Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sister, Daughter, Dissident

My fingers sprint lightly across the smooth kaleidoscope of illustrations overflowing their cartoonishly-large covers and spilling onto the discount table in front of my favorite radical bookstore. I’m visiting my brother just before he turns six, and I want to show him something about who I am, about how I’m different from his mom and dad…about how he can talk to me about things he wouldn’t dream of talking to them about.

I note that several of the books have people of color on the cover, and I wonder if Daniel has ever talked to a person of color before. I’m aware that this book is going to be about exposure. Exposing him to some larger world than what his parents are willing or able to do. Exposing what matters to me to him. Exposing why I can only be a marginal influence in his childhood.
The dreary shade of the afternoon demands my uneasy skepticism about lingering outside with precious articles of resistance, so I decide to duck into the store to weigh my options.

People’s history posters line walls with the particular brand of collective nostalgia which I feel compelled to pass on to my little brother. Is it selfish of me to want these places to be his places too? It dawns on me that, in all likelihood, he’ll turn out to be that mythic straight white male upon whose complicity the myriad of interlocking heirarchies are built. For a moment, the distance that gets in the way of our relationship is reinforced by every geographic, social, and temporal boundary. Can I prove that it isn’t insurmountable?

The first book I notice is the tale of an enslaved family escaping to freedom in the north. Of course it appeals to me, I escaped to the north to find my freedom. It seems an arrogant miscalculation to compare leaving a middle-class military family to go to a private liberal arts college with escaping slavery to settle into working-class poverty. I put the book down for fear that my stepfather, an ardent defender of the south, may not approve of the tenuous parallel it may imply.

His approval suddenly has a renewed significance as I realize that since I won’t be there to read to Daniel, I must choose a book subtle enough to elicit my stepfather’s compliance. The realization removes my decision from the relatively simple arena of sister and daughter into a no-mans-land between activist, diplomat, and subversive.

My attention shift to a collection of Jewish-American immigrant biographies. It seems somehow safer to give Daniel stories of white immigrants, like my agenda may go unnoticed. Is that really how I want to present my principles to him-as watered down as possible in order to be more palatable?

A Smithsonian book about the radio presents a charming image of a young boy struggling to understand why a broken radio means so much to his grandma. He is taken back in time to retrace the events that marked her life (from the Kennedy assassination to integration) through this medium. He comes to understand the symbolic importance that this object holds for her. Will Daniel even notice?

My heart skips in tandem with my fingers as I fumble over the Islamic encyclopedia. Why can’t I be from a place where that could be seen as anything other than an insult to everything his parents stand for?

Whole new fleets of anxieties coalesce in my mind as questions tumble forward--about where I came from in relation to who I am; about what kind of relationship is possible between my family and I; about whether or not Daniel will ever be the kind of person I can relate to. I realize my breath has taken on a quaking quality and the motion of my hands has lost its stead-fastness. I close my eyes to collect myself, but all I can do is trace the sinews of my own anger, fear, and disappointment.

Hearing the harsh tones of my stepfather’s disapproval reflecting off of each hardbound volume, I can’t escape the feeling that this book may draw the battle lines I’ve avoided all my life. I imagine his narrowed eyebrows recalling all the questions that lie dormant but unanswered. The anticipation is paralyzing.

I leave the bookstore empty-handed. I’ve always used books to start conversations. When did I stop being able to handle them?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reflections on the Day of Silence Part2

“My silence echoes that of the victims of hate crimes,” the neon colored index cards I was given for distribution claimed. I was participating in the Day of Silence to raise awareness about a recent rash of harassment and assault that had taken place on University of Massachusetts Amherst campus in what is ostensibly one of the most LGBTQ friendly regions in the country. The speak-out the day prior had yielded accounts of being spat on and yelled at on the very patch freshly-trimmed lawn where we had gathered. Reclamation seemed somehow more tangible sinking into the damp earth as we read the stories of the larger community history of harassment, abuse, and murder. The pride I had in those who spoke from their own experiences was overwhelmed by the guilt that I could not, intensifying each time I heard an incident I had no real point of reference for.

The next morning, my late rising was complicated by my desire to find a way to make my silence visible. I cut a cloth square from an old shirt to tie around my mouth, and distracted by my own ingenuity, I headed out without anticipating the responses I would garner. Subconsciously afraid of the accusations the handkerchief might warrant from the strangers, I found it hard to make eye contact with passing students as I walked to the concrete behemoth where the conference was scheduled.

As I entered the familiarity of the space, I remembered how I had commented earlier that being around educated people made me feel safe: a ground of commonality, the parameters of civility sketched out in approximately wide enough for me to fit. I questioned that the moment the organizer and I made eyes contact; she hesitated and turned in my direction before tossing a trivializing remark my way. I looked at the ground in embarrassment, instantly sent back to all those moments in school I've spent hoping the teacher would not call on me for an explanation that somehow felt inadequate.

There are so many ways you can ask a question, so many eyebrow configurations, glares, and sighs. I forgot how quickly questions become challenges to one’s right to exist in a space. I forgot how being enveloped in difference feels marked. The day of silence is about remembering...

Throughout the day, I came to realize all of the instances that I use my voice other than to establish an authentic connection. The times I use it for pettiness, to project, to build walls, to swallow my own awkwardness, to convey insecurity. My growing awareness infused me with the determination to not use my silence for those ends as well.

I walked into the hall in between each session renewed with purpose, handing out cards to dozens of passer-bys, but only if they bothered to ask--through lingering eye contact, through a pained face, through an outstretched hand. Sometimes I felt respected, but I always felt alone. No one spoke to me the whole day, except a muscular blonde man clad in sports shorts and buzz cut. He said, "Thank you."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Memory: Undocumented Grief

In honor of May Day, this is dedicated to all the people working too hard, too long, and too far away from their families.

My aunt was an undocumented worker, a Honduran who had traveled months cutting through the wildness of the jungle with a machete, through the waves in barely floatable canoe, only to end-up working for minimum wage in a North Carolinian bacon plant. She spent more than 5 years there working 12 to 14 hours days before she began exhibiting back problems and carpetunnel. Despite her fear of deportation, she appealed to her boss for help. He told her healthcare was out of the question and transferred her to a different job in the plant.
She met my uncle, a truck driver from a small town, an alcoholic from an abusive family. He humiliated her in front of his family, isolated her from the immigrant community, married her in order to get her a green card. The family wasn’t terribly fond of her kind, but he needed someone, they would reason.

One day Maria came to visit. She had always been pleasant, but it was the first time I had ever seen her with her eyes lit up. She told us her and my uncle had been trying to have a child. She was pregnant.

The silence in the room betrayed our reservations about her joy. Everyone congratulated her. Tension filled the room as she told the family the names she was thinking of—Jose, Rafael, Carlos,. “Why not something more biblical?” They nudged her towards more anglicized names. Afterall, why mark the poor kid?

Maria woke in the middle of the night with severe back pains and had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors gave her an ultimatum: she would either have to be bedridden for the remaining 8 months of her pregnancy or have an abortion. Maybe she was catholic. Maybe her husband wanted an ere. I didn’t understand her decision.

What I didn’t know was that even though Yentsee had been an American citizen for five years by virtue of marriage, she couldn’t bring her daughter to come live with her. She had left Isabella a toddler in her parent’s care when she set off to make her way into America. “You don’t understand how dangerous it was. How dangerous it still is.” Is the only clip I remember from the conversation I didn’t know how to have.

She couldn’t explain how she had met the working-class southern boy she had married. She couldn’t risk going back and being found out. She was stuck in one country with her daughter in another. They were worlds away without enough of a paper trail to fill the gap.