between books: what I see

Note: this writing includes talk of my racism, which is upsetting enough to me. I can’t imagine how it might feel to read it from the outside and know I’ve had these thoughts. It’s also entirely possible I’ve presented them in ways I will regret once I learn more. Please read with caution.

A few things have happened since I embarked on Project Poetry 2017. One is that I am literally seeing Black people differently. That’s ridiculous, but it’s true. Of course the pathway itself is the same: from person in front of me to optic nerve to visual cortex to where in my brain that person goes. Nothing has changed about my visual cortex. Something has changed about where I file images in my head, though, and what those images signify.

As a former teacher of students with visual impairments, I must insist that my mental concepts for what hits my retinas do count as part of how I see.

I wrote this in July 2016:

Shortly after, when I was first trying to do something about the problem of how I see race, a friend of mine challenged me to start making up details for every Black person I saw. Plays chess. Teaches third grade. Painter. Has a new puppy. I grew up around so few Black people that I mostly had media images to map the people I saw onto, and most of my media images for Black people sucked. I told her about the details I filled in without meaning to: threat; plays basketball; yells at kids. Those are horrible details. I hated that they’re what I had on file, but they were. After she made that suggestion, I started doing it. I literally made up stories for the Black people I saw at the grocery store in my head. I reported to her later, shamefaced, that I was able to come up with stories about friendships and teaching and caring for babies, but I was having a hard time automatically filling in anything about creativity or intelligence. She raised her eyebrows and went, “Ah. Isn’t that interesting.”

A few days later we were walking down the street in our mostly white hometown and a Black man crossed in front of us on a bicycle. She nudged me. “See that scientist riding by?”

Project Poetry was timely, then. Midway through 2016 I was aware of this huge gap in how I perceive people of color, especially Black people, and I wanted to change it. After Election Day, I had enough rage and pain to fuel a structured project. From the Women’s March I got a direction.

(Have I mentioned yet how sorry I am that every single piece of this has taken me so long? And that I have had to do such remedial work as inventing less-racist stories about people I’ve never met to replace my stereotypes? I am. So sorry. I am 100% one of the white liberals who wasn’t seeing it, who didn’t want to see it, who was afraid to look at it. I wish I could go back. I will hold all the space I can hold for anyone’s anger with me and mine, that we didn’t open our eyes decades ago. We should have.)

It’s early days yet. It’s barely March. And yet, in small ways, I’m seeing Black people differently. I have writer closer to the surface now, since Yaa Gyasi and Helen Oyeyemi have begun to make their impressions. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is giving me speaker and feminist. I am getting more complex concepts for Black mother and father and sister and lover and kid in bookstore and girl who climbs trees, and all the other people who are in these stories doing regular-people things. Race figures overtly into much of the work I’ve read so far, and at the same time, it’s the normalization of Black people as the default people in stories that I’m really soaking in right now.

It’s not as though I’ve never read anything by a Black person before. It feels more like a matter of quantity. White perspectives are everywhere around me. I hear white voices all day. I was an English major; I must have read a hundred books by dead white men and unthinkingly swallowed “canon.” Black voices have always been an exception rather than the rule. There’s something about deliberately choosing Black art that is– I think and I hope– beginning to change the concepts I have on file for “Black.”

I say “beginning,” and I mean it. I have so much work left to do. So much of other people’s time and energy has gone into educating me before I ever lifted a finger, and my progress is so slow.

But. Progress is progress and that’s what this blog is for. I shared an elevator with a young Black man the other day, and where one year ago I would have felt a cramping mix of fear and self-hate and a desire to do something to prove I’m a good white person, this time I felt pleasure in the company and curiosity about which class he was taking in the Education building at that hour.


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