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A Black Experience Resource Guide for Curious White People

Civil rights march on Washington DC, August 28, 1963.
Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

Earlier this week a friend expressed a dawning realization about the realities that black Americans face on a daily basis that she has never had to worry about. She discussed bearing witness to the overpolicing of recent protests she was seeing, and listening to a professor point out that it was just the latest illustration of the plight of black people in America. I wondered whether she had seen Henry Louis Gates interviewed—he’s a nationally known Harvard professor who was arrested by police who believed he was breaking and entering his own house in 2009. Just this morning I watched an interview where SNL comedian Michael Che confessed “I don’t think 9-1-1 is for me.”

One need not look too far to find a person of color who has had a disproportionally heavy-handed interaction with police. Even adorable Amber Ruffin shared her story of being a nervous new teen driver and being targeted by a cop. The Black Lives Matter movement may have started with the death of Trayvon Martin, but Martin’s death was by no means the first young man killed because of his ethnicity.

Pondering, I realized I could help people like my friend—white people who are just opening their eyes to the plight of their fellow man and/or systemic racism, but may need some guidance in learning more. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 25 years seeking out and absorbing voices of the “other”—racial minorities, QUILTBAGs, women, generally the people who aren’t traditionally covered in public school.

This is another way of saying I totally dig social history, but most people aren’t familiar with that term.

If you don’t understand why people are protesting in such massive numbers, the onus is on you, white person, to educate yourself about these matters. Close your mouth and open your ears. Ask thoughtful and sensitive questions. Seek out work created by someone who is very different than you. Consider discussing with others if you have a difficult time understanding the material. Here in Portland, Multnomah County Library created the Everybody Reads program to feature one book per year in aim of getting more people talking about these less-heard voices.

Following is a list of works I think would have some valuable information for people just starting to learn about the modern black experience, persisting dynamics, and why people are so damn angry right now.

BOOKS:

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This is a book I think about frequently. There’s so much to learn! If Malcolm X was discussed at all in schools beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he probably sounded really threatening. Not only had Malcolm parted ways with the Nation of Islam by the end of his life, but the last several pages (written solely by Alex Haley, without Malcolm) are heartbreaking. One of my weirdly-specific favorite passages is when he talks getting his conk done—this passage just skims the surface but black hair in general is definitely a thing that you should know about.
  • Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen documents evidence of “sundown towns”—places where you didn’t want to be out at night if you weren’t white. Loewen narrows the focus of his lengthy book to just the state he was living and teaching in, Illinois—but acknowledges that sundown towns existed in every single US state, and some still do, although not explicitly.
  • The March triology. Living legend and current US Senator John Lewis collaborated with artists to produce a trilogy of graphic novels about his life. Each one is packed full of civil rights history and behind the scenes struggles, through the eyes of a young man finding his way through life.
  • The Hate U Give. Released in 2017, this young adult book by Angie Thomas caught fire with adults as well. Inspired by the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, readers unfamiliar with 2Pac will never forget what THUG LIFE means—and why it’s important—after reading this book.
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison can be a rewarding read, but I’ll admit I had a lot of support to parse it during my freshman year in college. (The literary executor of Ellison’s estate, John Callahan, was a professor at my school.) If I was reading this for the first time I would definitely consider discussing with a book club, and maybe even work from the readers’ guide the publisher provides online.

MAGAZINES:

  • The 1619 Project was the vision of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who has since won a boatload of awards for the work, including a Pulitzer Prize. The very first boat carrying slaves from Africa landed on the shores of Virginia in 1619. Now, 400 years later, slavery still impacts the United States economically, culturally, medically, in housing, and well, the effects of slavery can be seen pretty much everywhere. There’s an accompanying podcast that won an(other) award recently, but it all began in The New York Times Magazine on August 14, 2019. Nikole Hannah-Jones goes by Ida Bae Wells on Twitter, in reference to Ida B. Wells, a 19th century pioneering black journalist you should also get to know.

FILM:

  • Roots is entirely worth the many hours you’ll spend watching it. It was a television must-see when it originally aired in 1978, and even today I love it when an unexpected star turns up. I’ve heard the book is amazing as well, and based on Alex Haley’s writing in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I believe it. But I have watched the Roots miniseries at least twice and have not yet read the book.
  • Do the Right Thing made a huge splash when it was released in 1989, and is still entirely relevant today. Spike Lee intentionally plays with his audience’s assumptions about a key character depending on their color. Anyone familiar with Eric Garner’s death will be haunted by a contemporary viewing of this movie. Definitely a movie worthy of reflection and discussion with others.
  • 13th: Produced and directed by Ava DuVernay, this documentary about the mass incarceration of people of color includes a succinct timeline connecting the Emancipation Proclamation and our current prison system.

PHOTOGRAPHY:

This list was co-curated by Steven Newton!

Even though I’ve exposed myself to a lot of these voices over the years, I am by no means an expert. Hell, I have yet to read James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, or Maya Angelou! There are other books about white privilege I haven’t gotten to yet either.

Educating yourself about new things can be a long (but rewarding!) process, so I think it’s helpful if someone can help steer you at certain points along your journey. If you have questions about any of the above recommendations or other cultural questions, ask them and I’ll do my best to help. Or if you’re not totally new to these ideas, feel free to comment with your recommendations as well!

Personal storytelling is an engine of humanization, which is in turn an engine of empathy.

Lindy West, The Witches Are Coming

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Chuck Klosterman Speaks Bleakly About Publishing Newbies

The company I currently work for has a subscription to the Portland Business Journal, so it’s a paper I have access to each week that I probably wouldn’t read otherwise. It doesn’t have a plethora of pieces that I can use for work, which is theoretically why we receive it, but I frequently find information that’s interesting to me personally. There might be news of a building sale in my neighborhood or a local company getting off the ground that might be relevant to my interests.

In the August 23rd, 2019 issue, there was an interview with author Chuck Klosterman that caught my attention. His name sounded familiar but I was surprised I hadn’t encountered his work before, especially since he moved to Portland a couple of years back.

One specific answer he gave in the interview caught my attention.

PBJ: What is it like being a working author now?

I think it’s extremely difficult for a new person to enter the publishing industry at this point. But I’ve been doing this now for 18 years. I’m kind of inside the gates.

Frankly, with the growing disinterest the public has in reading, the middle class of writing has disappeared. If somebody wants to buy a book, they almost have to know what that book is and who wrote it before they even look for it. In the past when Barnes and Noble and places like that became really popular, people would go to bookstores almost as a social extension of their life, which they still kind of do at Powell’s.

Now, it’s hard to be a writer who exists by selling 20,000 copies of your book. It seems as though you have to sell 300,000 copies and almost work as a kind of celebrity or your book sells less than 5,000 copies and you have to do it as a hobby.

Read more of the Portland Business Journal’s interview with Chuck Klosterman here.

WHEW.

The “growing disinterest the public has in reading” bit hit me like a brick, yet I can’t argue with the perspective. And I certainly can’t forget the local publisher who thought I was overqualified for their open position when I was fresh out of my publishing program back in 2012, looking less at job title and more at gaining actual paid experience at an operational publishing company. Portland has so few of them.

While I can’t argue with a single thing Klosterman says here—it is indeed the state of the industry—the bleak sentiment really got to me. I suppose the angle I’ve taken over the last 20 years has been that publishing books isn’t the only avenue where editorial work—writing, editing, photo research, and the like—is needed. I’ve worked on museum exhibits, multimedia projects, company websites, but also printed books as well.

Young publishers, things may feel increasingly like an idiocracy but that just means your skills are needed even more in this world.

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My E-reader Died!

It started so innocently. Multnomah County Library ran an online ad encouraging people to check out an e-book. I decided to try it out, as I had never attempted to use the e-reader I had gotten for free from the breakroom at my office for anything other than free, public domain titles.

Halfway through Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, my e-reader wasn’t sparking very much joy. It had randomly died, then apparently forgot I had loaded any books on it at all! When I tried to connect wirelessly to sync up with my Kobo account, the device was stymied.

I had gotten this device for free about a year and a half earlier. It was sitting on a table in the breakroom of my office, and I was drawn in by the cheery red case. In MPub e-books were a hot topic (some of my colleagues even did some actual real-life work with them!) but I was solidly unconvinced that they’d ever be a part of my life. After all, users had already started learning about the down-side of digital rights management when Amazon digitally yanked 1984 from e-readers without notice to their customers. When the e-reader hadn’t been claimed by my next visit to the breakroom, I nabbed it, thinking I could experiment with creating ePUB files of my own. Kobo, after all, was a Canadian company and I knew they didn’t require a proprietary file type like Amazon devices did.

I read one whole book on the device—Anne of Green Gables—long before loading the library book.

Once I started having issues it wasn’t long before I was in an epic back-and-forth with Kobo support techs—one of whom eventually became far more helpful than the others. It took a while, but the helpful tech ultimately decided that the device was done for. Which is what I had suspected weeks before.

Thus ended my e-reader experiment. I did put some effort into procuring another Kobo but it wasn’t too long before I figured out the newer models were far too fancy for my liking. These devices had color screens, some played video, and the cost was far above the budget I was willing to spend on such a thing.

Ultimately I decided that it wasn’t worth the modest utility I got from it—being able to stir a pot and read, or go on a trip and have a variety of titles to read, from Northanger Abbey to the gargantuan Ulysses. Paper will still be my go-to…for now, anyway.

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“They” as a Personal Pronoun and Subject-Verb Agreement

They want to eat pizza.

A couple of weeks ago my opinion was sought about a very 2019 kind of question. Steven had been pondering the verbal intricacies of our new gender frontiers and asked about which verb conjugation one would use with the singular “they…”

They run for exercise? OR They runs for exercise?

They like it? OR They likes it?

It was a great question, and one I hadn’t recalled being specifically addressed in recent years as big style guides have announced changes. Research opportunity beckoned so I grabbed my handy Chicago 17 and got searching.

In Section 5.48 Chicago recommends against using the singular “they” in formal writing but notes “like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb.” A few sentences later they give the same advice for non-they pronouns: “a number of other gender-neutral singular pronouns are in use, invented for that purpose; forms of these are usually singular and take singular verbs.” In other words, ze/zim/zir gets the same treatment.

The Chicago advice seemed perfectly reasonable to me although I do have a counterpoint. If we use a singular verb form with “they,” then that could eliminate confusion to an audience about whether you’re talking about an individual or a group.

They want to eat pizza. OR They wants to eat pizza.
If we use the second version, our audience would know we’re referring to one person!

In the past I think I’d have felt completely comfortable with what society at large was trying harder to grapple with—back when I was in high school and college it was the acceptance of people who weren’t straight. A couple decades have passed and we’ve come a long way. Our new societal frontiers have more to do with gender: accepting people at different places along the gender spectrum and people whose gender identity may not match what another person dictated when they were born. (Sadly, our challenges with skin tones seem to be evergreen.) These days I’m feeling more like I’m figuring it out along with other people yet doing my best to make it look easy.

It hasn’t been smooth though, at least not verbally. Two summers ago Steven and I had regular interactions with a person named Lew, whose preferred pronoun was “they.” There were several times when I stopped myself in mid-sentence to pause and say “they,” or sometimes I’d just default to “Lew.” It felt awkward to say “I need to call them to tell them we’ll be late” so I might opt for “I need to call Lew to say we’ll be late.”

Just a day or two after I was pondering Steven’s gender-neutral question, NPR ran an op-ed titled “Even a Grammar Geezer Like Me Can Get Used to Gender Neutral Pronouns.” It gave a nice summation of how we got to where we are and a gentle encouragement that we can all adjust. Scientific American writers point out that announcing pronouns may enable gender bias and discrimination.

Just as we got used to referring to unmarried women as Ms., just as we’ve now got popular television shows with gay main characters and lesbian hosts, with time things will shake out and we’ll collectively figure things out. In the meantime though, it’s better to ask respectful questions than angrily make pronouncements, whether you’re talking to an individual or a addressing a large group.

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The Chicago Manual of Style Announces 17th Edition

Today in word nerd news, the world learned that September will bring a new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)! The University of Chicago Press is already taking pre-orders. Spoiler alert: it costs $70.

More spoiler alerts: e-mail will be email and Internet will be internet! Gender fluidity will the conversation, too, as they report “use of the singular they as a preferred personal pronoun [will be] accepted in formal writing.” The times, they are a-changin’.

I managed to nab a $25 used copy of the 15th edition at Powell’s about five years before I was forced to upgrade to a new copy. MPub required us to have a copy of 16, which had just been released, so I purchased one at full retail price. (Of course there’s also my early edition of CMOS I scored in for $1.50. I wouldn’t part with it for the world!)

We’ve been through a lot, me and ol’ 16. There was at least one late night I needed to read most of the first chapter for editing class, which describes details about publishing as a whole. (Quick, someone quiz me on verso and recto!) As a reference, it felt a little awkward to be reading the book in front-to-back style.

Sadly, my current workplace just doesn’t beg the kinds of style questions I ache to research, so I haven’t been relying upon 16 as regularly as I have in the past. What do I do? I could sell the tome back to Powell’s now for maximum cash (which would then in turn be used to pre-order 17). Or maybe it’s time to start a CMOS collection, so I can research subtle changes that happened between editions.

What’s a word nerd to do?

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What I’m Reading: Radical Figures, Life Management

asdportrait

Abigail Scott Duniway, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thursday night I reached the epilogue of Evicted, so I’m in the home stretch of finishing that book. Honestly, I’m probably not going to read the backmatter of footnotes and such, which take up the last 20% of the thickness of the book, so I’ll likely be moving on to the next selection in my towering to-read stack.

Related to Current Political Shenanigans

Over the last couple of weeks certain historical figures have been on my mind. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, who the current occupant of the Oval Office recently referred to as if he was alive (Douglass died in 1895).

When I was attending Lewis and Clark College I was in a course where we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. One of the details that stuck with me over the years is that Douglass didn’t know the day he was born, something that most of us consider to be basic information about ourselves. Of course it’s worth reading for more reasons besides that, and it’s public domain so it’s pretty easy to find. Highly recommended—after all, POTUS says that Douglass guy is really going places!

Conservatives Sure Love Progressives and Radicals—At Least After They’re Dead (Salon)

Most of my favorite historical figures relate to social history—the revolutionaries, the people who fought for their beliefs despite negative pushback from others. Here in Oregon we have Abigail Scott Duniway, who fought for women’s suffrage in Oregon alongside national figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An announcement recently informed Portland that the local Hilton Hotel would be renamed after Duniway, which I can only think ties in to the above Salon article. A few years ago I created a Facebook page for Duniway, hoping to start a campaign to rename SE Division street for her…but it looks like the profiteers have now discovered her too.

Finding Time to Read

What would Bookish be without reading? I’ve seen a few articles about making time to read over the last few weeks. They all have something interesting to say.

Making Time to Read (Unclutterer)
In the Time You Spend on Social Media Each Year, You Could Read 200 Books (Quartz)
Books You Can Read in the Time It Takes to Watch the Super Bowl (Minnesota Public Radio)

The Importance of Saying No

Finally, this week I took on another short-term commitment that I probably should have said no to. Obviously I ran across this reminder later in the week…

One Critical Time Management Technique: Saying No (Unclutterer)

Although I admit I should have said no, I’m not entirely sorry because I’ve accepted the opportunity to learn the choral part to the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, aka “Ode to Joy.” It seems pretty flipping timely to me to sing Schiller’s “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” again and again. Loudly.

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What I’m Reading: Current Affairs

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There’s a lot going on these days, am I right? This month, in addition to regular dispatches on Rain in the Forecast (which involves taking Rain to agility class and practicing our homework),  I’m learning to knit by a class I’m taking at local knit shop Starlight Knitting Society, I’ve returned to a regular yoga class after an unexpected two-month absence, and I’m cooking up fundraisers (see above and below). But I’m still reading.

A friend says this journal article came out of her lab. One can read the full piece if you have library access to a service like JSTOR:

Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study (American Journal of Epidemiology via PubMed)

There’s a new occupant in the Oval Office this year, and if you’re having as hard a time adjusting to that as I am, perhaps this piece will be of interest to you. It’s long-form, but largely worth it.

A Short History of the Trump Family (London Review of Books)

After you’re done with that, you might need a dose of comedy to cleanse the palate…

This is Why We Have Photoshop (Cake Wrecks)

Inspired by the amazing things happening these days in US government, I’m selling some pencils. Proceeds will go to the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, CA.

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What I’m Reading: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is the book selection for the Everybody Reads program at one of my local libraries this year.

Why Evicted? Portland’s popularity has lead to a housing crisis in the last few years. Home sales prices have shot up, making ownership even more out of reach for many. An influx of newcomers (some perhaps attracted by the Portlandia mythos, others escaping drought in California) has meant rental prices have become insane. A friend was renting an inner-SE basement apartment about ten years ago that was priced around $895 per month—while that seemed too expensive for me to sustainably afford at the time, a similar apartment might now go for $1300 or more.

Considering this environment I’m glad to own a house with no mortgage, although the condition is not that far from the housing described in Evicted. If my house ever becomes completely uninhabitable, it’s likely I’ll need to move to another part of the region. Or Tulsa—it always seems cost of living is reasonable in Tulsa.

The theory behind Everybody Reads is that if a community has one book they’re reading around the same time, it can spark connections among strangers and a larger public discourse. The library also uses the opportunity to schedule several related events—this year the author will be giving a lecture event in Portland and there are many opportunities for community members to participate in book discussions, learn about local renters rights, and participate in a poverty simulation.

It seems to me that this book is in some respects picking up where The Jungle left off, with the author writing in order to spur social change. That said, rather than creating a fictional account, Evicted was crafted after author Matthew Desmond conducted plenty of interviews and information gathering. A note in the front of the book points out that all the situations really happened, although names have been changed for anonymity.

And it’s a good thing, too. I’m only about halfway through the story and I already feel compelled to write a nastygram to one of the landlords in the book! If this is any recommendation, I promise you’ll feel so moved as well. Evicted does a great job of pulling the curtain back on a system that we should all engage in changing, in the name of human rights.

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What I’m Reading: March Wins the National Book Award!

March: Book Three won the National Book Award last Wednesday! Wahoo!

And last weekend, Representative John Lewis got another surprise when he returned to Nashville. There, in the place where he began his activism, he was presented with copies of his earliest arrest records that nobody had been able to locate previously.

In Nashville, Rep. John Lewis Gets Surprise from His Civil Rights Past

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing a lot of pondering about the next few years, puzzling over what actions I should be taking to stand up against hate. Representative Lewis had a thought that spoke to me. From the article:

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just,” he said, “you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

You guys? I think he’s speaking to all of us.

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Marching Toward a National Book Award

It’s a nice day indeed when you get a library notice that your desired book is waiting for you on the hold shelf, and two hours later you learn the same book has been shortlisted for the National Book Award!

Would March: Book Three live up to the hype? I was pretty stirred up by the end of the second book. As I saw it at the time either Book Two would be the height of the story arc, or they could make Book Three even more interesting and exciting. At the time, that didn’t seem possible.

But it was!

If you’re not familiar with the series, the March trilogy is a set of graphic novels based on the first-person experiences of Representative John Lewis (Georgia) during the Civil Rights era. He’s born to sharecropper parents in Alabama, and when he attends seminary school in Nashville he starts working with others on lunch counter sit-ins. He soon meets Martin Luther King, Jr., and cinches his place in the inner circle of the civil rights movement. He ends up in several scary situations, he is beaten and screamed at, but he never gives up his faith in the power non-violence and the civil rights struggle.

I had never read a first-person account of the movement in long form, and I also wasn’t very familiar with John Lewis before reading this series. (He recently made headlines with his sit-in for gun control.) What the series really gave me was a sense of detail about certain events that I hadn’t had before.

John Lewis spoke at the March on Washington, for example. This sequence during Book Two revealed much conversation that happened about Lewis’ speech in the hours before he gave it, with various organizations and representatives wanting him to take out certain phrases. Through the series, Lewis’ association with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) changes, from being a key member to being slightly at odds with the direction the organization was going in. The March on Washington seems to be a pivotal point in this relationship.

Book Three was the longest of the series, and dense with information. As I was reading it just a few weeks before a really important election, the sequence about Fannie Lou Hamer really spoke to me. If you are not familiar, blacks were attempting to register to vote in Alabama and encountering roadblocks galore, from ‘tests’ to jailing and harassment. Sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer testified on live television about her experiences trying to register to vote, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson was so threatened by what she might say that he invented a reason for a press conference so television stations would cut over to him. (Here’s her full testimony, much of which makes it into Book Three.)

To me, the LBJ episode says a lot about the importance of exercising one’s right to vote. People in this country have fought long and hard just to be able to vote! Don’t take the privilege lightly, friends.

Back to the book. Book Three starts honing in on activity in Selma, Alabama, and the serious voter suppression going on there. The climax of the book is a planned march from Selma to Montgomery, a symbolic march to present their case on the steps of the state capitol.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Selma, but the first outing doesn’t go too well. Participants have gathered from across the US, and they are met on the opposite side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a litany of cops and unsupportive citizens. It’s a bloodbath, and the nightly news broadcasts it across the US.

Perhaps you know what happens next, but Book Three is still a page-turner. This book in particular lends itself to a graphic novel treatment, and illustrator Nate Powell has done a fabulous job. Famous people depicted in the series may not be an exact likeness, but we know who they are—the action and emotion of the illustrative choices more than makes up for what I believe was a deliberate choice on the illustrator’s part. I really hope this does win the National Book Award.

In addition to learning a lot of details I didn’t already know about the civil rights movement, this book gave me a lot of hope. Reading it sparked my brain to meditate about voting, yes; but also how far we have come in the 50 years since the events in the book. We have societal woes today that are akin to those depicted in the series, but if there’s one big idea I took from the series, it’s that losing a battle doesn’t mean losing a war. Just keep marching on.

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