Red Emma Speaks

Monday, November 07, 2005

So What the Hell Was That About?

Yesterday's long confessional was out of character here... Certainly I'd thought originally I'd keep this blog strictly without personality. But as usual, since I'm such a mouthy sort, unable really to separate my emotions from, well, everything... so be it.

In some ways, it's impossible for me to tell even a little of my Activist Self story without cringing, because I've always found myself such a slacker. There is--if you feel committed to the idea of "saving the world," you know, doing your little part because well, what the hell are we here for if it's not to do some fucking good?--always a feeling of why am I sitting on my ass right now, watching documentaries on Sundance when I should be out there stopping the idiotic things I think are killing the world? No time to waste.

Yesterday's post was in response to a commentland poke by somebody regarding "do-gooderism." I had thought this poke was, rather, that mostly-unspoken question I get a lot in my town--why do you, white girl, give a shit about racism? White people ask me that, somewhere in a half started sentence, but squelched into a startled sidelong glance and an eyebrow raise. (People of color will ask me right out, sometimes, but for different reasons.) So, I'm supposed to read some book, which doesn't look now the onerous task I first thought it to be. And the poke wasn't supposedly about the racism thing but more about the do-gooderism.

I can think of an instance or two when someone either called me a do-gooder or implied it. I have vague memories of acquaintances throwing it at me as some sort of compliment for something they saw me do. It always felt to me like they were saying their own guilt out loud, like I have in a moment of verbal weakness to someone whose commitment I admired: you do so much, and I do so little. And then, after I got more confrontational with people--and by this I certainly don't mean in speech or demonstrating, I mean in quiet ways that disturbed people's sense of whiteness--they would sometimes express more bitterness with my insistence on things going through. Then it was more of an unspoken slur.

First they ignore, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Mohandas Ghandhi

It's funny that in all those words, I never talked about the work part of it. I have been to more demonstrations than I remember numbers for. Or even remember. And I've worked on any number of causes that presented themselves before me. There's been a lot of work, mostly having the "demonstration" as a sort of exclamation point on the end of a very long sentence.

As far as motivations for why? why do anything at all? I have thought a great deal about it. Finally, a few years ago, I could pinpoint some of the main factors.

There was some point, somewhere just out of college, when I realized how truly sheltered, protected from the truth I'd grown up. There was something chilling in realizing I could stay as ignorant as I wanted to be. I could refuse to know anything at all. I could get a nice teaching job in a nice suburb and someday get married and buy a house just a little bigger and newer than my parents. I nearly stepped onto that path many times. I occasionally even felt a twinge behind my eyes, drawing me there. To fuzzy bliss. But I'd known for a long time, deep down, that I wanted to escape that land and find out for myself what the world was. Perhaps it was classic rebellion. But mostly, it was that there were people I admired, idealist sorts who did what they believed to be right. I'd read about them. Seen glimpses of them on television. Antigone had been a great inspiration to me at 16. I wanted to be a little like them, if I could.

So why? Because there was a moment in those last few years of college where I said that I didn't want to waste my time on earth. At least not as much of it as I could. Do something. Why take a job that isn't doing something worthwhile? I saw friends getting jobs in cubicles, eating dinner over their keyboards. Trolling for husbands and wives in plastic-plant bars. It gave me the shivers. I couldn't stomach it. So instead of a teacher-track life, I picked a "hard" job. The kind where the students call you by your first name, get plucked out of class for therapy, and occasionally try to scare the crap out of you. Sometimes die. It was hard, emotionally, that job. I admit it. But I did it cheerfully, honestly. I rarely got cynical or wanted to leave. I never considered it penance for anything. It was, rather, a way to enjoy teaching. I'd always liked the weird or crazy kids. They were smarter, more interesting. I could teach whatever I wanted, kind of like Welcome Back Kotter, except my students never knew where I lived. (Which was fine. I often got mistaken for one of them. The last thing I wanted was to socialize with them.) It was a peach, with the benefit that it was eternally interesting.

I look back and realize that really, I started doing things--"volunteering," although I'd never call it that--because it was a way to explore the world. (Not volunteering, because I've always called it just work. Sometimes I have jobs that pay. Sometimes I have jobs that don't. But they're all jobs. Things I want to do.)

It was an experiment in Right Living, with a healthy dose of "what's going on out there, anyway?" Doing what felt right. But then, I realize, it became accompanied by a sense of debt. As I became more aware of how truly miserable the world can be to people, how horridly we can treat each other, I started to see my origin for what it was. For instance, I benefited from the largess of a father who builds strip malls. He doesn't mean to hurt the world, and doesn't always, but he does. He traded his life away to spend it building things that perpetuate cultural death, in the name of keeping a standard of living. I come from a long line of people who did the same and worked hard to distance themselves from the world around them. And so, yes, I've come to realize that I do have a sense of historic, familial debt. My family, whose disposable income is tied inexorably to the ups and downs of the construction biz, owes some of that to the people and the land. The thing is, they don't know it. And they won't see it. Because if you admit how much you participate in our cultural disease, you have to do something about it, or eat your guilt. (And accuse others of having whacked out motives for doing anything at all.)

I was a buddhist before I was a Buddhist. I'm not much of a believer in reincarnation anymore, but I do think that karma's a damn fine idea. I believe that life is about doing the best you can. And if you know that something needs to be done, you sure as hell ought to do it. Yeah, I've slacked off. But I've noticed something, too. I've always been able to look around me at all the people who don't do a damn thing except maybe send a check to some .org once in a while. And I know that for me, that's not enough. How could it be? How could anything happen at all if everyone just sent a check or wrote a letter to their representative?

I don't know any activists who "just demonstrate" and don't also feel a strong compulsion to do the meatier stuff to go with the chili pepper. But all that is work. I could put out a resumé, and it would probably paint you a picture. I could tell story after story about what I experienced, in my travels. Somewhere along the line, maybe I will.

The thing is, it's not because I want to feel superior. (At least to others.) It's not because I feel guilty. I don't think I'm going to get to heaven that way, or reach Nirvana. I get embarrassed and uncomfortable when I'm admired. It's just that I rather would use my talents for good rather than evil. As simple as that.

I'm an incurable optimist. I really do believe that if every person did their little thing, their little part in positive movement, then things might stop getting worse. There might be a chance. And even though I know that the odds are we're not going to make it, as humans, I'd rather be on the side of history that tried to do something about it.

Someone I knew once called it "earnestness." Of that, I'm terribly guilty. And of being generally without guile. And allrightythen, I guess that's fine.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

so where do i come from, anyway?

Let's see: I am the daughter of the immigrant Norwegian owner of a construction company and an Ayn Rand disciple who stopped reading anything challenging after the age of 25. I went to Lutheran school until i was 14. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, where i was raised to never use the "n-word" but was guided clearly to view the big city as a dangerous den of thieves, dirt and black male rapists. I never had the ubiquitously touted black friend as a child, mostly because there weren't any African-American people in my school or my neighborhood.

I grew up reading one newspaper--the Chicago Tribune. I never had to learn item one about Black History, and never had to read a book written about race or by an African-American person until I got to college. Even there, cultural exchange was sparse (being rural Wisconsin and all). Until college, I loved Ronald Reagan, although I was suspicious of his intelligence. I believed that I could never be a racist person, but I was privately uncomfortable around black folks, even when I dated a few. (no one special--I dated everybody. Just about. Really. That's how I learned about all the people I'd never had contact with before.)

My entry into activism in general and community involvement was through women's studies. I took one class, chosen by my republican and cynical anti-feminist mother, because it fit two crossover requirements. Changed my life. I don't think I read a fraction of the required reading, but just a taste got me thinking in ways I'd never before.

So, right out of college, two things happened: I got a job teaching delinquent and troubled high schoolers, and I volunteered with NARAL. My life then had two parallel roads i ran on daily. One was a heady brew of exploration into the political activist life of leftist Chicago full of meetings and actions and the other was dealing with children coming from a world I had zero experience with.

Those two roads grew closer and closer together as I found myself exploring the city, that forbidden Oz which had beckoned at the horizon of my childhood. There was NARAL, which I soon found too stodgy and conservative for my taste, then there was clinic defense... Then there was my search for books and material I could offer to interest my ever-renewing population of students. Along the way, I attended meetings of just about every group active in Chicago in the early 90s--Queer Nation, ACT-UP, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Labor Party, Refuse and Resist, Baklava, NOW, the Mad Housers, News & Letters, Food Not Bombs... and more I've long since forgotten.

I pursued my education on street level, avoiding most ideology because of my impatience with all these folks who allowed it separate them from those they could have worked with. Eventually, two entities became my home: the Women's Action Coalition (a direct action oriented, now-defunct group) and Guild Books, which was run by a bunch of commies (although I didn't know that right away). In the meantime, I got up the courage to move into the city alone.

I'm not sure when I reached the conclusion that, at heart, I was an anarchist. My suburban roots would often get in the way of too-in-your-face demonstration activity, but I was good at organizing, leading meetings (sororities might be good for something, after all), and being a go-between in demonstrations between cops and demonstrators (commonly known as being a "marshal"). I also felt out of place at the "autonomous zone," an anarchist hang-out, that was in my neighborhood. That might not sound very anarchist, but it didn't take much time into my adulthood to realize that, although I still felt uncomfortable with most poor people and people of color, I was invariably sympathetic to their causes and instinctively knew, in my heart and from my position of privilege, that the masters were not inclined to dismantle the masters' house--never would, in fact. I felt (and feel) that change comes, as historically demonstrated, from a strong mix of hyper-rational middle-of-the-road discourse/in-the-system work and an outside fringe of feared renegades whose inscrutability and visibility push the masters into accepting the less-onerous demands of the middle-of-the-roaders. I believe the world needs both. And although I blend well with the former, I get fueled by the inspiration of the latter. And I share the latter's sense of urgency.

I am, like the Real Emma, a believer in non-violence. But, also like her, I understand how people fall into violence when they feel backed into a corner, when they feel they're fighting for their lives. I believe that the world is chock full of grey, and that although I will never advocate or participate in violence, I can have compassion for and help those who have. Until this week, I have never been arrested in the "line of duty." I believe that one should never be arrested without a distinct and carefully thought out plan. I do not believe that attacking property is violence, but aside from a few instances of spraypainting and stickering, I have not participated in it.

In my years of involvement, I have seen, with my own eyes, some incredible instances of injustice--not perpetrated against me, usually, because of my capacity for "blending in"--but against my cohorts of color, homeless and otherwise. I have been in a squatters building when the police raided it. I have witnessed the destruction of homeless settlements along the train tracks. I have been at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, feet sunk into plush carpet, and watched the news report on someone I knew left to die by paramedics because of his homelessness and color. (And had to deal with my parents' irritation that I could "actually know that person" through my tears.) I have watched people be (literally) shot at and every stop pulled out to destroy their lives because they were a minority in their town. I have continually been struck with how differently I could be treated versus how someone unlike me would be. And, although I couldn't articulate it until I left Chicago, I felt a duty to respond. To do something about it, in whatever capacity I was able, without compromising my beliefs.

When I left the city, it was after I had quit my "day job" in the interest of finding a more clear path to the writing life. I spent my last six months there driving a cab, letting most of the activism drop away in the face of being the only white female in the city driving hack 12 hours a day. It was very intense. I learned a great deal, which was part of my intention. I learned about immigrant issues, got a taste of really down-and-dirty sexism, and experienced class in a whole new way. I learned a lot about hooking, about the streets, and about how people treat those they view as their servants.

When I left, I was exhausted. I felt a need for perspective. For rest. And so, moving to the North (for a lover), was my ticket to it. The thing is, I couldn't stop getting involved in issues that bothered me. Not only did I feel like I wasn't going to waste the education I'd earned on my own terms, I felt a duty to use it. And, as always seems to happen, I met people who could help me get some understanding of all that I'd experienced.

For instance, out of all that, I'd been struggling with the issue of "white guilt." There were definitely times I'd allowed someone to take advantage of me just because of his/her color or class. I had been stolen from, used, and put down. Also, I'd behaved in ways that were obvious in their "overcompensation."

Luckily for me, there was Kwiesi, who lived in a co-op I moved into. The only way I can easily explain him is to say he was like a small-time Malcolm X. From Baltimore, an anti-racism and union organizer--he was a big burr in the backside of this little Northern place. And he indulged me, during the time we lived in the same building, with many hours of intense conversation. Through our talks, I was able to see through my confusion, and separate out my "character" from all my misgivings. I was able to get an outside view of where I'd been so far, and what it was I needed to do. One thing was understanding that there was nothing wrong with feeling a little guilt if you have reason to feel guilty, and that the best way of dealing with that was to do something to affect change. That my naiveté was to be expected, given where I'd started, and that it was really about what I was going to do to change it.

Too soon, Kwiesi was driven from town in search of work (he was essentially blacklisted here), and it wasn't until later that I realized there might have been a reason for his brightly shining light--all through the time I knew him, he'd been unknowingly dying of cancer.

And so, reinvigorated, I stepped away from my own personal cloud of confusion. I continued to work within activist circles. (Catholic Workers, Food Not Bombs.) Eventually, I got into writing for a local independent weekly, which is a whole other story, a foray into local politics and some kind of respectability. And I found an opportunity to do something about racism--something concrete. But I won't tell what that is, because if I do, then my identity will be all too clear, and I'm not interested in tying this moniker to My True Self just yet. Now that the whole hullabaloo surrounding that concrete effort has died down somewhat, I am still working with the responsibilities I garnered through it. Best of all, I feel a real sense of accomplishment, that my internal work has paid off. The ripple effect of that act has felt enormous.

Last week, I got arrested for blocking the doors to an Army Recruiting Center. It was almost as exciting as the few times I've tried but failed to get arrested during actions in the past. (Cops sometimes let you go, whether you want them to or not.) I'm proud that my first arrest was for something so worthwhile. The funniest thing about it is that it has felt distinctly anti-climactic. I was home in time for pancakes.