tell that they were paste. My mother gave me a lot of it for costume jewelry, when Little Mother died, because it was paste, and outdated, and mostly brooches which my mother would never wear. I have only seen her wear one pin in my life--it was her National Boards Certification pin, which she worked very hard for; very small and plain in comparison to these delicate things, and yet so much more important.

I also was gifted with much of the delicate satin lingeries, gowns, robes, pretty things that were fit for any queen. Dress-up was so much fun because of those gracefully draping, soft folds of cloth. I was every princess I had ever loved, stroking greedy fingers against the silken robes, even though I didn't really think I looked good in them. Looking good wasn't the point anyway. It was stepping into the gowns of a duchess, and pretending to be someone important reveling in private moments filled only with beautiful, fine things.

My paternal grandmother is the one who cared for roses, though. My mother and I still page through the Jackson-Perkins catalog looking at the new strains of flowers, especially the roses. The ones named after presidents and exotic places were the ones I always felt drawn to. But after all, my family were all too busy to do much caring for these delicate flowers. We were better with the Christmas cactus, which liked to be left alone to make its own way. Roses are beautiful, but even a cat is more forgiving.

I don't suppose I was very old when Little Mother was alive. My memories seem to stop a few feet from the floor, and though I try to remember whether there was art on the walls, or decorations of any kind, I cannot recall. I only remember the wood floors, the doodlebugs, and the huge-seeming white-covered bed with a tiny figure in the middle, speaking to my mother. My mother has the rare gift of giving the speaker her undivided attention, and the even rarer one of not saying everything she knows until the time is just about right. I can easily see how she must have been a favored granddaughter, though I can't comprehend how she could care so much about looking pretty. I can't recall a time when I have ever cared about fixing myself up. To me, pretty was something you either found in yourself, or you didn't. It wasn't something you had to re-affix every day; and once you found it in someone you didn't have to worry about losing it. Sometimes I feel a flash of guilt that my significant other doesn't have a really classy-looking dame to flaunt, like my dad has.

Everywhere my parents go, they light up rooms with their dynamic personalities, and the dynamics of their relationship. I see this in my relationships too, more as potential than actual fact. So perhaps "classy" and "pretty" are less about makeup, hair, and the texture of your clothes than the quality of the threads binding you to those around you.