Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What to say about Charleston

"So it is better to speak
we never never meant to survive."
--Audre Lorde, "A Litany for Survival"

I'm reading Roxane Gay's essay collection, Bad Feminist. In her introduction, she mentions on more than one occasion that she is messy, that humans are flawed and messy. "I am just one woman trying to make sense of this world we live in. I'm raising my voice to show all the ways we have room to want more, to do better." What a relief to read this introduction, to know that here is someone, saying loudly, that she is not perfect. And yet, she still goes ahead and writes anyway. This is what writers do: we write anyway. I know that I'm not perfect, but for someone to announce this publicly, on a big stage, is really quite a relief. My thought was: hey, I'm not alone! How awesome!

This is why we write. At least, this is why I write. To make sense of the world and my place in it. To tell my stories because I know there are people out there who think they're the only ones but maybe they'll read my stories and think what I thought: hey, I'm not alone! But also to be the example I never had, to be the leader I never had. To write the books I've always wanted to read, the ones where I can see myself in them instead of on the sidelines. Who's writing stories about a second-generation Filipina from Jersey who grew up in the eighties? No one I know. Why would anyone care? Because I know there are second-generation Filipinos (heck, just people with immigrant parents!) out there now who are trying to navigate that space between our parents' world (aka the "old country") and our own "new-terrain" American world. And boy, what a relief it might be for them to know how someone before them survived (and continues to survive) it all.

But this is not what this post is about.

This post is about Charleston. This post is about race. This post is about trying to navigate the hurt, the grief, the mourning, the outrage, the disgust, the disheartenment.

At least for me.

And this post will be messy. Completely messy. Totally human.

I've been sitting with stunned silence for a week now. Not knowing what to say really. Everything that wants to come out of my mouth is nothing new. And that is the most frustrating part for me -- that I have nothing new to contribute to the conversation. Still, I know that I need to speak even if it's the same thing everyone else is saying. It's important to speak. To be heard. For the very reasons I listed above: to let others know we are not alone in our experiences, in our existence. I'm also frustrated for other reasons. I've tried journaling about it, trying to process it all. I can't even think about poems. Words seem like a failure. How do you express the chaos of emotions? Nine people are dead. Nine black people. Nine disciples of Jesus. At the hands of a man who was welcomed in fellowship and sat with them for an hour. A white man who then shot them dead. In the house of God. How do you begin to process that? How do you explain the combination of shock, grief, and --what's the word? is there a word? A word for that feeling of "nothing has changed"? Resignation? A word for feeling "we, people of color, all know and have known that nothing has truly changed despite the fact that we have a black president"? Is there a word for that?

We are not a post-racial society. Who first introduced this idea anyway? (Probably some white guy.) What does that even mean, "post-racial"? Is it supposed to mean that we're so far beyond racism that we no longer see differing races (i.e.. the myth of racial colorblindness) ? Or it is supposed to mean that we embrace and treat all races equally? Either meaning is bullshit. The trouble with the issue of race these days is that it's more subtle, which is more insidious. How many articles are out there on microaggresions? Lots. Here is one. Here is The Microagressions Project. Why more insidious? Because it places doubt in the minds of those who have been aggressed. (How terrible is that?! To be taught to distrust your instincts?) Because the aggressor downplays his/her language. There's a lot of "oh, I didn't mean it like that". Or because s/he truly doesn't understand that the language is so coded with racism that s/he doesn't know what s/he's saying -- true ignorance. Because no one would readily admit s/he is racist. Read Claudia Rankine's Citizen if you don't believe me. 

The media, predictably, has not used the word "terrorist" or "massacre" to describe the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. "Tragedy" has been the popular term. Charleston "shooting" is another. To which some have responded: this is not a tornado or hurricane we're talking about -- this is the death of nine people intentionally shot in a church. The media, predictably, is trying to humanize the shooter. [His name will not be mentioned on this blog. He does not deserve to be named.] "Mentally ill" they say, as a way to take him off the hook of responsibility. (Which certainly does no favors for the fight against the stigma attached to mental illness.) Not that there was any documentation written by his own hand about his hate for black people in this country. "Hate crime" the police say. Thanks, Masters of the Obvious (aka MOTO). And yet. And yet. Had he been a Muslim with brown skin who shot white folks in a church, I'm sure as hell they would be screaming "terrorist" and "massacre". National security would get bumped up from orange to red (do they even do that color thing anymore?). And they would paint this person as an extremist thug, dehumanizing him by talking about his blind devotion to his religion. We have all seen this narrative way too often that it has now become a cliche.

I am tired of this bullshit.

But I am also heartbroken. Death at the hands of another is still death. Is still the loss of life. The loss of light.

So what is there to say? Our country is broken. It has been for a very long time. Probably since its birth. And we are all trying to get it right. Fighting to make it right. At least the people I know. The people in power don't seem the least bit interested in doing anything that would take their power (and their money) away. So it's an uphill battle. But if enough of us speak out, if enough of us scream and demand what's right, maybe something will happen. Look at how quickly the battle flag of the south [again, a name which will not be mentioned on this blog] is becoming a discarded icon. Major retailers have immediately stopped selling it. People are calling for its removal, while a handful are holding steadfastly to their legacies, failing to see that it's a legacy of hate and violence. This is what can happen when we speak. Someone might be listening. And for those of us who were never meant to survive (which means, for me, we've got nothing to lose! so go all out!), speaking out just might change that.

Roxane Gay has written a piece in the New York Times about why she can't forgive the shooter. I am with her on this, all the way. She has articulated what I've been thinking, but haven't been able to put the words together. Thank you, Roxane, for this.

Nayomi Munaweera has also written something that has resonated me, reminding me of why we continue to write, why we must persist. Thank you, Nayomi, for this, "Writing Race the Day After Charleston".

I'm sitting here saying, hey, I'm not alone! And I am grateful.

Let us remember the names of those who were taken from this world too soon: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

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