What Can White Allies Do?
So often, white allies ask me, “What can I do? What can I do?” I get it. They are overwhelmed. They want to do something but don’t know where to begin. I get it.
But sometimes, I just want to scream, “I. Don’t. Know.” I don’t know, dammit, because really, sometimes, I just don’t have a clue. I wake up some mornings and I read or hear a story that gives me hope. A story where a crime was interrupted by some kindhearted stranger or some child steps up and stops a bullying situation. Those stories make me believe in humanity. Those stories make me feel like maybe, just maybe we can figure out this thing called Life.
But then there are other mornings when I wake up and I think, “We are screwed. We are so screwed.” Sadly, I’ve been feeling that last emotion more and more. More and more, I find myself focusing on the names and the faces of those cut down by the bullets and the hands of those who were hired to serve and protect and I wonder, where is the love? Where is the kindness? Where is the humanity? I think about Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Kajieme Powell. Rumain Brisbon. Akai Gurley. John Crawford. Yvette Smith. Miriam Carey. Johnathan Ferrell. Rekia Boyd. Shereese Francis. Aiyana Jones. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. And the names go on and on and on and on and on and…On. I ask myself, what can white allies do to help right this ship? What can they do to help stop this madness?
I grapple between wanting to say, “Figure it out yourself,” to wanting to have something concrete to offer up. So, below are just a few suggestions that you can do if you are feeling helpless like so many of us:
Nickole Brown has written another masterpiece. Yes, I said it. A masterpiece. Fanny Says is a rollicking tribute to Nickole’s unapologetic, sassy grandmother, Fanny. Similar to Nickole’s tender, yet raw tribute to her sister in her 2007 novel-in-poem, Sister, we get to see the rough edges, the underbelly of this irreverent but loving grandmother through Nickole’s amazing poetic acrobatics that truly illustrate the fact that Nickole knows how to turn a phrase and she isn’t afraid to show her grandmother’s blemishes as well as her beauty marks. Fanny Says is 138 pages of lush language, written in the dialect of those warm spirits from Nickole’s old Kentucky home, but contrary to some writers, Nickole doesn’t poke fun or make caricatures out of the people of her youth – No – she gives the reader a true glimpse into a world where a word like fuck takes on a whole new meaning when uttered by the acerbic tongue of Miss Fanny. Grandma Fanny takes this one word and turns it into, of all things, a term of endearment.
Nickole writes of the “f” word that would regularly flow from the lips of her grandma:
[it is] often preceded by well, with the “u” low
as if dipping up homemade ice cream, waiting to be served
last so she’d scoop the fruit from the bottom, where
all the good stuff had settled down.
As I mentioned, Nickole does not censor her portrayal of her grandmother, and as a result, the reader is given a glimpse into the type of southern women I grew up around. The type of women who loved hard even when life didn’t love them back with the same fire and fierceness. The type of women who said awful, hurtful things out of ignorance and their own stubbornness, but were still the type of women who would fight to the death for their kin and their friends. There were places in the book where Fanny did not endear herself to me. To be honest, there were times during my reading of Fanny Says when I flinched from Nickole’s raw portrayal of her grandmother, Fanny. I found myself putting down the book several times, saying to myself, “I can’t deal with this woman anymore.” But I always found myself coming back to the book. That’s what Nickole’s writing does to you. She cuts you open with her writing, making you flee from it, determined to not go back to it, and then she offers you a gentle linguistic balm that pulls you right back into the text. Any writer worth her salt can write a loving tribute to her grandmother that makes the grandmother seem to be a cross between June Cleaver and Carol Brady, but it takes a gutsy writer to expose to the world both the darkness and the light within her grandmother, and never utter one apology. Congratulations to Nickole for doing it again with this, her sophomore effort. A true tour de force.
For more information about this incredible writer and her new book, Fanny Says, click here.
We have all, myself included, lived our lives under the disillusionment that the real dangerous racists were all ignorant, unemployed, one-dimensional caricatures. The kind who had broken down Chevy trucks, drank Papst Blue Ribbon beer, lived in trailer parks and barely had a junior high school education. We thought we could spot them a mile away. We thought we knew them so well that there was no way they could sneak up on us because, hey, they had nothing to fuel them but their hate and we believed our power to love would always outweigh their hate. We have hoodwinked and bamboozled ourselves.
Racists, the real dangerous ones, are everywhere. They have infiltrated our government. A vast number of them are the ones who shape the laws and decide who gets the "lighter" sentences and who gets to serve for life. They also get to vote up or down on issues that will send clear messages to the poor and disenfranchised, to the black and brown, and to any others who are not white, wealthy, male, Christian, heterosexual, and able-bodied -- messages that say, "we will destroy you one unfair law, one unfair practice at a time." Some of them are doctors and nurses, making sure the poor and disenfranchised don't quite get the same attention as those who look and sound like them. A few of them have found their way into our schools, "educating" our children by leaving out those parts of history that show a more well-rounded version of what really happened in our nation and our world. And some of these racists benevolently tell one group of children that they are "hyper" and "loners" while telling another group they are "bad" and "thugs." And some of them actually have the unmitigated gall to stand in our pulpits on Sunday, preaching "God's word" to their flock, while knowing there sits among them the biggest Judas Iscariots of them all. And finally, quite a few of them have befriended us on social media, making us believe they "don't understand" all of this "race stuff" because they don't "see color" and they wish everyone would just "move on" and "let it go" because, anyway, "all lives matter."
Meanwhile, they cling to their racist flags and statues of killers and slave owners desperate for those iconic symbols of hate to stand in our government buildings so that they can very consciously send the message to all black and brown skinned people, "you do not matter." They make martyrs out of little known family members who fought in the Civil War in order to make the owning of brown and black people an institution that would have quite possibly continued for another 400 years had the south not lost that war.
Racists, the real dangerous ones, are everywhere and not necessarily where we all thought they were hiding because, really, they aren't hiding. They work with us. They live around us. They wave and smile and wink, making us believe they aren't a threat when really, they are the biggest threat of all because they are undercover racists. They wear business suits and sensible shoes. They vote. They drive nice cars. They eat at fancy restaurants and they own property. But as more and more changes begin to happen in society where they are seeing themselves lose their stronghold, they are weakening and outing themselves and not just in a subliminal manner. They are spewing their hate and showing their disdain of black and brown people by giving press conferences and status updates on social media. They are starting arguments at the water cooler and disrupting meetings in order to try and regain their power. I say we let them self-destruct. It's time they get the picture.
We will not surrender. We will not retreat. They will not win.
“I took one look at you, and I knew I didn’t want you.” Just typing the words are gut wrenching. Who says that to another person? Who says that to a person they raised as their child? Their only child? The first time those words were spoken to me were on my 46th birthday last year, but if I am to be honest, I knew all along that only one of the parents who raised me really wanted me. My daddy. My heart. My first love. But, it still stung to hear the sentiment spoken out loud.
I was having a good day. Forty-six was feeling good on me. I had recently published my first novel and I was busy going on a tour to promote it. The reviews were favorable, and you might say, I was soaring above the clouds last year. Then the call came. Something told me not to answer the phone. I knew my adopted mother. She had the unique knack of knowing exactly how to ruin an otherwise wonderful day with nothing but her words. But I decided to answer the phone anyway. Big mistake.
The call started off nice enough. “Happy Birthday. How are you? What are you doing today?” And then…the proverbial left shoe dropped. “Angela, did I ever tell you about the day M.C. and I picked you up from the adoption agency?” Well, yes, she had. But for all I knew, she was going to tell me something different, something that might make us closer, so I responded, “Yes ma’am, but you can tell me again.” I think I even smiled. But then she said the words, “I took one look at you, and I knew I didn’t want you.” “What did you say?” I asked in response. Surely, I didn’t hear what I thought I heard. But she repeated the words. As if she was telling me something to make my day a bit better. She even sounded happy as she uttered the words again. “Yes, I took one look at you, and I knew I didn’t want you, but your daddy did. So I went along with it. Eventually, you grew on me.”
I was floored. Emotionally pistol-whipped by her words. “I’ve got to go,” I said, choking back tears. Choking back my grown up tears, and the tears of the little girl that still lives inside of me, whose spirit is easily wounded. “Alright,” she said, still sounding chipper. Still sounding like she hadn’t just aided and abetted in my digression back into the little girl who never truly felt wanted. The little girl who cried herself to sleep because her daddy’s love wasn’t enough for her. She wanted her mommy’s love too, but it never came.
The second time those words were uttered by my adopted mother were less than a week ago. She lay in a hospital bed. I drove 12 ½ hours, alone, barely stopping to rest, to see what I could do to help her. To see if maybe she would allow me to be her daughter, even if it was for one last time. But, it did not take long for her to see my acts of kindness as acts of control. So with a venomousness that I can’t even fathom, she uttered the words again. “I never wanted you.”
I have tried to imagine the level of bitterness and hate that would make a human say such spiteful words to another human. Jealousy? Self-loathing? Evilness? I don’t know. But I do know this. Words bite. Words bite into the soul and can cause damage that is the equivalent of a slap to the face or a punch in the gut but the difference is, we carry the pain from words for a lifetime, often.
You would think that my being a writer would have already alerted me to that fact, and in a way, I guess I did know that. But hearing such mean words spoken. Seeing the lack of love in the eyes of someone whose love I always craved yet never fully received. Hurt. Still does. Probably always will. It particularly hurt because yet again, I put myself out there to be hurt once more by someone who clearly did not want or desire my presence. “You are not my family,” she said. For years, I knew this was how she felt, but to hear the words spoken—spoken out of the mouth of someone who is in her final years. Someone who should be preparing for her transition, filling her spirit with love for herself and all around her. It’s sad. Tragic, even.
But on that day, in that hospital room, I made the decision that I will not willingly participate in another person’s journey down the abyss. I choose to save me. I choose to stop running after the love from someone who is incapable of loving – or at least, incapable of loving me. I choose to stop hurting because she can’t love me the way I need and deserve to be loved. I choose to start living in joy and not someone else’s pain anymore. I choose me. And by choosing me, it means closing doors, but opening new ones, and sometimes, opening new doors is the best way to heal and become whole.
This semester, my two English 104 classes will be discussing Privilege during the first part of the semester. Here is their assignment:
Privilege (a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people). In this world that we live in, privilege allows certain individuals advantages that other groups just don’t get to experience. The difficult thing about explaining privilege is that so often those with it don’t even recognize they possess it. But almost everyone experiences some type of privilege based on ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality and/or class. Your goal for this essay is to explore a form of privilege that is of interest to you and discuss how it affects the ones who have it and the ones who don’t. You are also tasked to talk about ways we can address your chosen privilege topic in a larger scale. Feel free to explore how the type of privilege you chose to research affects you specifically. Do you benefit from that privilege or has it hindered you in any way?
As a black women in her late 40s, I often don’t think of myself in terms of how privilege works in my own life. It is so easy to think about the privilege I don’t have, than to focus on the privilege I do have. But I got a firsthand look at it on Wednesday, January 7, 2015, one of the coldest days we’ve experienced this winter. The wind-chill was in the Negative Twenties and reports of sick babies in the shelters was enough to make me brave the cold in search of cold medicines to take to these precious lambs whose only crime was to be born into poverty and a world that often forgets them.
So, I racked my brains to figure out how I could get the most bang for my buck with limited teacher’s budget, and I remembered the Dollar Tree sold cold medicine so I bundled up and headed to the store. I went to the medicine aisle in the store with purpose. And I scored BIG. I was able to get 25 bottles of Tylenol and Tussin for babies and small children. I almost danced a jig. I even went on and bought some pacifiers (2 per pack), baby bottles and baby wipes! When I got to the counter, the sales person smiled at me and I smiled at her. She said, “That’s a lot of cold medicine.” I laughed and said, “Yes. Didn’t I do good. I’m taking these to the Holy Family Shelter to help those sick babies get better.” She practically teared up and as she rang me up she said, “God bless you, honey.” I said the words back to her, and then bebopped out to my car.
As I was driving towards the shelter, it hit me. Wait a minute. YOU just bought 25 bottles of medicine and no one even doubted your story. How is that? And then I got it. It is amazing I didn't stop my car in the middle of the interstate. I just experienced middle aged privilege and I was totally oblivious to it while I was in the moment. WOW, I thought. A part of me wanted to rush and share with my students what I just experienced, and the other part was like, DANG. You just got treated like an old lady. I thought about it. I was dressed nice. I spoke clearly and confidently. And my salt and pepper hair gave me that added boost of credibility. Not to mention the person waiting on me was also middle aged. We spoke each other "language." She looked at me and saw a comrade not someone who was going to go home and abuse her new stash of cold meds.
Had a twenty-something person bounced into the store with the same intentions, I doubt the outcome would have been the same. At the very least, the manager would have probably been called up to ascertain the intentions of the young buyer. At the very worst, police or store security could have been brought into the picture. Who knows?
When I went back and told my students, they all groaned at the same time when I got to the part about going to the counter with all of my baby meds. One young white male said, “I would have gotten busted big time.” Another said, “I would not have even attempted to buy that much medicine at one time.”
In that moment, I think privilege began to make sense to some of my students. Some of them realized what I'd been telling them which is privilege is often so unconscious to the person experiencing it, that unless that person is really striving to recognize how privilege works in his/her life, that person can miss it. Had I not been teaching this section on privilege I probably wouldn’t have even recognized that I had experienced it. I would have delivered my baby meds and just celebrated the fact that I got an incredible deal that was going to take care of a lot of sick babies.
There are 14,297 black people who live in Ferguson, MO. Since Monday, November 24, 2014, approximately 119 people have been arrested. Of that number a little over half were residents of Ferguson AND all of those arrested were not black. White people have gone to jail for what they believe is a travesty to all this country stands for. So have Latinos. And Asians. And Muslims. And Christians. And every group one can imagine. This is not a black issue. This is a human issue. Furthermore, the majority of those arrests did not involve violent crimes or vandalism. Only seven, SEVEN, were arrested on felony charges; the MAJORITY were arrested because of failure to disburse.
So, to those who are trying to imply all or most of the black folks in Ferguson are going crazy looting and committing violent acts, shut up. Your voice is neither needed or desired. The majority of the people of Ferguson are at home, grieving and mourning the loss of Michael Brown and the loss of their faith in a system that has failed them time and time again. The majority of the people of Ferguson are sitting behind closed doors, holding their children tighter because they fear allowing them to even go check the mail could lead to their death or injury.
So, to all of you armchair racist, do your homework before you make incendiary comments about how black folks are conducting themselves right now. Stop being a tool used by a racist media that wants you to believe black folks are out of control. Trust and believe, we are still in control of our emotions and actions and they world should be on a prayerful vigil that it remains that way.
If you can't discern fact from fiction, then stay away from the news. You are a danger to your own weak minds, and the weak minds of those who are listening to you. Oh no. I'm. Not. Going. To. Be. Quiet. I am just getting started.
If, by chance, you are as outraged at what took place in Ferguson, MO as I am, then please, join me this Friday, this Black Friday, in this national movement to not spend one dime on a system that clearly believes brown doesn't matter. #NotOneDime
Thank you Chantel Acevedo for inviting me to take up the Chocolate Challenge: three books, three reviews, three types of chocolate. And with my sweet tooth…chocolate is the best way to describe some of the delicious books listed below! You can read Chantel’s take on the challenge on her web page ihola and you can also follow her on Twitter @chantelacevedo. Check out her new novel, A Falling Star, published in August 2014 and her novel, Love and Ghost Letters.
Dark chocolate is often described as chocolate that has a somewhat bitter taste to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it stays with you long after you consume it. That is why the first book I am going to mention is by the late, great Bebe Moore Campbell, 72 Hour Hold. This book has stayed with me since I first read it in 2005. At the time, I was struggling with debilitating depression, and I stumbled upon this book while trying to find something to distract me from my own struggles and maybe even inform me about some of the concerns I had about my own illness. This book accomplished both.
72 Hour Hold is the story of a mother, Keri, who is trying to come to terms with her daughter, Trina’s, struggles with bipolar disorder. Trina went from being a normal vivacious young person, to becoming a violent, disruptive shadow of her former self. This novel shows the true nature of this disease and how it not only affects the person suffering from it, but also the ones who love the sufferer. The reader gets to see Keri fighting her child, as she fights her ex-husband and a flawed system in order to insure Trina gets the help she needs. The reader witnesses Keri’s overwhelming love for her daughter and her willingness to do anything to get her daughter back.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Bebe Moore Campbell doesn’t sugarcoat bipolar disorder and she doesn’t offer any easy solutions, hence the bitter chocolate taste that is left in the reader’s mouth after completing this well-written piece of fiction. It is a tragedy that Ms. Bebe Moore Campbell is no longer with us. Her voice is greatly needed.
It is ironic. I am currently reading THE OTHER WES MOORE for school. In a nutshell, the book is about two African American men named Wes Moore who lived blocks from each other. One went on to have a successful career and family life, and the other went on to a life of crime that ultimately ended him up in prison. The moral of the story is you can have two guys with the same name from the same place, yet something simple can cause their lives to diverge and go a different direction.
It is ironic that I am reading this book because today I am thinking about a young man named Michael Brown whose life has ended as a result of a police officer shooting him multiple times and in my family, we have a Michael Brown too. He is my stepson, but I never fear for his life the way I do for my son. Not because I love my son more, but because unlike my stepson, my son has brown skin. My stepson is white, and not once in his life have I worried about him getting shot by the convenience store clerk because he was sagging his pants or looking “angry.” Not once have I worried that a routine traffic stop could result in my white stepson being falsely arrested, or worse, shot dead with little or no regard. Not once have I said to my white son, “Smile. Don’t be mean-mugging. Let people know you aren’t a threat.” Not once.
The media has decided to focus on the looting and violence that took place after the murder of Michael Brown. Two issues that need to be kept separate. The looters need to be dealt with according to the letter of the law. But the murder of Michael Brown needs to be dealt with separate and apart from this looting and violence, because when we try and connect the two, the message is clear. “See, those folks are nothing but criminals and thugs. THEY don’t deserve justice.” That is the message that is being sent and that is the message that is being heard and regurgitated by so many. If the looters burn down the entire city, that doesn’t change the fact that a mother and father lost their child.
My students and I will be talking about this issue. My students are mainly white, but they need to know that this issue is not a black/brown issue. This issue is OUR issue and it will take ALL of us to reach a solution. This issue of police brutality and disregard for certain segments of the population has to be addressed as an issue that is important for ALL citizens of this country.
I read the article, "MFA or POC" in the New Yorker by Junot Díaz a few months ago when it was first printed, and I felt a genuine sadness for him that his MFA experience was so unfulfilling. I am a graduate of Spalding University's Low Residency MFA program. My experience there was one of support, empathy, respect and encouragement. Now, did I always feel like my work was 100% understood. Of course not. However, I never felt like any of my teacher/mentors or fellow classmates tried to marginalize or invalidate my work because maybe they were not writing about black folks from the rural south. Yes, there were times when I was the only black person in the room, but truly, I never felt like that fact inhibited the discussion.
Sometimes there were more questions in workshop than solutions. The workshop leaders/classmates really sank their teeth into the work being discussed. They challenged their own interpretations. Sometimes people relied on those in the room who are closest to the culture being written about. Often discussions turned to literature that was similar to the work being discussed, but never did I ever feel like my work was not being taken seriously.
A lot of my stories are slave narratives written in dialect. Again, no one ever said, "why are you writing in that difficult, hard to understand language?" And to be honest, much to my surprise, fellow classmates and mentor/teachers treated dialect like it was a language, something I never experienced in graduate school before. If anything, people encouraged me to continue to write in dialect, and as a result, I was able to develop my skills in writing this beautiful language in such a way that I can maintain the reverence I feel for it but it also present it in a readable and understandable fashion to my audience of readers.
I credit our leaders at Spalding, Sena Jeter Naslund, Kathleen Driskell, Karen Mann and Katy Yocom, for making it clear that the workshop is designed to encourage the writer whose work was being discussed and not tear down the writer or leave that person feeling abused and unvalidated. Now that does not mean we didn't have some intense discussions and disagreements at times, but at the end of the day, we realized our competition, as so eloquently stated by Sena, "was not in the room but in the library and bookstores." I never felt the uber competitiveness at Spalding that I've heard other MFA grads from other schools talk about. Even now, the vast majority of my community of supporters and friends are my Spalding classmates/mentors/teachers/leaders.
So, I said all of that to say, research closely the MFA programs that are out there. Don't just take for granted what their materials say. And don't pick a school just because your favorite writer teaches there. Go visit them. Ask if you can sit in on a workshop or lecture. Talk to graduates/current students/teachers. Most times, they will tell you the truth. And of course, I would love for you to check out Spalding. My life changed radically when I walked into the MFA office at Spalding, not really sure if being a writer was still a viable option for me. Karen Mann made me believe that day that not only was my dream possible, but she was going to do everything in her power to support it. And I found this to be true for everyone else I encountered at Spalding. If you would like to find out more about The Spalding low residency MFA in Writing Program, click here.
BIO: Angela Jackson-Brown is an award winning writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Her work has been widely published in journals like The Louisville review, New Southerner Literary Review and 94 Creations, to name a few. She is the author of, Drinking From A Bitter Cup, and is hard at work writing her second novel.
"One approximation of the annual number of homeless in America is from a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which estimates between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experience homelessness." ("Facts and Figures: The Homeless PBS.org)
Yes, we are our brother's keeper. We are morally responsible for acknowledging and doing something about the suffering of those who, for whatever reason, are drowning right around us. Sometimes it is enough to simply stop and have a conversation. To say, "Hello. Have a good day." To acknowledge that the individual who is begging for your money and/or your attention could just as easily be you or someone you love. So, to all who read these words, Be blessed, and remember, today you might be on top of the world. Tomorrow the world might be on top of you.
To The Homeless Guy On The Side Of The Road
I try not to make eye contact
with you because if our eyes were
to meet, I might actually see inside
your soul. And the thought of being
that close to the essence of you scares
me, so each and every time I turn away
or I simply focus on the words you’ve
written on your sign.
Before, your sign said,
“Help! I’m homeless,” and before that “I’m hungry. Can you
spare some change?” Now, your sign simply says “God Bless.”
You ask for nothing—you simply shuffle around in some
bizarre dance, arms flapping like a strangled bird.
Each day you and your sign haunt me. I
worry that if I see your eyes, if I really look into them
I will find that you are no con man, no flim flam artist
but a man whose down on his luck and has no greater
wish than to make me smile and send God’s blessings
my way—and for that, you neither want nor desire for
me to pay.
The other reason I never meet your eyes is because I don’t
want to see that you need more from me
than some nickels and dimes. I’m worried that
to see your soul I’ll see a reflection of the souls of my dad,
my uncles, my brothers or my cousins who
by fates chance never ended up
on the side of the road hoping God or some kind lady
would offer them a look—a glance.
So I don’t look at you because I don’t have
time to be my brother’s keeper. Not today. I’ve got schedules
to keep and deadlines to meet and for me to take on
your problems on top of my own
is way too much.
So I look away.
I look away.
© Angela Jackson-Brown
Read more by Angela Jackon-Brown: Drinking From A Bitter Cup