Witness to a Year: Diverse Book Challenge-June

“That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” This is not a phrase Dad says to me directly. “Your grandpa said that to me, usually with a side glance when we arrived at painting jobs I bid out, perhaps a bit over our heads.”

“Yeah. Laurel and Hardy. I know.”

“Your grandpa was a fan of that comedy duo. Good friends, they were. Genuinely liked each other.”

What I remember about my grandpa is his lack of political correctness employed often but without the intent of providing more power to those who already caused him to bristle. His loud voice carried the message to a larger than necessary audience, because his hearing was poor after years around tractors and other machinery. The same is becoming true of my father. I want him to get hearing aids, but not because I am worried others will overhear what he says. I am convinced he can’t hear me. The television volume is always on full blast and still words pass, just under, just missed. He denies he can’t hear. He’ll ask me to turn the volume up, but many times it doesn’t help because no matter how loud the volume goes, the layers don’t separate out. So, I catch myself yelling, not because he doesn’t understand, the way his father didn’t understand him. I yell, because I think he hasn’t heard me, in the literal sense of the word.

Burger describes the story, one of so many worth reading in the book, of a Rabbi’s preaching. It reminds me of family relationships. Its ending is as follows.

“Rabbi, really, why do you do that? Don’t you see no one is listening?” He answered, “I know. No one will listen, but I cannot stop. You see, at first I thought I had to preach and protest in order to change them. But now, although I continue to speak, it is not to change the world. It is so that they do not change me.” (119)

Relationships are a mess. Still, my father’s relationship with his father in the last twenty years of my grandfather’s life was little like the first twenty.

Dad flips through channels and asks, “Do you have anything you want to watch?”

I shrug, “No. Watch what you want.” The dialogue in most things I pick is difficult for him to pick up. Unless, the program is must see for me, I don’t suggest it.

Dad watches a lot of documentaries and a lot of westerns. I don’t know why he started watching documentaries, but the westerns came from his father, a massive John Wayne fan. He doesn’t need to turn the volume up for the westerns he watches. It’s action. Gun play. That’s what he wants. No love. Just gun play and lots of it. But recently I’ve watched him switch the movie when the actor playing a First Nations’ character is obviously white. And when the Mexican characters speak with no subtitles, he asks me to translate.

“We were taught. They were lazy, dumb, cowards, less than. But really, I just never saw any.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe Dad can hear me, sometimes. Maybe, like he says, when I’m speaking at a distance.

If I Hadn’t Been Born to You

I write about my dad a lot. Many times he watches me typing, says something cute and then waits for a comment about how he’s creating all of my characters for me. Not all of his lines are original, but the best ones are. I can imagine him and firm statements in resistance to an opposition to his surroundings, that opposition was usually his father. I can see him thrusting out his chin as a little boy. Feet were probably wide. Maybe his arms were crossed as he blurted, “If I hadn’t been born to you, I would have been born to somebody else.”

But would he? Would any of us? The short answer, the scientific one, is, of course, “no”. Yet, we can, most often through books and movies, muse about the other selves we hold, lean towards, can be pushed into, and back away from. The encyclopedia lines Dad wanted to plagiarize that spoke of foreign countries as “lands of many contrasts” and the Sunday School song about Jesus, loving all the little children of the world. Those are the “somebody else’s”.

My dad will lash out in defense. He learned this early on, to protect his own sense of self-worth mostly, I believe. But, he’s also the most honest person I know. After a three part series on Reconstruction he offered, “I worry, if I had been born down south, a farmer in poverty.” He doesn’t finish. “I like to think I would rise above. But, maybe not.” It’s as if he is in constant flux between the researched and the assumed. What amazes me, is that he is so sincere about it. “I heard racist things. But, I wasn’t taught to hate.” This, after much reading, I think is the most difficult piece of all, to separate the individual, ourselves as individuals, from the “somebodies” into which we were born.

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi is described by Amazon as urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more—because there are countless ways to be Black enough, and those words really are enough. The anthology is a collection of short stories written by award winning Black authors of whom “black” is only one descriptor. Still, it may be Ibi Zoboi herself in the final short story that says it best. Her character, Nigeria Jones, says on the opening page of the story, “My father, Dr. Kofi Sankofa Jones, tells his followers that we choose our lives while we’re in the spirit world. We choose the time and place to be born. We choose our family and parents. And therefore, we choose our race” (365). The variety of other characters in the stories exemplify the choices found and the choices forced on those who are young and black in America.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir by Sherman Alexie, first provided me with an insight into his novels and picture books I did not expect. However, for this diversity reads post, it is the complicated nature of his relationship with his mother, in many ways as metaphor for his complicated relationship with his roots, family, reservation and identity that is powerful as an interrogation of who we are because of both who we are born to and where we are born to. The memoir is written in poems and essays. I listened to it on audio book, but needed to return to the printed text to wade through the images a little deeper

“If I hadn’t been born to you,” Alexie suggests that we ask him to ask. “I would have been born to somebody else,” is the teenage prayer sometimes heard by Zoboi’s collection of authors. In the attempt to come full circle and complete my father’s phrasing, I selected So Dear to My Heart. This is a film based on the novel Midnight and Jeremiah by Sterling North. The story takes place in a small town in Indiana where a young boy raises a black lamb rejected by its mother. Jeremiah, in turn, is raised by his grandmother intent more than anything on teaching him perseverance and appreciation not for what could have been, but what he has. This story reminds us that there are identities within the identities held by the people we would least like to be that we want to be more than anything else.

Diverse book reads blog posts applied to my own life

Unstuck

A Recipe (for) My Father

Mother’s Milk

Steak and Eggs

Fences. Trees. Farmers.

A Year for Romance

Magic Beans: Something worth trading for or trading in

Alexie, Sherman. (2017). You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Little, Brown and Co.:

Boston.

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

Harcourt: Boston.

North, Sterling. (1943). Midnight and Jeremiah. John C. Winston Co: Philadelphia.

Zoboi, Ibi, ed. (2019). Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America. Balzer &

Bray: New York.

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