My mind is a map of misunderstanding. Often it can take me two to three minutes longer to connect one piece of information to another in an attempt to draw a comprehensive constellation of whatever it is I am talking about or listening to, than other people; what are you reading? inevitably morphs onto whole discourses on the literary history of Modernism; what’re your summer plans? into my idea of a perfect meal consisting of a cheeseburger (lettuce, grilled onions, cheddar cheese so sharp it can cut my tongue, accompanied with a great lake of ketchup), fries, and a coke; what’s your type? into my regaling the traumatic first time I watched internet porn at age fourteen, that ended with me hunched over my keyboard, clutching myself, and crying to God to forgive me for a full hour and a half before bed (masturbation and guilt would be married in my imagination for another two years). In short, I give too much information. I miss details. Sometimes answering the questions posed to me, sometimes starting several topics that are irrelevant to the conversation at hand. The exception, of course, being when I’m reading and writing. I’m twenty-six and the youngest Don Quixote to possibly have existed–sane/coherent in the world of books, insane/incoherent in the world outside.
This, of course, is an exaggeration–hell, I’m a writer with a flair for the melodramatic! But the older I get, the more I can’t help but to worry about my sense of the world around me; the less opinionated I sometimes am about my convictions, or the more I catch myself zoning out into outer space after the first two words answered when I ask someone how their day was. This world is so loud. How I can quiet my mind and listen, with clarity. How can I decide my stance on issues or topics that so many are quick to dig their heels in the dry earth and yell out into the void.
Trump. LGBTQ Rights. Black Lives Matter. Police Brutality. Feminism. I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Racism (aka the Alt-Right/White Nationalism). Toxic Masculinity. White Fragility. Etc, etc, etc. We live in a world that cannot sigh in self-expression, cannot stretch in skepticism or doubt, without sparking a wildfire of vehement shouting or finger pointing. This paralyzes me. This keeps me up at night, the idea that I do not have a complete fleshed-out opinion on some of these topics, or worst, that the opinions I do have are subject to question, to doubt…
I’m terrified, shaken to my very core, that my indecision will lead to silence; that my silence, to consent; my consent, my inability to be an ally to justice; that my sum will result in a dead soul in a cold body.
A poet saved me. How silly that sounds aloud or in a blog post, but he truly did. After graduating from college I kept up with several professors who were, and still are, the titans of my social, intellectual, and creative education. And he, that professor-poet, came down like the Holy Spirit in the form (more interesting than a dove) of a dirty-blonde Apollo several years my senior and reminded me of something important: I know where I stand. I know my convictions. I know what is important. I know what is right and most certainly, incontrovertibly, what is wrong.
And all it took was for him to share with me George Saunders’s essay, “The Braindead Megaphone.” Take my hand reader, follow with me:
Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, own businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and–surprise, pleasant surprise–being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.
Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.
But he’s got that megaphone.
You’ve seen this, yes? Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr? The news, perhaps? Then that ominous moment, the danger. The fall:
Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing–but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.
There it is! Right at the center of my anxiety! Everyone has a megaphone! Everyone cranks up their dials to max volume and booms down unto their enemies the voice of God before listening!
And They said: Shout unto others before they shout unto you.
But alas, volume does not sway those who bump comically into those who share their residence in darkness, in ignorance. Volume encourages them to vindicate their sins by retreating further and deeper into their cave, cutting and bruising themselves as their bloodied bodies grind against the rock. How can we remind ourselves of this? How can we remember to listen to their faulty logic in patience and pity and speak in love first, before making room for interrogation and reflection, understanding that here there is history, and that history can be undone if, instead of speaking to them like children, we instead take their hand (if they will have us at all) and lead them through the history of their hate, their fear, their misunderstanding–the forces they don’t see at all that are so woven deeply into the fabric of their DNA. Not in loud, paralyzing hostility, but in communal, dialogic cooperation.
If I am to share with you my light, I must first be a candle before I can be the sun.
Juneteenth is approaching. I never would have known what it even is if it had not been for the fact that it’s the title of Ralph Ellison’s second novel (published posthumously in 1999) or a title episode (season 1, episode 9) of Donald Glover’s television series, Atlanta. Wikipedia defines Juneteenth as, “a holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, and more generally the emancipation of African-Americans slaves throughout the Confederate South.”
I have never seen nor heard of a Juneteenth celebration. I have never been invited to a Juneteenth cookout as a boy or adolescent. I have never seen, marked three days after my birthday, in tiny script, “Juneteenth” on a calendar. I have never been turned away from a closed public library or local business on the basis of Juneteenth observation.
I was a boy of the American South. I grew up in a town of cows, tractors, country music, and bonfires in humid Summer nights. I grew up in a state of the Confederate South. I grew up black, among other things. I grew up in a family who remember seeing members of the Klu Klux Klan in the grocery store, PTC meetings, their children’s graduations. I grew up in a town where I could not take a white classmate to Prom because of her mother. I grew up in a town that said, you may not be separate, but you are most certainly not equal.
I am a man of the American South. I grow up in a state where, in most cities and counties, three days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is Lee-Jackson Day…
Richmond, Virginia is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to, partially because I live there; partially because this city, with all of its juxtaposition and duality, feels like the perfect Post-Modern setting for a Zadie Smith novel. Both old and young, conventional and bohemian, historic and artistic, this city leaves a blossoming image in my mind taken straight out of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd: New wine in old bottles.
Richmond is a mecca for an urban contemporary art scene and culture.
Richmond is also, historically and genetically, the capital of the Confederacy.
About a block from my apartment I get a gorgeous view from my balcony of Monument Avenue, a Victorian street lavished with sublime mansions reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s East Egg, and punctuated by a tree-lined grassy mall sometimes peopled, in yellow Summertime, with couples sunbathing or groups of friends playing Cornhole or Frisbee. Breathtaking in the golden hour of sunrise and sunset, in flaming Autumn and pale Winter, Monument is also inhabited by the cold, bronze statues of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson (not to mention, the Tower of Babel that is Jefferson Davis’s pillar). On weekends and weeknights I walk past Lee, on the way to a friend’s apartment, mostly without notice or thought that here, within this black body, I walk by a man that fought for “states’ rights” or, more appropriately, for the continuing institution of slavery (I care not for the arguments that he fought for the protection of his home, at least in this present moment).
I often ignored these monuments, but it seems that I cannot any longer. Not in good faith. On May 17th the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed in the city of New Orleans, the last of four Confederate-related monuments taken down in the area. Shortly after, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh told the Baltimore Sun that the city of Baltimore “will take a closer look at how we go about following in the footsteps of New Orleans.” And here, in Richmond, the time is inevitable when our own historic energies will be put to the test as well.
Old and young.
Historic and artistic.
White and Black.
There’s a fear, tale as old as time in the mouths of certain white folk, that the removal of Confederate monuments is an offensive removal of memory and history. But does removing these monuments erase the obvious (and still visible) fact that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy? We still have museums, for one. Some have argued that these monuments are stepping-stones in the conversation of slavery and race-relations post-Civil War. But if that is the case, then why aren’t there plaques alongside these shrines? I have to admit I’m surprised that there hasn’t been an art student who has created reactionary statues (in the vein of Wall Street’s Fearless Girl) of blacks alongside the lawns of Lee, Stuart, Jackson, or Davis. Let’s be honest, these monuments do nothing to educate or propel any conversations outside of the problematic issue that they stand proudly, in Yeatsian symbolism, for the history of a city that fought for rebellion. Directly or indirectly, a rebellion that took under its cause a continuing system of slavery.
Yet here we are, screaming. Shouting and pointing fingers. We are presently at the cacophonous crescendo of a Harper Lee plot. In the face of black concern, white fear and trembling has taken center-stage. We have stopped listening to one another, we have forgotten that issues are never seen in either/or, but the uncomfortable marriage bed of both.
YOU’RE RACIST IF YOU KEEP THEM!
YOU’RE IGNORANT IF YOU REMOVE THEM!
So what of the man with the megaphone?
We consider speech to be the result of thought (we have a thought, then select a sentence with which to express it), but thought also results from speech (as we grope, in words, toward meaning, we discover what we think). This yammering guy has, by forcibly putting his restricted language into the heads of the guests, affected the quality and coloration of the thoughts going on in there.
He has, in effect, put an intelligence-ceiling on the party.
What does a city lose when it decides to remove statues and monuments that arguably shouldn’t have been there in the first place? What does it gain once they are removed and conversations can begin with “what was once here, is here no longer. This is why…”?
All I know is that I know nothing. I try not to speak authoritatively. Remember, my mind is a map of misunderstanding.
But I am an American of the South.
All I know is that Juneteenth is approaching. There will be no celebrations. There will be no closing of local businesses to observe the holiday. There will be no monuments erected in honor of its history and memory.
I must sit still and listen. I must be a candle before I can be the sun.