Friday, January 29, 2010

A Radical Change in Social Consciousness

One of the joys of homeschooling your child is teaching them what you deem important. In our home, what was important was history. Accurate history, not the pablum presented in most high school textbooks.

One of my favorite historians was Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States.

A People's History was first published in 1980 with little-to-no promotion, and a first run of only 5,000 copies. Somehow, mostly through word of mouth, it became the people's bestseller, achieving sales of one million in 2003.

Howard Zinn was definitely on the far outside edges of unapologetic liberalism. He told stories of suffragettes, union organizers and war resisters. Instead of exalting Christopher Columbus he accused him of genocide. He dissected presidents from Andrew Jackson to FDR.

My favorite Howard Zinn quote:

What does it take to bring a turnaround in social consciousness - from being a racist to being in favor of racial equality, from being in favor of Bush's tax program to being against it, from being in favor of the war in Iraq to being against it? We desperately want an answer, because we know that the future of the human race depends on a radical change in social consciousness.

It seems to me that we need not engage in some fancy psychological experiment to learn the answer, but rather to look at ourselves and to talk to our friends. We then see, though it is unsettling, that we were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness - embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television.

This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas. It is so simple a thought that it is easily overlooked as we search, desperate in the face of war and apparently immovable power in ruthless hands, for some magical formula, some secret strategy to bring peace and justice to the land and to the world.

Howard Zinn, The Progressive, 2005

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

If God Had Intended....

Every once in a while, it strikes me just how different it is now to 50 or so years ago. Probably if you aren't old enough to remember it, you really can't appreciate it. Just sitting in a restaurant, watching elderly people of both races eat in the same dining room and realizing that 50 years ago that very simple act wasn't legal. The capacity of (most) humans to adapt to widesweeping change is astounding. Several years ago a friend from college brought her mother over to my mother's for Thanksgiving. She told me it was the first time her mother had ever eaten in a white person's house.

Coming from that time period, The Help by Katherine Stockett is a masterpiece. Briefly set, a young white woman in Jackson, Mississippi, decides to make a collection of stores told by black maids of what it's really like to work for white women. This happens in the dangerous climate of the early 1960's, and it's a deceptively simple act that could get someone killed.

Brief excerpts:

"See, I think if God had intended for white people and colored people to be this close together for so much of the day, he would've made us colorblind. And while Miss Celia's grinning and "good morning" and "glad to see"-ing me, I'm wondering how did she get this far in life without knowing where the lines are drawn? I mean, a floozy calling the society ladies is bad enough. But she has sat down and eaten lunch with me every single day since I started working here. I don't mean in the same room, I mean at the same table. That little one up under the window. Every white woman I've ever worked for ate in the dining room as far away from the colored help as they could. And that was fine with me."

"Even though its the third week of October, the summer beats on with the rhythm of a clothes dryer. the grass in Miss Celia's yard is still a full-blown green. the orange dahlias are still smiling drunk up at the sun. And every night, the damn mosquitoes come out for their bood hunt, my sweat pads went up three cents a box, and my electric fan is broke dead on my kitchen floor."

"She brushes a clump of blond hair out of her face, looks at me like it kills her that I got hit. Suddenly I realize I ought to thank her, but truly, I've got no words to draw from. This is a brand-new invention we've come up with.

All I can say is, "You looked mighty ..... sure a yourself."

"I used to be a good fighter." She looks out along the boxwoods, wipes off her sweat with her palm. "If you'd known me ten years ago..."

"She's got no goo on her face, her hair's not sprayed, her nightgown's like an old prairie dress. She takes a deep breath through her nose and I see it. I see the white trash girl she was ten years ago. She was strong. She didn't take no shit from anybody."

"Louvenia tells me how her grandson, Robert, was blinded earlier this year by a white man, because he used a white bathroom. I recall reading about it in the paper...there is no anger in her voice at all. I learn that Lou Anne Templeton, whom I find dull and vapid and have never paid much mind to, gave Louvenia two weeks off with pay so she could help her grandson. She brought casseroles to Louvenia's house seven times during those weeks. She rushed Louvenia to the colored hospital when the first call came about Robert and waited six hours with her, until the operation was over. Lou Anne has never mentioned any of this to us. And I understand completely why she wouldn't."

*The Help, with it's UK cover, deemed too racial for the American market.

Not offered for sale, and in fact I need another copy myself, since I was reading it too intently this morning and broke the spine on my copy.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Where We Live

The perfect way to start out a new year of the bound and printed word:

This Is Where We Live from 4th Estate on Vimeo.

A film for 4th Estate Publishers' 25th Anniversary. Produced by Apt Studio and Asylum Films.