Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why I Can’t “Get a Sense of Humor” about Racist Jokes

From my post on The Stiletto Gang today.

UPDATE: Handler has come out with a real apology that acknowledges the racist content of his remarks and is now matching the next $10,000 donated to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks fundraiser.

I congratulate him on actually dealing with what he did.

Wednesday night, the National Book Awards took place, and a multiple-New-York-Times bestseller and hugely successful white male author of children’s books, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), was the host. During the course of the night, he made several racist jokes, including bemoaning the fact that he hadn’t won a Coretta Scott King Award (for African American children’s book writers or children’s literature showcasing African American life--both categories together make up less than 3% of the field), calling two African American nominees for the award in poetry “probable cause,” and topping off his whole night of micro-aggressions with a major watermelon joke directed at African American writer, Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the award in children’s literature.

Here’s the entire event on C-Span. You’ll find the watermelon joke just after the 40-minute mark.

The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, and a number of other mainstream news outlets covered the awards the next morning and complimented Handler’s performance as emcee without ever mentioning any of these remarks. Just as the overwhelmingly affluent white audience laughed and applauded.

Not surprisingly, people of color and white people of good conscience were upset by Handler’s behavior at one of the most prestigious book award ceremonies in the United States. Articles and blogs were written. Twitter came alive over it. Finally, Handler apologized on Twitter with the usual non-apology—“my failed attempt at humor.” People rightly asked, “In what world are these things supposed to be funny?”

Then, the defenders came out. Online comment after comment after tweet after Facebook post after blog post of “What’s the big deal?”, “race-baiting,” “Get a sense of humor.” I’m used to them. We all are. Every time someone wealthy, famous, and white (and usually male) says or does something racist or misogynist, the defenders come out in force with these same comments. The comments include many that are much worse and sometimes downright foul, but I won’t detail those here because they’re from real trolls, while I think the comments I have listed are sometimes, at least, from people who genuinely don’t see or understand the racist or misogynistic content of the controversial remarks.

People try to explain why these remarks are offensive. I know I have many times. Usually without success. Perhaps it will help if I spell it out this time, looking at the watermelon joke, which caused the most uproar because Handler dragged it out for several minutes and included Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama. Woodson is a gifted young writer who has twice before been a finalist for this ultimate award. Winning it should have been a pinnacle point for her entire career. At that moment, this wealthy, successful, white male writer in her own specific field (children’s literature) reminded her publicly that, no matter how much she achieved, she would always be Other and lesser in his and everyone else’s eyes.

When you face these kinds of insults and injuries in little and big ways every day—even if the people who say or do them are truly unaware of the offense (and let’s be honest, they usually know quite well)—it takes a toll on you. Then, if you object, if you try to say, “This is wrong,” others who share the offender’s views tell you not to take it so seriously—“Get a sense of humor.”

I want to turn that back on them. To all those people who think it’s funny to insult and stereotype people of other backgrounds and genders, you get a sense of humor. Learn what’s really funny and not just cruel and embarrassing and referencing for fun traumas that have been inflicted on whole peoples. Grow some intelligence and wit, instead of making watermelon jokes when someone wins one of the highest awards in the American literary world.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson—What Kind of a Nation Do We Choose to Be?

I have been watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, the past few days, as has the world. I know that troubled suburb of St. Louis, have a friend who recently moved there, have driven past or through it many times.  Ferguson and St. Louis occupy the northeastern corner of Missouri a straight shot across the state on I-70 from where I live in a similar area of Kansas City in the northwestern corner of the state.

I live on the “wrong” side of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, the poor side, the dark side, of this street that divides this city, racially and socioeconomically. The people in my neighborhood and the neighborhoods around us were suffering severely for at least three years before the economic crisis hit the stock market and was finally declared. It seems we only worry about the economy when it adversely affects the well-off. What does that say about us as a country?

Where I live is similar to Ferguson where Michael Brown was killed, a street with a strip of businesses surrounded by working-class homes on all sides. I know what it’s like to have a SWAT team pull up and cordon off my neighborhood and block my driveway while armored and assault-weapon-armed men sweep through our backyard because of something that happened at a business up on Troost. I can imagine the plight of the people who are being teargassed in their own driveways and yards because they just happen to live where something happened. That’s something I think people forget.  It’s mostly homes around there. Many of those people gathered around the body of Michael Brown when the police came in so hard and heavy that first day with guns and dogs were actually standing in their own or their neighbor’s yards. This is a whole community under siege by its own police force.

When the white men at the Bundy standoff, armed to the teeth, pointed loaded assault weapons at police and threatened them, no one shot them, and no one teargassed them. Apparently, that kind of behavior is saved for people of color in this country.

I remember the riots of the 1960s. More people would do well to remember them. If you’re not old enough or weren’t aware enough when they occurred, google them. And imagine them now, with the population in many cities much larger than it was then, with automatic weapons in the hands of much of the population, as they were not at that time. There is frustration, hopelessness, and anger of that immensity that is building in this country right now.

The riots of the 1960s were a wake-up call for the United States. As a country, we set up programs to deal with the poverty and hopelessness and racism that brought them about—programs that brought more people of color and people from poor backgrounds into the middle class than ever before, programs that brought medical care, nutritional care, education, job training and many other good things to what were essentially bad places to live one’s life.

In recent years, we’ve been dismantling the structure of safety-net services and programs that we set up after those riots, even as racism has become ever more overt and in-your-face in this country. Things have been peaceful through the decades of greed. No one’s been pitching bottles or breaking windows, though poor people and working-class people and people of color and women have been suffering. So we take—and take and take—from the poor and the working class and, now, even the middle class, and give it all to the wealthy and the corporations. We militarize our police forces and allow too many of them to think of the streets on which we live as a war zone in which they have the right to act as if they are an occupying army.  We allow racism, which had been forced underground at least, to rise up and blossom in front of us, on our television sets, in our state legislatures and governor’s mansions, in the United States Congress and Supreme Court. We don’t listen when people protest. The country turns its back.

My husband once knew someone who was writing a dissertation called “Violence Works.”  I’d like to think his friend’s analysis is wrong, but reality is slapping me in the face right now. People trying to peacefully protest a young man’s brutal death, with hands held high in the air, are teargassed and have their lives threatened by a police force that views them as enemy combatants.  If you look at the U.S.’s history, you’ll see plenty of proof of that dissertation’s thesis, as well. Basically, it is when people can’t take it any longer and erupt in violence that we, as a country, wake up and do something to improve the situation. Most of our social improvements have followed that chain of events.

When we wipe out program after program designed to help people pull themselves and their families out of poverty, we are playing with fire. When we ignore the damage the economy sustains from short-sighted greed until the damage spreads to the wealthy—and then provide bailouts only to the powerful—we say something about what kind of country we are and what we value. When we allow wealthy white men to threaten law enforcement officers with loaded weapons with impunity while teargassing unarmed African American mothers and children in or near their own homes, we say something about what kind of country we are and what we value. And that something is sour to the taste and bitter to the heart for a country founded on the ideals this country still claims to hold as its own. Maybe it’s time we took a look at what we truly value versus what we say we value. What kind of a country do we want to be? We are creating the future now.

REPLY TO COMMENTS ( because Blogger):
Sara Sue, thank you. It's terrifying to see this. Everyone should read about all the militarization of police forces in this country and the attitudes their leadership publicly espouse about our neighborhood streets being a war zone. In a time when violent crime of all types has dropped to its lowest levels in decades, they are arming for battle and treating the citizens whose taxes pay their salaries as enemy combatants in an occupied territory.

Mary, thank you for reading it and thinking about it. What we need now is people who will stop reacting in a knee-jerk, visceral way and instead think seriously about these things.

Yes, Reine, and Fox News and their ilk were proclaiming outside agitators in the first hour after Brown's death. I think there are some people there now from both outside and from Ferguson itself who want to provoke conflict. Any time you set up a powder keg someone always seems to want to play the spark. But I know some folks from KC who drove across the state to support friends and relatives who were residents and were demonstrating and being treated abysmally. Someone in power needs to take control of the militarized police and ease back the intensity so negotiations can take place. Unfortunately, a number of drastically bad decisions have made that prospect look dim. When police force Amnesty International observers, who are wearing clearly identified shirts and are trying to leave with hands held high to show they're harmless after being told to leave or be arrested, to kneel on the ground for no reason other than to exert power, when a policemen aims his rifle at people with hands in the air and with obscenities threatens to kill them, etc., unfortunately etc., chances of peaceful outcomes look distant and unlikely.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unexpected Delay

I started a month-long series of posts for my long-running series, Books of Interest by Writers of Color, in honor of #diverselit and #WeNeedDiverseBooks after the early part of healing from surgery. One week in, unfortunately, I must take a week's hiatus because I've developed a post-surgical problem that requires me to keep my right arm elevated until I receive a custom-made compression sleeve. This means I can keep writing on the current novel by longhand, but can't use the computer.

So check back in a week for posts about Marjorie Agosin, Allison Hedge Coke, Richard Vargas, Frances Washburn, and more.

Later Note: And even more unexpectedly, I'm having more surgery August 4th, so my hiatus from this series will be longer than I'd thought. My apologies.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sergio Troncoso—Books of Interest by Writers of Color

This is the second in a month-long series on #diverselit and #WeNeedDiverseBooks that I am offering as an addition to my long-running series, Books of Interest by Writers of Color.

Sergio Troncoso is one of the most interesting writers around. Author of essays, short fiction, and novels, Troncoso was born in El Paso, Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants who built their own house by hand with no running water or electricity in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the border city. He went on to graduate from Harvard and to study international relations and philosophy at Yale University where he now teaches as a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Conference while living in Manhattan on the affluent West Side. That range of experience of communities from the poorest to the wealthiest informs and enriches his work, as does his extensive study in economics, politics, and literature. His writing is always intelligent and ambitious and often subversive.

His two most recent books are examples of this range. Troncoso’s first novel, The Nature of Truth, was published in a new, revised and updated edition in 2014. Rigoberto Gonzalez reviewing it for The El Paso Times said, “Sergio Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth single-handedly redefines the Chicano novel and the literary thriller.” I found The Nature of Truth an interesting cross between literary novel of ideas and thriller. The hero learns his famous academic supervisor is possibly a Nazi war criminal, as well as a serial sexual harasser and seducer of young undergraduate women. Still, he can't seem to find a way to bring the esteemed scholar to justice because the older man is too slippery. What can or should an honest man do to enact justice? This is an extremely well-written, ambitious novel of thought and action filled with suspense. A real page turner and thought provoker.

Troncoso also recently co-edited Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, a collection of essays on how the bi-national and bi-cultural existence along the United States-Mexico border has been disrupted by recent drug violence. Publishers Weekly called it an “eye-opening collection of essays.” The anthology won the Southwest Book Award and the International Latino Book Award. The authors featured in this collection are from the border areas of both Mexico and the United States, and the collection offers a multifaceted perspective on the infamous drug violence afflicting the border and the complicity of the United States and Mexico in creating and sustaining this monster.

I first encountered Troncoso’s work in his earlier collection of essays, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, a luminous collection of thoughtful writing about his family’s battle with his wife’s breast cancer when their sons were toddlers, how their very different families reacted to this son of the Isleta barrio’s marriage to a daughter of upper-middle-class Jewish parents from New England, his own struggles with how to be a good father to his two sons and bring forward the strengths of his own upbringing without the drawbacks, among other fascinating topics. Lucid writing, rigorous self-examination, and a refusal to accept shibboleths without intensive questioning are hallmarks of this remarkable book.

He also has published a terrific autobiographical novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, which Kirkus Reviews named as one of the Best Books of 2012, and PEN/Texas shortlisted as the runner-up in its biannual Southwest Book Award for Fiction, while his first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, won the Premio Aztlรกn Literary Prize and the Southwest Book Award.

Troncoso is a writer dealing with ambitious themes whose name should be much better known in American literary circles and is an example of the way so many writers of color doing high-quality creative work are too often shunted away from the mainstream of American literary critical attention because of assumptions that their work will simply not be worth the time to even consider. You will find links to buy all of his books on his website, where you will also find videos of talks, interviews, reviews, and his always-insightful blog.