Tag Archives: get woke

My path to getting woke, part two

At the end of Monday’s post on getting woke, I promised to write about Professor Colleen McElroy and what she taught me while I was in the creative writing graduate program at the University of Washington. I regret to say I am skipping over my entire undergraduate education, largely for lack of time.

She was an amazing professor with a vast quantity of fascinating stories, which she always told with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye. For a small taste of her life and her personality, here is an article by Bethany Reid on HistoryLink and an interview by Elizabeth Hoover in the magazine Sampsonia Way. I enjoyed her classes a lot but was fairly silent in her classes, partly because I was shy then and partly because of the awkwardness that comes from systemic racism. Now if you’re a person of color reading what I’m about to say, you might be surprised, and if you’re white you might think, “Oh yes, I know what you mean,” but anyhow, for the longest time, for many years, or rather several decades, I had the mistaken assumption that the internalized racial prejudice that I held — that everyone holds, to one extent or another — would be revealed to all the world if I spoke up and said the wrong thing. This has stopped me from speaking up about race, many times, when I should have.

Where I was most mistaken was in thinking that my internal racial prejudice was unique to me, or that most other white people would care about it one way or another. But even more so was my naive assumption that because the civil rights movement had happened, segregation theoretically ended, and so forth, that if a person held back from making some racist comment it was because they were ashamed of it, like I was. It’s clear now, from the enormous backlash against “political correctness,” that a whole lot of white people were silent only because of social conventions.

In other words, I cared a lot more about racism than a lot of other white people, but I was less likely to speak up. I’m still in recovery on that one. I find it much easier to write about racism than to speak about it, even with close friends.

Colleen McElroy exposed me to a wide swath of voices I would never have heard otherwise. To name a few: bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Isabel Allende, and Carolyn Forché. These voices framed my understanding of concepts such as the politics of art, race, and immigration; and they also provided a launching off point for learning more and more and more.

One of the books she taught was:

Points of Departure: International Writers on Writing & Politics, David Montenegro, University of Michigan Press, 1991

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From the cover blurb:

In these times of political transformation and turmoil around the globe, Points of Departure offers incisive and passionate reflections on literature and politics by ten of the world’s leading writers. David Montenegro’s interviews with these novelists and poets, some living in exile, focus on the relationship of the writer’s work to political violence and oppression and examine the troubling tensions between art and social responsibility.

There’s an ongoing debate about “whether or not art should be political” and I have to say, after reading this book, I look at people who believe you can separate the two and wonder: What world are you living in?

The texts here put me on the path to getting “woke” not exclusively about racism but also about the lived experiences of people who have endured imperialism, colonialism, and so forth. And the understanding that many terrible realities have been too often whitewashed in our history and our news. This is of course still going on.

Below are quotations from two texts that provided a-ha moments for me, one by Isabel Allende and one by Carolyn Forché. I will leave them as is without discussion or interpretation.

From David Montenegro’s interview of Isabel Allende about the day of the military coup in Chile, in which her uncle, Senator Allende, was deposed and killed, here are some snippets.

 

Well, I was a journalist at that time, and that day I got up very early in the morning, as I usually do. I prepared my children for school, like any day, and went to my office. I didn’t realize there was a coup. . . .

By two o’clock, more or less, I learned that Allende was dead and that many of my friends were in hiding; others were killed; others were in prison. But at that moment it was very difficult to realize exactly what was happening. It was a time of great confusion. And rumors. On television we only had military marches and Walt Disney movies. It was so surrealistic, so strange. . . .

[T]he very day of the coup, soldiers would cut the pants of women in the streets with scissors because they wanted ladies to wear skirts, which was proper. . . .

(pp 110-115)

And here is a bit from Carolyn Forché prose poem “The Colonel,” which details a poet’s interview with a colonel. It begins in mundane domesticity, with the wife bringing coffee and sugar and the daughter filing her nails. Midway through the interview:

The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. . . .

(pp 75-76)

So then.

Opening my eyes to the world in this way was not the most pleasant gift I have ever received, but is certainly one of the most important. Thank you, Professor Colleen McElroy.

colleenjmcelroy3

image from awritersalchemy. wordpress.com

– Kristin

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My path to getting woke

In Seattle, people of color – in particular, indigenous people – LED the march. That’s the way to do it. One of my eye-openers was the bell hooks book From Margin to Center which laid out very clearly and practically why folks on the margins understand the world in ways folks in the center don’t. It’s a matter not only of justice but of practicality that we center the voices of women and color right now.

I posted that comment on a friend’s facebook page and followed it up with another post to mine:

Only a fraction of the people who attended Seattle’s Womxn’s March yesterday would have heard this–the mike only carried so far–but in the opening remarks the speaker gave respect for Judkins Park being on Coast Salish land, and that indigenous people would be leading the march. A HUGE cheer went up at this news. Later, two bald eagles graced the march. I take all this as a sign that the new womxns movement is heading in the right direction.

Until recently, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that putting women of color first in a march might be a good idea, or that anybody would even understand if I said it. That’s the ignorance of white privilege. But to my surprise and pleasure, a huge number of friends clicked “like.” So I think I am along the path to getting woke, and doing so in community.

I expect some of you readers are looking at me right now like I’m a weirdo.  But if you have some patience, feel free to follow along and see how I got to where I am.

What does “getting woke” mean? Roughly, becoming aware of racial justice issues. There’s an article about it on dailykos, just as a starting point. If you haven’t heard the concept, take a minute to read that before reading the rest of this post.

Okay, done?

So. My steps toward getting woke. Some of it’s reading books, talking to people, listening to speakers, and some of it’s from making mistakes. Altogether it’s a long and ongoing process but I have gratitude to everyone along the way.

The first people who helped me “get woke” were my liberal parents, the conversations we had, the book they got me. And then middle school: the substitute teacher who told us stories of times there were two water fountains, one for “white” and one for “colored” and since he was biracial, he never knew which to use. I remember his kindness to us and the frustration he felt as he spoke, because of the difficulty in communicating what those times were truly like.

There was a sharp division in middle school, which took me a long time to understand. I attended Washington Middle School in Seattle, an almost entirely black school that had implemented busing for desegregation, by which I mean they bused white kids from the north end from the advanced learning program, meaning that the district was less segregated, but the school was more.

By high school my family was living in Salt Lake City, and there was my high school teacher who said Martin Luther King was a “troublemaker.” This woke me to understand not everybody was like my liberal parents, and that history didn’t proceed from race hatred to everybody singing kumbaya.

One time for journalism I distributed a survey asking people two questions: did they think white and black people were equal, and is mixed marriage okay. If I recall correctly, everybody who responded believed in equality, but only half in mixed marriage.

Then there was the time my mom dated a black man, and we lived in a house where the front door was stuck so we only ever used the back door, and my mom’s date explaining to me that he was always afraid a cop would see him sneaking in our back door and arrest him.

That gets me through high school, in bits and pieces. I had no black friends in high school. In fact, my entire high school had no black kids. That’s how it was.  I’ll just go ahead and skip undergraduate school, although some learning took place there, and move forward to graduate school. Because there’s a professor I need to express gratitude to, and that’s Colleen McElroy, who exposed me to some amazing poets and writers of color. I’ll talk about her in my next post.