Secrets

Between the World and Me ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/books/review/ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me.html?_r=0) is described by Toni Morrison among others as “required reading.” I read it this week, almost in one sitting, as way to break through my own numbness surrounding the seemingly endless chain of lost and shattered black lives at the hands of police. A group among our faculty has been discussing the book and yesterday I attended for the first time. In the group, one white participant, described a feeling of being let in on “secrets” of black life in America. I know what she means. There have been moments in my adulthood, never in my childhood, where I encountered those “secrets.” They were and are shocking and let me know how much has been kept from me to keep systems of racism in place.

As I’ve written before, my first real social work jobs, post MSW, were in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Ta-Nahesi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, lived not far away and the experiences of his early life were similar to others I saw played out for young black men and women there. I was well-intended and had an African-American supervisor. Only because of her did my “well-intended” begin to change to “well-informed” which kept my complete naiveté and stupidity in check. Here are things I learned. Like most major teaching hospitals, Hopkins is physically located in the midst of a primarily black, impoverished neighborhood because this gave the hospital access to unusual diseases and people that had no other way to get treatment making for easier development of new treatments. This is a sanitized way of saying what a mother once said to me, “I don’t like coming here. They experiment on poor black kids.” At first I thought she was “paranoid” or “psychotic.” My supervisor told me, “You understand that she is correct, don’t you?” No I did not. I could not have imagined that such a thing would be true. How did I not know this? Because it’s a secret. Next, as a doctoral student at age 29, I took a class at UNC’s law school: Constitutional Issues of Race and Poverty. I sat spell-bound learning how the African-American population functioned as this country’s sacrificial lamb over and over again, the crucible on which the country was forged. I had never learned this in a history class or a civics lesson. I was almost 30 years old before I learned even a bit of this history. It was a secret history only unveiled to those that for whatever reason stumbled upon it or sought it out.

You might say, that was a long time ago. What about all the great equalizers like the GI bill that created a solid American middle class? After all, many people of many backgrounds suffered mean fates prior to WWII because of poverty and exploitation. Indeed. But here’s the secret that I learned a year or so ago through a training given by the Racial Equity Institute (REI). The GI bill was extended to many returning veterans following WWII. My dad was one of them. What I didn’t know was that most African-Americans occupied military jobs that were ineligible for the GI bill. Further, for those that did have access to GI bill funding, there was the subsequent hurdle of trying to find a college or University that would accept African-Americans. Even those eligible could not always find a place at the educational table. These are systemic injustices and secrets that ripple out over generations. Combined with red-lining, neighborhoods systematically dismantled by highway placement, and other systemic discrimination policies, the ability to create the intergenerational wealth and stability that has served white America quite well, has not been present for very long in African-American life. These realities have been invisible to me and to most white people because no one or nothing makes us think about them. Why would I wonder about why highways are where they are or consider how they have impacted particular neighborhoods? I don’t have to because they never come through my neighborhood. I’ve heard about the GI bill my whole life as great policy decision that changed America. It did change white America and in so doing left black America further behind. It’s the second half of that sentence that is the toxic secret that keeps me, as a white person, essentially estranged from black people, no matter how “well-intended” I am. My faith doesn’t save me either because “I see through a mirror darkly.” I live in a veiled world in which I think I know the facts. But it’s the secrets I don’t know that are the important bits. Such secrets are legion in our national life. Like all secrets we are ashamed of, they damage our relationships, our thinking, and our collective decision-making.

One day in the teen clinic a young mom brought her beautiful little boy in to be seen. There was concern that he had been sexually abused in day care situation. He was pre-verbal and gave no indication that anything was wrong. The mother came because someone had seen a worrisome interaction and she had been referred for a physical exam. I had noticed this young woman and her child before because they were a stylish, good-looking pair. He had the cute, little boy plats that were common to boys under the age of two. She was well put together in boots and a jacket in the latest style. She was a bit stand-offish toward me and, before this, we had no real reason to interact; she was my supervisor’s client. But that day, I was with her through this experience. When the physician told her that her child looked fine, no lasting harm had come to him, that she had done the right thing bringing him in and keeping him out of the setting where the concern arose, she began to weep deep, grief-like sobs. At first, I thought it was simple relief, an outpouring of the worry and fear she had been holding inside. But my heart felt something different, something I couldn’t quite name. The memory came to me this past week, so many years later, as I read Between the World and Me. Her tears, I now realize, told a terrible secret; she could not be a good-enough mother in America to keep her beautiful black son safe. Even though he had dodged that particular bullet, there were too many others waiting that might take her by surprise. I wonder where he is now.

Calling Out

Not surprisingly an immigrant family is calling us back to the truth of the American experiment, to E Pluribus Unum, from many, one. Perhaps immigrant families understand best because they’ve often lived without opportunity or liberty and can recognize threats to which those of us not recently immigrated, are blind.

Also unsurprisingly, the military features in this call. The military as a social institution has long brought people from all backgrounds and social strata together for common purpose – not perfectly, not easily, but steadfastly nonetheless. My father fought in World War 2 and several years ago, after a lifetime of silence, he told me the stories of his service in the Pacific. The story began with this vignette. From his home on a farm in Missouri, he was sent to mid-shipman’s school in New York City. There, for six months, he trained to be a Navy navigator with other young men from across the country. He recounted being invited to the home of a classmate who lived in Brooklyn in an Italian-Catholic family. At that point, my father had never been to a Catholic church or known a person of Italian descent. His life would take him many places but it is that cross-cultural moment that he has remembered all of his long life. He spoke of how welcoming the family was, the delicious, traditional Italian meal, how good it felt be in someone’s home, and how much the kindness extended to him meant. It was a small moment in a momentous time that speaks volumes.

Mrs. Kahn writing of her son in the Washington Post, described a young man about the same age as my father when he went to war. Like many before him, her son wanted to do his duty and serve his country. Hear that again: his country, his chosen country. He made that choice with other young people from all walks of life. Surely there were many soldiers he fought beside who did not share his ethnic and religious heritage. Yet, they worked together, earning each other’s respect and loyalty. That common purpose and willingness to embrace difference is the core of the American experiment. The choice for president has become a referendum on that experiment. Can we still be out of many, one?

We dishonor all those who have defended this nation when we degrade those among us who are labeled “outsiders” because of their skin color, their religion, their traditions, or their heritage. The Kahns have called out to us in powerful voice and with great love, to stand up and be counted. If America is exceptional, it is because we are one out of many. To be one out of many means to disagree, to compromise, to let the majority rule, to speak out, and to listen to many voices. It is to see common humanity in those that our sons and daughters fight beside and, indeed, even against. At a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, our tour guide told us that the commanding officer on the good ship Missouri required a military burial for a kamikaze pilot who had crashed into the ship threatening all on board. That commander told his troops that, although the dead pilot was their enemy, like them he was doing a job his country had asked him to do and deserved a dignified burial. Leadership that calls each of us to do our best by our fellows not our worst is what we must seek, leadership that calls us back from the current abyss to be one out of many.

Shanghai Mornings

Early mornings are where it’s at here in Shanghai, a good thing if you are an international traveller who never knows when you might wake up. This time of year, it is also cool in the early morning, at least relative to the 100 degrees in the shade that it will be by 10 a.m. But besides beating the heat and having something to do at 5 a.m. an early morning walk or run in Shanghai teaches the westerner what a communal versus an individualistic society looks like.

By way of contrast, consider early mornings in Chapel Hill. Not naturally a morning person, I’ve become one because of motherhood, time constraints, and my dog. For a while I was driving to the gym very early and now I run with my beast most days. When I head out, the streets are empty except for the street cleaning truck. It is beautiful and quiet. We will see deer, sometimes an owl, and always the beauty of the changing seasons. By the time I’ve returned home, not much has changed, perhaps a few more cars come and go, and a few dog walkers and joggers have ventured out. Not so in Shanghai. By 5 in the morning, at least an hour earlier than when I head out at home,IMG_1792 bicyclists and walkers are heading to open-air markets to buy vegetables, chicken, fish, or ducks. Folks from the countryside are unloading huge mounds of fruit. Grandparents are pushing grand children in strollers or supervising them on tricycles.
Shops are opening; people are waiting to buy steamed buns for breakfast. Women or men alike may be wasIMG_1794hing clothes in a basin on the street or hanging up laundry to dry. Any open space from a park to a parking lot becomes a gathering space where people of all ages are coming together sometimes for commerce and often in play.

IMG_1762As I keep walking I might see people line dancing to traditional Chinese music or perhaps U.S. country pop favorites, friends playing badminton, and adults of all ages practicing Tai Chi.

On other trips I’ve seen men wielding swords wearing beautiful velvet robes, women in shorts moving gracefully with fans to Chinese music on a boom box. Fathers and sons might kick around a soccer ball. And I’m never surprised but always delighted to hear men singing Puccini to greet the day. Would I ever tire of watching these scenes? I don’t think so.

Somehow all of life combines of a Chinese morning to dispel the dualities I so often live in: work or play, elders or youth, indoor or outdoor, song or dance, waste or creation, old or new.  These separations are illusions. Chinese mornings change those “ors” to “ands.” As the duality disappears, the communal emerges and I find myself grateful for the chance to learn such a lesson.IMG_1730

No Bad Days

This morning, I started writing sitting on a seawall where my young son was fishing. Computer out, glasses on, skin tan, and my hair a little blonder because of sand and sea, I was reveling in my son’s fun, the beautiful water, enjoying a peaceful moment. A man came by and asked the following question: “What do you call a smart, beautiful, blonde?” Although I didn’t ask, he gave me an answer. “A golden retriever!” When I looked perplexed, he asked if I didn’t like jokes. I smiled and went back to my writing. He then asked if I wanted to hear something “a little bit dirty.” I declined and bid him adieu. Sexism at its finest. Yet, it always takes me off guard and I can never respond in the moment with the quick comeback that will put the offender in his place. The incident was all the more jarring sitting in such an idyllic spot.

Of course, not nearly as jarring than the day’s news. When we’re on vacation, my husband deletes Twitter from his phone and strongly requests that I not bring work along. I like to post pictures to Facebook mainly so our extended families can follow along on our adventures, a habit that keeps me connected to the strife that never seems to stop including this morning’s reports from Baton Rouge. Self-doubt floods in as I post pictures of stunning scenery and family fun while colleagues and friends are trying to help others understand why #all lives matter is an easy out from acknowledging systemic racism and its ever-spinning sequelae. I find myself asking is it okay to disengage for a while? Is it even possible?

“Self-care” is a term that was unknown to me when I was in my masters program; now, my students talk about it all the time. There is more recognition that social work and other helping professions takes a toll on our well-being and our effectiveness, a concern shared by colleagues in medicine, occupational therapy, and nursing among other disciplines. But the term, “self-care” doesn’t sit well with me. It conjures a box to be checked, an appointment on the calendar, something that happens a few weeks a year or for an hour a day, too discrete, too time-limited. Maybe this term is more about a longing for a way of being, a way to stay moored when the waves, whether small swells that throw us off-balance like the one I experienced this morning, or overwhelming seismic sea waves, that occur because of deep ruptures– think Baton-Rouge, Dallas, Baltimore, Stanford, Orlando, Nice — threaten to capsize our sense of purpose and meaning.

Two days ago I saw a window decal that said, “no bad days.” There is something about that simple statement that has been working on me and is teaching me something about weathering and, better yet, thriving in the ever-pounding surf. Perhaps it is a kind of mantra that might encourage me to stay engaged with the suffering of the world, denounce its savage idiocy when I must, and still celebrate its beauty and joy. Individuals who have confronted life-threatening illness often seem to understand that there are truly “no bad days.” They seem to know that as long as we live and breathe and have the great good fortune to work to make the “earth as it is in heaven,” then there are really no bad days. There are moments we may regret, lives lost that we mourn, changes to make, causes to champion, and always work to do. There will also be moments to cherish, wonder to find, and love to give. No bad days? No bad days.

Wings of Desire

As we collectively process the latest carnage, a comment from my husband sums up the situation: “Now, it’s time for 8 weeks of anguished conversation. Then everything will stay exactly the same.” If my Facebook feed is any indication, he’s right; it is filled with anguish: “Prayers for Orlando,” “We are Orlando,” and “Enough Praying, Do Something.” With rare exceptions, these calls force us to a dichotomous choice: Side A. advocate for gun policy reform Side B. send your thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Camp A “politicizes tragedy” by asking politicians to do what they can to prevent future horrors. Camp B, the prayers, are labeled delusional and discounted. As we throw labels at one another the status quo is maintained.

So far, I’ve not responded. Not for a good reason but because I feel numb. I don’t feel shock or disbelief. The same script plays out with such freakish regularity that it’s no longer shocking. I don’t feel fear or worry for my family. If I did, how would I live? Stop working? Keep my children home from school? Move to Wyoming and live off the grid? Truthfully, I hardly generate a tear as I read the stories of children at Pulse texting their mothers before dying. I recognize these situations as horrible but with detachment now that we relive these awful scenarios almost every other month.

As a social worker, I recognize my numbness for what it is: a symptom, a way of coping with traumatizing experiences that are not going away and that I believe I am powerless to stop. I don’t like it and I tried to engage my older son to pull me out. He is into photography and I asked him if he wanted to attend a vigil in our town for the Orlando victims. I asked because I thought going would break through my numbness and I thought he’d like the idea of documenting the event. He said no telling me that he’d spent the day making a rock sculpture of “49 cairns” near our home. It was two hours before I realized the symbolism of what he’d done. That is numbness. How to break through it…

I’ve found myself thinking about the 1987 movie, “Wings of Desire.” Not the Nicolas Cage version, which I think, was called City of Angels, but rather the original, this one. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-wings-of-desire-1988. In it, angels watch and comfort from a distance but cannot intervene to change events in human lives. They stand beside and make sure no event goes without witness, but cannot articulate all that they see and know. Eventually, one of the angels longs to become human, give up his all-knowingness, give up his distance and remove, because he has fallen in love with someone who does not recognize her own beauty. The angel is willing to give up immortality to be able to love, to suffer, and in so doing to feel joy. Before I had seen the movie, the story I heard about it was a little bit different. In that version the angel wanted to become human because he thought he could do more good as a mere mortal than as a divine being. I was told as much once by a client and her words have stayed with me for years.

We were in my office off the emergency room. I don’t remember why. She was telling me about her difficulties as a parent and of her faith that God was with her and would take care of her. I was probably 23 years old and completely shocked by the abject poverty in which the people I worked with lived. As I listened, I struggled to find a hopeful word and truthfully wondered about the utility of her faith at that moment. But I did my best to be encouraging and to validate her statements. “Yes ma’am. Of course He will. I know you are right.” She stopped abruptly, seeing my doubt, and said, “He will help me but He needs your hands. Don’t you forget that…” That indictment was at least 25 years ago and, in my recent numbness, I had almost forgotten, forgotten the difference that raised voice, an anguished prayer, a call to a legislator, or a work of art can make. I had become like the angels in the movie, willing to bear witness but seeing myself as unable to do much else. But I’m no angel and neither are you. We are all too human – broken, suffering, mired in the mundane, and yet extraordinary. It is not worth giving up no matter how frustrating or hopeless we feel. We must be Orlando. We must pray for Orlando. We must change our laws to prevent such horror. We must do all of it.

Photo Credit:http://image.toutlecine.com/photos/a/i/l/ailes-du-desir-1987-02-g.jpg

Where Research and Real Life Collide

This morning I woke up at home after a quick trip to England. I was attending a conference on migration hosted by a journal for which I occasionally I review. The event was free and there were some people I was interested in hearing on the program.http://www.sussex.ac.uk/migration/seminars/conferences/3rdconference. To keep my thinking fresh, it helps to get out of my routine and listen to smart people talk about issues I care about. Inevitably I return to my work with new eyes. Yet when I opened the newspaper this morning, it was not “my work” that I was thinking about in the context of the conference; it was Wildin Acosta, an 18 year old senior at Riverside High School in Durham, NC who could be deported to his native Honduras at any moment following a judge’s decision to deny his request for an asylum hearing.

He’s been in detention in Georgia for about six weeks and has requested that his teachers, who have been in contact by phone, send him homework so that he may have a chance of graduating in June. His high school has rallied to his defense with teachers and students holding vigils and writing letters to courts and elected representatives. Indeed, the representative for the area in which he lives has requested review of the latest decision from the highest levels of the federal government and the city council passed a resolution on his behalf. But the options are running out for him as today’s article in the Raleigh News and Observer details http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article66942212.html .

Wildin’s story brings to life the language I was hearing at the conference. Alex Betts of Oxford uses the term survival migrants: individuals who are not choosing to leave their homeland for better economic chances; they are coming because they must if they and their families are to have a chance to survive. The threats they experience might include the violence of grinding poverty or physical violence. This language gives voice to so much of my work with new immigrants in North Carolina. Their choice to move is not about income per se. It is about survival. It is the Acosta family’s story too. Beginning with Wildin’s father, family members began leaving Honduras 10 years ago due to escalating violence and poverty. His mother followed a few years later. When both had gotten stable work here in the US, they sent for their children. At 16 years old, Wildin made the treacherous journey only to be stopped at the Texas border. He explained to border patrol that he was leaving Honduras due to gang threats in Honduras. Read this NYT article from 2014, the year Wildin came to the U.S., to learn more about the realities of life there. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/10/world/americas/fleeing-gangs-children-head-to-us-border.html?_r=0. He went to his first hearing and was advised not to return for his second by an attorney because he had turned 18 and was at greater risk of being deported. It is at that moment that his situation became particularly precarious. Here’s the second new term I learned.

Precarity: a term applied by Elaine Chase of University College, London to capture more accurately the ways in which immigrant and refugee young people are vulnerable. She argues convincingly that the vulnerabilities associated with these young people are not really vulnerabilities at all – they are precarities: vulnerabilities that come from their status as refugees or undocumented immigrants or unaccompanied minors. A quick google search told me that the social class in this situation is now referred to as the “precariat.” This too is Wildin’s story. This young man is solid student, growing up in a working, two-parent household. He had plans to attend Durham Tech after graduation. He has friends, played sports, and has won the respect of his teachers. He is not involved drugs or other illegal activity. He exemplifies current data out of the UT Austin School of Social Work that immigrants are 50 % less likely to binge drink, be involved in any way with illegal drugs, and 33% less likely to commit violent crimes as compared to their native born counter parts. https://socialwork.utexas.edu/directory/salas-wright_christopher/ . In other words, he is not vulnerable, at-risk, high-risk, a risk. Yet, he is also not “resilient.” He can’t be because the social structures in which he finds himself make his existence precarious. And in a democracy those structures are determined by you and me.

Many have and are speaking out on Wildin’s behalf. They are using the democratic process and their freedom of speech to protest an injustice in progress. If there is any silver lining to this story that’s not yet over, it allows, at least for a moment immigrants and refugees to move from being “them” to being “him,” a real kid, with real hopes, real promise, in real trouble. Like many, I will keep hoping for Wildin and others like him. I hope that an individual who hears his story and has the power to change it will use that power. And for the rest of us, my hope that we can move from seeing immigrants and refugees as burdens toward Alex Bett’s view in which people with very real needs can also be recognized as active agents that re-energize our communities and in so doing gain skills and resources to rebuild their own home countries when conflicts have resolved. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiWwrdMqvvM

Image Credit: Stuart McAlpine
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Voices that Echo: A Memory of Buckner Fanning

Monday was a normal February day here in Chapel Hill. That is to say my children were home because of ice on the ground and my husband and I were alternately trying to keep things moving with our work and do things with them. As I was cooking chili, a message came through Facebook that the pastor of my childhood, Buckner Fanning, had died at 89. Tears sprang quickly and in keeping with Fredrick Buechner’s advice that tears are a means by which God gets our attention, I began remembering Buckner and his influence on my life.

He has not been well in recent years and his son has been posting video snippets from earlier days, some TV spots through which many San Antonians came to know him and bits of sermons preached at Trinity Baptist. When one comes up on my Facebook feed, I’ve been taking a minute to close my door and watch them. I’ve been struck by how comforting it is to hear his strong voice that acknowledges the very real difficulties of living and yet gives courage and hope to continue the journey. A few years ago the local paper in San Antonio did a profile on him, perhaps recognizing that this important figure’s time was near (http://www.expressnews.com/150years/leaders/article/Buckner-Fanning-remains-a-San-Antonio-legend-6415977.php). In that piece they chronicled Buckner’s long ministry and spoke of the ways in which he defied the orthodoxy of his time. There were things I didn’t know because I was a child growing up in his congregation. I did not know that he took a strong stand when he was called to Trinity saying that he would not pastor a segregated church. I remember some rumblings about his engagement with Catholic and Jewish leaders but did not realize how novel it was for him to do this or the courage it took to be ecumenical in a denomination that was drawing tighter lines by the day around what constituted faith and what did not.

For me, learning this background has helped me understand a bit more about my own choices. My choice of profession was directly tied to my faith. In fact the decision to apply to an MSW program literally dropped into my head during church my junior year in college. But the choice to engage in social justice issues, to work with vulnerable populations, to see commonalities versus divisions between religions, to reject absolutes, has been perplexing to some with whom I’ve grown up. It has strained friendships and sometimes made me feel distant and out of step with what was expected of me. But, in thinking and learning about Buckner and his legacy, I realize none of it was a radical departure; I was learning these values all along even when they were not overtly spoken.

Indeed, at least in my memory, Buckner rarely spoke about politics or politicized issues. There was only one time that I can recall and here is what he said. He stated that every four years, instead of looking for a president, America was actually looking for a savior and that we would never find that in any mortal. I don’t remember the rest of his sermon. Only that take-away and the implication that perhaps we should focus on candidates’ abilities to do the job before them versus whether they met every litmus test on every issue.

Buckner was also a neighbor. I grew up around the corner from where he and Martha raised their three children. We carpooled on occasion, brought meals to one another in case of illness, and waived in the street. The last time I saw him it was in this context and I had not seen him for many years. I was a stressed out new mother and assistant professor home with my 18 month old son for a visit. As for many kids that age, travel meant my little boy’s sleep cycle was thrown off. My son and I were up at an ungodly hour and I loaded him into his stroller for a sunrise walk around the neighborhood. Buckner was out for his morning run but happily stopped to chat. He said, “Mimi, you beautiful girl. How marvelous to see you.” (Marvelous is a word I associate with him.) Now truly, no sleep-deprived mother of an 18 month old is a “beautiful girl” at 6 a.m. But to him, I was as he saw me many years ago: when I interviewed him for my high school paper and he spent two plus hours with me so that I could finish the assignment, or when he wrote me letters of recommendation for college, or visited when my mother was sick, or talked to me when I was spiritually confused. So many kindnesses …

We continued our greetings and he met my oldest son. In his booming voice said, “What wonderful young man. He’s going to grow up and play football for Baylor!” Now the chances of my oldest son playing football for anyone are slim to none. But in Texas, this is high praise and a vote of confidence that somehow we would manage to raise that youngster to productive adulthood. Although the jury is still out on that, those brief words gave me hope that I could make motherhood and professorship work. They also communicated that I was known, loved, and gave me reassurance that should I ever want or need to come home there would be a place for me.
Finally, I thought of Buckner this fall as we celebrated my own father’s 95th birthday. We had a celebration for my dad and I had the happy job of opening the evening with a toast. Buckner’s words came pouring out. One father’s day probably in the late 1970s, he preached a sermon in which he said that fathers, knowingly or not, gave their children a vision of God. If the father was capricious and temperamental that child would have difficulty believing in God at all; the world would seem too unpredictable to allow for this possibility. If the father was harsh, the child’s vision of God would be one of judgement. Absent = distant and so on. But, if the father was like mine, full of patience and good humor, quick to forgive transgressions, willing to teach and guide, the child would see God as merciful and loving. I could not think of a better tribute to my father than to quote that sermon.

Saying good-bye to someone who has given so much to so many is never easy. A pastor that combines true intellect, deep integrity, genuine respect for people from all walks of life, with service and commitment is rare. It was my great good fortune to learn from him. Godspeed, Pastor Fanning and thank you.

Photo-credit Information: {{Information |Description=dirk-annie_283.JPG |Source=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/126277395/ dirk-annie_283.JPG] * Uploaded by xnatedawgx |Date=2006-04-08 19:49 |Author=[http://www.flickr.com/photos/52614599@N00 Doc Searls]

Mimi Chapman blogging on moments large and small in our common life.

%d bloggers like this: