Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Gates of Hell

With six courses to teach (which means 14 times per week in the classroom) plus being the advisor to the Sociology Club plus trying to seal down a permanent position so I can pay my rent for the rest of my life plus helping to plan an 8-day trip to Mexico over spring break AND beginning to learn Spanish plus trying to think about getting things published, I consider it a special day when I get to read a few posts on somebody else's blog. I remember fondly going from blog to blog last summer for hours on end and writing two posts in one day, if I was so inclined.

More recently, I was reaching a point where I wondered what it would take to force me to the mat again. It's not that I don't have topics. I keep a running list of blockbuster ideas I deem worthy and even needful of addressing. And I still have "A European-American Sets Me Straight" to finish...eventually. But I'm rushed in the morning, whipped at night, and running from activity to activity even when I'm home on a Saturday and refuse to get out of my red plaid flannel pajamas. Reading preparation alone for six courses is pushing me into a new pair of glasses.

Then, I checked my emails yesterday and found that I had a new commentator on my latest post.

"Howdy from Oklahoma," he began.

"My wife and I are high school English teachers in urban Oklahoma City high schools. My school is 70% African-American...[and] has all the problems of urban schools. Our students are 90% free/reduced lunch. We have a negative school environment, poor discipline, high absenteeism, high drop out, poor attitude. I've been here 13 years. Recently, I read that black males who drop out of school are twice as likely to be unemployed or in prison than they are to have jobs. So I feel that I can't give in to despair and that I have a holy mission to be here. But I wish I felt more competent. I know how to survive in my school, but I worry that my teaching is ineffective. I'd be glad to get whatever help you can offer me. Thanks, Lynn Green"

And just like that, I'm here. Nodding. Captured like a fly between the window and the screen. Mesmerized by his paragraph like a frog staring at a bonfire, instinctually realizing on some level that no rational person would make even the most well intended attempt to reply to this in public. The fire's too hot and I'm too small. Frogs get their gizzards cooked that way. I've seen it happen. What made him think I'd have pixie dust?

But the thought of Lynn Green standing at the gates of hell, catching bodies and minds and psyches as they fly by, is more than I can resist. Still, where do I begin? He's not really asking me for some kind of tidy answer. He knows better. He's just trying not to buckle under the weight of his holy mission and calling out to someone he thinks will understand.

Oh, Lynn. How do we wind up at the gates of hell anyway? It often feels so difficult--and on some days ridiculous--to keep believing that there's hope. We've been in this phase, after all, for nearly four hundred years. And rather than seeming to move in a healthier direction, it's apparent the blight has spread and is spreading. The forces of evil (if you will) move like a noxious fog over the face of the earth, enveloping more and more people and animals and trees. Much that is beautiful has been torn asunder and left for dead. And still we stand at the gates of hell, prepared to do battle as if we are not mortal, but rather some kind of mythological figure that did not name itself and cannot give up the fight because we never chose it in the first place.

Back in the covered wagon days, when I was going into prisons by court order to speak and counsel and serve, the men used to ask me, "Why are you doing this?" And I would say, "Anybody can do time. I'm just doing what I would hope someone would do for me, if I was locked up." But the fact is, I didn't know the answer. I was just being glib. Not that the answer I gave them wasn't true, but how did I come to know that? WHY did I want to do what I would hope someone would do for me, if the tables were turned?

For everyone of us standing at the gates of hell, there's a hundred thousand or more just schlepping along through life the best they can, thinking about remodeling the bathroom or trading in the car or planting a bigger (or a smaller) garden this year. And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with planting gardens or remodeling bathrooms? They earned it, didn't they? I mean, the poor (and the disenfranchised and the suffering and the wartorn) are always with us, aren't they? How does it get to be someone's holy mission to do something about it when there may be nothing to be done; that is, when there's no easy answer and it might all just get worse?

One thing's for sure: you don't volunteer for these gigs at the gates of hell. Nobody in their right minds by any popularly understood and accepted general standard would volunteer to put their heart on an altar on a daily basis and then set it on fire day after day while we miss many more than we're ever able to catch. We drop in exhaustion at the end of a trying day, only to arise and do it again, as if we had no perception of any other option. And when others say, "I couldn't do what you do," we think "I can't do it either. But I do..."

I look back over the different gates I've stood at--the prisons, the drug facilities, the juvenile lock-ups, the residential programs, the social service offices, the universities--and the faces come back to me like Botticelli paintings. The man who'd been in the hole for five years already in the dark side of a hill, leaning close to the bars and whispering "How do you learn to love again after you've forgotten what it feels like?" The bright-skinned Latino kid who wrote a play about the street and wouldn't discuss being forced to rob people at gunpoint to feed his mother's crack habit. The African-American kid who went back to detention for jumping a cop who was manhandling his friend in the courtyard of the facility--while the staff watched. The endless string of beautiful young women of color who admit with their eyes flat that they accept "dates" to pay the bills and buy their kids school supplies. The elderly African-American woman we found sitting alone in her dark, cold kitchen without food because she was too embarrassed to tell anyone her checks had been stopped and she didn't have anyone to help her. The college athlete forced to attend workouts at five in the morning, so he falls asleep in class, knowing no one really cares if he graduates. The Jamaican boy supporting six younger siblings who I saw stopped on the street by a police officer in broad daylight. I had worked with the boy in the past and just happened to be across the street to witness and then intervene as the officer proceeded to bounce the boy's head back into a brick wall every time he gave the "wrong" answer to a question. And where are they all now?

The schools are full of stories, full of pain. I used to tell "my" boys that learning to read is the most revolutionary act they could commit, but most of them did not imagine themselves to be revolutionaries. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," they would say, a sentence I had first heard in the prisons two decades before.

For a while there at one point, a decade ago, I'd have ten-minute conversations with a boy who literally couldn't say three words without using some kind of sexual term. So--for as long as he could stand it--we would practice having casual conversation. About television. Or the weather. Or some other equally irrelevent topic. The goal, of course, being to talk without the "F-word" appearing even once as a noun or a verb or an adjective. And he eventually managed to get into a slot at a vocational rehab program. But I found him in the adult Department of Corrections data base the other day and had to stop looking up names because, after locating three of "my boys" grown up, but in jail, it was starting to get to me.

I used to give them candy as rewards for reading, nutritional guidelines be damned. Snickers bars were very popular (I wonder if there's a commercial in that somewhere?). And that was before I saw "Dangerous Minds." When I brought mini-chocolate bars to my college classrooom once last semester, I thought of the boy who shut the blinds and locked the door so that no one would know I was teaching him to read. I had found a 70-page book about car engines at the second grade reading level and when he finished it, he announced, "That's the longest book I've ever read!" and then demanded immediately: "Where's my Snickers?"

One year, I asked a roomful of sixteen-year-old minority summer school students why they thought so many kids drop out and they decided that not being able to read is one big reason. They agreed that it's embarrassing to admit by the time you're a teenager that you can't do the work because you can't read the words. So kids "act up" and get thrown out of class to avoid the humiliation of having their "secret" known.

When I suggested telling the teacher in the class, they assured me that when they tried that, they are often brushed off with an unapologetic, "That's not my problem. You should have learned that already."

"It's not your fault if you can't read," I told them, "It's the system's. Everyone of you wants this or you wouldn't be sitting here. The school board is supposed to see to it that you're provided a basic education. And reading's about as basic as you can get. It would have been great if you'd been able to get it before now, but you have a right to this and you need it, if you're going to be able to live a decent life. So if you don't know how to read, walk up to your teacher and say 'I need to read!' And if they won't help you, go to an administrator and say 'I need to read!' Until you find someone that will help you, no matter how many you have to approach." Did they? I don't know.

I remember doing an interview on the phone once for a piece of research I was doing on gang boys. I was on the phone so I wouldn't risk compromising the kid by knowing what he looked like, depending on what he decided to tell me. He was an articulate African-American boy--fifteen-years-old--and seemed both mature beyond his years and quite intelligent. When he told me that he had dropped out of school, I asked him why and he said, "Because all my friends dropped out."

"I didn't ask you about your friends," I countered. "I asked you why you dropped out."

This time, he considered my question for a moment before answering matter-of-factly, "I got tired of being treated like I was stupid." And I thought to myself, "I'll bet you did."

I mentored him just the tiniest bit and he went back to school, graduated, and got a good job at the university, where--as an employee--he could take courses for free, which he did. Then, he got married and bought a mobile home, so I thought he had beaten the odds, but the last I heard, he was back in the streets. I don't know what caused him to fall back, but I can only imagine how difficult it is to be a young African-American man or woman in a racist society.

The bottom line, Lynn, is that standing at the gates of hell is a head butt on a good day. And for every success story, there's gonna be twenty or thirty or more you're going to have to watch get past you. But keep in mind that somewhere up the road, there just might be another person who's successful where you haven't been. And, besides, you don't know what all you're really accomplishing. Have you ever seen a tiny sprig of green climbing up out of a crack in a sidewalk? Your biggest job, in the end, is to plant seeds, seeds that you may never see grow, but that will grow just the same.

Often, when I speak to a group or even a single person, I will think to myself, "Now what do I want to put in this person's mind, if this is my only shot ever?" On one such occasion, a boy in a facility I was working for was about to be arrested for murder. Everybody knew that if he got word of it, he would go over the wall. And he was hard to talk to anyway. But I had to say something. So, I walked up to him in the courtyard, stood there a minute and said simply, "No matter what, change is always an option. You know that, right?" He looked me dead in the eye--something I had not seen him do with anyone yet--and said, nodding, "Yes."

Sometimes, that has to be enough.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Oh, Lord, I'm Back To School...

with little time to blog or visit blogs. Nevertheless, I want to point to a couple of things you should check out:

The first is "Freedom Writers." I expected it to be a re-make of "Dangerous Minds." All I have time to say is that it's better than that. Hillary Swank had the suave to stay out of the way and let the movie be the story of the kids whose work appears in the book, which I intend to buy. If you've been following my "How To Be An Ally" series, see this.

Secondly, Rachel introduced an excellent website this week called Understanding Race. It's a project of the American Anthropological Association and quite interesting. Kudos to Rachel for this.

Lastly, Peacechick Mary makes some important points here. They are not so much specifically related to race, but it's a short jump to understand the racial implications of her very astute and well-described observation.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

"Yep! It's In There."

At thefreeslave, there are some serious statements being made. Huzzah, huzzah! I'm haunting that blog these days and you will, too, if you aren't already and you relate to what I write. Start with this post, for example, on White progressive resistance to accepting that one cannot be raised as a European-American in the USA without being infected by "the virus" of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism. Then, sample at will.

Oh, yeah, and don't miss the duets Maxjulian (thefreeslave) and Askwhy have been engaging in over there (such as this one). Music like that feeds the soul!

You're welcome. ;^)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Goodbye To The Monkey House

What seems like a long, long time ago, when I was a young woman blazing a trail through a life she made no attempts to control, I somehow came across "Welcome to the Monkey House" by Kurt Vonnegut and related in one way or another to almost every story. His ascerbic wit and magical thinking expressed for me the wildness of what I saw all around me, in which I was so anxious to participate.

"Welcome to the Monkey House" was not my first experience with this kind of relating to the written word and its authors. I still remember a very strange short story I read in the Saturday Evening Post when I was eight. By the time I was fourteen, I was writing very strange short stories myself. And at eighteen, I was reading the short stories in Playboy (who could afford the well-respected writers I wanted to read and anyway, I didn't know about The New Yorker at that point).

The first book I devoured was J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, and Seymour, an Introduction," which I used like a Bible for the early years of my adulthood, which might explain why I hardly came up for air, burning the candle in the middle (rather than both ends the way ordinary wild ones do).

Don't get me wrong; I'm not blaming Salinger for anything. I just mean that his words lured me out of the mundane middle class sleepnotic state in which I was raised into a grander internal adventure. He woke up all my dogs, as it were. And some of them were given to rooting in garbage.

"All we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next," he wrote. "He was kind of a paranoic in reverse; he suspected the universe of conspiring to make him happy," he wrote. The message I got: that words can reach out and talk to strangers. That you can blow them up like balloons and release them to float away endlessly. And that, once released, you can hurry to the next fire, the next adventure, the next idea, the next opportunity, the next balloon. Oh my God! I was so alive!

It was no accident to me that Vonnegut named his title story "Welcome to the Monkey House." It was decades later before I discovered sociology, but I still refer even yet to "the monkey house" of society, belligerantly refusing to explain to the hapless listener. Are we not, after all, just primates in cages of our own construction in a building we call home, having long since lost any ability to imagine or implement a freer, healthier, more joyful existance? Beating each other with thigh bones over food we don't enjoy and going in and out of heat, we manifest a reality I long to label--in spite of everything--a "little piece of holy ground." So I followed Salinger's pipe like the child of Hamelin I was and eventually found my voice, thanks to a man named Richard who had found his voice in a dark hole in a federal prison.

When I go back and read the revolutionary rhetoric being published under my name in 1972, my voice, amazingly, is the same. It is my voice, still. The same voice I use in the classroom or in front of any group. The same voice I use when I'm interviewed. The same voice I use with my friends, family, and students. On this blog. Even in emails and letters. I am sometimes quieter, less intense, but slip down the rabbit hole at a moment's notice, have learned to accept the floor giving way, have learned to accept the raised temperature, the amused expressions, the fact that some people follow me around for this. The fact that I sometimes feel as if I'm channeling some larger manifestation. The fact that I sometimes know I am. The fact that it doesn't matter. I'm not in control.

Would I choose this voice? There are those who suggest we do choose our adventures, and in any case, I wouldn't have it any other way. But I haven't always felt like this. There was a lot of pain at one point or another. A lot of it. And some confusion, too. And a good dollop of self-loathing, I think, at least for some years. Being in overdrive. Following the breadcrumbs with no idea whatsoever of where they were leading, but taking them as reassurance in a forest frightening, if not primely evil.

And now? It is 2007. I consider the surprises that came in the last twelve months, mostly pleasant and all pleasantly resolved. I consider the small triumphs, indicators, I have decided, that I am on the right track and moving in a direction that will likely bring new and greater triumphs. And I consider the guidance I have received from supporters that did not even exist twelve months ago when I started this blog.

This year there is every possibility that I will move far away from where I am now to a vastly different type of geographical location. I have been where I am now for nearly six years, which is average for me. I am hungry for a higher energy level or perhaps an even lower one--some change that will focus me more strongly on the task at hand--the reduction of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism against people of color in general and African-Americans in particular.

This year there is every possibility that I will move at least one and possibly two or even three of my books. I don't know how to explain the sense I have of this. I am entering my book on race to a creative non-fiction competition, but I'm sure there will be many others. I have already joined a writer's organization, paid the registration fee for their conference in February, reserved my room and even booked my flight, but that's certainly no guarantee of anything. I originally set as a goal to have 200 Word document pages of this blog in a year (toward eventual publication, I hope, as a follow-up to my other book on race) and I will reach that goal in a post or two, with much feedback that what I write is sound and valuable and maybe even startling (yay!), but that doesn't seal anything down. Still, there is a knowing in my gut that it is all coming to fruition.

In 2005, when I finished "Reduced to Equality," I had no idea that even excellent books can take years--and multiple submissions--to get published. Like a fresh recruit to the army of official wordsmithery, I was ready to go on the road, alert in my desire to show off my newly acquired commitment. I purchased clothing that would travel. I even bought a passport. And then I sat.

I was befuddled. This wasn't the way it was supposed to go, I mumbled in a disgruntled voice. I was supposed to be standing on a stage somewhere fighting the good fight against racial oppression. Forget that I was already fighting it. Forget that I had been fighting it for more than forty years already. Forget that I'm not a General, let alone a Commander-in-Chief, but rather more of a petty officer, as it were, just "waiting for orders." Forget that I have even yet personal issues that get in my way psychically. I was ready to move, dammit! But still I sat.

I went into something of a funk. Even refused to write anything but this blog for a while--months and months actually. Quit sending out my query letters. Played a lot of computer games. Threw myself into teaching in a way that screamed "avoidance tactic." But the shift has come anyway. I can feel it, though it's hard to explain rationally. What's going to happen? I'm not sure. But it's gonna be an interesting year, that much I know. And now that I've stopped chafing at the bit, I can eye the track a bit more evenly, shaking out my muscles, finally ready to run the way I've been prepared to do, not frantically, but with joy. It's going to be a very good year. Goodbye, monkey house; hello, yellow brick road.