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Monday, August 15, 2016

Read Homegoing

We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture. - Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
If you're new here, (Hi! Thanks for coming! Please stay for longer than the average amount of time a new visitor stays, which according to the data, is less than 5 seconds! Please? Just, like, open my blog and then do your work and stuff in other tabs so that I at least think you're reading) you might be surprised that for someone who has attempted over the last few years to create an identity rooted in books, how little patience I have with the obsession over attaining said books.

I have read, at this point, countless justifications for the "unread library," which feels more to me like a justification for rampant capitalism than a real reverence for books. Tell me if there's a German word for this phenomenon.

For (hypothetical) example, you have a hobby, but rarely get to spend time pursuing this hobby. Let's say your hobby is playing the video games of your youth (again, this is hypothetical), but you rarely play these games. There's still that desire, though, but you get it while you're at work or when you're sitting in the waiting room or whatever. You can't play the games, so you spend your time looking at classified ads and eBay and you buy them. Buying the game fills that bucket a little, the one you want to fill by playing them. You get home and there are classic games waiting for you in a satisfying manila package and your bucket fills a bit more. You take it out and admire it and put it on a shelf and then go back to watching endless swimming races because it's the Olympics and there's something hypnotic about watching white, hairless people bobbing up and down in the water.

The existence of the (hypothetical) copy of Zelda II in a near-mint box on your shelf brings you a little bit of pleasure every time you pass it because it triggers a pleasant feeling of when you were a kid looking at Nintendo boxes and imagining the potential within. That kid is still in you, because every version of you for your whole life is in there somewhere. You know, though, that Zelda II is actually obtuse and bizarre and almost impossible. You are very aware that you will never, ever play this game longer than the few minutes you did when you first got it just to make sure the save worked. But you'll be danged if that shiny gold cartridge doesn't remind you of hanging out at your friend's house and seeing an NES for the first time, and saying, as Wesley does in the Princess Bride, "Dear God, what is that thing?"
Reminder: hypothetical

Whoa. That went somewhere, didn't it? Hmm.

Anyway, here's what we have learned about ourselves: as an unplayed Zelda II is but a piece of plastic surrounding a wafer-thin board of outdated electronics, a book on the shelf is but paper. It may be beautifully packaged. It may have a really rad cover. And holding it may bring you pleasure. Those are all things. Those are things that might tap into something deep within you and remind you of book fairs and old bookstores and birthdays and possibilities. There's something there. But guys, there's words in there.

And this was a long rambling introduction to get to the actual introduction to the actual point I want to make before I talk about Homegoing, which is a book by Yaa Gyasi that just killed me. I'll get to it in a sec, you guys.

Words seem, sometimes, to be not enough. When we get into Facebook arguments (you guys, I mean, not me. I'm pretty much above that stuff) we search for the perfect combination of words that will finally change someone's mind. Maybe they haven't seen this meme, we think. Like, do they know about Bengazi? Lemme tell them about Bengazi. But words seem to fail every time. We look back on the thread and we wonder how a calm discussion about Blendtec vs. Vitamix turned into a personal attack about what our kids were wearing in a picture on our Facebook from three years ago.

Here is a thought: maybe the way we are communicating is broken. When we struggle to find the right words, it might be worth considering that the words we are are using, while apt, do more harm than good. There are two versions of this: using words that you learned at school that you assume everyone understands, and using words or phrases that have been used so much as to lose their meaning, or have taken on a whole new meaning.

An example of the first is something I struggle with. I majored in ecology and kind of minored in economics (kind of means that I needed to graduate real bad and was going to lose financial aid, so I was one class short of an actual minor), so I use words and phrases like megafauna, carrying capacity, satisficing, and fungible way more than I should. I assume people know what an opportunity cost is, because I learned what it meant ten years ago and you should have, too, I guess?

So rule one of discussing something with someone who doesn't have your background? Just explain those terms without using them. For example, if someone is complaining about how there aren't as many deer where they hunt as there was when they were kids, you don't tell them that deer in that area have reached their carrying capacity. You say, "The quantity of deer that can successfully survive depends on how much food and space they have. Because of housing development they have less space and food now. So the range can support less deer. Sorry about that. Tell me about the new house your building on the hill, though."

The second is tougher. And here's where if we're going to be able to communicate better we're going to do it by kind of being sneaky. I grew up learning that feminists were bad. Like, inherently evil. One of the church leaders I grew up listening to identified the following groups as the biggest threat to the church: "homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals."

That's one way of looking at it. Here's another:
A lioness. She mates with her lion and he thinks the moment is about him when it is really about her, her children, her posterity. Her trick is to make him think that he is king of the bush, but what he does a king matter? Really, she is king and queen and everything in between.
So even though as I grew up I became more and more sympathetic to the feminist movement, I had a hard time adopting the word. It wasn't until I saw other people struggle with it that I thought I needed to call myself a feminist in order to take the stigma out of the word for people who value my opinion (I'm taking a big leap here in assuming that anyone values my opinion). The amazing Instagram account @doyouconsideryourselffeminist demonstrates the verbal gymnastics guys go through to show that while they care about equality, they don't want to claim the f word.

There are lots of words and phrases like this, it turns out. Some that are a combination of both. Calling something "rape culture" carries with it an assumption that everyone knows what that means, along with a lot of baggage. Same with "triggering." Some terms are common words that we think we all understand, like "consent," or "patriot," but carry a massive amount of built-in assumptions based on who is using it. "Politically correct" is one. "Social justice warrior" is another. Both of those sound like kind of good things, but have taken on a meaning that is generally derisive and have become insults. Here's a bad one: "blog."

I'm not saying not to use these words proudly, if that's how you define yourself. But just understand that each one of them may have unintended consequences. By trying to reclaim the word feminist, we are making it easier for other people to self-identify that way, which for me is a good thing. But we're also going to give the people we probably most want to reach an excuse to do the metaphorical version of what my grandpa does when he's finished with a conversation and turn down their hearing aid.

It's funny, because I was going to say that this works "on both sides" of the spectrum, which is hilarious. There aren't just two sides to anything, and it doesn't matter how many times that phrase gets repeated. It isn't even a spectrum. A spectrum implies that there is a left and a right way to look at everything when in fact there's four dimensions to every issue. Part of the problem we're dealing with is that we're being convinced that whatever the problem or issue or discussion, that there is a republican way to look at it and a democrat way to look at it and that's it. And that's wrong. DO YOU SEE WHAT WE'RE DEALING WITH HERE.

I got into an argument with a stranger not too long ago which went poorly from the get go. I used the phrase "white privilege." This made said stranger very angry and led to the common response to this phrase of "I work very hard and have never gotten anything in my life because I was white." Very quickly we were no longer talking about the issue at hand and instead I was asked if I was glad that police officers were being killed. How did this go so bad so quickly? Oh. Words. I drop the privilege bomb and on the other side of the computer someone says to themselves, "Oh, I'm dealing with one of these people," before cracking his or her hairy knuckles, taking a giant swig of moonshine, and pounding out a diatribe about rap music and thugs.

But guys, privilege is a thing. It's been quantified. Just like climate change is a thing that has been quantified. But you know what a lot of scientists do in Utah when they're trying to tell wildlife managers ways in which to try to prevent the mass extinction of our wildlife? They call it "extended drought." In order to get actual natural resource professionals to stop from turning down their (literal and metaphorical) hearing aids, they have to avoid loaded words. It feels like cowardice sometimes, but in the end what's better? That I took a stand and used the right words, or that seed mixes for restoration are better for wildlife habitat? I don't know, honestly, but the resiliency of our ecosystem isn't defined by what words we use. I imagine there are a lot of topics like that.

Here's the beautiful thing about Yaa Gyasi: she doesn't use any of the liberal education buzzwords, but man, does the message come out clear:
A little black child fighting in her sleep against an opponent she couldn't name come morning because in the light that opponent just looked like the world around her. Intangible evil. Unspeakable unfairness. Beulah ran in her sleep, ran like she'd stolen something, when really she had done nothing other than expect the peace, the clarity, that came with dreaming. Yes, Jo thought, this was where it started, but when, where, did it end?
Homegoing is just a uniquely powerful book. I'm floored that it exists and works as well as it does. Each chapter is essentially a short story, yet each story continues the lineage of two Asante sisters in Ghana. One is kidnapped in a battle and sold to slavery, the other marries an Englishman and stays in Ghana. From that point we watch as seven generations spiral out. We see the impacts of British colonialism on the homeland, and the results of importing human beings to be sold and traded like property in the United States.
What I know now, my son: Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see the evil in the world began as evil in your own home. I'm sorry you have suffered. I'm sorry for the way your suffering casts a shadow over your life, over the woman you have yet to marry, the children you have yet to have... When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.
I want to tell you everything that happens in this book. The stories of the beautiful, flawed, extremely human characters that we meet so briefly before being moved along to the next. Each chapter is a different person, and somehow Gyasi makes us love that person. We want a whole book just about him or her. But there is so much more to tell. Everyone's story is entwined with everyone else's. Throughout is a story of a people who were subjugated, and who are trying to live their life anyway. It's astonishing. Oh my gosh, you guys. This book.

Have you heard about neoslavery? I hadn't. For 80 years after the emancipation of slaves, free people were accused of things like refusing to cross the road when a white woman was approaching, or for vagrancy, then sentenced to decades in prison. But they didn't go to prison, instead they were leased to corporate mines. They were whipped. Many died.
You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.
Then there was Reverend George Lee, who was murdered because he registered to vote. Emmet Louis Till, who was accused of flirting with a white woman. He was taken from his bed and shot. The all-white jury found his killers innocent. He was 14 years old. Corporal Roman Ducksworth Jr., a military police officer, was ordered by a police officer off a bus that he was traveling in to visit his sick wife and then shot because he was believed to be a "freedom rider." These are all true stories.
“But the girl shook her head, clucked her tongue in distaste. 'If I marry him, my children will be ugly,' she declared.
That night, lying next to Edward in his room, Yaw listened as his best friend told him that he had explained to the girl that you could not inherit a scar. 
Now, nearing his fiftieth birthday, Yaw no longer knew if he believed this was true.”
Just because things are better does not mean they are fixed. Physical scars don't get passed down, but we're learning that emotional ones do. Even into the 3rd generation. From the article: "The metabolism of the offspring of stressed mice was also impaired: their insulin and blood-sugar levels were lower than in the offspring of non-traumatized parents. "We were able to demonstrate for the first time that traumatic experiences affect metabolism in the long-term and that these changes are hereditary," says Mansuy. The effects on metabolism and behaviour even persisted in the third generation."

That's just one aspect of this whole social, economical, political issue. I've talked about it a bunch. But the more I read, the more I think I need to. I know life is hard for everybody. That's why privilege is such a loaded word. White people: Yes, we all work hard. Most of us have dealt with some crazy hardship. We've faced losing our homes, lost our jobs, had to ask for help even though asking for help tears out a little bit of our souls every time. We've had to go to work with an uninsured car and we were real nervous when a police officer pulled up behind us and we prayed to make it to payday. We've watched our children suffer, or held a loved one's hand as they succumbed to cancer. It sucks. All of that sucks.

But imagine having to suffer through all of that, but also worry that if you have a broken taillight, there's a not insignificant chance you won't make it home. Did you read that link, by the way? Poor guy had been stopped by police officers FORTY-SIX TIMES. Of those, do you know how many of the violations were visible from outside of the car? Six. What's the reason for the other 40? An elementary school cafeteria worker had to pay the city $6,000 dollars in fines, and he was paying it. 

Think for a minute. Since you were 19 (when Philando Castile got his first traffic violation) to now, how many times have you been given an actual fine? Not how many times you've been pulled over, but when you had to go to the courthouse and pay. Is it 46? Not me. Have you been guilty of an actual violation (speeding, illegal u-turn, no proof of insurance, parked in the wrong place), and been given a warning? If you're me, it's a lot. Guys, that's all privilege is. Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

I didn't know that I had kidney disease and I've had it for at least 18 years. When my doctor found it, did I shake my head and say "all organs matter?" I did not. Doy, you guys. Of course my heart matters, too, or lungs, or pancreas or whatever. But my heart wasn't under attack and my kidney was getting frickin hosed. I needed to start listening to my kidney.

Words are important.

The words in Homegoing are especially important. It looks pretty on your bookshelf, but it's not going to do crap for you on the bookshelf.

Read Homegoing.