On Sunday night like many, many people during these troubled times, my sleep was… well… troubled. I’d intended to start a blog post on Monday. And on Sunday night I tossed and turned trying to think of what to write. What to say. How even to begin. I am not American, and I felt that I had no right to weigh in on the situation unfolding in the States following the killing of George Floyd last week.
But since Hubby and I had been watching the protests every day on television, and then the posturing of politicians as a result of the protests, that is what was on my mind. To the exclusion of most other things, including the pandemic. So how could I write about anything else? And how to write something that did not sound like insincere bandwagon jumping. That did not sound mealy-mouthed, or self-satisfied, or condescending. Or as if I thought I had all the answers. Or any answers at all. When I don’t.
Then early Monday evening Hubby and I watched President Trump’s press conference. The address in which he vowed to deploy the military against the protesters. Said, “Our country always wins.” You can see that speech here, if you haven’t already. For a minute or so afterward, Hubby and I just stood there in our living room, looking at each other. Me in my apron, still wearing oven mitts and holding a spatula since I’d rushed in from the kitchen. Hubby just out of the bath, holding his towel, and still dripping a little. And finally Hubby said, “What the fuck, Suz?” And in that moment, I felt a little teary, and scared. Scared for those kids protesting in Washington who’d been only moments before driven back by the police on horseback, scared for all the kids out on the streets in all the cities waving their signs so earnestly. It felt to me like the day the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The term “teachable moment” is one teachers talk about a lot. When events conspire to make the lesson you are trying to teach students so much more meaningful and thus lasting. I was teaching science fiction novels to fifteen-year-old high school kids in 1989. Novels about totalitarian societies, in fact. The nightly news of the goings on in China helped me explain the literature. And the literature helped students to come to terms with the world that was unfolding before them.
And the other night I wished for a few minutes that I was still teaching. Not because I wanted to “use” the events of the last couple of weeks in my classroom, even though, if I were still in the classroom, I would do so in a heartbeat. But because by using those events, finding news clips, and writings about racism, articles, podcasts, and poetry and talking about it all with my students would be at least something I could do. Something useful. So I didn’t feel so helpless. So superfluous to requirements, so to speak.
Instead we turned the television off and ate our supper. And later I scrolled through Instagram, and saw that a former student of whom I am very fond, and who I follow on Instagram, had posted a black square in her feed to support the “Blackout Tuesday” movement in solidarity with those protesting racial inequality and the death of George Floyd. People “muted” their own content to allow the voices of those who needed to be heard to be stronger. So I followed Allison’s lead. I “muted” my IG account with that little black square, and turned off my phone, determined to stay off social media, and the internet entirely, on Tuesday.
It wasn’t much, posting that little black square. But it was a start. It didn’t feel fake. Even though the campaign went a bit wrong like so much on social media these days, filling up the “Black Lives Matter” feed with black squares and apparently pushing out posts that attempted to convey important information about the protests.
So maybe posting that little black square wasn’t actually “a start” after all. But it didn’t feel wrong.
I’d hesitated posting on FB or IG about the protests and about racial injustice in general, despite all the admonitions that “silence is complicity.” I shared a couple of articles posted by people who have solid credibility in my view, but said nothing myself. Then on Sunday, I read Haley Nahman’s post on Maybe Baby. She expressed exactly what I had been feeling. That the facile nature of social media makes it too easy to post a bunch of stuff which espouses values we don’t necessarily demonstrate in our real lives.
When I hesitate to speak out online, it’s not because I don’t care, am unsure of whether it’s my place, or don’t know evil when I see it, it’s because the medium of social media so often lulls us into believing it’s enough. That the right post makes us Good.Haley Nahman, Maybe Baby no 9.
Okay, so maybe posting that little black square wasn’t a start in the way of doing something helpful or constructive. But Tuesday itself was a start for me. For me “Blackout Tuesday” meant that I didn’t angst about what to write on my blog. I read some articles, worked out, did some housework, listened to a couple of podcasts. Mostly ignored the news. Drove to the bookstore to pick up a book that I’d ordered in February, and which had been sitting in the store since mid-March. And thought a lot about teachable moments.
Not from the point of view of the teacher, but from the point of view of the student. If I couldn’t do anything else useful, I would try to become a student myself, and let this be my teachable moment.
My friend Frances who blogs over at Materfamilias Writes has been reading the book How To Be an Anti-Racist. On her IG feed the other day Frances’ daughter quoted American writer Ijeoma Oluo who said that “Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.” So we don’t have to be perfect, just self-aware, understand that we’re not perfect, and commit to learning, and to trying to change ourselves. We can be the student, not the teacher. There’s something very freeing about that idea.
And this morning I contacted my former student Allison Dore who I mentioned above. Allison has so much street cred, I knew she would have some advice about where I might start.
I taught Alison years ago, and watched her grow from a mature-beyond-her-years fourteen year old to a funny, funky, book-loving nineteen year old, passionate about causes, and, well, about everything as I recall. We were reunited a few years ago through Facebook, and I went along with friends to see her perform at a local comedy club. She hadn’t changed. We were so happy to see each other that night. I remember we laughed about the time when she was a senior, and a passionate animal rights supporter, and wore a spotted faux fur coat to class. When she walked by my desk that morning, I said in a stern voice, “Oh, Allison. How many stuffed animals had to die to make that coat?” She rolled her eyes, and replied, “Good one, Ms Burpee.”
To date I think that is one of my best lines. Sigh. I’m not the comedian Allison is, but I try.
I’m very proud of her, actually. She has overcome a lot, has a successful radio career, and in the last few years has founded the record label Howl and Roar which aims to reflect the diversity of voices in the comedy industry.
Allison is still committed to social justice causes, and she still loves to read. She recommends The Skin We’re In by Canadian writer Desmond Cole, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and anything by Maya Angelou or James Baldwin, two of her favourites. She suggests this list from Town and Country magazine, which appeals to me since there’s both fiction and non-fiction. And this list of ten documentaries, which look really interesting. You can link to each documentary directly from the article.
So I’m going to make a start. It feels right, I think, to be a student at this stage of my life.
We are none of us finished. We are each a work in progress. Certainly here in Canada we shouldn’t feel complacent; we have our own demons to deal with.
So… I have homework to do… and for now… it’s a start.
P.S. In a post written by Kelly Johnson on the blog Cupcakes and Cashmere I found a wonderful list of fiction written by black women as well as a bunch of IG accounts to follow. I’ve ordered one book from the list and subscribed to a couple of the IG accounts which are all written by avid readers.
P.P.S. You can read about and donate to The Bail Project here.