We are back in Oaxaca, Mexico, for three weeks. The fruit bowl has been calling to me.

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I had a kaleidoscope pattern in my office window that I’d made during one of the sessions of Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart through Art I lead monthly. Dan Harper, our Associate Minister for Religious Education, asked if I’d like to make some more to be coloring pages for kids to do during services. So that’s what I’ve been happily doing with a lot of my art time for the past few weeks. Here are four in various stages of completion.

Once again I’m undertaking a daily spiritual practice for several weeks. I’ve called it a Lenten practice in the past, but I’ve become uncomfortable doing so, out of respect for Christians. I don’t take it lightly, but for me it is not a period of repentance, much less preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus, so I don’t want to dilute what is, for others, one of the most sacred seasons of their year.

What I want is to engage in a deeper dive into reflection than I usually do, and for a longer period. The theological context aside, I think Lent has staying power as a practice because it’s both intensive and time-limited. It’s like Ramadan or, in the secular realm, 30-day diets: we can better challenge ourselves when we have a set amount of time in which to go deeper. I have seldom made a go of a daily practice, but seven weeks is something I might be able to sustain.

So far this year, I have. My two practices are to do five minutes of art play every day, ideally first thing in the morning, and to read the daily devotion in Resipescence: A Lenten Devotional for Dismantling White Supremacy, edited by Vahisha Hasan and Nichola Torbett. I learned about this wonderful book just as Lent was beginning, so I didn’t have a copy until about ten days in, but I caught up right away and have continued meditating on one per day. And the art has been a joy.

Do you have any spiritual practices, ether connected to Lent or not?

Black History Month, day 16 (sigh . . . I am not cut out for daily blogging)

I have no interest in seeing yet another movie whose chief interest in racism is how it affects white people. That’s okay now and then–racism does, after all, affect white people–but it is so, so overdone. So I’ll skip Green Book, which last night joined Driving Miss Daisy and (so I’m told–haven’t seen it) Crash on the list of Oscar-bait movies that successfully hooked the big fish by using the most irresistible bait of all: making white people feel as if racism can be resolved without any real sacrifice on our part.

Instead, I’m going to watch the documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, released today. I know a bit about the Green Book, thanks to an exhibit in San Francisco several years ago (I wrote very briefly about it here) and a passage in The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s fascinating book about the Great Migration, in which one of the Southern African-Americans whose stories she tells was driving across the country to California and couldn’t find places to stop. Unable to rent a room, and at risk of being arrested, not to mention attacked, if they pull over and sleep in the car: it’s a system designed to tell black people that they have no worth or dignity.

There may come a year when February 21 passes without my remembering that my late ex-husband was born on this day, but this is not such a year. I think of him and how old he would be: 52 this year–so hard to imagine. I think of his family, especially his mother. I hope they have found ease and that they were able to think of him today with gladness for the 39 years he was with them.

Black History Month, day 16

At the time of its rediscovery in 1981, Our Nig was the earliest known novel written and published by a black woman in the United States. I learned about it at a lecture by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that I attended with my parents not long after that–I think it took place at my high school auditorium. Gates was a young scholar at Yale at that time, and told the audience about how he had come across it in an antiquarian bookstore and, based upon the title, put it on his “Racist Literature” shelf. It wasn’t until later that he opened it and began reading, and realized that the narrator was a black woman whose agenda was fervently opposed to slavery. So was the author, research revealed: Harriet E. Adams Wilson.

At the time that Gates did his research, he wondered why the book didn’t receive more attention at the time of its publication. It was published by a Boston firm in 1859; Boston was the center of a great deal of abolitionist activity; it was known to be by a free black woman (though she remained anonymous at that time). Yet judging from its reception, it was barely known to her contemporaries. How could that be?

Eric Gardner, doing further research ten years after Gates republished the book, proposed an answer that I’m afraid is probably correct: the abolitionists did know all about Wilson’s novel, and did very little to publicize it because it indicted Northern abolitionists.

Many abolitionists may not even have recognized Our Nig as having an anti-slavery message simply because the story takes place in the North, where most abolitionists were not prepared to recognize “slavery’s shadows.”

Furthermore, he writes, it is “far from flattering to Northerners or abolitionists.” He makes the case that Our Nig is the opposite of most slave narratives, and other sympathetic works, of the time, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in that the North is not “portrayed as a magical land where the protagonist will eventually realize the promise of freedom.”

My parents owned the book (they must have bought it after the lecture) and I am pretty sure I read it at that time, but I don’t remember the plot at all. It sounds extremely relevant to our own troubled times, when many white liberals will go so far for racial justice and no farther. Another one for the reading list!

 

Black History Month, day 15

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, traces the history of two branches of a family, from the Asante woman Maame through her two daughters, who are unknown to each other, and their descendants in West Africa (mostly Ghana) and the United States. The telling moves forward in time, alternating between the two lines of descent. We the readers are given what the characters themselves can’t access: a view into the characters’ history. As one of them says, “My grandmother used to say we were born of a great fire. I wish I knew what she meant by that.” We know, because the book begins with the fire. But few of us know much about our ancestors’ lives more than a few generations back, if that.

It is a stunningly beautiful book, making it un-put-downable despite the painful subject matter (war, slavery, convict labor, rape, drug addiction . . . ). It manages to be epic in scope despite being only about 300 pages long. Each portrait is so vivid that I wanted to read an entire novel about just that character. Then the story would move on to the next generation, each person’s story both anchored in history and drifting on its own.

How do we go home, if we know so little of our own heritage? For my part, after reading Homegoing, I feel homesick for villages whose names I don’t even know, where ancestors whose names I might be misspelling lived and dreamed and died. Maybe all we can do is learn the history of those regions, those peoples, and imagine the specific stories, as Gyasi does for people with roots in West Africa and everywhere.

Black History Month, day 14

If people get anything from these posts, I hope it’s something like this: a list of things to read / learn / experience that is so extensive that they have to (and want to!) make black history and the cultural creations of black people a staple of their lives year-round.

It’s absurd and insulting to suggest that black history can fit into one month a year, or that it can or should be separated from the rest of history. I appreciate the focus, and join in it, because it helps direct me into a gorgeous garden that I might otherwise have missed, but I cannot possibly appreciate that garden properly in this brief amount of time. For example, I have read mostly work by African-American writers this month–Yaa Gyatsi, Jacqueline Woodson, Morgan Jerkins, Edward Jones, N. K. Jemisin–but I can only read a handful of books in four weeks. The pile of African-American works still to read takes me into the rest of the year, and that’s the point.

So I would love to know, as February motors toward its conclusion, what you are going to read next month that you haven’t read before, or what artist you will seek out, or what piece of history you will learn, because of a tidbit you have seen here or in one of the many lists of “little-known black history facts” that circulates each February. The comments page is open!

Black History Month day 13

First, the apology. Several years ago, when Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) made a comment that undermined her achievement in a racist way. He apologized (whether adequately from Woodson’s point of view, I don’t know), but I haven’t done so myself, and I need to. I resisted understanding the problem, resisted hearing the voice of my better self, and thus amplified the harm. I won’t go into the details of my response at the time, because I think White People Publicly Repeating Insults They’ve Inflicted Upon Non-White People is part of the problem, but I’ll be happy to go into it privately to anyone who wishes to know more. I just want to apologize: to Ms. Woodson, though she will most likely never know or care anything about my struggles to awake to white supremacy, but more importantly, to friends who patiently tried to get me to see what now seems obvious. Thank you.

I gave my daughter Woodson’s book Harbor Me for Christmas, and of the big pile of books she got that day, it was the first one she read. She recommended it highly and I read it last month. Now I want to read everything Jacqueline Woodson has written. (I didn’t get my daughter Brown Girl Dreaming because I thought it was the one she was most likely to have read already, but she says she hasn’t, and plans to soon.) It’s about a small group of students who become close through sharing their struggles with each other: grief, racism, deportation. Each unsafe in their own way, they seek harbor with one another, as Sweet Honey in the Rock sings:

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew,
A heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child,
A poet, a prophet, a king? . . . (lyrics by Ysaye M. Barnwell)

The book deals with so many issues, but it soars above the young adult “issues” book genre because the characterizations are so  real and the writing so poetic. Stories unfold the way they do in real life, bit by bit and reluctantly. Some loose ends remain loose. I want to learn so much more about the characters, but we probably never will; we were given a glimpse into a few months in their lives and we will just have to wonder what has become of each of them. And try to make their real-life counterparts’ stories end well, by harboring whomever we encounter who needs it.

Black History Month, day 12

Argh, I am getting more behind this weekend. But I can easily post twice tonight, after a quiet day of house-tending.

My daughter, who is intrigued by languages in general, has wanted to learn American Sign Language for a long time. I taught her the alphabet bit by bit when she was nine and we were living in Oaxaca, Mexico–it became something we did on bus journeys–but she hasn’t had access to a class, until now. San Francisco Rec and Parks has an after-school class once a week, total immersion: no speaking. She comes back each week jazzed and remembering every sign they learned that afternoon. They have a day camp this summer, so we’re hoping she’ll get to do an entire week of ASL.

So I was very glad to come across some information about Black American Sign Language. There are many sign languages around the world, and on reflection it isn’t at all surprising that black and white deaf U.S. Americans would generate and learn different languages. Schools for the deaf were segregated just like schools for the hearing, and while the first one was founded in 1817, it did not admit black students for its first 125 years. Deaf people have invented their own languages in the absence of formal schooling; it may be (here I am speculating) that the black and white Deaf communities were as isolated from each other as the black and white hearing communities, leading to similar differences in language.

Sadly, as with white modes of English, white ASL is treated as normative and “mainstream”–note how its name isn’t actually white ASL, but simply ASL–while Black ASL is separate and commonly regarded as inferior. Users of American Sign Language struggled to have their language recognized as a language; do BASL users have a similar struggle within the Deaf world?

I don’t know, but I’m glad that my daughter can be aware of different ASL vernaculars from the beginning. When she knows better sign, she can watch videos such as this one by Dr. Joseph Hill, a linguist and native signer of BASL, to learn more about BASL and maybe even learn two varieties of American sign languages at the same time. The Black ASL Project at Gallaudet will also be a great resource. And she and other people interested in language, power, race relations and culture might want to read The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, by Dr. Hill and three others.

 

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