My Spanish 240 students and I just read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Explico algunas cosas,” remarking on the poet’s call to the world to see the bloodshed on Spanish soil during the Spanish Civil War, the three-year struggle that would define the violence and alliances of World War II. We commented on the title, literally translated as “I explain/I’m explaining some things,” but perhaps more aptly saying this, “I’ve got a few things to say,” or, “I’m putting some things on the table,” or even, “Listen up, people, there’s some bullshit in the world.” I love this poem’s no-nonsense title, and I am particularly grateful for an era in which a poem’s verses can move people, groups, and nations to think and act.
Over the past two or three weeks, I have had several luxuries in my own little town and little time to sort through my impressions and opinions surrounding them. This blog post is simply about getting a few things on the table, trying to understand my own reactions to the brilliant and creative work I have heard delivered or performed live in this short time.
I have heard Joy Harjo read her poetry, establishing voice and cadence and connection to the past and to Oklahoma, lamenting colonization and genocide and the willful ignorance surrounding these purposeful conquests. She highlighted the Monacan Indian Nation as an important part of Virginia history. As I sprinted from Harjo’s reading to Rebecca Traister’s presentation focused on her book, Good and Mad. The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, I thought again about how poetry packs a wallop, how it doesn’t have to be angry to show anger, how it doesn’t have to say, “This bullshit happened again,” to communicate that the bullshit did indeed happen again. As I jumped into the Traister talk, I was struck by how the author’s style changed when she moved from her prepared remarks to speaking off-the-cuff. Her prepared remarks slowed things down, stated an academic case, supported it with evidence. When she spoke off-the-cuff, which really was not off-the-cuff but rather a brilliant demonstration of how much Traister holds in her head and how quickly she constructs the most lucid of arguments, you saw Traister allow the fire and anger to emerge. You saw her live the academic argument she has made so often. You saw her fatigue and frustration forged into smart fury, each comment building to the next, each example eliciting knowing nods from most of the audience.
As I walked from Traister’s talk to a group discussion of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, I sorted through how anger works in, for, and against me. Anger shows on my face (friends often remind me that, even if I’m silent, people can actually still see my face), knots in my belly, and pumps blood through my body. It drives me to a clear outline of the points I’m mad about and forces me to take some kind of action. I’m sure it works against me in a whole host of ways that I don’t usually slow down long enough to analyze or to halt. I arrived at the building where the book discussion was scheduled and laughed out loud thinking of my daughter when she was about four years old. We had been at a 4th of July fair until too late. She was in a tie-dye dress, had red, white, and blue popsicle stains across her face, and wild curls across her head. She was four, and she was pissed. When we got home, and I was drawing a bath for her, she stood over me imperiously and announced that she was mad, mad for three reasons. “Number one,” she yelled, index finger in the air. “You didn’t let me cross the street by myself.” “Number two,” she continued, new finger up and waving in my face. “I wasn’t allowed to have another popsicle.” Third finger up, the trifecta of her ire. “And, number three. I am NOT taking a bath.” I watched anger galvanize her thoughts and her forceful articulation of them. I remembered thinking, “Yep, apple, tree, and all that.”
The White Fragility discussion challenged those of us who were present. I realized immediately that I often approach social events and community gatherings too much as an academic. I wanted to talk about the book—what I liked, what I didn’t, what I had learned, what I still needed to know, what my weaknesses are—and had little patience for those who just wanted to talk about the issue. I was still in Good and Mad mode and had to let it go and just listen. The next hour and a half reinforced for me the fatigue people of color must experience as they hear iteration after iteration of white people coming to terms with their own racism, sometimes in the most stroking and least aware of ways. It also reinforced the challenge of living at various intersections and having to watch this play out in many different contexts every day. Nevertheless, it is also clear that working in and as community means living these iterative processes and hoping that, slowly but surely, we are circling back to a more advanced point in our development.
Three nights ago, many of us heard the story of the 8-person local group who traveled to Tijuana in December to offer legal aid to migrants at the border. The group provided excellent information on international human rights, immigration law, asylum procedures, and specifics about migration through Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. They also shared the ways in which they were struck by, undone by, worried about, tenderly addressing all the need and tension and preoccupation about further separation and economic hardship. A colleague talked about being touched again by the power of the law and the need to help people shape their narratives. As the whole group discussed the “credible fear” interviews for asylum, I could not stop thinking about the additional credible fears our own country has created through detention, separation, and general dehumanization. An excellent lunchtime presentation yesterday about the forthcoming documentary film The Burning allowed me to draw parallels between the migrant and refugee crisis in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya and the one addressed by the Tijuana group. The mighty hypocrisy of it all, the unnecessary trauma of it all. We are living this vaivén, this back-and-forth between evil enacted by powerful people and desire for good brought about by people on the ground.
Two nights ago, again on campus, I joined a packed house to watch BlackkKlansman. I saw most, but not all of the film, but thought it was incredibly powerful in its unflinching portrayal of racism and its institutions, of hatred of an entire race, layered with profound anti-Semitism and misogyny. I hope to hear about the discussion after the film. Maybe it was a few steps ahead of the white fragility discussion of a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, across town at our local public schools, some great and worrisome events have taken place. The high school boasts a state champion, Danielle Crawford, in the shot put and the state championship academic team (I can’t yet find a link announcing this), along with outstanding performances in the state championships by several swimmers. At the same time, though, the high school had planned to hold one of its few assemblies for the whole school. The assembly, just now scrapped, but only due to some necessary consciousness-raising, was to feature a preacher named Bob Holmes, who sees public schools as “mission fields,” hopes to guide students to Jesus, and states that girls who have been raped can find forgiveness from Jesus. A local middle school also this week witnessed one of its teachers making racist and sexist remarks to a student.
There is so much work being done, and so much work still before us. Of course, as a nation, we have also just witnessed the theater of the absurd of the GOP defense of Trump through their attack on Cohen. The racist, conman, and cheat-in-chief continues to exercise his white supremacist, misogynist, dictator power. The more we “explicamos algunas cosas,” the more cosas there seem to be. In the meantime, I am profoundly grateful to the many people across the globe who are finding ways to ask us to see the bloodshed on our lands and do something about it.