Posts Tagged ‘History’

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Unpacking: The Art of Self-Awareness

2014.April.30

Baggage Claim

Now that “calling out” has become an Internet thing, there’s a lot of tension coming from folks who don’t really know what to do with it, particularly on the receiving end. The kneejerk reaction is usually some kind of defensiveness (“I am a good person, therefor I can’t be ___ist.” “I don’t follow your logic, therefor the mistake must’ve been yours.”, “How dare you? Don’t you know everything I’ve done for ___?”) or attack. Some conflict-averse folks can ignore or deflect being called out, but very few slow down to address the concern thoughtfully. To some extent, this is because dominant cultural narratives encourage us to take any disagreement as a personal or political affront, but I suspect it also owes to our inexperience with ambivalent self-examination. Deep self-awareness is neither common nor encouraged, so how in the world can it be acquired?

Personally, when I feel challenged or conflicted in some way, I attempt to unpack those feelings. Although I no longer have the privilege of travel, I find myself “unpacking” more than ever…

To a skilled traveler, unpacking a suitcase is as important as packing it. Upon return, one is smart to sort out belongings and reintegrate them into the usual routine. This may entail laying out contents into various piles: travel documents to be secured, dirty clothes for laundry, toiletries here, souvenirs there — oh, don’t need that bus pass any longer, better toss it… Investing a little time now can save a lot of trouble later.

In the activist spaces where I first heard it, to “unpack” is to take apart a complicated thought, belief, or conversation in order to interpret its smaller, less apparent components. When participants in a facilitated discussion stumble onto something profound or dense, the facilitator (whose role includes encouraging useful tangents) might step in and suggest everyone slow down to “unpack what just happened;” the aim is greater understanding for all participants and/or progress toward the group’s shared goals. Reviewing such components can help contextualize the ideas or persons present, and often the unpacker(s) uncover biases, assumptions, or other problematic notions of which they were previously unaware. However carefully they prepare an agenda, facilitators often cite these shared detours as the most fruitful points in their discussions.

As activism evolves from just movement-building to comprehensive lifestyles (where personal growth is progress, i.e. “being the change you want to see in the world”), the term gains wider usage because many ideological concepts are simply too complex to stand on their own. And although one of activism’s great proverbs alludes to it — “the personal is political” — unpacking has never been reserved for activists; it is an invaluable tool for any person who wants to live out a consistent set of personal values.

Our ideas and beliefs — all of them — carry some layer of social “baggage” (hence the metaphor), cultural and/or personal cues we may not recognize as ours or as optional. Like unpacking a travel bag, unpacking an idea involves reorganizing its contents, distinguishing what is useful as-is from what needs modification, even discarding some components entirely. This decision process cannot be performed well unless the context for each component — its social baggage — is known and understood. Unpackers must confront those concepts that are problematic, counter-intuitive, or self-contradictory, or they may instead need to anticipate others’ discomfort with ideas that, however beneficial, are simply new and unusual.

For activists, unpacking is integral to effectiveness. Ideological success cannot be guaranteed without confronting the biases and assumptions of one’s community, beginning (and ever-continuing) with the confrontation of one’s own biases and assumptions. Unpacking helps activists build consciousness of individual impact, rooting out any embedded contradictions and sowing more consistent insight and behavior into their work. Understanding one’s own baggage also makes others’ baggage more relatable and will ideally facilitate others to reflect for themselves. While many experiences are not universal, the ability to sympathize and point to parallel experiences can help open conversations that would not otherwise seem possible. Even if the conversation does not lead to the same conclusions for all parties, it will humanize those parties to one another and add faces and important contexts to opponents who might otherwise be nameless and alien.

Unpacking Privilege

As important as unpacking is for any person motivated by ideology (in order to practice what we preach), it is particularly valuable for persons afforded a lot of social privilege. In this context, I want to be clear that “privilege” is not the willful assertion of power by a person based on outdated and unequal social norms (I call that “entitlement”); privilege is the social power a person receives from others, consciously or unconsciously, based on such norms. If ethnic, economic, and gender bias were wiped from all human minds tomorrow, they would be back within a week because our personalities are forged in context, that context is perpetuated in our personalities, therefor the waters of our perception would flow down the same paths even if we could somehow pause the water for a bit. The only meaningful way forward is not for folks with privilege to wipe the slate clean of all past wrongs, but to discuss those wrongs openly and unpack our continued misguided notions about them.

Societal baggage is weighed down significantly by assumption and unconscious prejudice, which means that privilege cannot be easily shirked. As a passive participant in zir own social role, a person of privilege may not recognize the extent of these advantages, nor the ways ze might accept, reinforce, and wield them.

For the record, I consider myself a person with above-average privilege: I am white, cismale, educated, young, attractive, and more hetero than not; I have been working most of my life to unpack my social privileges, but I continually make new discoveries and must uncover the ways my good nature and best intentions might lead me to subvert my own ideals. A white guy can grow long hair, get tattoos, wear radical clothing, and have no job yet still get better credit than a black man in a business suit; a tall man can be weak and non-violent and still feel safer walking down the street than a short woman; a heterosexual couple can consciously decide to never get married but later change their minds in ways that are not available to same-sex couples. I have learned to acknowledge and, where possible, to counter such injustices. Whenever unpacking leads me to a privilege I might overlook, I seek alternate ways to notice it and/or work around it; just as with driving, I must check my blindspots. Ultimate perfection will be unattainable, but improvement is not.

For a person raised in a conservative religious environment, all understanding of the world has been filtered through a specific dogma: every piece of knowledge before a certain age has been filtered to reinforce that worldview. If, at some point, that person rejects the faith/its leaders/its politics, the new worldview will still be founded by its relation to the foundational dogma. Unaddressed thought patterns will continue largely as they always have; like a riverbed carved into the countryside, ideas may flow in a different direction but they will still take the same path to get there. Rejecting a belief system that preaches women are inferior to men will not clear a person of residual sexist patterns. Even a person who consciously rebels again previous dogma will often seed that rebellion by merely choosing the opposite from the same options originally offered: what was “good” may become “evil”, and what was “evil” may become “good”, but positions outside that entrenched dichotomy will be no easier to fathom after defection then before (gender identities outside of male or female, for example).

The same self-analysis that leads someone to renounce a belief system must continue if the dregs of old patterns are to be voided. That person must learn to check blindspots, then to process information in new ways, and finally to adopt improved habits and reflexes — and there is no way to do any of it quickly. If the departure was mentally or emotionally taxing, the person may be resistant to dig any deeper, but otherwise it can be like removing a tick whose head remains in the skin, poisoning you for your health-minded efforts. Remnants of a former belief system can become liabilities to moving on, particularly when dealing with folks who were never part of that world.

(By sheer coincidence, my dear friend Heina is presenting on this topic vis á vis atheism this weekend; check out the event page or follower her on Twitter for info.)

Society itself is a belief system, a social construct with prescribed interactions, prescribed power dynamics, even prescribed rebellion; true change can only be possible when change-makers understand societal dynamics and learn to work around them. This can be particularly challenging, both personally and socially, when dominant advantages are in one’s own favor, therefor the single most pervasive blindspot afforded to persons of privilege is that unpacking is optional. When the mainstream society, politics, and morals around you all broadcast that you are a good person — that you deserve to be happy, healthy, and educated — you may not even realize that the same society is sending a different message to others. A white person who grows up in a white-dominated society and is not exposed to the experiences or challenges faced by contemporary people of color may believe that society offers the exact same opportunities in the exact same way to all its members; since society advertizes itself as “post-racial”/”colorblind”, a white person’s good will toward equality can even be subverted into reinforcing systemic and unconscious racism, to the point of resenting programs that undo centuries of discrimination and viewing THEM as unfair. Meanwhile, a person of color raised in a white-dominated society will become conscious of racial identity early in childhood and will never have the opportunity to stop thinking about it: the legacy of generations of poverty, the mixed messages in media and entertainment, the microaggressions of complete strangers, and, yes, the yet-unresolved prejudices.

(Since I keep using conservative examples, allow me to point yall to Ferret’s post about how liberals can also live in a bubble…)

Unpacking is a daily fact of life for persons who lack privilege, while those with social power may choose to ignore persistent inequalities without great effort. The disconnect of privilege is most troublesome when the privileged viewpoint leads a person to disregard the lived experiences of marginalized people because those lives contradict the safe and familiar world lain out for privileged hearts. Even folks with moderate privilege can recognize the ways awareness of other exclusions stays with them: the weight of having a high-school education when employers want a college degree, for example.

Chances are, there has been a time in your life when you felt compared by an unfair standard — an orange among apples — but how well do you notice when you’re the apple and someone else is the orange? And what do you do once you have noticed?

Owning Your Stuff Is 9/10s of the Law

Unpacking happens when you realize something about your own context and decide to examine it further; ideally, this process brings your beliefs and actions closer to alignment. That moment when you realize you’re an apple at least SOME of the time, that is the moment most potent for unpacking. It can also be the moment when you recognize just how complicated this society can be, how convoluted its biases, how self-perpetuating its machinations.

I cannot tell anyone how to unpack; like love or art or jazz you have to see it done a few ways then find your own. What could be more individualized? Unpacking involves untangling the layers of your very self, from personality quirks to early influences to adolescent rebellion. What practices are based in your experiences alone? Which beliefs were handed to you, prefab, through societal cues? Which came from your parents or guardians? Which are just habits you picked up and couldn’t defend if you wanted to? And the layers run in more directions than just origin: which of your behaviors have ongoing emotional ties? Which have healed you in times of pain? Which have been contradicted in the past, and have the contradictions turned you away from or toward the familiar? A synonym to unpacking is “deconstructing”, though this has a more formal connotation in literature (and isn’t always reassembled). Unpacking is the deconstruction of your own text.

Unpacking is not always pleasant, nor is it straightforward. Taking apart an idea may involve explaining a useful piece in more detail, or it can lead to dismantling a flawed concept and starting over entirely — and you won’t know which needs to happen until you’re already in the thick of self-discovery. You may need outside observers (who may or may not share a similar background) to point out your idiosyncrasies or explain correlations you never knew about, or you may simply need to listen and be willing to challenge yourself. At some point, if you want to examine your own assumptions, you’ll likely have to confront them with the benefit of several diverse perspectives, but only you can figure out when and which.

Self-examination is only the first part of unpacking, really. Once you’ve broken a behavior or belief down into components, you have to figure out what to keep and what to throw away; just as with literal baggage, you’ll need to plan for the next configuration, and to do that you will almost certainly have to relate it to other people. Got a racist uncle who says this same thing you say? Might be dubious. But what if he worked in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and married out of his race? Maybe he has a very different view and is more irreverent than oppressive. But then he calls his wife racial slurs and stereotypes her culture? Well, exoticism may not be the same kind of racism as a Klan rally, but it is still harmful and entitled… You have to follow these tangents — tangents from your own concepts, remember — and see where they lead you.

Some layers are obvious and easy to re-conceptualize, but most are subtle, nuanced, and well-entrenched, and the world isn’t going to stop turning just because your work-in-progress leads you someplace unpleasant. Better ideas will come in their own time if you let them, but it helps to maintain awareness of your own weaknesses while keeping an open mind; resist the urge to find quick fixes or diversions that will leave the problem in place, but also pace yourself and don’t expect an epiphany on command. Don’t be afraid to step away from a topic for a while or to ask for help.

Unpacking in a group can present its own challenges; while listening to others, you must not only note what you believe but also how you feel and respond; it benefits no one if your unresolved discomforts spill over into your group’s work. Remember what I said at the top about kneejerk defensiveness? Unchecked discomforts can overtake a share space and unintentionally reinforce social power dynamics by derailing the unresolved topic toward one participant’s personal process. A person of privilege can derail an otherwise productive group discussion by insisting that zir personal progress be validated, by asking for on-site education on topics that others know well or agree can be saved for later, by contradicting broad trends with rare incidents and anecdotes, or by generally projecting zir own discomfort as being more urgent than the issues at hand. A person without much privilege may have the same capabilities, but is less likely to be taken seriously or to unconsciously command full and immediate attention.

For individual reflections, I cannot recommend journaling enough — particularly if you are used to processing aloud or are not yet comfortable taking your challenge to someone else — for it is as much about listening (whether to yourself or to what others have said previously) as it is about speaking.

Usually, the challenge is just getting started: it’s easy to feel vulnerable or attacked (especially if one has been called out publicly) and give in to fight or flight mode, but unpacking benefits from a mental quiet and no small amount of personal security. It requires humility, patience, and often allies who can sympathize with your discoveries and your defeats. Most of all, it requires the willingness to be wrong once in a while. You will make mistakes; learn from them gracefully. Each of us already holds some incorrect or unhelpful assumptions from earlier points in our lives, but through unpacking we can identify and correct those assumptions more fully.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And if you don’t know how anyone else can do it, remember that people who have less or different privileges than you have probably been wrestling with similar questions their entire lives; while this does not diminish the newness for you, it does prove that it can be done. (When all else fails, though, a search of the Internet or your local library can also be fruitful; again, your challenge is probably not completely original.)

If it sounds daunting, take heart in knowing that you have the rest of your life to learn and small steps can make a great difference. Eventually, you can learn to be generous to people with less opportunity than yourself (especially by listening) and to speak up more among people like yourself. Along the way, you get to be a better person, a stronger influence on others who have yet to recognize their own hangups, and help forge a society that is more aware and more respectful of its members’ most thoughtful values.

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Recommended Reading for January 17

2011.January.17

I know it’s too late to catch a parade or join a movement or anything too strenuous, but please take a moment to at least THINK about why today is a holiday, what it celebrates and signifies, and how we remember it. I found some of the most profound readings on Colorlines.com, of course:

Civil Rights historian Barbara Ransby on the legacy of compartmentalizing the message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

White anti-racist Tim Wise reflects on the parts of King’s legacy that is often left behind

And if Michelle Chen’s reflections on peace activism are too long or liberal for your tastes, take instead fifteen minutes to review President Eisenhower’s farewell speech, which — fifty years ago today — encouraged balance between the federal and private economies, cautioned the nation against overindulgence, and birthed the prophetic phrase “military industrial complex”.

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Creating Change Tangent 1: Microcosms

2010.March.7

[This is actually my third entry on Creating Change, but the second entry was far more personal than political and I did not share it as widely.]

Are our desires microcosms for the politics, or are politics a macrocosm for our desires?

While exploring my own fear of desire in my last writing, I wandered into a ramble about gender dynamics for those of us who are mostly hetero, sympathetic to feminism, and complete chickenshit. I briefly broached the subject of how bad I am at approaching someone pursuant to dating, but I left out something equally important: I’m just as bad at turning someone down.

Fortunately, I am rarely approached by women or men, so it’s not a problem I have to deal with often–but it is a problem I should be happy to have. I love it when a woman makes the first move–I consider myself a feminist and a coward in this regard. And as for men… well, my desire is rather undeveloped there–not so much new as untested–and it might help to have someone else leading… But since I get most of my desires met by women, it’s just easier to focus on them, isn’t it?

Ah, the slippery slope of polysexuality

No wonder some queer communities are getting frustrated with the rise in “pansexual” events. It may be more okay for people to acknowledge and indulge their same-sex curiosities these days than in the past, but it’s still a hell of a lot easier to just focus on the stronger and/or more socially acceptable end of the spectrum, so many people (and I include myself in this) do. Instead of liberating queer and queer-friendly spaces that build bridges through sexy fun, pansexual events are increasingly flagging into a realm for self-segregation. These spaces can quickly become mostly hetero-normative, overrun with heteroflexible girls giggling their way through same-sex exhibitionism, the boyfriends they’ll be fucking later–in private–standing as far from the other dudes as possible, and a handful of late-coming queers standing around the edges, awkwardly looking for the real action. [I’ve been following a deep conversation on this topic on FetLife, but if anyone knows of another forum that doesn’t require a login, I hope you’ll share a link with me.]

This encroachment hinges strongly with the complicated struggle between queer communities (yes, there are more than one!) over the prominence of sexual liberation within the political movement for equal rights. My interest in promoting politically-charged sexual freedom has long made me feel isolated in hetero communities (even before my self-identification began to shift). As long as you’re not hurting someone (yes, I mean minors, animals, and people who have not given you clear consent), I don’t see why anything should be out of the realm of negotiation.

To some extent, I imagine it was the marginalization of gay communities in the past that encouraged their members to explore and embrace less standard forms of sexual expression–for that alone, even french vanilla heteros should be donating to LGBT causes in droves. Once you’ve created a safe, comfortable niche outside the mainstream, why not expand it? But now that conservatives have successfully re-framed the political focal point to the very specific and contentious notion of gay marriage, gay communities are facing an identity crisis. Social moderates and even many liberals are quite comfortable lobbying for gay votes with promises that gays will be able to marry! Some day. Or at least, um, unite civilly. You know, as long as they talk about love, but never sex. And leave the trans people at home. And there’s only two at a time.

To be sure, there are people in the gay community who are just as monogamous and vanilla and gender-normative as your grandparents on their fiftieth wedding anniversary (if they made it that long before death or the degradation of the institution of marriage got to them first)–and it’s a positive thing that the rest of the country is seeing that these people exist. But there are fears that if this group gets what it wants politically without bringing along at least some broader notion of sexual liberation, the rest of the communities will end up with an even further uphill struggle for visibility, respect, and political power.

A couple years ago in D.C., activists in other campaigns were promoting the notion of a broader “human rights initiative” to promote progress for all people by shifting our attitudes on what it inherently means to be human (I’ll give away the ending in as few words as possible: participatory self-articulation). Right now, most movements for political equality are fighting a war of attrition for the members of that one group to gain exceptional acceptance: “We’re okay. We’re just like you, except that one thing. We’ve been contributing for generations, you just weren’t ready to acknowledge it. Let us prove that the one thing doesn’t really matter any more and then you can let us in!” And the unspoken oath of assimilation, “We promise to be just as discriminating as the last group.” I think class is the most obvious example (volumes have been written about how the bourgeois and the elite trade places over political cycles without class values really shifting much), but there are also resonant patterns in race, education, immigration, partisanship–pretty much any demographic box any politician might ask you to check.

Fighting for the right to assimilate, no matter how staunch one’s terms (even fighting for gay marriage carries with it expectations for some adjustment to hetero-normative laws on discrimination, obscenity, and sex practices), is not the same thing as promoting a human rights initiative. The former benefits only the people explicitly implicated, and can actually create new forms of discrimination against those who complicate the assimilation. Those who blur the lines that are comfortably overcome are vulnerable to exile after assimilation. For example, while Black Americans have made huge strides in legal and cultural acceptance since the Civil Rights Era, Black/White bi-racial people are still often overlooked or treated differently by both communities, since they don’t fit into either side of the resultant racial truce. Similarly, while queer communities have yet to attain such a “truce”, they are at great risk of leaving behind bisexual people (who could “pass” more easily, but at the cost of having their identity even more debated and allegiance more questioned by both poles), to say nothing of trans and other gender-non-conforming (GNC) people.

Envision the eventual orientation truce treaty as an assimilation waiting area; a sign that reads “Mainstream acceptance through this door!” hovers over two lines: a fast-track if you’re hetero, a slower-but-still moving line for gays and lesbians. Do bisexuals have to choose to get in? Do they have to pretend to be one or the other? For how long? And people who are uncomfortable with their external sex–if and when they can get into the gender acceptance waiting area, will they be able to change lines between “male” and “female” as they transition? Will they be welcomed in the line they choose? Will they forever have to sacrifice any of the joys of androgyny or genderfluidity?

The human rights initiative necessarily leave no one behind. You teach yourself and others how to support the right of every individual to define zirself. Instead of pulling individuals or small groups out of the margins, you focus on shifting the margins–the paradigms behind their marginalization– that put them there in the first place.

It is easy to sell out our allies by working for exceptional acceptance instead of striving toward a paradigm shift. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but between my politics and my desire, I know that I am much more likely to sell out my desires. Values, left inactive, amount to hypocrisy, while desires, left inactive, are supposed to be a sign of responsibility and even respectability. That’s why so few American politicians can survive a sex scandal. We’re not supposed to respect someone whose desires aren’t in complete check at all times, no matter how many times we ourselves have succumbed to less than ideal temptations.

Vanilla, heterosexual, monogamous, love-driven desire focused on people you already know may just be more respectable, but when you pick the fastest line out of convenience, you will miss meeting the interesting people on the other side. You miss the fuller experience of knowing yourself, of having your desires understood, fulfilled, and, yes, respected by others, and of creating new paths where others might follow while defining the most important label of all.

“Me.”

I contend it is a disservice to any authentic movement to be anything less. Is this not integral to the activist’s credo to “Be the change you want to see in the world?”

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Did I Bury the Lead?

2009.February.28

In my earlier entry about Birmingham, I skimmed over an important detail that I would like to revisit: the moment I cried.

It was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in the second room after the film introduction. There were tall glass panels, free-standing like a small crowd in a wide room with high ceilings. Each panel had been laser-etched with full-bodied portraits: people of various ages and races in uniforms for several vocations or lifestyles. It was very idealistic, with everyone smiling and comfortable with his or her panel standing alongside another panel with someone of another color and background – probably bordering on cheesy, but I responded well, I was all smiles, just like the etching of the little black girl carrying her lunchbox and dressed for school.

After meandering through the twenty or so panels, I emerged on the other side of the room to see a large wood and glass cabinet set in stark contrast to the rest of the room. Inside hung a full set of Klan robes, alongside a small, rope-bound cross, ready for burning.

How could they include this? I asked myself. How could they put this on display? How dare they?

Instantly, the answer poured from my face – hot, painful tears that shamed me and shamed my passivity through the earlier exhibits. I had to walk away, lean against a wall, so that my uncontrollable sobs would not disrupt the experience of others. I have never shied away from crying except when there was an audience, and an audience of strangers who were likely having a very different experience only made me more ashamed, simultaneously of my tears and of their lack of them. I didn’t even know why I was crying!

A young Black man came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. He reminded me that we had come a long way and offered me a hug. My companion came over and stood with me until I was ready to move on. We went at separate paces, and I’m afraid I wasn’t there when her composure was later lost over the choice parents faced between getting their children a better education and saving their lives. The rest of the exhibits were very vivid, very informative, but I worked through them, taking notes and scuttling closer to the gift shop.

It wasn’t until after we had left that I was able to piece together the thoughts that had set me off. There were plenty of violent events covered in the museum, there were artifacts and scenes painted all-too vividly, and there were moving biographies and tributes to heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but none of these had stirred the guttural sadness that the robes had. What had overcome my jaded, learned, untouchable stance of observation? My reflections led me to think about context. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m too liberal, but I can understand (though not justify) the actions of an individual. Every individual has stories, and relationships, and complicating factors that can lead to a single instance of bad judgment or even divert them permanently toward a life of violence and antipathy.

What bothered me about the robes was their power of community. Such power does not come overnight, and it doesn’t come without permission. The acts of the Ku Klux Klan were accepted and congratulated by Whites throughout the South as a backlash against those events we now celebrate as “progress”. Then there’s all the half-assers… for every community that actively embraced the Klan, how many more were there who passively supported it, tolerated it, or kept their discomfort to themselves? Yes, I can wrap my brain around just about any action committed by an individual in a particular circumstance, but I have no ability (or desire) to comprehend broad, successful movements of hatred and violence.

Believe it or not, it is just such communities whom I wish to describe in my upcoming book. But I’m not ready to say too much about that here.

Why did I not tell this story when I first blogged about my day in Birmingham? Well, for one thing, I was blogging closer to real-time then, and I was not yet ready to write about the incident or to share it with an audience. But for another, I was not yet sure at that time of the tone I wanted for this blog. That tone has come to me in subsequent entries, as I have decided to focus this journal on my politics through travels and my travels through politics. I cannot write the political without writing the personal, and vice-versa. They resonnate, and it’s these points of resonnance that always interest me most.

Thanks for reading.

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What Is It about Savannah?

2009.February.18

[apologies for the delays in getting the last few out… they’re just as important, I assure you!]

I had been to Savannah once before, on a business trip with the now-defunct Leadership for a Changing World program. I remember being sucked in because it was my first Southern city to explore as an adult and by that time, I was already beginning to miss my roots (non-progressive though they were). We had stayed in a supposedly four-star hotel downtown, where the garish decorations could not disguise a bug problem and blatant segregation on the staff. I got the feeling on that first trip that Savannah was a beautiful town in its own right but that it had a bit of an identity crisis going on. It was hung (possibly for a long time) on the precipice of choosing an identity, like a beautiful cheerleader who is too compassionate to let the jocks pick on the nerds, but too popular to intervene. At one time, Savannah was one of the richest cities in the world, but of course with that wealth came the injustice and indignities of slavery. Especially after I took a ghost tour, which (White-) washed all of Savannah’s rougher history in favor of stories of lost (White) love and bitter (White) family disputes, I got the sense that Savannah was in denial of a history they could not ignore. That first visit was in 2005, and I hadn’t even seen Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil yet.

Sights: Tybee Island Lighthouse, exhibits at the Savannah College of Art and Design (including a graphic narrative display that featured The Devil’s Panties among others), Gallery Espresso Coffee Shop.

Topics: lots of picture-taking, love of lighthouses, the ill-likelihood of finding the perfect book for my research in a lighthouse gift shop, that book when I found it, the exhilaration of being around artists, how segregated River Street seemed, how un-segregated everywhere else seemed (compared to 2005 especially), getting lost on the two US80’s, art in the bathroom, was mayonnaise crossing the line in the sexy-woman-objectifies-self-with-food paintings for sale, the concept of “meta” and the likelihood of its inherent pretentiousness, how well we do or do not learn American History in school and elsewhere, Whiteness of SCAD, Jennifer Leigh Dunlap.

Soundtrack: just talking, navigating, and the radio.

We got around to watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (thank you Netflix) that night, which just confused us all the more…

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Why Not Discuss?

2009.February.5

It was going to be hard to top Inauguration Day, so Wednesday had us playing tourist. It was my first trip to Atlanta.

Ostensibly, this trip was about research as much as seeing sights, but I was shy more than once about approaching strangers for their insights on race and class. A peculiar incident on this day was a conversation with the owner and a regular patron at a gentrification coffee shop. The owner was a middle-aged White man, the patron a Black man in his late twenties or early thirties, and the two had already been talking about insurance or something-or-other. The older man invited his friend to dinner; he began talking to us as the younger man gathered his belongings. After a few pleasantries, I told them I was doing research for a book on race and class (I was not more specific, though I my topic is actually much more focused). They laughed and wished me good luck. They recommended checking out some other places in Georgia, which I jotted down, but the conversation waned quickly and they left. I’m sure either of them would have been able to offer some interesting perspective, but I held back the particulars that might have grabbed their attention and proven I wasn’t some clueless, over-reaching young fool (well at least not completely).

I had to ask myself afterward why I had held back. Was I reluctant to engage the (presumably middle-class) latte culture before I had really talked to anyone from the working class, which is the actual focus of my book? Did I feel vulnerable because they already knew each other, or because race is always easier to talk about one-on-one? Was I unwilling to betray my background, for fear it would affect our discussion, or that I would subliminally let slip the crass notes I had been making about this very shop the night before? Or was I just settled into my tourist and cuddling mode and not willing to get out of it for people who obviously weren’t going to be around for long?

Yes, I think so.

Sights: World of Coca-Cola (yes, I know they’re an evil corporation but I’m a soda aficionado), the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, and oh, technically we drove through Centennial Olympic Park.

Topics: “simulation mode” at spectator factories, the creepy extended version of “The Happiness Factory“, corporate indoctrination, potential subversion by advertising agencies, Pemberton/Candler/Woodruff, charging 5 cents for 50 years, omitted chemicals, bottling for GIs, New Coke, aluminum bottles, sampling everything (including Beverly), the absence of real Pibb, lack of water fountains around the sample room, corporate credit unions, the future Center for Civil and Human Rights, real estate around tourist attractions, the King Center’s two bookstores, respect, frozen fountains, reaching out to educate kids, entropy, Wormsloe Plantation, homeschooling, panhandling

Soundtrack: U2, Sinead O’Connor, Johnny Cash, Kimya Dawson

That night, we drove into our eastern-most destination: Savannah.

[ETA some topics]

h1

What, No Parade?

2009.January.20

Apparently, despite its prominence in the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham doesn’t have a parade on Martin Luther King Day like Dallas and Fort Worth (each) do. Not that I didn’t enjoy sleeping in a bit longer, but I was a little disappointed… not unlike the fireworks in D.C. on Independence Day

But the day has been great. Much less driving and much more interaction (outside of truck stops) than yesterday.

Sights: Irondale Cafe, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Remember that scene in Jerry Maguire where Cuba’s character goes on the talk show swearing the host can’t make him cry but is decisively proven wrong? Yeah, that was me today, except they were not happy tears…), and Dreamland Bar-B-Que. We also had a glimpse of the steel mills and a lot of old homes in various states of disrepair.

Topics: Surprising integration of Birmingham retail and service staffs, Buy Fresh Buy Local, whether landmarks really earn 100 on their health inspections, army tourists should definitely ask and tell, deep fried Coke sausage, graffiti as the urban Buddha Board, individual injustice vs. communal injustice, the  goal of idealists in a cyclical history, the hottest waitress in Birmingham, the ongoing destruction of girls’ schools in Pakistan, and the impact of Rick Warren on Obama’s coalition.

Soundtrack: Elvis Costello, David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, more Indigo Girls, Oldies radio

Now in Atlanta for a couple nights. 8.5 hours to inauguration

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