This time last year, I decided to change how I read. Or, more accurately, to change what I read. It was one small way to keep breathing expansiveness and hope at a time when despair threatened to suffocate both.
As is true for any bibliophile, reading fills up swaths of the time I’m not working or sleeping. Certainly other activities populate the days — eating, dancing, hanging with the kiddo, chilling with the girlfriends. Church and family. In fact, I trip and tumble over the heaps of stuff comprising our days. It’s a wonder stories make it in here at all.
Nevertheless, as is also true for any bibliophile, I find a way. The rare hushed hours, those still stretches, most deliciously belong to books. Bedtime, summertime, solitary dinners. And not always solitary. Sometimes my boy and I read side-by-side at the table weaving tendrils of languid conversation into the quiet. Even at eleven years old, Bug still wants me reading aloud every night at bedtime. We travel through the fantasy worlds we’ve entered together. Having only just acquired a TV after nearly five years without, the universes of film and television hold little appeal. Our secret indulgences almost always involve the page.
In early 2017 when our collective hopes of democratic rescue withered on the vine, I had to face a number of frightening and uncomfortable truths. Many of these had — and still have — to do with the complacency of the white middle-class left. We’ve grown distant from any sense of political and collective efficacy, and the social movements of just two generations ago may as well exist in some alternate reality. Despite the advances of the civil rights era, many well-meaning and liberal-leaning people know next to nothing about the lived truths of race and white privilege. We walk around in a state of almost willful oblivion about the structural violence to which we contribute and from which we benefit. This oblivion can sit, stubborn and rigid, around us even as we try to do good in our work, families, and neighborhoods. We understand so little of the lives of people who live just across the narrowest of divides.
Part of what feeds this ignorance can be found in the popular culture which we eat and breathe. With a few token exceptions, the faces on our screens are white, as are the directors, production companies, casting agencies, advertising firms, and thousands of other contributors running the machine. They are also predominantly male, cisgender, wealthy, and able-bodied. Of course, one glance at the board of almost any major company in any industry reveals the same narrow representation. The particular frustration of films, TV, and advertising is the universality of the whitewashed stories created by these whitewashed behemoths. They comprise so much of what we absorb — what our children absorb — just by walking through the world. Every sports bar, every gym, every Target electronics section. Every pop-up ad, every bus kiosk, every bus. Their job is to sell and entertain, to capture our attention. Not to educate. Not to make us question the engines driving our desires.
While the correlation between these forces does not equal causation, the relationship is undeniable. How does white liberal inefficacy connect with ubiquity of whiteness in our diversions? Or put another way, how do our ostensibly benign pleasures contribute to violence and oppression?
Or yet another way: How do we learn to love art and entertainment that heal the world?
While I work in higher education and apply critical race theory to the work I do every day… and belong to a Unitarian Universalist faith which holds “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” as one of its core principles… and seek out opportunities to support the organizing efforts of women of color in my community… don’t I also reinforce perversions of power and beauty in my quiet time? The publishing industry has its own disgraceful legacy of racism. I play right into that by choosing books recommended by reviewers and librarians and friends who themselves made their selections from a very limited range of stories.
Many years ago when I was marginally active in mental health liberation work, I remember trying to seek out stories of people who’d survived incarceration in the mental health system. Most of what I found was self-published and only available in small, indie books stores. Even then, 25 years ago, I sensed something was amiss in publishing. Though I couldn’t quite name this thing that was amiss, it bore a remarkable resemblance to the location of “crazy” people in our society. Many stories of mental illness were fictionalized or semi-journalistic accounts written by people imagining an inside-life from well outside any illness or maltreatment. So began the dawning awareness of the folly of my faith in books as tools of liberation. Certainly they can, but they also often don’t. Books often function as tools to soothe despair rather than ignite it, to reaffirm bias rather than upend it, to call the world back and back again to its familiar and merciless arrangements.
So we arrive at February of last year. That’s when I decided to get my quiet pursuits in line with my values and vision. This launched my commitment to seeking out and reading writers of color and international authors (not white British, either). I would say “exclusively” writers of color, but that would be inaccurate. Most of my selections follow the formula, with newer works by authors I knew prior (Junot Diaz, Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie) and many I found along the way (Colson Whitehead, Natsuo Kirino, Maxine Beneba Clarke). Nevertheless, sometimes it was necessary to find a book on, say, power struggles with my son, and the most fitting text available was something by Judith Viorst. Sometimes I chose an “international” sounding name and bio, only to find out that Jac Jemc (The Grip of It, 2017) and Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human, 2017) are indeed completely American and also completely white. These detours intrigued me, as did the itchy discomfort of facing the assumptions I carry about who is American and who is “other.”
Indeed, following through on this commitment has dashed several assumptions. One is the notion that finding books by authors of color and international authors would prove easy. Just choose to read them, and then you find them, right? Oh no. It will come as no surprise to anyone whose identity is underrepresented in positions of power to learn that their identities are also underrepresented on the shelves of libraries and bookstores. I mentioned this frustration to a friend and she said, “Why don’t you just go to Busboys and Poets?” Sure, if we accept that the stories of our nation and world belong in a specialty store, like that place in the city where you can buy cowrie shells and tamarind compote.
The vast majority of this planet is populated by people who are neither white Americans nor white Europeans. Yet the shelves of the Fairfax County Library would indicate otherwise. So I dig. And I look for names I don’t recognize. I read reviews then go track down those volumes. I make inter-library loan requests. I get on waiting lists. Soon I’ll start putting in purchase requests so that these authors may actually get compensated for their work.
I will keep reading beyond my own limits, and certainly beyond limits that people of power and privilege try to erect around my secret pleasure. And I will continue to write about it here.
Image: Tinho (Walter Nomura) mural in Frankfurt, Germany