I pulled this novel out of a stack being cleaned, sorted, and packaged for the bookstore. I try not to do that very often. If I did, we’d be inundated with books (we already are, truthfully). But I’ve heard about this book since high school, and somehow managed not to have read it yet. So, out it came.
I guess I expected fireworks. The book is pretty famous, after all. But it took me a minute (or a few chapters) to get into it. And then, I was in.
It’s not a page-turning, wait with baited-breath kind of story. It is honest. And uncomfortable. It’s sweet and rough, gut-punching and tender. It’s human. Painfully and beautifully so.
What makes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so brilliant–and powerful–is the unflinching deconstruction of deeply held notions about poverty, simply by describing daily life for the working poor. Smith constructs a compassionate (but still relatively neutral) narrator to traverse class customs and behaviors, breaking down stereotypes and offering the reader insight.
Francie, the child of an alcoholic father and a work weary mother, feels injustices deeply. She can also get “drunk” on a flower or a perfect night sky. My favorite line in the book is Francie’s: “The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself.”
Yes! I’ve felt this my whole life, but I’ve never known anyone else to give voice to that feeling. Until now. And that might be one of the best gifts of a good book.
Sometimes, my stubbornness pays off. This book is one of those times.
I got through one chapter of The Wednesday Wars– and I wanted to quit.
My passion is middle grades fiction. I adore it. And this book had a Newberry Honor Medal right on the cover. But I was bored. I didn’t take to Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, right away. He kept prattling on about Treasure Island, which I’d never read & didn’t give a flying fig about. Plus, he seemed kind of whiny.
But I kept reading…
The Wednesday Wars turned out to be one of the most moving, gut-punch real feelings books I’ve read in a while. I will cop to being enamored that much of the book works its way around and through Shakespeare’s plays (the Shakespearian curses–and the big themes, too). It’s set in 1967-68, so the book also reckons with the Vietnam war and the tense political climate (A+.for being historical without feeling preachy or teachy).
I loved all those things… but most loved that Gary D. Schmidt creates a seventh grade protagonist who likes Shakespeare AND baseball, who says stupid things AND cares deeply that he said them, who is learning AND feeling AND making the reader laugh. (And maybe cry, too.) Schmidt’s artful turns of plot and his ability to narrate with stark honesty and beauty made this book a stand-out.
We need more protagonists like Holling: boys who are sensitive, kind, brave, and real. And seventh graders need more adults who take them seriously, who listen, and who remember how hard seventh grade can be.
I didn’t immediately get swept away in Grant Park’s narrative. The cover promised a lot: a thriller that critically examines race in America. The thriller part never quite delivered for me. But the nuanced look at race in America, that rang a lot truer. I’m glad I hung in for it.
Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote columns for the Miami Herald for years. And it shows. He’s able to write characters that grapple with racial issues (internally & externally)–as well as expose the less noble parts of folks exasperated by the national conversation about race (or lack thereof). He lets you inside the heads of a successful black journalist and a kind-of-successful, white newspaper editor–both of whom are fed up with the racial tableau in America. But, because this is a good piece of writing, nothing about the two men is quite as straight forward as it seems.
As a white reader, I never felt preached at. But I also didn’t feel pandered to. Pitts showed dogged determination in giving his readers an honest look at what it’s like to be black in America. Pitts creates a narrative that demonstrates that no group exists as a monolith–not black folks, not white folks–and that we can still be redeemed. But redemption means wrestling with our own selves first, conquering our own demons. And then listening to each other. One by one. Redemption isn’t wholesale. According to Pitts, the fight might be won one soul at a time.
I went to the Capitol to demand that Georgia Count Every Vote. I left with a much deeper understanding of race in America.
When this came across my Facebook feed earlier this week, I immediately cleared my schedule to go:
I believe that protest DOES matter, that it can change things. And I’ve also come to believe that it is time for white women to shoulder a far more significant share of the burden of protest. Women of color have carried us for far too long. It’s time to step up and do work that benefits ALL women and all people (white feminism is notorious for it’s disregard for the plight of WOC, trans women, poor women).
Protests also connect me with other folks waging an internal war against the injustices in America. They make me feel like I am DOING something. Something tangible. Something real.
I marched through the streets of Atlanta during the summer of 2016 to protest the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. And I believe it mattered. Seeing white faces protesting black deaths changes the narrative. This is not a “black problem.’ It is an American problem. It is a race problem. And white folks must play a role–a significant role–in solving it.
At every big march I’ve attended, with thousands of people protesting impending fascism, blatant racism, & police brutality, I’ve been aware of the potential for violence from the police. When I walked into the Capitol on Tuesday, the thought never crossed my mind. Why would it? We were there to demand that the state of Georgia count every vote. That is a concept SO BASIC to democracy that there couldn’t possibly be an issue.
The rally/protest began with a prepared statement about why we were there & what we wanted:
From there, we headed to the Secretary of State’s office with a demand to, you guessed it, count every vote. That looked a lot like a bunch of folks trying to crowd in an itty bitty room:
Are you bored yet? Good. Because that’s the thing… NOTHING wild was happening. People weren’t shouting obscenities. Or zip-tying themselves to furniture. But, one of the Georgia State Patrol officers was NOT feeling us being there. He muscled his way through the crowd, insisting that we couldn’t sing or chant because there was BUSINESS going on in the Capitol. (He’s right. Legally, it seems, singing & chanting is a no-go. But the defense of basic democracy is pretty serious business, too)
At that point, the officer said if there was singing or chanting, we’d be removed from the Capitol. Now, maybe it’s my white girl naiveté, but I thought “removed from the Capitol” meant kicked out. What else could it mean?
These are images of the protest in full swing. Clearly, I did not sense any danger lurking. I’m taking goofy pictures of a statue of a dead white guy & my super-cool sign, for God’s sake. Yes, people cheered. And yes, they started to sing. Singing. They were SINGING.
I could sense the cops, especially the one who’d been on & on about the BUSINESS occurring in the Capitol, getting more tense. And then, suddenly that same Georgia Patrol pushed past me to grab the woman pictured above. I was doing the exact same thing she was. Exactly. Yet, he pushed me out of the way to grab her (roughly. Way too forcefully, since she’d been SINGING and holding a sign just a minute before). She started yelling because her purse had been on the floor next to her, and she was being dragged away from all her personal belongings. He was screaming at her that they’d get her purse to her. Screaming.
I finally pulled my shit together enough to grab her purse for her & start taking pictures. But I was hella freaked out. Hence the burry, shaky pictures.
Knowing, intellectually, that black people are more at risk for arrest is one thing. Seeing that kind of racism play out is another. And, through my head the whole time ran the refrain: What if they kill her? What if they kill her? What if they kill her? And I knew, in that moment, that I didn’t do enough. Because I was scared. But I should’ve put myself between her & the officer. Because he only targeted her because she was black. And I knew it. But I didn’t put myself between him and her. And I regret it.
This is what unfolded as I was processing my own fear & regret:
None of the arrests that took place yesterday should’ve happened. But the force with which these first arrests were executed by someof the officers was frightening. And illuminating. I know black folks move through a different America than I do. I am privileged simply because of the color of my skin–and that’s some bullshit right there. But KNOWING it and SEEING it are different. And it cannot be unseen.
In the face of all this excessive force and the questionable nature of the arrests themselves, there were 2 officers that I saw trying damn hard to do their jobs with integrity. Both of them are visible in the photo of the young black man being handcuffed above. The black officer made every attempt to de-escalate an incredibly tense and increasingly volatile situation. From where I was standing (and I was close), he appeared to be patting the young man on the back to reassure him and was speaking to him in low tones in an effort to calm the situation. The white officer next to him (with his back to the camera) showed basic humanity by picking up the young man’s glasses and phone and handing them to one of the man’s acquaintances, ensuring that they didn’t get lost or broken.
After the initial round of arrests, the police presence remained tense. They were prepping for more arrests on their walkie-talkies. NOT preparing to ask folks to leave. Preparing arrest them. And arrest them they did. One after one, they paraded out black protesters. And apparently, even being a state senator didn’t offer any protection:
But whiteness was enough to protect Representative David Dryer, who was standing right next to Senator Nikema Williams, from getting arrested. He knows it. Anyone who was there yesterday has no doubt that it’s true. Listen to him tell the story:
Nothing I experienced yesterday was unique. Not in America. The idea that somehow we live in a post-racial world grows more absurd by the day. And it is only my privilege as a white woman that has kept me from experiencing this type of police aggression and blatant racial targeting before now.
Black folks have been telling us what’s up for years. Good for you if you’ve been listening. But as racism and aggression grows in America, it’s not enough to be intellectually opposed to racism. As white people, we must become virulently anti-racism. We must put our bodies between black bodies and the aggressor that seeks to harm them. And I’ll be the first to tell you that’s going to be scary as hell. But the future of our country depends on it. Be certain of that.
Let’s just say that, after our Thanksgiving convo mishap this morning, I am VERY thankful that successful parenting doesn’t hinge on ONE conversation. Especially if it takes place in carline before I’ve had enough coffee.
Jane & I talk a lot. I mean that in the sense that we’re both superbly loquacious AND that we have lots of pretty cool conversations.
This morning, on the way to school, we were chatting about Dress for Success Day. She’s dressed as a teacher, although her first choice was scientist. Her Bobby & I failed her on that one–her lab coat and goggles are still languishing somewhere in storage. (We’re like 85% moved in, but both Simon & I are avoiding the storage unit like the plague. I’ve suggested just burning it to the ground instead of trying to weed through all that random/extraneous stuff, but Simon seemed to think that was a little extreme. Whatevs.) So, Jane opted to be a teacher, complete with a bun, glasses, an apple, and a name tag. Super cute.
Mornings are Jane’s best time of day. She’s optimistic, energetic, loving, and kind. Definitely a morning person (x 1billion). She had just finished listing things she was excited about (they are numerous), when I decided to jump in with, “Let’s chat about Thanksgiving for a sec.”
Now, by the time she’d paused for a breath and I got around to this topic, we’d just pulled into the morning carline. I rushed on, “You know, that stuff about the pilgrims and the Native Americans… it’s not really true. They weren’t friends.”
At this point, I’m not sure if she doesn’t remember this conversation from last year. Or if she doesn’t want a lecture about human rights first thing in the morning. Or if she just wonders why they lie about pilgrims at school. But something is amiss. Because she’s just kind of looking at me (I’ve turned my head around to have this conversation, because carline in a weird time warp in which time actually stands still).
Instead of realizing this is not the right time, or that I’m running up against disinterest, or any of the other things I could’ve realized, I pressed on. (It was early, y’all. I’d only had one cup of coffee)
“White settlers weren’t friends of the Native Americans. They wanted to take their land and send them away, not live in peace with them.”
Then… Wait for it….
“It would’ve been better if instead of helping the settlers, the Native Americans had just let them die.”
What the FUCK?!? Who says that???? Me, apparently. Me, first thing in the morning in carline.
But, problems with my hasty/half-ass narrative aside, her response was perfect. She looked at me, sighed, and said, “Mommy, I’m going to get out of the car now, okay?”
How she kept from rolling her eyes all the way back into her head at me, I’ll never know. But she did. And, fortunately for me, talks about social. issues, race, and representation are ongoing in our house. And usually my timing isn’t completely sucktastic. So, I’ll get another stab at this in which I don’t suggest letting anyone die.
I’d always wondered, though, if I’d know if she was completely uninterested in what I was sharing with her. Turns out, yes. She knows how to be crystal clear.
Good on her.
Here’s a New York Times piece on the myth vs. reality of Thanksgiving. I’ll probably read this & a few other resources before embarking on this conversation again. And I’ll have another cup of coffee. Couldn’t hurt. Might help.