Monday, October 27, 2008


"When the poet Jean Toomer walked through the South in the early twenties, he discovered a curious thing: black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. They stumbled blindly through their lives: creatures so abused and mutilated in body, so dimmed and confused by pain, that they considered themselves unworthy even of hope. In the selfless abstractions their bodies became to the men who used them, they became more than 'sexual objects,' more even than mere women: they became "Saints." Instead of being perceived as whole persons, their bodies became shrines: what was thought to be their minds became temples suitable for worship. These crazy Saints stared out at the world, wildly, like lunatics--or quietly, like suicides; and the 'God' that was in their gaze was as mute as a great stone." ~ Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens

Why have I started this entry with this particular quote? I am a white woman. And when I say, "But I know of this because I've been there, done that," I am told that a white woman cannot understand the plight of the black woman. I am told that no matter what I have experienced in my lifetime, it is nowhere near what women of color have experienced. If this is so, then why do these words of Alice Walker hold such meaning for me? Enough meaning to affect the story I am writing?

There is this competitive thing among all human creatures. Everyone wants to be top dog. But there are only so many top dog slots. And I recall a thing or two that my mother used to say when I was a kid. "The one who talks the loudest gets the furthest." Who said, "Walk softly and carry a big stick"? "There's always someone else worse off than you, if you think about it long enough." Who said, "You think too much"? "(S)He who laughs last laughs longest and loudest." Who said, "It ain't over til the fat lady sings"?

Disability. If you have a disability and inform the university of it, they will see that you get what you need to have equal opportunity to the same education as everyone else. But, who wants to broadcast their disabilities? If you can't hear, mostly it must be because you're getting old(er). If you're older everyone looks at you and smiles as if to say, "It's admirable that, at your age, you are going to school. But, what are you going to do with it?" "I don't mean to say you're old, but..." If you are too small, too overweight, too anything, you are bullied by other people who are more perfect...well, closer to the ideal human being. If you are over age 37 you can't get a job with the U.S. government because you are "too old." If you are a threat to someone, you are blackballed. If your skin isn't the right color...if you are female...if you are impoverished...

The women in my family who preceded me were deeply spiritual, relying heavily on their faith to endure the hardships that came to them. My great-grandmother spoke about her mother who had "married beneath her station," so her father disowned her. And didn't I read just a few days ago that English aristocrats who didn't want someone to be in their vicinity would pay passage for the offender(s) to the U.S. Louisa and her husband, John, within a month of their marriage, found themselves on the ship, The Atlantic, in New York harbor. They came into the U.S. through Castle Garden, NY, which predates Ellis Island. They made their way to Pittsburgh, Pa. where he secured a job as a bookkeeper. Three years later Louisa was so homesick they packed up their two daughters and their belongings and returned to England. But something unpleasant happened, and the couple, another three years later, returned to Pittsburgh. Great-grandmother said her mama died of a broken heart, even if the death certificate says "enteritis."

When their father was struck by a train and killed in 1891, the children were taken in by various families. Great-grandmother was the second eldest. She was smart and did well in school. So well that the family who took her in were intimidated enough to stop her going to school. She worked cleaning house and working in the fields until she married. Her husband, at least in their older years, was an alcoholic from whom she was rescued by her daughter and son-in-law, my grandparents. My grandfather died at age 48 in 1945. My step-grandfather battered my grandmother. My mother married my father. There were issues--marital and health--between and for each of them. There have been issues--marital, financial--for DH and me. And these things have affected our children, as well.

Everyone lives during hardship at some time in their lives. I'm not sure sidestepping hardship is a good thing because it's the hardships that you endure, from which you rise from the ashes like the phoenix, and come out stronger, wiser and a better person. At least, that's what I have found. Everyone has at least one bully in their lifetimes. Well, that's what I have found in my experiences. Please understand, I am not making a blanket statement, a one-size-fits-all statement that applies to every situation. I can speak only from where I am.

Nobody has burned a cross in my front yard ever. But how many times did I walk around the bend in the road from school and find four or five bullies pinning my little brother to the ground and beating his head against the macadam street? And when I started high school, that jock from the in-crowd...if he saw me 50 times a day went out of his way to humiliate me in front of everyone in the hall--and the hall always seemed to be packed--50 times a day. And I found myself taking alternative routes so he wouldn't see me and start running me down. And the teachers didn't stop that bullying. How many times did someone at church remark that my family "wasn't regular" because we weren't at church every time the doors opened and piety means being at church every time those doors open. Oh. That would be machiavellian thought because Machiavelli wrote that nobody knows who we are on the inside. We are known by how we are on the outside. Which conflicts with something else my mother said, "Don't judge a book by its cover."

I am not saying that women of color haven't been treated horribly. I'm saying that because I'm white does not mean I don't understand hurt, discrimination and cruelty. And I guess my writing is going to reflect that.

William Shakespeare, like all writers, wrote about what he knew. We can't help but do that. It's how we manipulate our experiences to a style that doesn't tattle on the people in our lives, but does have appeal to the masses because they can relate to those things writers write about. So it is little wonder why fledgling writers wet behind the ears are advised, "Write what you know."

Now, get busy. Write what YOU know. Somewhere. In a notebook, journal or diary. In a blog. In a piece of fiction that you will submit. Write what you know.

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