Acknowledging the reality of racism in America: how far we have come, how far we have to go
I am to be rewarded! I managed to keep it a secret! It was two weeks ago that our friend and some-time contributor Jonathan Freedman informed me of the winner of our contest, and with it, a $500 prize and engraved trophy. And I only reveal it now! (As a little bonus, all finalists are receiving an autographed copy of Jonathan’s latest book, The Last Brazil of Benjamin East). This posting has been time delayed to appear about the same time I am hosting our 5th Annual Writer’s and Creatives’ Reunion at Rancho Villasenor in Oceanside.
Thank you all for participating in this contest. I am sure everyone has their own strong opinion about who should have won, and while this should be evidence that tastes are subjective, there are knowable elements of what constitutes a winning entry, which Jonathan has articulated as he made his selection. Jonathan is the perfect judge for this contest, which mirrors his own social activism. He won his Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for a series of editorials that humanized the experience of our neighbors to the south who crossed an imaginary line in search of the American Dream, and in so doing became instant outlaws: “illegals.” As Jorge Ramos of Univision has pointed out, no human being is “illegal.” As writers, all of us, are aware of the power of words, and substituting “undocumented” for “illegals” changes the conversation. Through Jonathan’s efforts, President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to 3,000,000 people living in fear and living in the shadows. Such is the power of the pen.
I’m amazed at how the three finalists – Riley, Sarah and Laura Elizabeth — are able to set a scene so quickly, establish expectations for the reader, and then veer to surprising and trans-formative endings. Their points of view are established through visual cues and fragmentary conversations. Time and space are compressed into turning points with startling realizations.
This has been a really hard choice. One of the things I look for in first-person pieces about ethical issues, such as prejudice, is whether they have a double impact: first on the writer, then on the reader.
Riley’s piece has sharply drawn imagery. I’m arrested by his first sentence: “I smell nihilism on the end of Foster’s cigarettes.” Foster is immediately interesting as a person worth reading about. What makes him a nihilist? How does he influence the author? The terse language is taught with tension between the two. They’re projecting their insecure feelings about their male identity on each other, and then on girls — a preoccupation of young males from Adam to Adam Sandler. Then race — the race of Foster’s girlfriend – suddenly takes precedence. The grey ash on Foster’s clothes seems to evoke the moral ambiguity of judging people by whether they’re brown or white. “She’s not white” is a stark statement, but it confused me first. Who was speaking? After reading on, I discovered it was Riley who labeled her by color. Then Foster resorts to sexist insult: “She’s a great fuck,” followed by the enigmatic, “I guess I was wrong.” Wrong about what? The girl, who is still unnamed, as if she were an object of desire or derision, asks, “Friend of yours?” evoking warmth and openness. In the penultimate paragraph, Riley expresses his feelings through the sense of smell. “Foster walked past me, he smelled different than before.” The two final lines, “Not like nihilism. Not like anything,” are double negatives that provoke readers to wonder what it all means for Riley, and for us.
Sarah’s piece opens with a big philosophical question anchored by the image of an Escher drawing. What Escher drawing? I don’t see it on the page, but maybe it was on the website prompt. So this is a rather weak start because the reference leaves the reader confused. Then the next paragraph seems a little preachy: “What we’re obliged to give is the very minimal contribution to the common good.” Two strikes and you’re almost out. Then the piece really begins, with a down-to-earth declaration: “I did something awful when I was a kid.” What thing? How bad was it? Now I’m engaged in reading more to find out. The language becomes inquisitive and lyrical, with emotional potency, “the wound lingering in me might be the mere shadow of the wound I left in him.” This draws the reader into Sarah’s quest to understand what she did on that day many years ago. The set up is simple: Two strangers, a young girl and an older teenager, approach each other in front of their buildings, what will they say? She moves from her limited perspective into a flash of insight into his: “He saw me getting ready to speak and he was getting ready to give a friendly reply.” We feel empathy for him even before she delivers that cruel blow. “Fatty.” Ouch. Then we fast-forward to Sarah’s reflection as an adult looking back. “Maybe he forgave me, a long time ago. Maybe all the kindness I encountered, all through my life in unexpected places, is due to his largeness and wiped out the debt of my smallness.” Her gratitude is nuanced by a shadow of self-judgment. “But nothing can ever lessen how much I was wrong.” Sarah’s piece moved me to think about the times in my life where I did something gratuitously wrong. And I thank her for this.
Laura Elizabeth’s “Flags” swiftly thrusts us into the mentality of an eighth grader on her first date at a Star Wars premier. Although the cultural references might mean little to people from another century, or on a different planet, they immediately set the stage for a seemingly trivial incident at your local movie theater. ‘“He’s my brother,’ I told the lady behind glass.” The dehumanizing image of an anonymous ticket taker in a glass booth stands in for what may be interpreted to be more ominous: the gatekeeper to pleasure and community in a racist society. The family pass is only good for people of the same color. Laura’s first reaction is to brush off the rejection as something unimportant. She secretly wishes the guy with soft, pillowy lips and “an ass like two coconuts” will kiss her. Instead, he rebukes her, “I’m black, stupid!” His look of incredulity tinged by sadness shocks her into a stunning realization: Although white kids can choose to ignore the alienation of black people in a dominant, white society, prejudice against people of color is pervasive and deeply wounding. Looking back, she reveals, “I thought it was a compliment, seeing no color, so close we could be family, but all night something was off.” His body language conveys that he feels too hurt and angered to be affectionate with someone who doesn’t understand the condition of people brought to America as slaves. The noble language of “Love Sees No Color” does not erase racism, as another slogan “eracism,” wishes to accomplish. She then leaps forward to a current craze – commercial DNA testing to discover one’s racial, ethnic, geographic, genetic roots. I love her question, “Why spit in the cup?” She hopes her genes are a “map of humanity,” but then lapses into an anguished refrain, “My skin is the color of guilt.” Her final paragraph rises above the battleground of racist and counter-racist rhetoric: “If I just smile, it’s a new kind of flag… We’re all beautiful and broken.” Why I am giving the top award to this entry is because Laura Elizabeth had a deep impact on my own thinking about race and color blindness. Only a few weeks ago, in my writing workshop at the City College of San Francisco, I had expounded the theory that since the sequencing of the human genome, that race is no longer a valid scientific concept. “We are all made of so many traits,” I said, looking around at my students from China, Venezuela, Ethiopia, East LA, Oakland, and El Salvador. “Look at our skin, are any of us white or black? We’re many hues and shades.” While several students were nodding, a Latina flushed and stood up. “I am a Chicana native-American, don’t try to deny me my heritage!” She walked out of the class and never returned. I was shocked and a bit defensive. But now, after reading “Flags,” I understand her reaction viscerally. This white male teacher was denying her people’s suffering and she was expressing pride in her identity. For its double impact on author and audience, the prize goes to Laura Elizabeth for “Flags.”
Congratulations to you all!