Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Reading, Writing, and Ralph Ellison

It's Day 3, and I'm working from home today.  Yesterday was easier than Friday, and fingers crossed that today will continue on in that direction.  My story-in-progress is, in fact, progressing, and I've been managing a minimum of two hours of solid, non-stop writing.  Actually, tomorrow could have gone on longer if my stomach would have cooperated.  (Apparently, a sugary tea latte and a Kind bar aren't enough to sustain me.  Who knew?)

My workspace today, lovely but surrounded by more distractions.

The king of distractions when he turns his "sad eyes" on you. 

Margot (aka Kitten Murderface, Aaron Purr, Satan, El Diablo, Bad Hat, Devil Cat, etc) is a distraction for all the wrong reasons.

But despite the frequent breaks to redirect our extremely evil feline away from destruction, I am plugging away, actually looking forward to wrapping up today's blog post and getting to work on my story (while comfortably ensconced in a spot where emergency nourishment is just down the hall.)  But before I do, I want to talk briefly about my most recent read. (Warning: We are leaving the frivolous world of cat pics far behind.)

Yet another entry in my "Books You Should Have Read in School" category.

Ralph Ellison's classic, Invisible Man, was on my list of catch-up books for a while before I spotted a pristine copy at the used bookstore a few months back.  I snagged it and parked it on my TBR shelf ("to be read" for the uninitiated.)  Aside from some very big picture stuff, I knew almost nothing about this book.  But I knew it was important, and that it fell into the embarrassed-I've-never-read-it category (along with a list of books so long I burn with shame.)  So finally, two weeks ago, I picked it up to read, knowing nearly nothing about the plot or characters and only a vague idea of the subject matter.

I wasn't prepared.  Somebody should have warned me.  First of all, this is not a plot-driven novel.  Secondly, this is not a character-driven novel.  The narrator/protagonist is a slippery fish whose personality and desires are almost impossible to nail down.  His beliefs and ideals flip-flop like said slippery fish throughout the book.  Thirdly (third of all? the third thing? these ordinals are getting out of control), this book is mostly people having philosophical arguments with the narrator.  I am not exaggerating.  This book was a slog.  And at nearly 600 pages, it was a long slog.  I kept having to give myself little pep talks to get through it -- especially when the protagonist hits his umpteenth betrayal by someone he trusted.  This book was a bummer.

But here's the thing: Read it anyway.  

Last year, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and it was mind-blowing in all the right, heartbreaking, life-changing ways.  Everything Coates said about the devaluing of the black body in America echoes so perfectly what Ellison calls the "invisibility" of the black man in America (even though I read the Coates book first.)  Read the Ellison and forget that it was set in the last century because, you know what?  It might as well be set today.  Sure, today we make more of a show of not using racial slurs and pretending that there is equal access to jobs and amenities, but the heart of it all remains unchanged.  Time and again we are sold the lie that America is a land of equals, that privilege is a myth, that educated and liberal white men can fix the problems of minorities.  We are told that racism is over, that people are playing the "race card," that whites can experience "reverse racism."  White liberals congratulate ourselves (I'm indicting myself too) on our open-mindedness, our ability to understand something that is beyond our experience.  We talk and talk, and we don't listen.

I'm not going to make some big proclamation or conclusion about finishing the Ellison book (aside from being really relieved to have reached the end for a whole lot of reasons.)  I don't believe it is my job to decide what it all means.  My job is to humbly listen, to read and listen and try to understand, to support those who do know, who have lived the experience, when they try attain positions of power, platforms where they can effect change.  My job is to police my own behavior, my own thoughts, to weed out any remnants of that pernicious subtle prejudice that is deeply rooted in all of those with privilege.  

For those readers who have gotten this far in my post, I'm probably preaching to the choir, but I'm going to say it anyway.  Don't post comments here about your disbelief in white privilege.  Please don't embarrass us both by telling me that you've had a hard life too.  This isn't a hardship contest, and that is not what privilege is about.  If you think it is, then you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.  If that terminology is a stumbling block for you, set it aside.  Read the book anyway.  Read Coates' book (it's super-short, a one-sitting kind of read, though I recommend going slowly and taking it all in.)  I'm not looking for affirmation, praise, a fight, or really anything other than the hope that more people will read and listen and really think about what they see and hear, especially as we approach the election.  Think a little less about talking points and hot-button issues and really listen, not just to what your preferred candidate is saying, but also to what his/her supporters say.  What kind of America/world do they want, and what kind (read: color) of people does it include?  Worry less about your own entitlement and ask yourself what this country needs.  

Don't have any idea what this country needs?  You read and you listen and still don't have any answers?  Neither do I.  And as far as I'm concerned, that I just means I need to listen more.  Maybe being in the middle of uncertainty isn't such a terrible place to be.

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