During this violent week in the US, as the world seems to be falling apart around us—even here at home in St. Paul where Philando Castile, another young black man, was shot during a traffic stop—I hear calls for empathy everywhere. We need to understand what each other are feeling, goes the plea, walk in one another’s shoes. Stop militarizing our streets, stop shooting people, stop throwing rocks, stop the madness, and listen. President Obama spoke of compassion and national unity, David Brown, the Dallas Police Chief, of an end to divisiveness; and Black Lives Matter activists continually challenge all of us to practice peace, “to intentionally build and nurture a beloved community.”
My friend Sun Yung Shin, a poet and educator here in the Twin Cities, recently edited a collection of writings called A Good Time for the Truth. And it is. After hearing her introduce her anthology about race in Minnesota in a discussion at SubText earlier this evening, I agree that we absolutely must work together across our divides, talk together about what it means to live in one place, but separately. And for her, for me, for many of us, a positive step is to encounter one another in the written word.
I am not arguing that reading books can substitute for human interaction, for the difficult work of social change and community building. But I do think literature can deepen our connections. It can even pave a way for encounters to take place, inviting interactions we might never have considered without first trying them out in books.
Like many working class women, I grew up in a white supremacist environment, one where Dr. Martin Luther King was dismissed as a troublemaker, where I rarely encountered a person of color, where racist language was a part of our nursery rhymes and games. And while I knew hometown legends about Andrew Carnegie and Joe Namath, stories by Annie Dillard and Rebecca Harding Davis, it came as a surprise to me several years ago to discover that my beloved Pittsburgh was also August Wilson’s Pittsburgh, a city I never knew until I saw his stunning plays. I lost myself in the whole ten-play cycle, then, thanks to the Guthrie and Penumbra Theaters. I understand my first home and its history differently now because of that encounter with literature. More deeply. Better.
As a graduate student, I became passionate about issues of gender and class. They were personal; in noting the absence of women and working-class writers among the books I was invited to study, I was defending myself and claiming my place in the world of higher education. But there was a moment at the beginning of my doctoral studies when one woman, with one sentence, changed the direction of my work. “What about the black women?” Linda Susan Beard, then a professor at Michigan State, asked me. And so my education began again.
Because of that brief encounter with Professor Beard, I realized that my voice, my empathy, my studies were limited by the same prejudices I was railing against. And I was missing so much—like a whole side of Pittsburgh. So I set out among the most magical novels—Passing, Love Medicine, Meridian, The Joy Luck Club, House of the Spirits, The Women of Brewster Place, The Woman Warrior, Sula, Ceremony, and Zami. So much gorgeous literature! Today, Zora Neale Hurston is at the center of my modernist literary canon, and Toni Morrison is the American writer I most admire. I have several Langston Hughes poems in my head that echo when I need them. Because of these books, and the many, many others they led me to, my world is deeper and more complex. Better. These books help me with the work of unlearning the racism I grew up with.
Because this hot summer moment in the US is an unsettling one, it is, indeed, a good time for the truth. It’s a good time to stop and listen. Our best books let white people, privileged people, do some of that listening work without constantly demanding that people of color teach us everything. These books also invite people of color to make connections across the whited walls we’ve constructed in our weary world. And I promise that once you have stood beside Sethe on the riverbank, eavesdropped on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, encountered truth with Sun Yung Shin and her essayists, or whirled in the tender night with Langston Hughes, you can’t easily unlearn the lessons of empathy you find there. Good books aren’t just beautiful or entertaining. They do important work among us.
This week, I’m putting on my teacher hat to challenge us to do our own work—our home work. Nurture compassion, stretch our imaginations, and hear the various voices of our American experiment.
Let’s do it. Let’s read a book.
Talk to me about your books.