Seed Magic Part IV: Spells Broken or Broken Spells by Design
I check out bags of books from the public library. Not spell books of course, but these books become stacks, regularly. This recently occurred after seeing the School Library Journal’s best of 2020 lists. It seems almost certain when I check out too many at a time to read closely, one I’ve waited for weeks to receive, also comes along for the ride. This time amid the YA and middle grade novels I also held Ijeoma Oluo’s second book, “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.” (I know this seems an out of character book to mention in this blog post series, because my references are usually agriculture or nature in content, but please stay with me.)
Since, I had vacation days from work to use between Christmas and New Year’s, I settled on the novels first. Despite the fact that none of these books hold spells of any kind, something magical happened.
My dad picked up the book. “Have you read this?”
“No. Not yet. I read her first book though.”
He had settled into his chair and cracked open the new yellow sunrise plastic covered spine. And, he repeated the action for at least a week. I was shocked that he was the one reading. I searched for all the hidden strings. Somewhere must be a magician’s trick, but I only noticed spider webs on the ceiling and dog hair on the floor. I left it alone. Didn’t engage the out of the ordinary act I was witnessing. I was spellbound but pieces of the spell of white privilege that were breaking.
Then, the initial pace waned. I worried. The renewal notice came through my email. I knew what asking about renewal would mean. He would say no. He would say it’s a bother, that it wasn’t a big deal. To me, it was a big deal. It mattered because part of our still early struggle with the land is allowing ourselves to believe the government can invest in us, to believe that the system can sometimes work for us. And, acknowledging the ways in which we came to that land when the system hadn't worked for others. That magic, was not always dark magic if we were accomplices in our choices moving forward. Still, I kept quiet. A few weeks later, I finally found the time to begin Oluo's book myself. Then, he watched me. One day he noticed the width of pages balanced between my fingers.
“Isn’t there a bookmark in there? What is it?” Dad asked.
“Yes. A postcard.”
“Are you past my spot?” What tone was I hearing? His disappointment? In what? Himself?
“Yes,” I nodded. I had renewed the book. I never admitted it and left his book mark in.
“Hmm, well I’ve probably read enough. Don’t you think?” What tone was I hearing? His frustration? In what? That he would need to do more?
“Well, each chapter is different. A different aspect or history.” I stared back into the book without seeing.
I waited. I didn’t know how to remove the slight of hand, the amazement from his entire life. I wanted to replace the tricks he knows, the Teddy Roosevelt’s and Grecian urns switched into Ida B. Wells and redlines. If he couldn’t believe in magic for himself, how could he see through other illusions?
The enchantment was fading. But, which one? I repeated words from the book to myself. “But Chisholm’s campaign, and the response to it, changed American politics while also showing how our nation’s lack of collective faith in the possibility of social progress that doesn’t center white men will always hold us back.” (194)
“Well, isn’t it just sad?” Dad's words broke through his own silence, one of emotions and sound.
His eyes that still refused to use glasses of a prescription he needed searched me. In his eyes that wrinkled only in Olou’s description of triumph or rage, the question wavered. It was a haze, a crinkle, a filtered net he almost could see. The highway. The trucks. He should know policy isn’t fair. Why did the spell hold?
“I don’t read it to be sad,” I answered. At least not anymore.
Dad waited. He waited days, but he picked the book back up again. We both read. He read a hidden story for the first time and I read the Century sign on our property for an unnumbered time. He noted unequal women’s leadership opportunities that only came when the endeavor was doomed to failure. I stepped back from own role and what’s next and what there was to be disappointed in and why. Like my aunt who will work longer to retirement without land rent to fall back on.
He sat and he read. He didn’t talk about the chapters. He began conversations about seed catalogues instead. I listened to his indecision about trees and not seeing growth in his lifetime. I heard the doubt inhibit his action. I encouraged the oaks, because they were the trees he really wanted. The understanding of the future he could leave. His lack of belief was rooted in not being present at the end. His choice was manipulated by an unwillingness to relinquish control, because he needed to see proof of the change, the growth of what was planted.
The words. The magic words were there, after all. Dad had already read them “. . .Yes, it will offer some real benefits for you. Your life will be better in many ways when we work to end oppression. But it will not always benefit you. Sometimes it may seem like justice is disadvantaging you when the privileges you’ve routinely enjoyed are threatened. But you have to do it anyway, because you believe that women and people of color are human beings and that we deserve to be free from oppression, even when that means you personally have to give some things up.” (62-63)
He sat and he read. He recounted snippets to me about the GI Bill not benefiting the Black soldiers. He strode up and down the road pacing out the number of trees he needed. “Some guy tried to brush me off the road,” he complained.
“Maybe he didn’t mean to.”
“He meant to. They always mean to.” How could he not assume malintent in the system design but he did in the truck hugging the edge. The counterspell was building. I heard my father in Ilhan Omar’s words, “I think we have a beef with almost anyone here because there’s a lack of courage. It seems like we’re all radical because we deeply care about the people we represent and we want to throw down for them.” (219)
He caught murmuring of the spell. He felt the force of the syllables even when he could not identify their origins. His eyes opened slightly despite a winter wind that cut. He read in the evenings when he used be too tired to continue. Or, when he used to have newspapers in which he no longer held the same respect. On a mid January evening, he finished the book.
“I’m not sad,” Dad offered.
“But, I’m disappointed I didn’t know how bad this was.”
Though the snow remains on winter ground waiting, whiteness fades. Why do I read it? He hadn’t asked again. I answered to myself, anyway, because Oluo had provided reasoning as to why she wrote the book.
“I shouldn’t have to write any of this. It should be enough that these issues are impacting communities of color. We should care about what is harming our fellow human beings, even if it affects only their communities and not ours. It should be enough that this is hurting us. It is insulting that I have to point out the ways in which these issues also hurt white Americans in the hopes that I might get more people to care.” (193)
Standing at the kitchen counter, I offered my answer after I had returned the book through the library slot. "You asked me why I read it." I didn't wait for a response. I wanted to say it aloud for myself, to the universe, to anyone casting the spell that might be listening. "Why do I read it? To understand my feelings, to know if they are coming from a ‘real’ place, to move against them when they’re not."
To be able to break enchantments, false narratives ‘spells’ in the soil where all seeds, all magic, grows.
Oluo, Ijeoma. (2020). Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Seal Press: New York.