Thursday, January 25, 2007

Beyond FACTS: FADE by Elliott Lewis and MIXED by Angela Nissel

Both Fade: My Journeys in Multiracial America by Elliott Lewis ( and Mixed: My Life in Black and White by Angela Nissel were published early in 2006; Fade is now out in paperback and Mixed is also available in paperback. Both books explore the interracial experience. While Lewis interviewed Americans of mixed-race heritage and also discussed his own mixed-race background, Nissel wrote of her own biracial identity and the challenges she’s faced because of it.

While I’ve yet to read either book, they’re on my list. (Next up is the Mixed anthology of short stories edited by Chandra Prasad.) I don’t expect to be shocked by any of the revelations presented by Fade or Nissel’s Mixed, but I believe they’re both important to list on BEYOND Understanding as resources. Critics of Fade point to the limited references to people of mixed-race backgrounds that are not black and white and Lewis has noted the need for more study of the special challenges faced by children and young adults in families that are part Hispanic or Asian. Critics of Nissel’s book point to her poor choice of becoming an exotic dancer (for one night) as a way to exploit the exotic aspect of her mixed-race identity. I understand many women of mixed-race heritage suffer through the exotic stereotype and this is not something to promote as an angle worthy of exploitation, but it’s not like Nissel made a career out of stripping (!), so I’m definitely willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and read her work.

Lewis is a journalist and apparently emphasizes differences in generational perceptions when it comes to mixed-race issues: While older Americans seem to see things in black-and-white terms (Are you black, or are you white?), younger Americans seem more willing and able to accept biracial identity as an accurate indicator. Hopefully a book like Fade helps readers understand that a person is impacted more by their home environment growing up than by their family’s racial mix. Hopefully readers also come away from this book aware once again of the pitfalls of judging anyone based on appearances.

Nissel, a writer whose credits include the (hysterical!) Scrubs sitcom, apparently infused her book with a great deal of humor, so it should prove to be a fun as well as enlightening read. Some reviewers call it fall-down funny despite the serious challenges Nissel explored in it.

If anyone’s read either work and wants to add their two cents here, feel free. I’ll be sure to follow up with reviews at a later date, but for now at least I’ll get these two works added to the BEYOND Understanding resource list. Have I mentioned how I wish there were more hours in every day? So much to do, so many books to read, so much to learn, to write (to cook and clean!). We’ll get there.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beyond FORTITUDE: Dr. King’s Legacy Revisited

I love this photo. Coupled with Shaun Mullen’s description of Chuck Stone, a legendary journalist who worked with Mullen at the Philadelphia Daily News, it brings to life an image of a man who not only impressed on sight, but did impressive things on a regular basis. Stop over to Mullen’s Kiko’s House blog and read not only about Stone’s wingtips and Houbinout cologne, but about the many, many crime suspects from the Philadelphia area who chose to turn themselves into Chuck Stone. “Why?” Mullen writes. “Because the suspects, most of them African-Americans, feared being beaten or otherwise mistreated. Having Chuck turn them over to the police, usually in his tiny office or the News conference room, helped guarantee safe passage.”

You might also be impressed by Chuck Stone’s resumé: “Chuck became a Tuskegee Airman after graduating college, wrote speeches for and kept the faith, baby, with powerful U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., had a radio show with Malcolm X and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta before coming to the News, where he wrote a thrice weekly column for 19 years before going to divinity school and getting a theology degree in his late 60s while teaching journalism at the University of Delaware and later the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” Like I said, I love this photo.

Also check out Mullen’s write-ups on his own experiences as a young man in the late 1960s, especially his memories of the day Dr. King was assassinated and his subsequent drive through the burning streets of Washington D.C. neighborhoods. Finally, consider these wise words of Dr. King’s, also currently highlighted on Kiko’s House, regarding the nightmare called the Vietnam War. It’s almost impossible to read this without replacing the word “Vietnam” with “Iraq,” without thinking about devastated Iraqi families when Dr. King refers to the Vietnamese:

“If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.”

Thanks to Shaun Mullen for visiting BEYOND Understanding and providing a link to Kiko’s House. His is a voice of experience and insight well worth tuning into; his blog appears to offer a resource of reason and wonder (and occasional consternation) at where we’ve been and we’re we seem to be headed. If our country were in the hands of someone like Dr. King or Chuck Stone—someone who championed people in need rather than acted upon personal desires for power and domination—I think we’d be headed in a very different direction. One can only dream.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Beyond THE FUTURE: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy of Peace

My girls are fascinated with the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They’re convinced that if Dr. King had never been born, their lives would be very different. Or at least Lauren’s life would; she’s my middle child who strongly resembles my husband’s biracial family. Sarah, my kindergartner, announced the other day that Lauren was black and white while she—Sarah—was just white. Lauren and I tried to explain that all three kids in our family are “part black” since their grandfather was black. Sarah seemed to understand this, but then shrugged and announced she still had white skin. I don’t know if Sarah extended that to an understanding of how she would have been treated during Dr. King’s era versus how her sister might have been treated, but Lauren, meanwhile, is convinced she wouldn’t even be able to go to school today if it hadn’t been for Dr. King. Obviously we have a long way to go to explain the evolution of race relations in our country, but I’m glad my kids are aware of these issues and seem to appreciate the impact of people like Dr. King.

After watching the Eyes of the Prize documentary a few months ago, I remain impressed not only with Dr. King but with the brave souls who conducted the sit-ins, volunteered to be Freedom Riders (an assignment that turned out to be especially treacherous), or walked the many miles in Southern city streets to protest so many unfair Jim Crow laws. Inspired by Dr. King’s message of non-violent demands for change, they subjected themselves not only to humiliating treatment by police and passersby, but to very real, often physically painful, threats to their safety and lives. These people who populated the Civil Rights Movement deserve as much recognition as the leaders of that movement.

While I lived in Nashville in the early ’90s, I had to do some library research for a free-lance project that led me to Fisk University. While I knew Fisk was a traditionally black college, I had no inkling of the tremendous role students from that school played during the Civil Rights Movement. Eyes on the Prize includes footage not only of the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters and how violent they turned, but documents the classes at Fisk designed to teach volunteer students how to conduct these sit-ins. During these classes, students rehearsed their incredibly self-controlled, non-violent reactions while other students behaved like antagonist police officers. The actual officers who bullied these students from the lunch counters—only to come back to remove the same students time and again—must have been impressed to at least a small degree by the resolve and courage of these young people. The students’ determination to make their statement without raising a hand to retaliate or hurt another person lay at the core of their efforts and I believe contributed greatly to their ultimate success.

So I start by trying to explain to my girls Dr. King’s overall message: believe in yourself and treat all others with the respect with which you’d have them treat you. Since this correlates so closely to the Golden Rule, they grasp it immediately, and since it involves racial issues, they’re especially intrigued. I suspect, too, that Dr. King’s message and efforts fascinate because they’re tied so dramatically to a fight against unfair authority figures.

One of my resolutions is to stop being an unfair authority figure to my kids, but I’ve already failed on this a few times in the past two weeks. I’m the type who gets up at 5:30 and still frets there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, and having three strong-willed children with their own agendas certainly doesn’t help. By the end of the day, I’m tired and cranky and my ears hurt (Literally! I have sensitive hearing that borders on the bizarre, and when I’m tired or stressed my ears hurt.) so much that chatty little girls who are also tired and cranky test the limits of any patience that might remain. But sometimes my temper flares much earlier in the day, especially when we’re trying to get out the door to school. Dr. King’s message of peace and mutual respect rings in my tired ears at these times, but it’s a challenge to hear it over the din of my not-so-peaceful protests. (One time a while back Sarah stayed in the garage when we were dragging backpacks inside at the end of a school day and I was on a rant about something Lauren had done. When I demanded to know why Sarah was still in the garage she replied, as only a very practical preschooler could, “I’m waiting for YOU to stop YELLING.” Another time, Lauren told me that if children drove me so crazy, maybe I shouldn’t have had any. Ouch.)

So as this holiday weekend comes and goes, I’ll recall the images of those Fisk students who set such a noble example for the rest of the country. I’ll get out our picture book about the boy Martin Luther King, Jr. and read it to my girls. I’ll talk to them about the importance of striving for peace in our world. And I’ll take one step at a time as I try to implement that message into every action, as I try to treat my own children with kindness and respect on a much more consistent basis. For me this is a difficult challenge, but it’s a road that needs to be traveled if I’m ever to finally attain that prize I’ve had my eyes on for so long, if I’m ever to get to a real place of peace in my home and in my heart.