Friday, March 23, 2012

Beyond FICTION: THE BAKER'S DAUGHTER by Sarah McCoy ...and a Call for Compassion

Serendipity came into play today, first with an early-morning bumper sticker sighting that kept the message “Compassion is the best revenge” in the forefront of my mind and again a few hours ago at a Tattered Cover Book Store signing during which author Sarah McCoy discussed her new novel, The Baker’s Daughter.

The Baker’s Daughter explores German as well as Mexican influences in the border city of El Paso, Texas, Sarah’s home while her husband is based at Fort Bliss. But it also explores themes of identity. Not only personal identity but, as Sarah put it, “macro” levels of identity that involve everything from one’s current country of residence to one’s community, neighborhood, and family.

When Sarah also said her story considers the importance of compassion for others when dramas fueled by identity issues play themselves out I immediately realized I’d come full circle within a tidy twelve hours, discovering along the way a potentially important piece to an especially difficult, disturbing puzzle.

The story of Trayvon Martin’s murder has been haunting me as I’ve struggled to understand how an innocent teenager two years younger than my son—who shared with my son current teenage affinities for hoodies and Skittles—came to be shot in the chest and killed while walking in a presumably “safe” Florida neighborhood. My search for answers over the past week has led me to read or recall the works of various contemporary black writers, many of whom regularly provide me with valuable insights into issues of race.

Writers of color have not only lived with subtle and overt forms of discrimination throughout their lives, they’ve analyzed and written volumes about their experiences and understandings, many of which differ and sometimes contradict. So in the past week I’ve returned to recently read scenes of Bernice McFadden’s Gathering of Waters, a work of historical fiction woven around the 1955 Mississippi torture and killing of another innocent black teenager, Emmett Till; read the eloquent NPR essay “The Lingering Memory of Dead Boys” by author Tayari Jones; recalled Tayari’s novel, Leaving Atlanta, about the racially motivated serial killings of black boys in the summer of 1979 as well as No Place Safe, Boulder author Kim Reid’s award-winning memoir of the same events; and read columnist Charles M. Blow’s New York Times piece, “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin” in which Blow refers to “the burden of black boys in America and the people who love them.”

Black writers across the country continue to voice their opinions of the Trayvon case, the need for Trayvon’s apparent killer to be arrested and charged, and related events such as the Million Hoodie March in their own columns, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook comments, many stating they have a son or nephew who could be killed just as easily if he, too, were to land in the wrong place at the wrong time because he, too, is a young black man like Trayvon. Meanwhile our nation’s chief executive and writer of color, President Obama, weighed in this morning by acknowledging that if he had a son, his son would look like—and potentially be as vulnerable as—Trayvon, too.

But President Obama went a little further as he challenged us to question what needs to be fixed so killings of innocents someday become much less common in our society. And now I have an answer for him thanks to a thought-provoking bumper sticker, an inspiring visiting author, and a singular serendipitous word: compassion.

I’ve signed the online petition insisting the man who pursued Trayvon, George Zimmerman, be arrested and charged with the crime of killing Trayvon. And I’ve also seen George Zimmerman’s photo; seen him referred to as a “white Hispanic” and as “white” and as “Latino” by the press; and read that he has a history of minor scuffles and not-so-minor domestic abuse issues, that in the past eight years he’s called local police 46 times to report suspicious activity in his community, that he’s now in hiding due to death threats.

And I can’t help but wonder if George Zimmerman might be a very troubled individual in need of significant help. His recorded racist comments and record of aggressive behavior leading up to this attack plus his apparent refusal to back down and put away his damn gun when a scared, unarmed teenager trying to get to safety finally turned to him and asked “What are you following me for?” all indicate this. And I, for one, hope his arrest leads not only to justice, but to his treatment.

But I’m no psychotherapist or criminal investigator. I’m just a writer who reads a lot, tries to learn a lot, and writes to make sense of it all. And while I hope Trayvon’s parents sense the support of every compassionate person who hears about their son’s tragic, senseless death and continue to hope justice is pursued in this case, I’d like to respectfully suggest we consider the possibility a little more compassion toward everyone in our communities might go a long way to prevent similar crimes in the future. Who knows what issues others’ face on a daily basis, what demons drive and threaten to derail them? If George Zimmerman had gotten the help he obviously needed long before he became a 28-year-old apparently fueled by a bitter mix of anger and paranoia might he have driven past Trayvon walking with his head covered against the falling Florida rain on February 26 and simply hoped the poor kid would soon arrive somewhere dry?

Sarah McCoy mentioned this evening that she loves to get “under the skin” of the characters she writes as well as those she meets in the pages of others’ books. “I want to learn how it feels to be this way,” she said, “how it feels to live this experience.” I truly believe if more people strove to understand how it feels to be someone else and opened themselves up to the possibility those with different ways of being—and appearing—pose no threat to anyone or anything we could take steps toward reducing the number of homicides in this country and eventually even create a better, safer world for ourselves and those we know and love…and maybe even for those we don’t know and may not exactly adore for whatever reason. If compassion is the best revenge, would the latter development be such an awful thing to allow?

In the same way organized religions around the world teach some form of the Golden Rule, Americans—whether religious or not—should be encouraged to take the guideline to treat others as you’d like to be treated to heart and act upon it on a regular basis. Make it a habit, even. Is it possible the key to fixing the problem of heartless, thoughtless killings of innocents could be so simple? Let’s start with having more compassion for our neighbors—including teens dressed any way they like and maybe even tragically troubled adults—and see where we go from there. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.