After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”

August Links Roundup: Authentic Voices, Safe Spaces

I often think about my earlier resistance to the social justice ideas that I now embrace, and how much of that was due to the toxicity of discourse in academic-activist spaces. A revealing test of this theory occurred this past spring when I attended a university-sponsored gender and sexuality conference. I’ve been to this one several times over the years; sometimes it’s amazing and other times underwhelming. This year, I was openly identifying as queer for the first time, and longing for some new friends and welcoming groups, which I didn’t really find because there was too much posturing about being woker-than-thou.

For example: One of the keynote speakers, a trans man of color (Latinx, I think) was exhorting us not to ask random POCs or nonwhite friends to educate us about racism. I hear this a lot, and it makes sense, because it’s exhausting and can feel invalidating to be confronted about one’s identity in a debate format. On the other hand, given that we’re all steeped in misinformation and unconscious stereotypes in a racist society, I’m concerned there’s a risk of an echo chamber when white allies are mainly talking to each other. Books and websites by POC will only take us so far, since there is no monolithic “black point of view” etc. When, if ever, is it okay to ask for a reality check from a friend or educator from a minority community: “Hey, is this a legit source?” or “These authors from your minority group disagree with each other, what do you think?”

When I posed that question to the speaker, he decided to make it an example of him refusing to do emotional labor for white people, and punted the question to the audience, which was mostly college kids. I don’t really need a 19-year-old to tell me to read bell hooks. Was it such a faux pas to assume that someone who’d volunteered to give a speech about anti-racism work would actually answer questions about anti-racism work in that context? It’s not like I collared him at the bus stop.

(To answer my own question, if it’s the non-reciprocal emotional labor that’s the problem, perhaps we shouldn’t ask for insight from POC without offering something of value for their work, similar to paying a sensitivity reader to look at our manuscript.)

I could be gracious about the awkwardness because I’m twice these people’s age and didn’t need to fit into this community beyond a single-day conference, but it reminded me how the interpersonal norms in social justice culture can feel like treacherous shifting sands. I’m not complaining about the challenge of unlearning racist or transphobic beliefs, but the unnecessary humiliation of pouncing on subtle imperfections in manners, word choices, or misreadings of unfamiliar social cues. It’s an exception to the autism-friendly vibe that genderqueer spaces have been great at pioneering.

I don’t want to be a white snowflake who acts like her trauma history exempts her from hearing POC’s anger. On the other hand, I think activist spaces, especially in academia where people sublimate their feelings into intellectual swordplay, need a lot more introspection about reenacting oppressive relationship dynamics. Your feelings are legitimate and maybe you’re not ready to do this work today without projecting them all over the wrong people. That applies to me as well as to the person doing the call-out.

This is a good reason for offering segregated self-care spaces, such as the workshops at this same conference that were designated for queer and trans POC only. It’s also important for members of a majority group to learn how to hold supportive space for minority group members’ anger and sadness, just listening silently and non-defensively. What bothers me is when an event is framed as an all-comers venue for dialogue and education, but the rules change on the fly, and at any moment a participant might silence and shame someone else for “taking up space” as a white, male, straight, etc. person.

At their blog Witch Cabinet, Tarot columnist and healer Andi Grace has a sensitive discussion of how to balance our trauma history with our need to be accountable for racism and other prejudices. In their February post “Call-Out Culture and Being Too Much”, Andi writes:

when i was experiencing intense call outs for cultural appropriation as a yoga teacher, i remember sitting in the acupuncturist’s chair, stifling my deep gulping tears and wanting more than anything else to not exist. to simply cease to take up space – especially space that others could judge as harmful. i was drowning in my shame and my guilt – in so much pain i could barely take care of myself, let alone actually meaningfully respond to the call outs.

this is the part where my truth becomes slippery, tangled, elusive and uncomfortable to talk about. this is where i feel nervous and tender and raw. so please, if you’re willing, hear me out. know that i am coming from a place of love.

maybe if you are also a white woman (former, current or hopeful) you’ll be able to take something away from this terrifyingly vulnerable admission. here goes:

when i have been called out often it feels, in my body, indistinguible from being silenced within the context of rape culture.

now, if you are feeling defensive, i invite you to please take a breathe.. and hear me out for a minute, because this idea is much more complex and humanizing than it seems on the surface.

from what i have observed, call-outs operate with intentional force to silence someone who is saying or doing something oppressive. that is their purpose and function: to check the behavior of people who are holding or reinforcing power in violent ways. and often, call outs are given in public and intentionally humiliating ways in order to hurt people and cut them down. i have received call outs that were so vicious, so cruel, so dehumanizing that they teared my life apart. these kinds of call outs are harsh, violent and often closely mimic the logic of and prison industrial complex:

you did something wrong.
something is wrong with you.
you don’t belong.
you have no one you can trust or rely on.
you are unforgivable.

these kinds of call outs are way more common than i think we want to admit to ourselves. i’ve given call outs like this. it gave me rush of power when i did it. i was passing on the trauma someone else had given to me, that’s how the cycle of abuse works.

and.
but.
however.

that does not mean that i think call-outs shouldn’t happen, or that they are not fundamental to the forwarding of social justice agendas. sometimes people need to be called out. i have needed to be called out – and in. especially on my racism. i needed this to help me check and reel in the entitlement that naturally flows from my whiteness. and i’m not arguing that those call outs need to be call ins or be gentle. not at all.

sometimes calling out is part of survival. sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to be patient and kind and gentle, especially when they are struggling under the enormous weight of oppressive power structures. and, in my experience, the people who do manage the kind of composure for a gentle call in, are working much harder to calm their vibes than most outsiders could ever comprehend.

even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent)…

…i know i’m not the only person who has felt some version of this, because i’ve witnessed it over and over again. i see it in the people i do harm reduction work with and i see it with folks i offer mutual support, aid and solidarity to. i see it in women and femmes all the time. understanding this, knowing i am on some level constantly trapped in the box of feeling like i’m “too much” and i take up too much space, i have been pondering: how can i learn to hold my loud, fierce-femme self with the gentleness and love i so need to heal?

Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia spends a lot of time building bridges to non-affirming and on-the-fence religious people, and is thoughtful about the boundaries we need to put around that work when we feel called to do it. He touches on this issue in his funny and incisive talk at this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, “Owning Your Story”. In a blog post last month, “Brave Spaces and Bigger Tables”, he observes, “We have a bad habit of shitting on our allies” in progressive activist culture.

This past weekend, at the Wild Goose Festival (which, I know, is a SUPER white space), I got to sit through two workshops with Mickey Scottbay Jones of the Faith Matters Network. She talked about this idea of “brave space.”

In Brave Space, we abandon the notion that any space is safe for everyone. Because what is safe for me as a queer guy might not be safe for my trans friends, or for my black friends or for the women in my life. In Brave Space, we acknowledge our imperfections and work hard to be sensitive while also acknowledging that we’re going to mess it up. All of us.

But rather than just totally breaking community with those who don’t have all the right language down, all the right tools in their social justice tool belt, we choose to be gracious. We choose to love bigger. We choose to give space to learning, failing, and reconciliation. We choose to give ourselves to healing. (And yes, that is asking something of those of us who embody marginalized identities.)…

…Don’t get me wrong —I’m annoyed anytime another straight (white, male) pastor gets a book deal or gets invite anywhere to talk about being more inclusive when people could be passing the mic to marginalized folks. And we should be calling out our allies when they aren’t making a concerted effort to do so. We should absolutely call them out when the fuck up, just like I hope people will call me out when I fuck up.

But I know so many people, people who strive to be allies to our community who are too afraid to do more work, to be more visible, to fight more fiercely for justice because they know they’ll likely get their heads bit off and/or get dragged on Twitter if they mess up, or they know that no matter what they do, they’ll still get accosted by us. They’ve seen how we roll, and sometimes it’s beyond brutal.

I know were the salt of the earth, but damn y’all, we can really heavy handed with our saltiness. Maybe we should focus on being light a little bit more. Perhaps we could create spaces that are lined with grace and love, opportunities to grow instead of social excommunication?

For an in-depth look at the concept that Kevin references, see Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens’ academic article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. The piece was prompted by their work as diversity educators in the Department of Residential Education at New York University, training the resident assistants who facilitate student life in the dorms. They contend that “safety” may not be the best word for the ground rules of nonviolent and respectful communication, because every discussion of controversial issues and privilege differentials still involves emotional risk. Assurances of safety are misleading, both for marginalized-group members who already know they’re not safe in this society, and for privileged-group members who feel betrayed by the discomfort that arises from the lesson. The authors go on to discuss common “safety” rules for discussions and how they would tweak them to avoid false unity and silencing.

Autistic Pride Day: Everything Is Alive

June 18 is Autistic Pride Day, a celebration pioneered in 2005 by the advocacy group Aspies for Freedom. Visit their site to join chat rooms on neurodiversity and activism. Autistic Pride Day affirms the unique strengths and talents of people on the spectrum. It aims to persuade neurotypical society that autism is a natural human variation that doesn’t need curing.

If you’re seeing an overlap with LGBTQ Pride, which we also celebrate this month, that’s no coincidence. Some of the coercive behavioral therapies still widely used to force Aspie kids to “act normal” are derived from the discredited practices of Christian ex-gay therapy. These connections are detailed by C.S. Wyatt at The Autistic Me in his 2011 post “ABA and NARTH” and CinderMcDonald’s 2014 Daily Kos column “Autism Acceptance Doesn’t Seem So Radical to Me”, among many other sources.

In my last autism-themed post, I cited a blogger who said it was an Aspie trait to empathize with objects–not, as the stereotype goes, to the exclusion of empathizing with people, but rather as a kind of emotional hyper-awareness. Now I’ve found another autistic blogger, Mel Baggs, who writes about our quasi-mystical personality type eloquently on hir Tumblr site With a Smooth Round Stone. (Mel identifies as genderless and uses sie/hir pronouns; hir other disability-themed blog is Ballastexistenz.) Discussing headcanon autistic representation in the Young Wizards book series, Mel says:

Of course the YW-universe tendency for literally everything to be alive on some level is one reason I love it so much.  That’s how I see the literal, everyday universe we live in.  And I see it that way because I’m autistic, because I’m a specific type of autistic person who tends naturally towards what some people call animism but I’m very hesitant to give a label to, especially given the ways “animism” has been used in the past.

Basically, whenever I have learned about “animism”, it’s been in the context of “this is what primitive religions do before they learn to be more advanced” and it makes me very angry.  Also I’ve never seen “animism” used in a way that really gave meaning to the way a culture saw the world around them, and I’ve seen it used to obscure meaning.  Which is why I don’t call myself an animist, even though in English it’s the closest word to some aspects of how I see the world.

Also people who tell me that thinking everything is alive is anthropomorphism, can shove their anthropomorphism up their collective asses.  Everything is alive in its own unique way that has nothing to do with human thoughts and feelings, and everything to do with each thing having its own unique way of being in the world, totally independent of humans.  This goes both for traditionally animate and traditionally inanimate things.  My recognizing the aliveness of things does not mean I think they’re similar to me.  In fact, to recognize that things are alive, you have to be able to step out of the way and stop using yourself as a mirror to measure the rest of the world by.

Yes I’m still pissed at a blogger I otherwise liked, who when I posted a post about how I saw things as alive, posted a long condescending discussion of anthropomorphism and animism and how both are primitive and childlike at best, and how that’s all I was doing, nothing special, nothing meaningful, nothing unique, nothing important.  Just things that we can pin down with tidy words and tuck them away into boxes and forget about them because we already know our viewpoint is the superior one.

I’d love to find good sociological studies of Aspies’ religious beliefs and affiliations and how they differ from the mainstream. My guess is that a lot of us cluster around the rationalist/atheist end of the distribution, with logic like this: “Nobody here actually believes that crackers turn into the body of a guy who died and came to life and was also God, and I don’t see the point of saying that I do, just to get along socially.” And another lot, in which I am included, wind up in paganism or the most mystical denominations of traditional religions, because: “Well, obviously the Real Presence of Christ is in the host, because it’s in everything!” (Hmm, was Gerard Manley Hopkins one of us? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”)

We’re probably under-represented in mainstream churches, where conformity to unspoken social norms of dress, body language, gender roles, and personal interests is more important than whatever doctrines we profess, and everyone pretends that the reverse is true–how maddening! There’s also the issue of churches not being accessible and welcoming to people with sensory processing disorder and neurodivergent communication styles, as this Interactive Autism Network article describes:

Melinda Jones Ault Ph.D., a professor at University of Kentucky, looked around her own place of worship and wondered where the people with disabilities were. A longtime special educator, she said, “I knew they were out there.” So she began studying the experiences of parents who have a child with a disability, including autism.

Her research team found that a third of the 416 parents surveyed had changed their place of worship due to a lack of inclusion or welcome, and 46 percent refrained from participating in an activity because their child was not included or welcomed.

John Elder Robison has written a number of books and articles about living with autism. (He’s also the brother of Augusten Burroughs, of Running With Scissors fame.) In this 2014 Psychology Today column, he ponders why modern Aspies are more likely to reject organized religion, and speculates that some of the greats of Western religious history were actually on the spectrum. On the one hand, many beliefs don’t seem logical to literal thinkers, but on the other, in a pre-scientific world, religious practices provided the order and predictability that most of us crave. That was surely a big factor in my early attraction to orthodoxy. Conservative churches promised clear, explicit, predictable behavioral norms around the confusing subject of sex and romance, as well as a socially acceptable container for the magical thinking that my secular intellectual peers disdained as childish or crazy. Robison says:

As an autistic adult, I have never been what you’d call religious, but I’ve always thought of myself as spiritual.  I never thought of my religious beliefs as being shaped by autism, but a conversation five years ago made me rethink that.  Catherine Caldwell-Harris – a psychology professor at Boston University – approached me after a talk I did at MIT.  She was doing a study of autism and its influence on religious belief, and her findings were shaping up to be very interesting.

According to her study, autistic people today are much more likely to reject organized religion in favor of their own independently constructed belief system, just as we are more likely to be agnostics or atheists.  You can read the study here:

http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2011/papers/0782/paper0782.pdf

Note that the study relies heavily on autism tests and categorizations developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, which some Aspie activists and bloggers believe are sexist and underrate our capacity for empathy. See, for instance, this 2016 post on autism pseudo-science by Emma at Lemon Peel. The “high-functioning” label used in the study is also problematic, as Dani Alexis explains at Autistic Academic.

Neurodiversity implies a challenge to Christianity’s claim to universality. If we believe in the traditional all-powerful designer God, we must either see the autistic mindset as a deviation to be fixed, and go down the same abusive road as compulsory heterosexuality; or accept that God designed some people to be unreceptive to the appeal of “a personal relationship with Jesus”! Either way, you can see why churches have trouble being autism-accessible. Conservative churches pitch salvation, liberal ones pitch community, but the shared premise is that everyone is hard-wired to need their product, whether we know it or not. Whereas in fact, some folks may have the kind of brain that doesn’t pick up the signals of a personal divine presence in the world, or doesn’t need to anthropomorphize their sense of the sublime. And other folks may already be so tuned in to the immanent divine that the institutional intermediary is confining and distracting.

Book Notes: The Doll Collection

doll_collection_cover“Not just toys, dolls signify much more than childhood,” writes poet Nicole Cooley in her introduction to The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books, 2016), a rich and complex anthology of doll-themed contemporary poetry edited by Diane Lockward. Dolls are imbued with our powerful, contradictory feelings about gender, race, class, mortality, and innocence. “Symbols of perfection, they both comfort and terrify… They are objects we recall with intense nostalgia but also bodies we dismember and destroy.”

Collecting dolls has been as much of a constant in my life as writing poetry. Both pursuits take me to the realm of imagination, where one is never “too grown-up” to communicate with one’s fantasies and fears. I was honored to have my poem “The Fear of Puppets and the Fear of Beautiful Women” included in this anthology, together with notable writers such as Denise Duhamel, Jeffrey Harrison, Enid Shomer, Cecilia Woloch, and many more.

The book stands out for its diverse cast of characters from doll history. Alongside the well-known Barbie, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Ginny, and Raggedy Ann, we meet paper dolls of the Dionne Quintuplets, blow-up sex toys, jewel-box ballerinas, anatomical models, artists’ miniatures, teddy bears, and baby dolls in many stages of porcelain perfection or grotesque dismemberment. Dolls are burned, smashed, stolen, repaired, reconstituted like Frankenstein. They are preserved in museums, or in the homes of their now-grown owners, as a focal point for sweet or regretful family memories. The dolls in these poems remind us of love or its hard unsatisfying simulacrum, of fragility or a taunting imperviousness to time and loss.

“The dolls/are always being picked up and placed/by forces outside their control./Words are put into their mouths,” writes Elaine Terranova in the poem “Secrets”. Dolls give us the opportunity to act out both sides of the power dynamic, to identify with early memories of helplessness or vent our rage on someone who can’t really feel it…can she?

Several selections voiced the feelings of children confused or stifled by an adult agenda. “I was the live birth after the stillborn/one, crowned to be Mother’s little doll,” says the speaker of Joan Mazza’s “Little Doll”. Comparing herself to the identically-dressed doll children in her carriage, she says, “Undressed, baby dolls had smooth bodies,/no crevices. I’d be perfect, never play,/an untouched doll, if mother had her way.” By the poem’s end, “mother” is lowercase, suggesting the young girl’s rebellion. Michael Waters’ “Burning the Dolls” starts from a poignant historical anecdote: “In 1851, in John Humphrey Noyes’ free-love settlement in Oneida, New York, the communally-raised children, encouraged by the adults, voted to burn their dolls as representative of the traditional role of motherhood.” The child narrator lays her beloved rag doll on the pyre, but a lot more goes up in flames: “when her varnished face burst/in the furnace of my soul,/the waxy lips forever lost,//then I knew I’d no longer pray,/even with fire haunting me…”

Conversely, for some other poets, dolls represented childhood feelings of safety and trust, which the adult speakers wish they could recapture. In “When Catholics Believed in Limbo”, Mary Ellen Talley recalls a simple faith that led her and her friends to baptize her Little Women dolls. Lee Upton’s “To Be Blameless Is to Be Miniature” searches for a way back in to the dolls’ perfect world: “No one sleeps./No one gets comfortable here./You cannot stand inside innocence.” Alison Townsend begins her prose-poem “Madame Alexander’s Amy” with the line, “Two weeks after my mother’s death, the doll was waiting under the tree.” The speaker wanted to love this last gift from her mother, and in a way she did, but the doll (which she still owns) was also “an emissary from the country of death to tell me that childhood was over, and she was the last plaything”.

David Trinidad’s “Playing with Dolls” and Scott Wiggerman’s “Playing GI Joes” show the awakening of a gay identity through breaking the gender boundaries around toys. While Trinidad’s sestina ends sadly, with his parents forbidding him to play with his sisters’ Barbies (“You’re a boy”), we know he gets the last laugh because he’s now a well-regarded gay poet. Wiggerman’s delightful narrative reveals how hyper-macho toys have a homoerotic side just waiting for the right person to bring it out. His GI Joe likes “hot little loincloths attached with a pin” and volunteers for missions where he’ll be stripped and put into bondage. “Tied up, disciplined, tortured into a frenzy,/he was a master of man-to-man endurance,/revealing only name, rank, and serial number,/as a sly grin edged toward the scar on his cheek,/a mark that covered so many of our secrets.”

These are just a few highlights. Doll aficionados will find their own favorites in this must-have collection of 80+ poems about our uncanny little friends.

doll_collection_book_1

Olivia, Agnes, and Emily approve of this book.

doll_collection_book_2

A new soldier in town impresses Rose Sauvage-Grimpante with his interest in poetry.

June Links Roundup: Bathroom Walls

Bathrooms and discrimination have a long history together in America. Restricting bathroom access is a way to limit a minority group’s freedom of movement and their ability to exist in the public sphere. The debate over access can taint the minority group by association with the taboo subject of bodily functions, reinforcing the prejudice that these bodies are contaminated or inappropriately visible.

Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel The Help has been fairly criticized for centering a white-savior character, but my eyes and heart were opened by its depiction of the everyday indignities suffered by African-American domestic workers in the South in the 1960s. A flash point in the novel is one bigoted white woman’s campaign to make her Junior League cronies build separate outdoor toilets for their nonwhite employees. This arbitrary rule served no purpose but to signal the unworthiness of certain bodies, to punish them for having the most basic human needs.

Similarly, in Matt Ruff’s excellent new horror/satire novel Lovecraft Country, set in the Jim Crow 1950s, one of the main characters publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, the product of sometimes life-threatening research into which towns, motels, gas station bathrooms, and restaurants will tolerate African-American travelers. The protagonists’ run-ins with a secret society of white occultists are less troublesome than the effort to find a safe place to pee on a road trip between Florida and Illinois. The rules are set up to make it physically impossible for a black person to not break the law: either you’re arrested for using a white bathroom, or for loitering when you pull over to use the bushes.

This history should make us skeptical of the current manufactured panic over transgender bathroom use. I personally would prefer not to pee in bathrooms where anyone, of whatever gender expression, is using a urinal without walls around it, but I think it’s ridiculous and offensive to suggest that gendered bathrooms protect people from rapists. See, for example, this anonymous guest column for the British blog The Queerness, “Toilet transphobia: Sexual assault is not your weapon to wield” (trigger warning for rape description). The author was victimized in the public restroom of a bar:

I am a cisgender gay man. I was attacked by another man. This means that I am forced to undergo an incredibly painful process of re-adaptation to what should be the very banal everyday task of relieving myself when not in the comfort of my own home.

This is why I am so angry at those that would seek to deny trans people the right to use the appropriate toilets. It infuriates me that transphobes would effectively appropriate the trauma of sexual assault for their own nefarious purposes…

…The bottom line is this: I do not have the option of banning other men from public toilets on the grounds that men sometimes sexually assault other men there. Even if there were documented incidents of trans women assaulting cisgender women in such environments (there are literally none), the heinous actions of a minority should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire group. Terrible deeds are perpetrated by terrible people in a variety of scenarios and in all manner of circumstances.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed columnist Shannon Keating connects the dots between civil rights issues then and now, in the recent piece “The Past Hundred Years of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms”. Keating notes that separate women’s facilities (often inadequate compared to the number of men’s toilets in the same workplace) were first added to public buildings in the late 19th century because of Victorian paternalism towards white women in particular:

As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices…

…But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.

Keating goes on to observe that our current bathroom arrangements also protect traditional masculinity at the expense of women and queer people. Our favorite movies reinforce the problem:

Public restrooms — and, perhaps even more strongly so, locker rooms — have always operated in the cultural imagination as sites of strict gender roles and compulsive heterosexuality…

…popular culture has long established tropes associated with each restroom. The men’s room is a place for aggressive macho posturing, bullying the weak, and artfully avoiding eye contact; women’s rooms, meanwhile, are hyper-feminine places for girls to get primped, gossip, cry, and avoid boys — boys who, in turn, fantasize about what goes on behind the closed girls’ room door. A number of ’80s teen movies, from Pretty in Pink to Porky’s to Fame, include scenes (which have inspired countless others) involving guys attempting to see into or enter the girls’ bathroom — and they either play the attempt for laughs or treat deeply creepy peeping Tom behavior with a cavalier “boys will be boys” shrug. While queer men in bathrooms are a threat, straight men are just guys doing what guys do.

In the shift from drama and comedy to horror, the bathroom becomes ground zero for violence against women. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,the most famous bathroom scene in cinematic history involves a woman in the shower getting stabbed to death by Norman Bates, a notoriously genderqueer bad guy. In what’s arguably the other most famous bathroom scene of all time, The Shining’s Jack corners Wendy in the bathroom and proceeds to hack his way in. David Cronenberg’s Shivers, from 1975, features an absolutely repulsive scene involving a parasite that crawls up the bathroom drain and between a woman’s legs. And speaking of ’80s teen movies again, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street gets an unwelcome visit from Freddy Krueger while she’s in the bath. If they want to avoid spiders and grudge monsters, women in horror films would do best to avoid the bathroom altogether. These scenes manage to sexualize the vulnerable and violated female body, while also suggesting that the Victorian paternalism of yore might still apply according to the fantastical versions of our modern conceptions: Women still need protecting.

Hollywood’s depiction of the bathroom reveals it to be one of the most powerful physical and social spaces when it comes to both revealing and informing our cultural anxieties around gender, bodily shame, abjection, disease, and sexual deviance. Just as the Equal Rights Amendment lost essential footing in the ’70s due to infamous counterprotestsclaiming that banning gender discrimination would result in unisex toilets (which, protesters cried, would enable sexual predators), so, too, have today’s social conservatives driven anti-trans panic by insisting that gender-neutral bathrooms would give (queer/trans) aggressors free rein to prey on girls. The mixing of genders in bathrooms, so our pop-cultural scripts go, results in awkward gags at best and rape and murder at worst. Anti-trans bathroom bills are, in part, the product of pop culture’s queerphobic and transphobic scripts…

…What we actually take for granted is why, exactly, public restrooms are segregated in the first place. We assume building codes are purely objective, rooted in science and dictated by function. Separated restrooms, in their guise of objectivity, only manage to reinforce age-old essentialist notions of binary gender difference. What would it mean to break down those walls?

The predator bogeyman — the impetus behind a million anti-trans petition signatures; a villain as potent, and as pretend, as Freddy Krueger — is not at the true heart of the bathroom maelstrom. Those who oppose equitable bathrooms are presumably far more afraid of what trans people represent than the nonexistent physical threat they pose. The expansive, complex, never-ending potential of gender, which separated bathrooms have veiled with the lie of their form-follows-function objectivity, is arguably what anti-trans protesters are trying to suppress — along with, of course, the fundamental fact of trans people’s humanity. Under the pretense of “privacy” and “safety,” social conservatives are stoking cultural anxieties around bodily privacy, genitalia, and sexual deviance in order to keep trans people from participating in the public sphere, a fate of bathroom exclusion that befell women, people of color, families, and disabled people before them. The bogus fear of an aggressor is, at root, most likely the fear of the Other gaining power.

Right now in my home state of Massachusetts, the Senate has passed an important bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, stores, hospitals, transportation, etc.). The House will hear debate on this legislation on June 1. Look for #TransBillMA on Twitter and visit the Freedom Massachusetts website for updates. If you live in MA and are transgender or gender-nonconforming, Freedom Massachusetts can use your stories of how you’ve been affected by discrimination in public places. Please contact them. Everyone else, talk to your legislators, and donate to support this historic campaign.

 

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Ellen LaFleche’s “Beatrice”

Full disclosure: Ellen LaFleche is my dear friend, writing critique partner, Winning Writers judging associate, and bohemian style icon. When you read her poems, you’ll wish she was in your life, too. Gorgeous and inventive as her language is, it is never merely pretty for its own sake. Her body of work has a mission of dignifying and illuminating the lives of real people, particularly blue-collar workers and women.

In her latest prizewinning chapbook, Beatrice (Tiger’s Eye Press, 2014), the tides of the sacred feminine seek an outlet in the cloistered body of Sister Beatrice, a working-class mystic. The convent offers both refuge and confinement—the paradox of a women-ruled society where women must de-sexualize themselves. The ascetic environment cannot quench the vitality of Beatrice’s imagination, which finds golden-faced gods in copper pans and lust’s soft satisfaction in a raw quahog.

The press does not have an online order page, so contact Ellen directly to purchase a copy for $10 at ElLaFleche@aol.com.  Please enjoy these sample poems below.

PEARL

The day after scattering her mother’s ashes in the ocean, Sister Beatrice goes quahogging

Morning-scape.
Clouds arranged in blurred
bands of coral and pink like lipstick samples
on the back of the Avon Lady’s hand.

Twenty years inside
that tomb-shaped nun boot
but Sister Beatrice’s foot
remembers its childhood skill–
how to stalk the quahog,
big toe trawling the tide
like a predator’s snout.

Cool wind whirling off the waves
in salt-loaded squalls.
Sister’s veil flaps so hard around her skull
it muffles the crackle of foam,
the slap of kelp and jetsam.

The clam she captures is still
alive, breathy and warm
in its hinged brown casket.

The clam-flesh dampens under her finger,
its belly slack as love in its puddle of juice,
elegant neck recoiling
from Sister’s tender pinch.

She knows the danger
of eating it raw. But Beatrice swallows,
the head-tilted gulp
a remembered pleasure in her throat.

No pearl
to roll down the esophageal slide,
just a tidal rush of sand
and delicious clam-water
splashing under her tongue.

****

CHALICE OF SALVATION

Before bringing Halloween treats to children at the homeless shelter, Sister Beatrice joins the other nuns for a party in the rec room

For tonight
she’s Father Beatrice,
swaggering with manly elegance
in a long black cassock,
white collar fashioned from a toilet-paper
tube coiled around the throat.

Mother Superior has turned herself
into a lion
tamer, ferocious in her tux
and tails, her whip of shredded Easter
ribbons whooshing over the stunned
head of a Cowardly Lion nun.

Sister Veronica is a paper maché
chalice, spray-painted gold, studded
with ruby and diamond rhinestones.

Father Beatrice places his priestly
hands on Veronica’s goblet hips,
lifts her high over his head for adoration.

Father begins to waltz,
slow-dancing around the rec
room, the holy chalice
pressed against his heart.

Until the Mother Superior
pries them apart
with the tip of her whip.

Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness

Christian artist Mary Button’s annual series of “Stations of the Cross” collage-paintings depict the torture and execution of Christ in the context of a social justice issue. For instance, last year’s Stations took on the injustice of mass incarceration in America. The 2015 series is devoted to mental illness. In the artist’s words, it “addresses the cross-cutting theological implications of the treatment of people with mental illness. Individual stations address both the special gifts and insight of people living with mental illness as well as social justice issues such as race, gender, homelessness, and stigma.” Read her interview about this year’s project in the Huffington Post.

Each image, with artist’s commentary, can be viewed on Flickr. I was struck by the fact that these pictures are gorgeous with color and creative energy, while also being chaotic and sometimes scary. Button portrays the creativity of mania, the allure of the special and mysterious chambers of the mind, as well as the cost of getting lost in that labyrinth. Surely many of Jesus’s contemporaries must have thought he was crazy! Those who explore the frontier of spiritual experience often seem so, especially when their confidence in their inner truth sets them at odds with their family and their society’s interpretive authorities.

Some of these pictures show Jesus sharing the suffering of depression and schizophrenia, while others, such as “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, critique the mental health system’s complicity in sexism and other oppressions. Several deal with suicide as a political consequence of racism and veterans’ PTSD. I would have liked to see childhood trauma and its aftermath explicitly included, but even so, survivors can certainly find a lot to identify with in this series.

Two Poems from Carmine Dandrea’s “In a Kept World”

Carmine Dandrea is a retired English professor, Korean War veteran, and world traveler whose diverse life experiences inform his award-winning poetry. The work he has published with us at Winning Writers spans a train ride across India, a pilgrimage along China’s historic Silk Road, and a child’s memories of an Italian-American family funeral.

In contrast to these world travels, his latest chapbook from Finishing Line Press, In a Kept World, takes the reader on an inner journey of introspection, grief, and hope. This 17-poem cycle is voiced by a solitary older man inside a house in Michigan in deep winter. As the “prime suspect” of his own examinations, he reflects on mortality and time wasted. Women from his past reappear as nameless sirens and ghosts, arousing both desire and regret that he did not value their intimacy enough. Despite the assaults of unforgiving weather and the temptation to succumb to darkness, he also finds moments of sensual joy and radiance in the ordinary furnishings of his monastic cell. The recurring image of the garden comes to represent not only the literal promise of spring but the “seeds of love” and “sureness of life” that he wants another chance to cultivate in his soul.

Carmine has kindly allowed me to reprint the two poems below.

 

Snow’s Role

A heavy wind is blowing
off Lake Michigan;
there is nothing but darkness
to stop it on its way;
it roams the corners of the house
like some fast beast of prey
unleashed until the break of day.

The wind has done strange things
with snow,
has made it go in ripples
through the field,
has molded it peculiarly,
fitting it like fleece
to the bark-dark trunks of trees.

Snow is a warfare for my mind.
It lies here,
a barrier to the world.
I want to close my mind to it,
to let it stay outside
the tight parameters of light
around my planted fields;
yet I know that snow
must have its role
in plotting gardens,
even though it slows
the heart that’s beating
in the summer sun.

But I must remember
that day has passed
into the night.

The snow has filled the ugly field
across the ugly street;
the railroad tracks beyond
are slick runners
disappearing out of sight.

********

Fire in the Cave

How cold the darts of winter rain
that cut up light—
points that pierce naked bone
and make the bone like stone,
sore with winter weather.

The sun shining through
persimmon curtains casts
that semblance
of the fire in the cave
where my mind,
intent on artifacts,
is ecstasized with little things:

the chaste silver catching light
upon a slender throat;
the slight uncertain gleam
seen in an eye half-closed;
the degree of pressure
in another’s touch;
a soft finger on the lip,
an eyelash trembling
on a cheek,
a slight lilac breath
caught in the ear’s conch.

New Poems by Conway: “Sleep Deprivation” and “City Elegy IX”

My prison pen pal “Conway“, who’s serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility, tells me that not much is new about the New Year. His early release petition hearing has been deferred yet again, till February. Keep him in your thoughts.

Meanwhile, he’s writing lots of poetry, and creating artwork for a book project commissioned by another reader of this blog. I’ll share full details when it’s published.

The poems below made me think about the normalization of torture. With 2.3 million Americans in prison, many suffering under conditions like these, can we call ourselves a free society?

Sleep Deprivation

It made no difference
how busy the hours had been, or
who I’d communicated to
through the unseen voices on this tier
while sipping a lukewarm cup of mud,
even if it took thirty minutes of pushing
the hot water button on the stainless toilet’s sink.

The only thing that made a difference
was that section door.
It opens so loudly, I had to wonder
if it hadn’t been devised on purpose
by some lousy crumb, to be that damn noisy.

It crashed open around midnight
reminding me with its rudeness
that I’m still locked in this concrete box.
By myself.
With no way to open this heart or door locks.

To remind me that I was alone.
The cop walked a flashlight
searching for eyes to shine in
as keys uselessly jangled songs
step up and down the stairs
then exit.

As the sounds of persistent doors
rattle away again
then, creeping silence forced its way back in.
I could only hope
that the return of the intruder
would find me safely wrapped
in slumber’s silent headlock.

Long enough
to be recovered before daylight
to be upright and shuffled
among the chained population.
Not that much of anything was happening.
But, if something did,
it’s best to be prepared for whatever.

The legacy of intrustions
of clinking clanking conclusions
schedules of the return
by someone I do not know
someone who would never say hello
but someone I swear I will not forget.
At least until I fall back asleep.

I was too much awake in lonely thought, in this empty cell, to surrender.
Or, to recover from the intrusion of lonesome desire.
So, I listened in to the section doors open and close
as time prowled around in this pen of lonely people…

****

City Elegy IX

The streets have been my cathedral
I stole through the nights, searched and crept
Trying to find a truth I could accept
In the streetlights’ dance, of taking a chance;
To be burned beneath the sidewalk of not.
This seemed to be all, that a living wage bought.

Now this soul’s been stripped naked for years…
Rewinding each skyless night
Counting myself alone
Stuffed into this squeeze of unknowns.
Enduring this endless crush of bones.
While gun towers cast their scorns
Sheltered beneath those barbed wire thorns
Flinging the sting, off the point
Of their meaning; A meaning I must endure.

So, now that I know the score,
I’ve lost any right to be more,
Than the rumbled crash, and groan
Of steel doors. As they rattle (in threat)
On every closing report. Exposing intent–
From a contempible court.
Like a jester unsprung, itching to finger someone.

This soul still recalls, all of its flaws…
My conscience remains true, above false.
Forged in this furnace, of doing hard time.
Refusing to drop, even one dime. That’s why–
These vents are still blowing in grit, as
I’m flat on my back, in this land of unfit.
And those amber lights. It should be no surprise,
They keep catching me spotting for spies.
But those yellow lights’ glare, man!
That’s always been there. I know better
Than to expect any slack. So–
I’m standing here staring right back.

If this truth contains proof…
Somewhere existing, at my vision’s edge.
Between the silence, as my voice fell out alone. (Or so I had thought.)
It wasn’t until your voice was hurled
In the wind at the top of the world.

So what, if everything’s changed. (Alright.)
Those memories shared, have still stayed the same.
They remain soft as the breeze–
In my city’s warm summer nights…

Poems from Pamela Uschuk’s “Blood Flower”

Pamela Uschuk is a shamanic poet, invoking the spirits of animals, mountains, and forests, to heal a world that humans have spoiled with war and greed. Her latest collection, Blood Flower (Wings Press, 2014), also gives a voice to her family’s ghosts, starting with her Russian immigrant ancestors, and moving on to her late brother and first husband, who were permanently scarred by their service in Vietnam.

I love the specificity of the nature images in Uschuk’s writing. These are not stylized, sentimental birds and flowers. They are “cliff swallows taking needles of twilight/into their open beaks, stitching/sky’s ripped hem.” They are the “red velvet vulva of roses” and “yellow ginkgo leaves/waxy as embalmed fans warm[ing] grave stones”. I can believe that they are just as real as the scenes of atrocities that surround us in the news media. Their beauty pulls a bright thread through the darkest stories she tells.

Among her many accomplishments, Pam is the editor of Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts. Three of the poems in this collection won our 2011 War Poetry Contest at Winning Writers. She has kindly allowed me to reprint two more poems from Blood Flower below.

BLACK SWAN

Inside the photo’s tapestry, your silk sleeves
don’t reveal the slit wrists of madness
or the raw cortex of gang legends I loved—
police bullets slugging your car’s backseat
over my father’s young head as you ran
whiskey from Canada for the Purple Gang.
No one talks about your stints
in Joliet and Jackson Prison after you roped
concrete to a corpse you sank in the Grand River.

Who was he, Grandfather?
I feel cheated. Kto vui?
Who are you? I cannot find
your pauper’s grave.

Like Bogart’s in a film noir
your mouth is a tightset scar.
Did it elide vowels
fluid as trout in a cold stream
tearful over the Firebird’s Tale, or sneer
remembering your father’s ultimatum—
     leave Russia or join the Tsar’s army—
after your tantrum murdered his valet?

Charming pariah pitched across the Atlantic’s green remorse,
you vowed to send back your first son. But,
what promise did you ever keep?
Ellis Island misspelled your name,
deloused you like everyone else.
Russian was the official language
in your American house built with secret
hideaways beneath hollow attic steps, false
bedroom walls, as you tithed
gang money to Orthodox priests.

Grandfather, what purpose can you discern
now your entitled eyes are soil,
your heart going to anthracite?
Through the ghosts of your manicured hands
that never picked up a hammer or saw
pierce my curious roots.

Even in this distant pose, you glide,
the gorgeous black swan that rules
with fierce stiff wings
curled above a charred back, terrorizing
mallards with his hiss—
irresistable bully of the pond.

Cursed by indelible longing
for birch groves, balalaikas, whirling
Mazurkas, despite a day like today when the earth sinks
to its hips in the rare currency of peace, when
chickadees and finches bask
in the season’s final leaf-lit fling,
when squirrels nap after cannonballing
walnuts to the yard, when
nothing,
     nothing in particular
disturbs one molecule of the afternoon,
you smothered your future in Grandma’s yellow kitchen.

What is it in this decaying loam
that makes me cry? What impossible longing,
deformed as swallows reflected in a gazing globe,
when sun seems to illuminate the most stubborn shade?
The same chink in the genes?

Ya Ruskaya, Grandfather; look at the icons I keep—
an inlaid jewelry box from Siberia,
Minsk enameled knives,
the Orthodox cross or your portrait
arranged before the samovar
I carry from house to house.

Thirty-three, you died at thirty-three, syllables
shrill as ax blades sunk into a maple tree,
the same age as your savior
when he was crucified. Horosho.

Grandfather, tell me what fist beat
blue as lacy veins
trapped in our temples,
when you reached for the oven door,
blew out the pilot
     to suffocate our lives?

********

REMEMBERING THE TET OFFENSIVE AS TROOPS SHIP OUT FOR A U.S. ATTACK ON IRAQ
for Roger C. Frank

A fighter jet etches ink white as sperm
on the stark sky while January troops deploy
from Camp LeJeune, just like my first husband
did in 1968 on his way to Viet Nam
to wipe the Commie Gooks off the map.
Before he could spell Khe Sahn, think
massacre, he was machine-gunned
then bayoneted, left to die two days
in a jungle valley of shimmering green bamboo
near the clear stream he couldn’t reach
before the chop chop of the Medevac arrived.
One of three survivors of a whole company
of young marines slaughtered, he wanted to toss
the Purple Heart in the trash.
I remember during the long Michigan winter
his night sweats, the way
he’d shout the apartment walls awake, shake
to the screams of his buddies as they choked
on their own blood, clotted by indifferent flies,
some disemboweled, legs,
arms, faces blasted as frosted poppies.
He’d point to the mean hieroglyphs of red scars,
a pinched cummerbund of bullet
and stab wounds cinching his waist,
then ask me, new bride, too young
to be a Sphinx, the riddle I couldn’t reason out.
What was this for? What for?
as he headed to the kitchen for anesthetic beer,
the amber mattress of whiskey straight.
In three years he joined his company underground.

He was handsome, gung-ho like these teen soldiers
interviewed on CNN, cocky
as oiled M16s, proclaiming
their belief as each generation before them
that they will fight the war to end all wars.
Behind them, wives and girlfriends wave
small American flags that break
in the brittle wind.