Witness to a Year: Diverse Book Challenge-February

In December I made a promise to myself. If I didn't receive offers from any of the job applications I had submitted, I would visit my brother and his family in Israel. My nephew had been born last August, and my sister in law had extended her maternity leave into February. For once, timing would work to my advantage. In mid-January I found myself on travelocity.com searching for flights to Israel. Previously I had flown El Al and United. The cheapest tickets offered this time were Iberian and Turkish Air. I pursued the Iberian flights, knowing that I could manage myself in Spanish. I flipped dates and switched number of days, but the layover always remained the same. I worried that it wouldn't be enough. I asked my brother to look at the flights.

"Just fly Turkish Air," he said. "Why wouldn't you?"

"I haven't looked at them close," I admitted. "I just (insert subconscious bias and fear) never flown them before so-"

"They're good. No complaints."

"You've flown them before?" I asked.

"Yeah, to Germany."

"Okay, I'll look again."

Back online at work, I searched reviews. They were very positive, despite a few snarks about rudeness. Working in customer service, I dismissed those rather quickly and knowingly. I wasn't that kind of passenger. I didn't ask for anything that would illicit the kind of desperation serving the public that could translate to "rude". In fact, a coworker corroborated this.

"My friend flies them all the time. Loves them!"

I felt convinced and a little sick about my own, couldn't quite place my finger on, except that my fingerprints were all over, prejudice.

My friends singled out my Jewish identity for me during our eight grade study of the Holocaust. I didn't address diversity again until the university teacher education program drowned me in multicultural theories. I yearned to be proficient in navigating relationships with students, with myself, but race stood out as a divider. Physical characteristics, cultural traditions, faces and places. Vast spaces were clad in diagrams of bridges and somehow lacking in materials to build them. My position with Child Aid in Guatemala was the moment where I attempted to hold myself accountable to construction of those bridges, always professing that the materials were already in the community itself. Upon returning to Wisconsin, my opportunity to continue to practice relationship and awareness building conversations were with the primary relationship in my life, my father. These interactions on rocking chairs and couches in front of fires far outweigh the rocking truck beds and icy, mountain air inspired words. In the first, discourse always veered back towards answers. In the second, responses.

For example, I had a conversation something like this with my dad at least a year ago.

"Why would 'they' want to move where there aren't any?" Dad asked.

"Any what?"

"Black people."

"A job. Maybe." Did I answer? Or, respond?

"But, it would be harder."

"Could be, but why are you assuming that they wouldn't have anything in common with the people who live there. You have more in common with certain people who live in town than your own neighbors when it comes to food systems and land use." My response.

He had no answers. Nor, could he wrap his head around the idea. This was the same man who professes his love of Sunday School color blindness in songs like "Jesus loves the little Children of the World" and his memory of Little Black Sambo for the character's love of pancakes. The building blocks were there, but we don’t know how to use them, not even to reach each other much less other less secure relationships, yet.

As part of my Witness to a Year series, let me allow Ariel Berger to illustrate the key difference between responses and answers in a conversation he had with his mentor, Eli Wiesel.

“We all ask questions, and we should. It is more dangerous if we do not. But perhaps you are not looking for answers. You are looking for responses to your questions, to your life, for ways to live rather than ideas to espouse. Answers close things down; responses do not.” (78)

Over the last couple of years, my dad and I had many short conversations like this. Short, I think, because they were driven by the need for answers not responses. I don't know what changed, but a few days ago, we had a distinct exchange after he saw my books for this post.

Bitter and Sweet

Love. Candy. Relationships. Books.

A neighbor bought my dad a Colonial Assortment of Fannie May candy for Christmas in exchange for all the black raspberries he picked during the summer. Fannie May is a special candy for my father. In February he always talks about the Valentine's box his dad bought for his mother. But, my father is very specific about his candy: Pixies, Mint Meltaways, Buttercreams. Milk chocolate only. My dad hates dark chocolate, but often times I bake with it and he enjoys it without even knowing it. . .

"I'll help you with the assortment," laughed. "I'm not scared." But then I consider, it can't always be me biting into candy for people too afraid of a new or uncomfortable outcome to do it themselves. So, is my February diverse read, both bitter and sweet.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo, explores the reactions white people have in conversations about racism. She poses that these reactions protect the status quo. She notes common defensive moves, emotions and outcomes, their context in history, development over time and what more constructive engagement looks like. Based on my experiences in local social justice programs with elementary school aged children, DiAngelo's organized and spelled out approach are welcome. I find myself frustrated with the book lists that only illustrate moments in history because, like my dad's church song and memories of "bad" racists beating African Americans in the South, the racism is too easy to see. So, not helping us to see what remains unseen today.

In order to do this, I attempt to use books like Someone New in order to highlight the positive, small steps forward and relationship building that I challenge myself to practice. In Anne Sibley O'Brien's picture book three children, Jesse, Jason, and Emma, are confronted with new classmates from different ethnic backgrounds. Each child must make conscious choices and actions to overcome their initial reactions, and to understand, accept, and welcome Maria, Jin, and Fatima.

For my dad, I consider pictorial works like Deborah Willis' to provide a counter narrative. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present consists of 600 photographs of African American life. The images include the last generation of slaves, urban migration in the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance, civil rights and postmodern work. Willis’s work defies the caricature of African Americans that consistently focuses on poverty, desperation and anger instead of strong family ties and hope.

Ultimately, I settle on a title that remains in my father’s consciousness. Little Black Sambo. This book has a past built upon colonialist views, identity confusions, poorly assigned/considered character names, prejudiced caricature, and, somehow, built on my father’s love for pancakes, connection. This book’s history more than its story comments on the hidden racism in the United States systems that infiltrated the globe, as well as the hope for growth beyond assumptions that remains ever present for so many of us as we move through our everyday lives. I assumed it would be the complete rewrites, exemplified by Anne Isaacs’ Pancakes For Supper. Instead, I shared Chrisopher Bing’s version with my father. By shared, I mean, I set it on the chair and waited. This version illustrates Sambo as an African child in the country of India. This Handprint Books version with Christopher Franceschelli’s notes on the fluidity of setting as culture and geography is particularly interesting as well as articles like the one found at https://www.saada.org/tides/article/little-black-sambo.

“I didn’t even remember the story. Just the pancakes.” Dad met me at the door when I returned from work.

I set my bag on the kitchen floor and hung my keys. “You read it?”

“It was interesting. All the stuff he said, that it wasn’t an African-American child at all, in the beginning anyway.”

“You read the back notes?” I cocked my head and squinted an eye. “You’re right those were really interesting.”

“Can you explain it to me?”

I give my best interpretation of the candy coated fillings. Some expected like the colonial perspective of the author. Some unexpected like the lack of attention paid to the illustrations and the character’s name that exemplified the kind of systemic racism described by DiAngelo.

“I didn’t think they published it anymore.”

“I think it’s great. It means we can listen and make changes. Especially because the problem was never the story, but the illustration.”

"It’s a great story. I love the story.”

We moved to the living room and he opened the book again. “There just weren't that many people, black people, around here," he offered.

"No. Well remember what I read you about sundown towns. It's not the obvious stuff anymore, the dogs and fire hoses." Quoting from the book, I added, "It's the system. We do things, we don't know we're doing."

Back to the fire, hands behind his back in a handcuffed position, he stated, "I know. I just have this feeling when an African-American person walks toward me on the street. That I, I should cross. I don't know why."

"That is the insidious part," my academic self begins. But, this is personal, and I am not immune, so I finish, "It's like my flight. I didn't want to say it, but the idea of Turkish Airlines made me nervous." My words are not an answer, but they are a response. A way to open up more conversations, a way to live, a way to move forward.

Diverse book reads blog posts applied to my own life

A Quiet Day

Covers. Titles. Chapters. Human. Books.

Once One Has a Face

Fences. Trees. Farmers.

Every Time a Bell Rings

Questions and Answers

Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin

Harcourt: Boston.

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