Resistance, Duly Noted

Women’s March Washington DC by VeryBusyPeople via Flickr

We have been here before. Now is not new – it is not even original or unique. It just seems that way because it is happening to us. It is our turn. The methods (twitter, executives orders, alternative truths, etc.) may be today’s tactics but sadly, the strategy is the same. Divide the people and conquer the country. Set one group upon the other by promoting erroneous beliefs: if you have more, that means I have less; if I make you feel small, that makes me bigger; if you’re different from me then you are against me; compromise, collaboration, and compassion are weaknesses—might is right.

These beliefs have never been true and they never will be. However, all of the unrelenting reporting of half-baked breaking news from unreliable sources reverberates the rhetoric in an echo chamber of unproductive partisan communication. We are not talking to each other, we are talking to ourselves.

When we turn off the television’s not-news noise, ignore the fake headlines on our electronic device screens that are only crafted to make us click, and look to literature, we’d see the well-worn path around the same issues. The questions and concerns we have today have been explored and exposed, reasoned and wrestled with, asked and answered. Yet, here we go again.

In my search to help me understand what is going on in America today, I came across a 2012 blog post from OnlineUniversities.com entitled “The 10 Best Protest Books of All Time.” It is a wealth of literary protest gems worth revisiting because they show us who we were then, where we are once again and maybe, what we can do to get ourselves out of this recurring mess.

Henry David’s Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience advocates public resistance to unjust laws and acts of government and is so appropriate for these times it could have been written on January 20, 2017. Building on the work of Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and Simone De Beauvoir (The Second Sex)  Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique positions women’s rights as human rights, still a battle cry for this generation. Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man, a classic from 1952, still speaks for and to us about civil rights and the intolerance of white privilege. Though it may be remembered as a book about the atrocities of food processing facilities, the journalist Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to addresses the treatment of immigrants. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded the alarm for environmental justice and public health that continues to warn us about the callous treatment of our planet and, Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn is still a relevant read of America’s socioeconomic situation. W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk; Poems, Protest and a Dream: Selected Writing by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Harriet Beecher Stow’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House round out OnlineUniversities.com’s list.

 Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

Once again we are in a struggle for America’s heart, mind, and soul. In the protest literature of the past, there’s wisdom, inspiration, courage, and perhaps a way to inch us further forward so we won’t end up in the same place—again.  Never has it been more important to read, research, reflect, act and repeat.

In the comments box below, please share any protest literature that you’d add to this list. We’ve got four years of hard work to do on these issues.

 

 

The Significance of Black Bodies—Buried

©Brian Palmer/brianpalmer.photos

  In my novel, Provenance, secrets are buried, and revealed, in Richmond, Virginia’s Evergreen Cemetery. The same can be said for the cemetery itself. When slavery ended and African-Americans in the South could claim a final resting place, approximately 5,000 African-Americans chose Evergreen Cemetery. Now the two historic African-American cemeteries in Richmond, through neglect and civic indifference, lie under decades of overgrowth and underbrush. The same freedoms that made black cemeteries possible also became reasons they turned into woodland—families moved away, some migrated North establishing a home place away from the segregated south. In time, some folks forgot or just never knew the significance and the secrets buried along with black bodies during the early 20th century. However, through the efforts of some people in the 21st century, secrets long kept and compacts long hidden are being revealed.

One of the diligent excavators of the secrets within Evergreen and East End Cemeteries is Brian Palmer, a photographer, writer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. I discovered Palmer’s work while doing research for Provenance. Through his photographs, Palmer tells the story of people and situations that he knows might otherwise remain untold—Evergreen and East End Cemeteries are such stories. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Palmer uses his pen to illustrate and illuminate complicit compacts in states like Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. These states award thousands of taxpayer dollars annually to preserve the burial sites and erect monuments for traitors and oppressors while ignoring American citizens who were oppressed. Read Palmer’s eloquent opinion piece, For the Forgotten African-American Dead, where he calls on the Virginia General Assembly to pass House Bill 1547 and provide some taxpayer support to preserve historical graves and cemeteries of African-Americans. 

In The Significance of a Final Resting Place, I wrote about Palmer’s work, the prominent African-Americans buried in Evergreen Cemetery and, how the historic site became a pivotal scene in my novel. You can see more of Palmer’s work at http://www.brianpalmer.photos/

If you live in Virginia, contact your state legislative representative and insist that they vote for House Bill 1547. If you live in other states turning a blind eye and providing paltry or non-existent funding for African-American historic sites – speak up on behalf of history for all of us.

The Power of the N-Word

© Leo Reynolds on Flickr
© Leo Reynolds on Flickr

I must have looked at that word on the first page, third paragraph of my novel, PROVENANCE, at least 100 times.

A young black man, caught after dark in a sundown town, is running for his life.

“We’re Richard Whitaker’s boys, you know us!” he shouts over his shoulder as he tries to escape what could be a fatal consequence for just arriving in town on the late ferry. The racist sheriff responds,
“Then you know! No niggers ‘llowed in town after sundown.”

There it is, the N-word. For the time, 1909, the place—a fictional coastal town in southern Virginia—and the situation, the language is authentic. However, in today’s still racially challenged world, like other racial slurs from our recent past, the word still stings. Today, it is not politically correct to use the N-word; I debated whether to change that word to one that was more palatable, more attuned to today’s sensitivity. I decided to leave it in because it is so visceral, to serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go when it comes to matters of race.

There are still places where people of color are considered a threat like they were in sundown towns throughout the this country; though the blatant signs once posted with the message, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You In (fill in the name of the town) are thankfully a thing of the past.

There are still people who hurl the N-word around to demean and hopefully destroy. Though not my intention, some will say I perpetuate the power of the word by using it. Outside of this literary context I believe that may be a valid argument. However, in PROVENANCE, my novel about a family’s determination to survive and thrive despite the overt racism that scarred the early 20th century, my goal is to demonstrate that the N-word is powerless in the face of self-determination. It becomes meaningless if  you realize it defines not one single thing about you.

What Impact Art?

The visual arts are a primary theme in my novel, Provenance. Throughout the story my characters use art to enlightened, inspire, rescue, and even redeem themselves; demonstrating that art is more than just paintings and pictures. Art has impact; it is a social, political, economic, educational and cultural force.

In a recent video posted by Big Think, curator Sarah Lewis illustrates that point with images and history. Well worth watching.