Let’s talk about sexism, violence, and culture

OK, so I was totally going to continue with Armchair BEA and do a post about author interaction (I’ll summarize: it’s super neat to interact with authors on Twitter), but — let’s face it — this weekend was rough, and there are some important things we need to talk about.

I woke up this morning to an awesome post on my friend’s blogs, Defies Description and Beauty in Budget Blog. She’s right: we need to talk about this stuff.

I was out of town this weekend with limited internet access, but I spent some time last night reading through a tiny portion of the #yesallwomen tweets. Many of them I found affirming, like not only are all these women speaking up about the countless ways sexual violence and the threat of danger touch every woman’s life on a daily basis but also the sheer volume of tweets, blog posts, Tumblrs, Facebook posts, etc. is having a somewhat surprising result: people are listening.

(I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not like women suddenly discovered this weekend that they have a voice and can speak up about life. We’ve been speaking up and speaking out all this time, but I don’t think we’ve been heard, or maybe it’s just been so easy to explain away individual women’s individual stories as isolated incidents. But it’s kind of overwhelming when more than a million women share eerily similar stories. Maybe we do have a pervasive cultural problem that affects not just half the population but all people.)

But I want to back up a little bit, because this conversation isn’t just about the events of last Friday evening in Isla Vista, Calif. It’s also about the epidemic of rapes that occurred at UCSB during the recent academic year. In fact, it’s also about the epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults that occurred (read: is occurring) at college campuses all over the country and how college administrations responded. It’s about how perpetrators (and alleged perpetrators) of sexual violence are viewed with sympathy while victims are shamed. It’s about how rare it is to find safe spaces within our culture for the discussion of all these things.

For example, if you hop on over to Twitter and browse through the #yesallwomen tweets, you’ll find a whole spectrum of responses to the conversation, from women sharing their stories and men responding humanely to men responding badly (and, sadly, unironically). I do have to point out that however irritated I am by some of the less-than-stellar responses out there (ranging from sympathy for a mass murderer to calls for all women to open their legs and prevent mass murders to calls for women to stop it with the #yesallwomen nonsense because not all guys are douchebags to MRA defenses), I do think these voices need to be heard. I mean, there’s an obvious reason, right, in that it might be easy to pretend that we live in an equal society with no more pesky sexism except… oh, right.

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Never mind; there’s some sexism right there. But beyond the demonstrative value of these responses, it’s vital for all of us to engage in this conversation, because the broader this conversation is, the better. I mean, just taking that one Twitter interaction as an example, we can talk about “nice guys” (and why those words often appear in ironic quotes), the overall tone of public discourse and whether or not it’s disturbing (I tend to find it very disturbing), the use of the word “mangina” to invalidate other men’s humane reactions, etc.

Let’s talk about all of it, because as long as we all stay silent, the status quo is maintained. And, I don’t know about you, but — for me — the status quo kinda sucks.

I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable bringing up my daughters in a culture that turns a blind eye to street harassment, that objectifies and sexualizes women and girls and then punishes women and girls for being sexual objects, that ignores the horrifying statistics of reported sexual assaults and rapes on college campuses (to say nothing of the assaults that are not reported or are actively hushed by administrators), that perpetuates the myth that most reports of sexual violence are falsified (because, what, hell hath no fury?), that finds it easier to blame and shame victims than to talk honestly about the culture that nurtures the sexual assault epidemic.

So let’s talk about it, because this conversation is important for so many reasons. It’s important for women to share their stories and feel — maybe for the first time — that they aren’t alone, and it’s important for men to hear those stories and respond in any way they can, whether with defensive anger (stop sharing your stories, women, just shut up, because not all men do that!) or wonder (wow, I can’t believe that these things have been happening this whole time while I’ve been blithely living my life.) or compassion (my heart goes out to #yesallwomen). Let’s talk about what feminism actually means (gender equality) and maybe talk about how the word has become a pejorative byword over the past few decades. Let’s talk about all the truly awesome men in our lives and how wonderful it is to feel supported by them and by our friends, sisters, and strangers on the Internet whose experiences are so similar to our own.

Let’s talk.

Women and silence…and romance novels

I should start with a caveat or two:  (1) being long-overdue for an analysis, I am here introducing a somewhat difficult topic, and I do not reach any sort of conclusion about it, and (2) I wrote the second half of this post and edited it under the throes of a migraine…  I welcome all manner of comments, but I totally understand if this is a pond that no one wants to jump into.

There are a lot of things that women are told, whether by our mothers, through advertising, or through peer messages in school, that we should not talk about.  The results of this oppressive silence are never terribly pleasant.  We don’t have open, honest conversations with our daughters about sex or our bodies, so our daughters, flooded by confusing messages in the world (be thin, don’t be too thin, be sexy, don’t be too sexy, curves are good, fat is bad, be attractive so you don’t end up an old maid, don’t be too attractive or you’ll end up one of those girls), have no idea how to grow into their own sexuality or how to see that their sexuality is but a part of who and what they are.

And we don’t talk about it.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was horrified by exactly how much occurs during pregnancy that we don’t talk about at all.  I got the What to Expect books, and they casually mention a few things that a pregnant woman might experience: embarrassing gas, constipation, bone pain (pregnancy hormones soften your skeletal system so your bones can move, did you know that?), discomfort, itchiness from stretching skin, more embarrassing gas, heartburn, belching, etc.  But the neutral words do not prepare one for the realities of pregnancy.  Having gone through all of that nonsense twice now, I have become an advocate for speaking out.  Sometimes it’s awkward, like when I regale an entire dinner party with the real story of afterbirth (ewwww), but I would rather inflict momentary awkwardness on all my friends than act as if pregnancy/childbirth/life is shameful.

Silence has a way of stifling women (perhaps men, too, but I don’t know; I’ve never been a man).  I am wholeheartedly in favor of any works of art or social campaigns that promote openness and dialogue about topics that have long been considered taboo.  It is, of course, uncomfortable to talk about such subjects (e.g. the unpleasant aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting; rape; child abuse; etc.), but we are a better society when we openly acknowledge that such things happen (that, for example, June Cleaver is a fictional character, not a prescribed role model) and provide a space for a real dialogue to happen about what our expectations as a society are, what our reality is, what the difference between those two is, and why there is a difference.

But this is my blog, so, of course, there is a romance novel tie-in.  I don’t believe that literature (or nonfiction) holds the corner on the market of reading material that is thought-provoking.  In (many of) the romance novels that I read, I frequently encounter situations or treatments that make me stop and think about the world we actually live in and the kind of world I’d like to live in (balanced sometimes–since I mostly read historical romance–with the often stunning difference between the world that is presented in the novel and the world that one could reasonably imagine actually existed in the novel’s time period…).  The fact is, I like my romance novels to be modern and subversive even in a historical setting.

Cover image, The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Enter Courtney Milan and her novella The Governess Affair.  This book is historically subversive in the best possible way.

I mentioned earlier that I tend to stir up awkward conversations at dinner parties.  I wasn’t being hyperbolic.  A few weeks ago I stirred up a real whopper for all my guests to appreciate: rape, rape culture, and silence.  I suppose I exist as a cautionary tale of what not to do as a hostess…  Anyway, the conversation was fascinating, because we kept getting stuck on our own culture (in a conversation about how rape is rape regardless of what either party is wearing, it was still important to point out and consider that if one chooses to wear revealing clothing, one should not be surprised at the inevitable result.  That point seemed to me to be very strange: the very inevitability of rape, means, I think, something different to women than to men, as women are likely to be the inevitable victims whereas men are cast in the role of inevitable perpetrator.  Both bits of type-casting seem terrible to me…), and even when we tried to escape it, to listen to one another neutrally without the cultural dialogue of victim shaming, misogyny, and, failing anything else, quelling silence, it was overwhelming.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to have a casual or neutral conversation about rape.  (And ill-advised to have one about afterbirth. Just saying.)

As an aside, I am tempted to edit myself, to wonder why one would want to have a casual conversation about rape, but I don’t want to edit that word out.  This is a topic we should be able to talk about, and, as humans, we’ll never choose to have these conversations willingly if they are always fraught with difficulty, misunderstanding, sub-context, and emotional realities beyond comprehension.

Back to The Governess Affair: this book is all about breaking silence, and it is handled beautifully.  Once I caught on to what it was about, I was tempted to put it down, because I worried that it would be disturbing to me.  After all the political nonsense over the last few months, I have to admit that I’ve been having a difficult time dealing with my own sad story.  I am so glad that I continued to read this book.  It was comforting, healing, amusing, heart-warming, and relentlessly enjoyable.

This book takes a few modern ideals, including practicing openness and honesty towards one’s children and breaking silence, and applies them to a historical setting in which they are somewhat incongruous (but not jarringly so).  The story is set in London in 1835, and tells the compact tale of one Serena Barton, who is tired of the silence that has been forced on her by her gender and class, and one Hugo Marshall, who is tasked with ensuring Serena’s continued silence.  Both Serena and Hugo undergo significant but natural-seeming changes over the course of the short book, and the story ends with a teaser introduction to the new series.  The book provides a commentary on society–both the society of 1835 London and our modern society–but it’s like a commentary in negative space: in the absence of a narrator pointing out all the things that are wrong with both societies, the reader cannot help but jump in and reach a few conclusions.  It is brilliant and beautiful and bold.

I loved every single thing about this book, and I am so excited about the new series (the Brothers Sinister Series).

I should have taken off my feminist pants before I read this book…

A few years ago, I had this friend who was a little weird around all the menfolk.  She was a nice enough girl, to be sure, but, if there were any men within a 20-foot radius, she felt this bizarre need to be reassured of her sexual attractiveness by each and every man present, married or single.  It got to be a trifle annoying.  I didn’t understand what could drive her to such heights of ridiculous behavior that she would flirt with husbands in front of their wives in order to feel OK about herself as a human being.  Why not just be content with commanding the sexual attention of all the single guys?  Better yet, leave sex out of it when among friends.  But apparently When Harry Met Sally had it right–men and women can’t be friends because sex is always lurking around the corner, waiting for its moment to strike.

Is it delusional of me to hope that I have some sort of identity beyond my capacity for sex?  When I’m going about my business throughout the day, I don’t usually think about sex all that often (and, if I do, my sexy sexy thoughts are limited to my husband).  I don’t know if any of my coworkers find me a attractive, and I’d really prefer if my attractiveness (or not) had no bearing on their thoughts about me.  What the hell does sex have to do with my job scheduling a busy woman’s life, planning her travel, writing her correspondence, etc.?

It really bugs me, this idea that the root of all interactions between men and women is sex and that no amount of enlightenment can ever change that basis.  If a man wants to have sex with you (and every man does, we are told, although they’re happier about wanting to have sex with some women more than others, and if you fall into that latter category, woe betide you), that’s all he’ll be able to think about when he’s around you, and you’re powerless to stop it.  The other side of that coin is that, as a woman, your value as a person derives from sex, and you really have no identity beyond it.  So my friend and all her sexual posturing make perfect sense: she’s just trying to be a good woman, and everyone knows that a good woman is one who is desired by men (not a man but all men).  The whole concept is yucky, to me.

So why the hell am I talking about this is relation to a book?  Have I been reading feminist manifestos?  Nope… I read a bunch of romance novels this week, and one of them made me bleed from both eyes.

Cover image, The Bride Sale by Candice Hern

Oh god, the cover!  The snow lay on the ground, so why is Lord Hotness prancing around without a shirt?  Well, at least he grabbed a fancy-looking cloak in deference to the cold.

Ok… full disclosure… I bought this book because Avon (the publisher) sponsored a sale during the month of June on bride-related books (get the tie-in?).  $1.99 for a full-length e-book is a pretty darn good price, and the blurb sounded relatively up my alley (seriously messed up hero rescues the heroine from an uncertain fate… yada yada yada).  With a few reservations relating to the heroine’s apparent (to her) lack of identity (see rant above), I actually enjoyed the first 85% of the book, and then something happened to make me HATE it.  And I mean lots of hate.  Virulent hate infecting every part of me with an impotent rage.

I’ll do my best to steer clear of spoiler territory, here, but I don’t think the mystery relating to the heroine is at all important to the overall story line.  So here’s the deal.  The heroine was married by an arranged marriage to a gay man (not that anyone besides the gay man and his partner knew about that), and he, on their wedding night, was so grossed out by the heroine’s girl parts that he couldn’t do the deed and actually vomited next to the bed.  Isn’t that nice.  The heroine, who remained a virgin after all of this, didn’t know her husband was gay, didn’t know anything about sex, really, and was convinced that she just had some seriously nasty girl parts that would drive any man to cast up his accounts and then leave her alone in a moldering house for two years.  Totally reasonable, right?

Anyway, at some point her lame-ass husband realizes that he can make some money off of her, so he takes her to the wilds of Cornwall and sells her (that’s the Bride Sale) in an open auction where she is bought by the seriously messed-up hero.  The heroine assumes that she will be installed as his mistress (because what other value is there in a woman?), but he’s an honorable man, serious issues notwithstanding, and he does his best to treat her with the respect he feels she deserves.  Ordinarily, that would be wonderful, but his apparent lack of interest is enough to convince the heroine that she really is a worthless human being, even though she has skills as a healer, saves the life of a young boy, and eases all the medical complaints of an entire village.  Blah blah blah, and we get to the part that pissed me off, when it is revealed that, in fact, the hero does find the heroine very attractive.  All of a sudden, the heroine finds her identity and raison d’être, both originating in her value as an attractive female that the hero wants to nail.  Awesome.

And, I’m not kidding, the book devotes a lot of time to explaining the heroine’s happiness at being found attractive.  Considering that she’s just been kidnapped by her husband, has stood up for herself for the first time in, like, ever, then was rescued by the hero, and then discovered that her husband is gay and that there’s a chance she could get the marriage annulled, you’d think she’d have all sorts of interesting things to dwell on in her mind, but no.  The only thing she can think about is her relief to discover that her girl parts aren’t nasty.  Thank God!  Men want to have sex with me!  That means my life will be perfect!  UGH!!!  Or, for the actual quote:

“Verity was so overcome by this revelation she was almost unable to breathe.  Of all the astonishing events of the last day–Gilbert’s arrival, James’s rescue, the possibility of an annulment, this exquisite lovemaking–nothing affected her as profoundly as this new knowledge that she was not, after all, defective in some way, undesirable to men.”

Note that Verity is concerned about her desirability to men.  And half-a-page later:

“In the space of a moment, she was a new woman.  The man she adored found her beautiful and desirable.  The pride she would now wear would be real and true, no longer a mask for shame.”

Do you want to know how angry that one page of the book made me?

Out of a sense of fairness, I gave the book 2 of 5 stars on Goodreads, because the story elements that did not relate to Verity were all very good.  In fact, I really liked everything else about the book, but this one thing totally destroyed it for me.

I love early 90s hip hop – and I think I might be a feminist…

I’m helping some friends put together a playlist for their wedding, and that means I get to listen to some of my favorite guilty-pleasure music: early 90s rap and hip hop!  On my way into work this morning, I was rocking out to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and I realized that my favorite early 90s hip hop songs always feature the ridiculous–the threat of violence combined with the exhortation to dance, for example–and I wonder what that says about me.

Officially, I love every single thing about this song–I love anything that makes me laugh–but my favorite verse refers to Vanilla cruising through the town perusing all the lovely ladies and grabbing–but not using–his 9 while he runs away from chumps who may or may not be full of 8-ball.  Running away in bumper-to-bumper traffic is hard core?  Seriously?  I love it.

Honestly, white people, just stop it.  Bagpipes are not hard core.  Anyway, I love the notion that House of Pain’s lyrics are so brutal and effective at administering whoop-ass that an actual shotgun is necessary to use as defense against them, but everything will be OK if you just get out of your seat and jump around.

Regarding this one, can I just say that it’s ridiculous that curse words and pot references were edited out of the radio/MTV edits of this song, but the lovely lyrics: “Uh oh, I crave skin, rip shit, find a honey to dip it in, slam dunk it stick it flip it and ride that B double O T Y oh my” are A-OK?  What does that say about our society?  But I still love the song… I’ve got a shovel, and I can dig it, fool.

This one is not my favorite early-90s hip hop songs.  If I’m going to listen to a song that blatantly objectifies women, it’s going to be “Baby Got Back.”  Anyway, I included this one because it’s just so blatantly awful.  To be honest, the sad thing about all of these videos is that these dudes probably did get a lot of booty.  In a just world, a honey who saw Vanilla Ice coming towards her with all of his hubris and dorky sweatshirts would have laughed at him and walked the other way.  But that’s not the way the world works.  Wreckx-N-Effect oh-so-elegantly stated the dominant mores of our society: “Now since you got the body of the year, come and get the award.  Here’s a hint – it’s like a long sharp sword.”  Hooray for you sweetheart–in exchange for being so beautiful and shaking your rump so mightily, you have the privilege of having your body used.  How wonderful.

I was in junior high when these songs came out, and I admit that, at the time, I loved them because they sounded cool, not because they were funny in an ironic way.  And it’s only as I grow older (and because I have daughters instead of sons) that I see what’s so awful about the lyrics of some of the songs and what they represent.

Anybody else love early-90s hip hop?

Elizabeth and Hazel – a follow up with thoughts on education and race

I’m a wee bit behind on my reflections and analysis.  I took a vacation to New York City (lovely) and have been on a mental vacation ever since, perhaps recovering from my vacation, perhaps recovering from the strain of living every day.  At any rate, I haven’t been in any position to write coherently about anything.

The final meeting of my workplace book club was on March 7, and, since we had already finished discussing the book, we met to watch an HBO special, “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”.  The documentary was a good companion piece for the book because, rather than focusing on the picture and on the microstory of Elizabeth and Hazel, the documentary focused on Little Rock Central High, how it had changed in fifty years, and what still needs to change.  Frankly, by the end of the book, I was done with both Elizabeth and Hazel, so I welcomed the related but different subject matter.

I was able to watch only the first fifty minutes of the documentary, so I can’t comment on the entire thing, but the portion that I watched focused on the disparity between the success of desegregation and the failure of educational equality.  Central High’s racial demographic was, in 2007, approximately 60% black, 40% white.  If one looks only at that percentage, one could smugly assume that desegregation was successful, that black students won, so to speak.  There are, after all, more black students than white at Central High.  The thing is, percentages don’t really mean anything because they provide quantitative information rather than qualitative.

Here are some other figures.  In 2007, the racial demographic of remedial classes was 95% black, and the racial demographic of AP classes was 95% white.  This figure, of course, doesn’t really mean anything on its own.  One could conclude all sorts of awful things: are the black students at Central High simply unprepared, are they deficient in some way, or does it have more to do with wealth than with race?  What influence does culture have on the educational outcomes of black and white students at Central?  And (here’s a big question) do the black students at Central actually receive a better education than they would have gotten from a segregated school?

The documentary features interviews with students (white and black) and teachers (white and black, AP and remedial) and parents.  It follows students from their neighborhoods, the wealthy ones predominantly white and the poor ones predominantly black, to school.  It discusses some of the social problems that plague black students (poverty, teenage parenthood, nowhere to go, etc.) and discusses the difference between the goals and aspirations of the poor students (nearly all black) and the wealthy students.  The wealthy families presuppose success for their children, which, as with most self-fulfilling prophesies, tends to result in success for wealthy students.  Poor families tend to assume that their children will continue in a like condition, which tends to result in exactly that outcome.

Anyway, why do I care about Little Rock Central High?  I’ve never even been to Arkansas.  The thing is, when I was watching the video, I was strongly reminded of my own high school experience.  My family is not particularly wealthy, but I was privately educated through 4th grade, and my parents certainly had expectations of success for me and my sister.  When I entered the public education system in Monrovia for my 5th grade year, it was immediately evident to the educators that I was one of the smart ones, so I was whisked into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program then in use in the district (no idea if it’s still in use).  From 5th until 8th grade, I benefited from the best teachers and the most challenging curricula.  It was natural that I would enter the honors track when I arrived at high school, and it was inevitable that I would take AP classes and go on to college.  So there you go: my entire educational trajectory was decided in Kindergarten when my parents scrimped and saved and sometimes starved in order to send us to the private school.

The other interesting little factoid relating to my educational experience: in my GATE classes in junior high, I think there were 3-4 black students, 2-3 Hispanic students, and the rest of the 30 or so students were white.  The neighborhoods from which my junior high pulled students were either predominantly white (north of Foothill Blvd) or an even mix of black and Hispanic (south of Foothill).  The Asian population was negligible in that area.  By the time I got to the high school, even though the populations of nonwhite students dramatically increased (being from the entire city rather than just the northeastern portion), I recall fewer than 5 black students overall in the honors program (9th and 10th grade) and only 1 black student in my AP classes (11th and 12th grade).  So Little Rock Central High might be really far away, but the educational outcomes from that school mirror those of Monrovia High in sunny southern California.

I don’t know what it means, really.  It’s impossible to look at recollections and form firm conclusions.  Recollections are just too nebulous.  Maybe it means that household wealth is a strong determinant in educational success.  After all, that 1 black student from my AP classes was from an extremely wealthy family.  She went on to do undergrad at Johns Hopkins and is now a lawyer.  Maybe it means that there is a combination of racial preference at an early age and household wealth.  After all, my parents were not wealthy, but I received the full benefit of the best education possible in the Monrovia school system.  Maybe, if I’d been black or Hispanic, the administrators at the public elementary school to which I transferred in 5th grade would not have noticed or recognized that I was GATE material.  Who the hell knows?

I feel extremely grateful that I received such a good education, considering what little I’ve done with it.  When I think back on all that occurred, I feel a sense of sadness and helplessness.  I would wish everyone, regardless of race or gender (or anything else), to receive a good education, to experience the freedom of knowledge and critical thought.  It saddens me that so many people are taught only to follow directions, not to think for themselves.  It is depressing that there are adults who make it through the school system without mastering literacy.  That feeling of helplessness results from the reflection that my own excellent education largely derived from my separation from all the normal folk.  By taking classes only with other smart kids, I was able to learn how to think, how to speak intelligently, how to question accepted norms.  Would I have been able to learn those things if education were more egalitarian?  Does that make me a terrible hypocrite for wanting other people to have had a similar opportunity but not at the cost of my precious educational elitism?  It may be that there is no answer to that question.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Book cover image

Cover image, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

I’ve never before tried to participate in a book club with strangers, but this book really caught my attention, so I decided to join a book club.  The Office of Institutional Diversity at the college where I work hosts a diversity-related book club twice per year.  This semester, they timed the book club meetings to coincide with Black History Month and selected this fascinating book that discusses the lives of the women pictured–what’s happened to them over the past fifty-five years?–within the context of race relations in America.  I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I think it’s an amazing read.

In my last post, I mentioned all the photos I had on my wall when I was a teenager, including a photo of Elizabeth and Hazel taken on September 4, 1957.  David Margolick’s book focuses on a view of that moment captured by photographer Will Counts.  The photo I had on my wall was by Johnny Jenkins, and it showed the same scene from a different perspective about a second or two before Will Counts snapped his famous photo.

Photo by Johnny Jenkins (Bettmann/Corbis)

This is the photo I had pinned to my wall (above).  In it, Hazel Bryan is just another member of the crowd of angry white people.  Now check out Will Counts’ version of the photo.

Photo by Will Counts

In Will Counts’ version, Hazel Bryan is the central figure, and she seems to be the only member of the crowd around Elizabeth Eckford who is angry about Elizabeth’s attempt at integration.  From this angle, the leering lady that I mentioned in my last post is completely blocked from view by Elizabeth.  There’s no one to distract the viewer from Hazel’s expression of distaste and hatred.  It isn’t accurate, really, to say that Hazel became the accidental villain.  After all, she was present among the mob that day, and she did shout rather horrible things at Elizabeth.  But a picture only tells a certain story, locked in time, unchanging, and this picture tells a very different story from the other image (Jenkins’) shown above.

We all do plenty of stupid things when we are young.  Most of the pictures I have of myself from the time just show an extremely awkward child who is uncomfortable in her own skin, but there are moments of my life that, if captured by photo, could haunt me more powerfully than they currently do, muffled as they are by those distorters: time and memory.  What if there had been a photographer to catch that moment in eighth grade when twenty (or forty?) girls surrounded me and threatened me because I was wearing a pale blue denim dress and pigtail braids–a very Little House on the Prairie homage.  The only girl from that crowd that I can remember with any sort of distinctness was dressed in white leggings and a black t-shirt.  Normally I might not recollect someone’s sartorial choices, but under those white leggings the girl was wearing bright green underpants, and they showed.  The idea that someone whose own clothing choice was so awful would shout at and threaten me for my own, admittedly odd, clothing choice always struck me as being an important point to remember.  In my life, that moment stands out as memorable because it demonstrates that people really do fear those who are different and that a mob mentality can break out no matter how apparently innocuous the cause.  A photo of that moment might not tell the same story.  It just so happens that I am white and that all the girls who stood in that crowd are black.  Maybe none of the undercurrents, the bits that seem so important to me because I was there and am aware of them, would show in the photograph.  Maybe for the rest of my life I would be that girl in the photo, unable to change or grow, when, in reality, I am so much more.

I suppose I identify with both Elizabeth and Hazel because they have at least one thing in common: they are both forever stuck in that photograph, in that moment in time when they were fifteen, in that image that only tells one tiny part of the whole story of that day.

Regarding the book club, it is so odd to me to actively participate in a discussion with a bunch of people that I don’t know.  I have grown accustomed to stifling my personality and remaining silent when among strangers for fear that they would misunderstand me (Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood) and take offense where none was meant or belittle me for being different.  I am still that girl who stood in the middle of that crowd and didn’t back down, but I have learned to be wary.  I am so sick of that wariness, so sick of being afraid of people, of being unable to trust that adults don’t act like twelve-year-olds.  The book club is a challenge, but so far it’s going OK.  There are definitely a few women in that room who have taken a dislike to me, but there are also a few women (and one man) who feel positively towards me, despite my opinions and decisive manner of speaking.

I was trying to make this post less of a downer than the previous one, but I’m not quite sure that I succeeded.

Photos on my wall, a preface to Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

I have been reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock quite a lot this week, so I thought I should write a post about it.  I quickly realized that I need to share some context: my original position, my baseline.  Not only is this book very different from anything else that I would ordinarily pick up and read, my experience of reading the book is new and different because I’m reading it for a workplace book club.  A lot of my reaction to the book is directly linked to some of my thoughts and experiences in late high school.  So, as a preface to my thoughts on this book, allow me to present some photos and narratives for context.

When I was in my last two years of high school, I took to tearing pages out of magazines and plastering the walls of my room with their images.  When I went away to college, I took the photos with me and pinned them up in my dorm room.  I’m not sure what images other girls my age had on their walls, but my walls were plastered with these images of injustice, some of them rather disturbing (just warning you).

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

To me, this image (above) represented both despair and love.  These folks don’t have much, but they have each other.

Photo by David Douglas Duncan

I read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo in my sophomore year of high school, and I ended up something of a pacifist.  This photo (above) represented to me the human cost of war.  Like the character in Johnny Got His Gun, this guy (Ike Fenton, a US Marine) might have signed up for military service thinking that he was going into Korea to fight for democracy or freedom or liberty, and he probably discovered that war isn’t really about any of those things.  It’s about being cold and hungry and shooting at the other side because you are told to do so.  There isn’t any room for big ideals on the front lines.

It was around this time in my life that the U.S. sent troops into Kosovo, and I recall being so angry at the media representation of what our forces were doing there.  Now that I am quite a bit older, I am better able to understand the importance of selling a good story at home, but it still makes me angry that when these folks in the military get home they have to deal with the great disconnect between what everybody believes they were doing over there and what was actually happening.  Military folk honestly have enough to deal with–why do we have to stack one more thing on top?

middle finger

Photo by Perry Riddle

My mom wouldn’t let me take this one with me to college, because she thought people would judge me based on the art I chose to display.  As it turns out, she’s right.  Very few people at APU were able to understand exactly what I meant by plastering this imagery all over my dorm room.  The photo is of anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  As an interesting little historical tidbit, the shirtless guy flipping off the camera was later sent to  Vietnam and died in combat.  I think that outcome provides a compelling context for the anger he displayed in this moment.

Photo by James Nachtwey

Yeah, I know it’s disturbing.  I find it even more disturbing now that I have children.  This photo was taken during the famine in Somalia in 1992.  I was eleven years old at the time, and I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t do anything about it (what could I have done?).  What disturbs me is that I didn’t really find out what was happening over there until 1997 when I happened to see this photograph.  My family watched CNN all the time, and I was one of those kids who was generally aware of the outside world, but I didn’t know about this.  As a sixteen-year-old, I suspected that the lack of media coverage was because the story was so bleak.  Really, what American stuffing her face full of cheesy poofs wants to hear about a man-made famine thousands of miles away that causes this degree of suffering and degradation?

As an adult, I really don’t know what it means.  Are we so caught up in wanting to believe in the good in the world that we purposefully turn away from stories that challenge that belief?  And, a related question: isn’t it ultimately a more positive story to believe in the good in the world existing despite all the bad (rather than focusing one’s attention solely on the good to the exclusion of all the bad)?

Once again, the folks at APU had a hard time understanding why I would want to look on the picture of a starving child every day.  To them, it was probably the sign of a lack of faith.  It probably seemed as though I was one of those people who says, “there is too much evil in the world.  God cannot possibly be good.”  As with everything, my perspective was a lot more complicated than that.  I looked on this picture every day because I felt it was my duty to do so, because I was lucky enough to be born in a country and in a socio-economic position where this degree of suffering would never happen to me or to anyone I know.

September 4, 1957

Photo from Bettman/Corbis Archive

Finally, I had this picture on my wall.  I’m pretty sure I had it arranged next to the photo of the guy in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention–the one flipping off the camera–but the arrangement didn’t really signify anything in particular (or maybe it did… crowds of angry white people?).  I was always more focused on the woman behind and to the right of Elizabeth Eckford–the one leering at her in silent disapproval–than on the shouting girl behind Elizabeth.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found silent, simmering hatred to be more damaging and disturbing than loud, expressive hatred.  Perhaps it’s because people always seem to focus on those who loudly proclaim their racism while those folks who quietly emanate hostility slip under the radar of public notice.  Case in point: Hazel Bryan Massery, the shouting girl in this photo, achieved national recognition as being the “face of hate.”  Meanwhile, no one has any idea who that leering woman is.