A Message to White Progressives

We call ourselves progressive, but what are we actually doing to progress our society toward a more just and equal future?


Too many children across our country open their history textbooks to a page like the one pictured above. I understand that most parents want to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible, but when we use language like “brought millions of workers” to teach our kids about this country’s history – about the way white people kidnapped people of color, stole them from their homes and forced them to work in brutal conditions for masters who committed horrible atrocities against them – we are not protecting our children’s innocence. We are not making them safer. We are not helping them. Instead, this language – this lie – is protecting, saving, and helping white supremacy. And in teaching these lies over and over, we have created generations of adults who don’t understand how our history connects to our present, how the fact that our country was established on the idea that white people are inherently better than everyone else means that our black and brown neighbors are still being systematically oppressed and murdered.

I’m not saying we need to share every gruesome detail with our eight-year-old kids. But we do need to tell them the truth in terms they can process. Let’s start with “enslaved people” instead of “workers,” for example, and “stole” instead of “brought.” I understand the desire to present our children with a world full of peace and love, but instead of pretending like that’s true, let’s make it true. Right now, eight-year-old children of color are being forcefully separated from their parents. They are starving in cells where they’re held without reason. They are witnessing the violent shootings of their fathers and uncles, often committed by police officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Compared to this reality, using words like “enslaved people” and “stolen” when talking to young white children is nothing.

The fact that we recently elected such a diverse Congress filled with various races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations is thrilling to me. Representation matters, and voting for these candidates was huge. I do believe our children will benefit positively from growing up with this. But y’all, we have so much more to do. Voting in diverse people was step one. Now we need to demand legislation to end gerrymandering and reform our election processes – two ways in which the U.S. government currently operates against BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color). We need to call the principals at our kids’ schools and review the way slavery and race relations is taught. We need to write emails to textbook publishers and explain why pages like the one above are not acceptable. In an age where so many of us are always on our phones, there’s no excuse for not regularly calling, emailing, or posting on social media about these issues.

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Original t-shirt available now at Black on Black.

We also need to recognize that while these actions are important, altering our system from within isn’t enough. In order to be true allies, we need to put our bodies and our money where our tweets are. We need to show up at Black Lives Matter protests, patron local businesses run by BIPOC, donate to their organizations, read their books, visit their art exhibits, buy their music. Don’t think of these efforts as a one-and-done situation, but rather plan out how you can incorporate this into your regular routine. Maybe Sunday brunch can be at a local, black-owned restaurant like Daleview Biscuits and Beer. Or maybe all your friends can get birthday presents from a company like Black on Black. Or maybe instead of going to the same club every Saturday, you can try a new place featuring DJs of color. Taking action doesn’t have to feel like work.

But you know what does, and probably should, feel like work? The self-analyzation that needs to come along with these external acts. Healing our country requires that we white people look honestly inside ourselves, that we dig deep to figure out what’s buried in there from our own childhoods. A good starting point is to think back to what you were taught about the discovery of our country, our founding fathers, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and/or the Great Migration. What did your textbooks say? Hell, I wasn’t taught about Jim Crow or the Great Migration in school, but when I think back to my elementary social studies classes, lessons on slavery were definitely brief and always ended with how Abraham Lincoln, a white man, was a savior. Lessons on our founding fathers similarly focused on their positive traits, how they were strong, smart, and brave. And the pilgrims were to be heralded as the bravest of all because they fled persecution in their homeland, found a new home, fought for it, and flourished.

Now, let’s reframe these lessons using more honest words. For example, the pilgrims didn’t just fight for their new home, they actually committed genocide, or, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group” – i.e., the Native Americans. And our founding fathers may have been strong, smart, and brave in some ways, but they were also terrorists, as in, they “advocated and practiced the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Diving further into Merriam Webster, terror is defined as, “violent and destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.” What was slavery if not violent and destructive acts – beatings, lynchings, rapes – committed by groups of white people in order to intimidate a population of black people into granting their demands to work the fields, cook dinner, clean the house, have sex, etc?

For many of us, this process feels wrong. It goes against everything we’ve been taught, and it feels blasphemous to think this way about George Washington, our great American hero. But we can’t let our discomfort keep us from doing the work – remember, BIPOC are still being systematically murdered because we white people don’t want to feel uncomfortable about the reality of our country’s history. Instead of running from or explaining away our feelings, we need to be in and examine them. No one is saying you owned slaves or committed genocide. We so easily get defensive and start tossing around blame instead of being in our own emotions. The wrong-doing here isn’t the act of applying the word “terrorist” to our founding fathers. What’s wrong is that we’ve been taught to worship these white men while ignoring the rest of history. We as a country – and many of us as individuals – have never implemented a collective practice to reconcile our past with our present, to decolonize our society, to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, we celebrate it! And because we’ve never truly addressed what our white forefathers did to the African Americans and indigenous people, much less tried to amend it, we are incapable of fully addressing and amending what is currently being done to these populations.

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Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson died on July 22, 2018 after her throat was slashed in a hate crime.

Sure, we’ve outlawed slavery (except in prisons, which are disproportionately filled with black people working for little to no pay), we’ve granted people of color the right to vote (then created tons of obstructions to purposefully block them), we’ve passed the Civil Rights act (then did not enforce it), but these amendments have been treated as an end rather than a beginning – a measly beginning, at that. And now here we are, feeling defensive and claiming “not me,” or “I’m one of the good ones,” or “It’s not fair to lump all white people into the same category.” Basically refusing to get past our own egos, insisting that our immediate reaction is more important than whatever anyone else may feel, thus blocking ourselves from truly examining how we benefit from and even contribute to white supremacy, no matter how unintentional it may be. And because so many of us white people keep getting stuck here, people of color keep getting murdered. No, I am not the one who shot Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in a Kroger store while yelling racist slurs, nor am I the one who stabbed Nia Wilson to death in her car. But I am a part of a society that allows this to happen. I am a part of the race that perpetrates it. And as long as so many of us continue to deny our role, nothing will change.

It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s okay to not understand. But it’s not okay to stay like that. Our kids are watching us – all of us, including those who aren’t parents. We have the resources and the power to change things, so please, let’s do the work and make some real progress toward a better future.

Resources for Learning More and Taking Action:


Instagram Accounts to Follow:

There’s an inspiring and educational dialogue happening on Instagram about race relations, art, music, gender identity, American history, and how this all intersects. Do not follow these accounts if you have not already started on your own work. It is not okay to go into their spaces and be disrespectful or to center the discussion around yourself. This is a wonderful opportunity to listen to and learn from others. Don’t waste it.

 

Images:
1. McGraw Hill textbook via Diversity Inc.
2. Black on Black original design.
3. Nia Wilson via CNN.

Writer’s note: A previous version of this post used the word “slaves” instead of “enslaved people.” I have since learned about the phrase “enslaved people” and prefer it to “slaves,” as it demonstrates the idea that slavery was done to a person rather than the idea that a person’s identify was being a slave. However, others feel that “enslaved people” is too polished, and that it glosses over the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Yet another testament to the importance of language.

Reading Rec: Not Your Job by Norika Nakada

xrayI’ve read “Not Your Job” by Noriko Nakada multiple times now, which is highly unusual for a person like me who believes poetry is meant to be heard. But there’s something magnetic about the way Nakada shares a specific, personal moment between herself and her daughter while simultaneously capturing the universal experience of parenthood, particularly its fierce love. The poem also touches on weighty societal issues – the power of gender stereotypes, the pressure to be beautiful, the importance of a face – without straying from the story at its core. Line breaks and white space create an intriguing, physical shape out of the words themselves that only add to the poem’s magnetism. Highly recommended for those who enjoy how a few choice words can send a brain mulling all day long.

Poem and photo originally appeared in Mutha Magazine on December 11, 2018.

Happy 2019 + New Publication in Gateways, an Anthology!

I’m thrilled to share that a revised version of my essay, Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe, has been published in Gateways, an anthology of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction from alumni of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Click here to order your copy!

As I reflect on 2018, I can honestly say that I am ending this year in happiness. The first half of it (and pretty much all of 2017!) was hard and painful, but things have balanced themselves now, and I feel that my family is finally emerging from our period of darkness. And despite all the crazy challenges this year brought me, it also brought more creative publications than any year before, and this makes me ecstatic.

Of course I’m grateful to every editor who has seen something in my words and deemed them worth publishing, but I am even more grateful to all of you who read what I write and encourage me to keep going. Part of my creative process is motivated by an impulse within me – a need to express, to tell my truth, to attempt to answer to some greater calling – but a huge part of it also comes from the joy of communicating with y’all. Knowing that you make the choice to sit with my words, to think about and even respond to them, is such a gift. THANK YOU.

I’m eager to see what 2019 throws at me, and I sincerely hope you stick around for the stories. Happy New Year to all!

Grappling with Thanksgiving

I love turkey and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I love passing on family traditions to my toddler. And I especially love sandwiches stuffed with Thanksgiving leftovers. But y’all, we have got to stop with this ridiculous story about the Pilgrims and Indians becoming friends over an ear of corn and living happily ever after.

I get that people want one good meal with their families, just one day of eating and drinking and not worrying about everything else. But it’s not like we’re doing this on a random Thursday afternoon. We’re doing this on a national holiday based upon a colonial myth that enables the horrible and ongoing mistreatment of indigenous Americans. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy the day, but maybe while we’re eating our turkey and cranberry sauce, we should also consider discussing the truth about our country’s history and how we can take action to support present-day indigenous communities.

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My idea is not perfect, but as a parent of a three-year-old, I’ve decided to focus on learning about the Tuscarora, a Native American tribe based in New York. The website I’ve chosen to use as my guide offers facts about things like their traditional foods, toys, and hunting tools, how they fled from North Carolina to New York because the British attacked them, and what their lives are like now. My plan is to read these facts aloud, pass around some pictures, and talk. Then, after exploring these materials, I’m going to pull up this list of online stores run by Native Americans and pick out something with my son. We white folk too often purchase “Native-inspired” products from places like H&M or Target instead of giving our money directly to the Native American artists who did the inspiring in the first place – many of whom are living in poverty despite the fact they’re making the authentic versions of the products we seem to want.

On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things, including the opportunity to learn about our Native American neighbors, to spread the truth about our history, to use my money to support an amazing community, and to hopefully inspire my son to do his part in making this country a truly more equal and accepting place.

Huge thanks to Jen Winston (@girlsupplypower) for inviting Native Americans to take over her Instagram site this week and educate and motivate people like me. Check out Allen (lilnativeboy), Urban Native Era, Corinne Oestreich, #DearNonNatives, Tranny Cita, and Cleopatra Tatbele for more info on how to support Native Americans.

Photo credits:
N085/365 Corn Doll by Helen Orozco

Dancing with Relapse – New Publication!

While anorexia was familiar, intoxicating, even empowering, it was also a terrifying hell I thought I’d escaped from.”

After spending a decade in therapy working to finally put my eating disorder behind me, why have I spent the past five years writing a novel about a teenage artist who develops anorexia?

My latest essay, “Dancing with Relapse,” published today on The Women Who Get Shit Done, reflects on recovery, relapse, and the risks and rewards of fictionalizing my past demons in YA novel Bone Girl. Check it out!

Ella, The Man and The Dog

An original short story by Becky Fine-Firesheets

Motherhood filled Ella’s days with meaning yet also made them meaningless. Made the whole world meaningless. How much this little creature needed her, how every task served a clear purpose of keeping him alive, but how unimportant this actually was, how it absolutely didn’t matter to the greater planet or its billions of inhabitants if her baby lived or died.

Late at night when she lied awake despite the fact her baby and boyfriend were sleeping, this awareness of her own smallness and futility terrified her. But most of the time, it was relieving. Freeing, even.

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— ◊ —

The sharp yip of the neighbor’s dog. Ella came to and immediately scanned the room for Dylan, found him on the floor nearby with his manic grin, his fat hand clutching a Lego.

“Oh my God, oh my God, honey.” She stood up – a rush of vertigo. Fighting through the dizziness, the fog, the fear, she stumbled to her baby and collapsed around him. He screamed and kicked; she’d interrupted his game. She released her grip and rolled onto her back, heart pounding so hard she could feel it banging against the hardwood floor beneath her.

It had been over a decade since she’d lost time like this, and then only once and only because of The Man.

— ◊ —

After it had happened, after The Man had leaned in for a goodnight kiss but instead forced himself into her apartment and then into her body, she dreamed of poisoning him. It would have been so easy. Just a quick dash of almond syrup in his morning latte would have been enough to trigger his allergy. The key would be to fix her lips into the same tight food service grin she faked every day, to control her shaking hand as she offered him the drink, to turn to the next customer like nothing was out of the ordinary. But she felt sure she could pull it off – her anger gave her confidence – and she even came close enough once that she’d unscrewed the cap and gripped the bottleneck in her fist.

He was asking for it, she would say afterward, just like she’d overheard him say about her. But doubt rushed through her, and then she lost time and her job and never saw him again.

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 — ◊ —

The relentless barking. Her head pounded with it. The dog had been barking all day long before the baby, but Ella was working a 9-5 office job then and hadn’t noticed. Now that she was a stay-at-home mom, her life split into blocks of play, eat, sleep, repeat, the barking was ruining her life.

My God, she thought, how much did I lose? Misty, her old therapist, had sworn this wouldn’t happen again. But here she was, after all these years. And alone with the baby no less. If only the dog would shut up so she could think! Ella pulled back the curtain of her kitchen window and scanned the neighbor’s yard – watching the poodle shake in desperation, completely immersed in his own anxious hell, gave her some satisfaction (at least he, too, was miserable) – but she didn’t see him anywhere. So why the hell could she still hear him so clearly?

— ◊ —

Of course the original time loss had coincided with a double shift at the cafe. And of course she got fired for running off and never explaining herself. But she was okay with that; brewing the ground espresso, steaming the milk, pouring it out into the shape of a flower then handing it over to The Man with his reeking cologne and thick fingers was killing her day by day, and she knew that despite the holes in her plan (what if he spat it out? what if he had an Epipen?), she was going to do it one day. And then what? Losing the job was for the better.

Still, it took three months to mention the time loss to anyone. It wasn’t meant to be a confession, just a distant, asking-for-a-friend kind of thing during her annual gyno exam, but the doctor’s probing fingers, the questions about her sex life, the sticks and brushes twisting inside of her, unleashed a flood of anxiety and suddenly she was rambling like a child about the missing hours. The doctor suggested she find a therapist but that otherwise, she was well and healthy. Ella was shocked. She was sure the markers of her pain were glaring from every pore, much less the inside of her vagina.

Another month passed before she mustered the courage to go to Misty. Their first appointment was strained, but Misty was naturally kind, and her cardigans and baggy pants, hoarse yet soothing voice, her wrinkled hands and eyes, made Ella feel safe enough to let it all out by visit number two. She hadn’t spoken about The Man to anyone, hadn’t even allowed herself to think of it as rape, and the realization that this had actually happened to her was nauseating and exhausting. By the time she got around to the missing hours, she’d gone numb.

“This kind of thing is scary, yes, but also within the range of normal. Many people disassociate when they’ve experienced a trauma like yours. Together, we can work through it,” Misty said with so much certainty Ella almost believed it.

But later that night, as she rolled the word ‘disassociate’ around her tongue, examining its different parts and what they meant for her, Ella did not believe. She tried out the idea that her brain had become disjoined, dispartnered itself from itself, and now it was her job to bring it back together. But how? She stared at the two shitty choices splayed out in front of her – to overcome it or to get lost in it – and the fear of succumbing to the latter while attempting the former left her paralyzed.

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— ◊ —

A knock on the door. Aggressive, urgent. Ella opened it to find the poodle’s owner, a well-intentioned but neurotic old woman, frantically turning a wrinkled napkin over and over in her fingers. “I can’t find Moxi she’s been missing for hours have you seen her?” she asked in one rapid question.

Ella felt high, fuzzy; only bits and pieces of the words reached her brain. She focused in on the patch of blue nail polish remaining on her thumb and tried to slow down her heart beat.

“Did you hear me? Moxi is missing!”

“That’s awful,” Ella replied, voice steady despite the knot gripping her throat.

“She’s never run off before, never. And the craziest thing is that I haven’t even heard a peep from her. For hours now! I just don’t know what I’d do without my dog.”

Ella opened then closed her mouth. The dog was still barking, she could hear him barking. What the hell was going on?

“Dog!” Dylan shouted from the floor, a word he’d never said before. “Dog dog!”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll keep my eyes open,” Ella managed to say.

“Please do, I’m just desperate. You have my number, right?”

Ella nodded and shut the door, leaned her back against it, slid down to the grainy welcome mat covered in ink from the pen Dylan recently broke.

“Dog dog dog,” he repeated. Then, “Mama. Mama dog, mama dog.”

— ◊ —

Eventually, Ella believed. She talked and sobbed and shouted her way through it, and even though the missing hours never came back to her, she emerged with The Man safely in her past and the shocking ability to fall in love with another man when she wasn’t even looking for it. Motherhood was similarly unplanned, but she was tough, a survivor, and her boyfriend was the good kind who massaged her feet and brought home flowers and cooked lasagna, her favorite, at least once a week, so Ella allowed herself to relax and balloon up with hope.

When Dylan first heaved out from between her legs, slimy and pruney and shrieking, Ella felt the strange twist of unconditional love deep inside her gut. Becoming a giver of this kind of love transformed her so intensely that she was positive everyone she came in contact with would also be transformed in its presence. But no one, not even her boyfriend, reacted to it, and the long stretches of motherhood with so much downtime yet no real break sent her mind on a freefall – until one day not so long ago, she found herself in a ball on the kitchen floor, absolutely repulsed by the fact that she’d still love Dylan even if he raped someone.

— ◊ —

Ella scooped up her baby and slid him into his high chair. She had no answers to any of her questions (how long was she gone? why had she gone? where the hell was that damned dog, and why could she still hear him barking?). The anxiety was getting harder and harder to breathe away. She turned to the island in the middle of the kitchen, grabbed an apple from the silver fruit bowl and instinctively reached for her favorite knife in the block, but its slot was empty. She looked in the sink, the dishwasher, on all the counter tops. Where the hell could it be?

Yip yip yip, throbbed in her ears.

“Just shut the fuck up!” she shouted, then, turning to Dylan, “I’m sorry baby, I’m fine, we’re fine. I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her with an unfazed smile and said, “Mama dog, Mama dog, Mama dog.”

— ◊ —

Photo credits:

  1. 39: Høgevarde by Norefjell / Creative Commons”
  2. Futile by ~Morgin~ / Creative Commons”
  3. “Toaster Oven” by Me 🙂

The BPRS Live TOMORROW, 10/20, 7:30 pm at Freddy’s!

Books and bands and booze, oh my! Can’t wait to perform and celebrate with y’all tomorrow, Saturday October 20th, 7:30 pm at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom. This will be the last BPRS gig for a loooong while; catch us while you can!

No cover, 21+. Words with What Doesn’t Kill You contributors Abby Maguire, Tiffany Berryman, Matthue Roth, and two-time National Book Award Finalist Eliot Schrefer. Americana tunes with Eli Bridges at 8:30, followed by experimental pop rock with duo The Brooklyn Players Reading Society (that’d be me!) at 9:30. See ya there!

What Doesn't Kill You Launch Party