Why We Talk About Race

 

Mornings have never been my specialty. I didn’t get whatever gene that is—the one that lets you roll out of bed in the morning all fresh and excited about life. I’m already on my second cup of coffee, and my brain still hasn’t reached the point where it functions properly.

I pull into my friend’s driveway, push the lever into park, and slide out of the car with about as much grace as a baby giraffe discovering what it’s legs are meant for. I’m going to have to pretend to be more awake than I am, which will take a considerable amount of effort. I gulp down more coffee, questioning why I agreed to make plans this early.

The answer is Char. She’s one of the most convincing people I know. Her energy sucks you in and before you know it, you’re somewhere doing something you never thought you’d be doing and you’re loving every single minute of it. Today we are taking a spontaneous road trip to the mountains, and despite my sleepy-self, I’m excited.

I let myself in and find Char bustling around the house grabbing a few last minute essentials. Words fill up the background space—a voice is coming through her phone speakers, sounding tight and flat, like when you try to push something through a tiny space and it comes out all slow and squished on the other side. It’s a podcast, and I manage to catch a few words, causing the wheels in my groggy morning brain to churn a little bit. Race. Black. Stereotype.

I try to align my thoughts so I can focus on the words, but at that moment our friend Shannon walks through the door and I’m distracted. Shannon’s a few stages ahead of me in this whole awake process. She greets both of us with a hug and a wide smile.

By this time Char’s ready to go, the podcast is turned off, and the three of us hop into the car and hit the road. I’ve got the back seat to myself and you’d think I’d be tempted to stretch out and catch a quick nap except my brain is awake now, tumbling over those words. I want to talk about it, I even open my mouth to say something, but I hesitate.

Char and I have been friends for awhile, and we’re pretty comfortable with each other. We appreciate the other’s quirks and personality, but we don’t often talk about the fact that I’m white and she’s black. It’s not that we couldn’t, I just don’t want to be rude.

But I want to talk about it. Culturally our country is tense to bursting when it comes to race issues, and not only am I concerned, but I have questions. And they’re not questions a newscaster or a politician could answer. They’re personal questions about a race different than my own. Like—“how does this symbol make you feel, and why does it make you feel that way?” Char can answer those questions.

I decide to bite the bullet and just ask.  I go for the nonchalant approach.

“Hey Char, what were you listening to when I walked in this morning?”

Pause.

“It was a podcast about the Baltimore riots. But actually, I almost turned it off when y’all came in.”

There’s no hesitation now.

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t know if that was something we could talk about.”

This statement sits heavy on me. Deep inside my chest it feels wrong. This isn’t something you sweep under the rug. This is something we should be talking about.

Well…” I hesitate a bit. It’s a little awkward. “Can we talk about it?

I think that’s all Char needed. An opportunity. Because as soon as I ask she’s gone. Her voice moves up and down with passion, and I’m swept away by the beauty of her cadence, almost too swept away to listen. I quickly check back in.

Are we bringing some of this stereotype upon ourselves? Yes. But this is post Civil Rights movement racism. It’s undercover—uncover racism. It’s not overt. It’s a slow moving thing, but it’s still there.”

I think in this post Civil Rights race era we—as a nation and as individuals—are afraid. We’re afraid of being labeled racist. We’re afraid of being inflammatory and taking things too far. As a white female, I am hesitant to engage my black female friend in a conversation concerning race because I don’t want to be offensive. But if we don’t talk about it, if we ignore and don’t engage, than we’re missing a sizable part of who we are as people and who we are as a nation. I think this is part of our problem.

Char is black. It’s a piece of her identity—a big piece—and it helps construct the beautiful complexity of who she is. But Char is also a myriad of other wonderful things. And just as I appreciate her spontaneity, I want to appreciate this part of her as well.

 

Recommendations

It being January, I know many of you are compiling your 2015 book lists. I’d like to add my two-cents into the pot with a few recommendations for books I read in 2014, because let’s face it—there are few things more frustrating than reading a bad book! It’s incredibly difficult for me to narrow this list down, as this past year was chock-full of compelling books and great authors. I also take recommendations seriously, so if you disagree with anything I’ve said or have something to add, please comment below!

Must Reads

Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace, Eric Metaxes

This year I discovered Eric Metaxes, and I could gush on and on about his brilliance as an author. Biographies tend to bore me, sad I know, but I find fiction more compelling. But Metaxes blew my biography bias out of the water. I tore through Amazing Grace and Bonhoeffer, and although parts were information heavy, the level of intricacy he uses to bring to life the legacies of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer reflects his brilliance, not just as an writer, but also as a historian and narrator. The amount of research he must have done is overwhelming to imagine, and yet because of this he’s able to leave the reader with the notion they not only know these men, but they’ve become good friends. I left each book inspired and encouraged by their stories.

Even if faith isn’t your thing, these books are excellent purely for the writing quality. I’d start with Wilberforce’s biography, it’s shorter and a little easier to manage, and then go tackle Bonhoeffer.  Push through if you get bogged down in the details, it’s absolutely worth it. Must reads for sure. 

A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken

I almost didn’t include this book, simply because the story is so intimate you almost want to keep it to yourself. It’s tear-worthy beautiful, and coupled with Vanauken’s lyrical prose, it makes this book one of the best I’ve ever read. 

Vanauken tells his love story in such raw and cherished tones it pierces your heart to levels you were unaware existed within you. I cried because of its beauty, its sorrow, and its ultimate truth. There just aren’t words to describe how it affects you. This recommendations comes with weight, like something very precious I’m entrusting into your keeping. Don’t read this book just to read it—that would be irreverent. Read it only if you are capable of cherishing and shouldering its contents and the depth therein. 

Could Reads

Serena, Ron Rash

Serena pulls you in quickly. Set in the mountains of rural North Carolina in the 1920s, the book follows the tyranny of timber barrens George and Serena Pemberton. Like a Macbeth or a Frankenstein, you become fascinated with the raw villainy of the characters—so fascinated that you can’t stop reading without uncovering what horrendous levels they’ll stoop to next.

Rash is eloquent and a good storyteller. He has an impressive store of historical knowledge surrounding North Carolina’s timber industry, its national parks, and the people involved in the parks’ establishment—encouraging me to go learn more. The only issue I had with the novel was some lack of context around character development—I wanted a little more information surrounding Serena’s behavior and choices. Still, Serena is definitely a good read if you’re into historical fiction and can handle a little violence and villainy.  

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

I put this classic in the Could Read column only because I don’t think it appeals to all personalities across the board. However, I found it charmingly poetic and yet bluntly realistic, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. Smith carries themes of loss, poverty, and empowerment through the narrative of an immigrant family in the early 1920s, proving to be an accomplished storyteller. It now graces my favorite classics list, side-by-side with The Secret Garden and Sense and Sensibility. Dare I say I almost liked it better than Pride and Prejudice? (Heresy, I know). If you’ve ever lived in or been to Brooklyn, or you’re passionate about women’s education or immigration, this is a must read. 

Please Don’t Reads

Divergent Trilogy, Veronica Roth

I’m coming down hard on these books, so I’m apologizing in advance to fans who love this series. I’m of the opinion if you take the time to sit down with book, it needs to be worth the time it takes to read. And to be honest, these books weren’t. I know it must be grueling to be an author, throwing heart and soul into a series, so I have the utmost respect for Veronica Roth. But these books were just okay when they could have been phenomenal.

On a positive note, Roth started off well. Divergent drew me in quickly, the plot was solid, characters were engaging, and my curiosity peeked. But the second and third books spiraled down hill. Insurgent and Allegiant were not just anti-climatic, it felt like Roth was unnecessarily rushed in trying to finish them. Characters remained one-dimensional and under developed, multiple lose ends remained untied, and the ones she did manage to bring together were sloppy and confusing. 

I cheered for these books the whole time I was reading them, but they lost. In my opinion, save some time and watch the movies instead.

Moonrise, Cassandra King

This book was on my list of must-reads by authors from the Southeast. Cassandra King is from Alabama and the book’s setting was Highlands, North Carolina, which happens to be one of my favorite mountain towns. Unfortunately the book was not my favorite.. 

King is a good descriptive writer, but I found her plot development so-so and her characters frustratingly stereotypical. She attempted to bring Highlands to life in her writing, but to me it felt like she was describing a place she’d only been to a few times. The ending was unclear and I was a little put off by her description of local Highlanders as undereducated mountain people. 

The only reason I’d recommend reading it would be for the moon gardens. These are fascinating and she provides a page at the back for how to grow your own. If I were you, I’d just skip the book and read that instead.