Two Steps Back

I have tried my entire life to overcome my legacy as a Southerner. Now, there are good things about being from the South, but we seem to have a hard time kicking our racism habit. We do stupid things then blink our eyes in feigned innocence and proclaim we had no idea. Yes, you did. Sometimes we take things that try to mitigate our former ignorance and decide to make them ours. We just don’t get it.

Who is the “we” I’m talking about? Some white people who can’t or won’t move out of the 19th or 20th Century as far as racism is concerned.

After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, many jurisdictions in Southern states closed their public schools to thwart the intent of the ruling. This happened in my home town. Because all public schools were closed, the segregated, African American schools were, too. The difference was white families pooled resources, formed “private academies” which held classes in the former public school buildings, hired the former public school teachers, and education went on much as it would have as a public school. African Americans who could afford it moved to jurisdictions that didn’t close their public schools, but most black communities tried to hold classes in church basements or private homes, without the resources the private academies had, i.e., a wealth of trained teachers, current textbooks, and extracurricular activities.

I attended one of these “academies” for several years, but at the time I didn’t understand the implications. To me, it was just school. My education certainly didn’t suffer. When I entered public school in the 6th grade, I was reading at a higher grade level, my math skills were two years ahead, and most of the 6th grade was a repetition of what I’d already been taught. Though I received a more than decent education, I’m not advocating these “academies.” The point is African American families didn’t have these options, and by the time public schools were re-opened, many African American students were academically far behind their white peers. Some never caught up.

In 2004 my home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, had one of those rare moments of insight. After receiving a gift from an estate of one million dollars, the Commonwealth established the “Brown v. Board of Education Scholarships” for those who missed out on educational opportunities when the public schools were closed. Let’s recall who actually “missed out” on a chance for an education? Not me, and not all the white kids in the “academies.” I’ll concede that there were some white children who did not attend the makeshift academies, but they were few.

Since the inception of that scholarship, 70 have been awarded–some (and the Commonwealth won’t say how many) have gone to whites. The administrator of the scholarship fund indicates that both white and African American children lost the opportunity to go to school and so both should be eligible for the scholarships. Indeed, she wants to get the word out to whites so they can take advantage of it. I think she has her proportions skewed. The vast majority of people who “lost the opportunity” for an education were African American, and I believe that’s where the scholarships should go. As I said, I didn’t lose a chance for an education nor did the great majority of my classmates, and, consequently, I don’t deserve such a scholarship. I would never dream of even applying for one.

One of the African American recipients of the scholarship raises a good point. What if one of the scholarships went to a member of a family who supported segregation? That, to me, would be a slap in the face to those who fought and bled and died for equal opportunity. The person who thought up the scholarship indicated he certainly had African American, not white, students in mind. He indicated he had a hard time accepting that white children’s education suffered. I agree.

So, this post is titled, “Two Steps Back.” What’s the other step? I find this so outrageous, I don’t know if I can write much about it without elevating my blood pressure. Someone setting up the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans this past weekend hired “comedian” Reggie Brown, an Obama impersonator. Brown came on stage in his Obama persona and proceeded to tell racial joke after racial joke. The attendees hooted and laughed, but when he switched to dissing the slate of Republican Presidential hopefuls, he got booed and booted from the stage.

I’m sorry, when is it acceptable for anyone to make racial jokes? Some talking heads on morning TV tried to spin it as the audience expressing disapproval of Brown’s schtick, but, come on, if you hire an Obama impersonator for a mostly white, very conservative group, you knew exactly what you were getting. And if you watch the YouTube video of the event, you’ll see the audience thought he was hilarious until he started in on making fun of Republicans.

These are the days when my optimism about a post-racial world wanes. Sadly, neither of these backward steps surprises me.

We Will Not Go Back

I’ll begin by apologizing to my male friends, if they feel they are being bashed. I’m a feminist, yes, but I like men. (Far too much for my own good, if my past relationships are any example.) That, however, doesn’t stop me from asking, “When will men just shut up and let women decide about their bodies?”

Because women are the only gender who can actually gestate a fetus, I feel, and I always have, that we should get to say when or if we do that. For some reason, men–well, a lot of Republican men–can’t stand that. In an unprecedented attack on women’s ability to make serious decisions about their health and well-being, Republican men–and women–in state legislatures have offered bill after bill to restrict access to abortion. From bills that define personhood as the moment sperm fertilizes egg (meaning a condom is an abortion to them) to proposals that women would have to prove their miscarriages were spontaneous to bills that suggested criminal charges against doctors who perform abortions and the women who seek them, we have seen a year thus far in which the dystopia described in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale  looms.

Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum recently declared that women who seek abortions for the health and survivability of the mother are essentially lying. Then, we learn his wife had a second-trimester dilation and extraction to save her life. Apparently, though, the only way to convince Santorum it was necessary was to point out that his existing children would lose a mother. Mrs. Santorum had had a risky in utero procedure to correct a fetal defect, but it failed and the fetus became a source of sepsis for its mother. Even knowing the now-dead fetus would result in his wife’s death, Santorum hesitated before agreeing to the procedure. In the meantime, Mrs. Santorum went into premature labor, and the die was cast. When someone pointed this out to Santorum after his “women are lying about needing abortions” statement, his response was? Oh, our abortion was different. Not that I would have voted for him under any circumstance, but the hypocrisy just floors me. Abortion for my family but no one else–that’s what he means, people.

This is why, damn it, I want to make my own decisions about my body–because I have the intelligence, the information, the knowledge, and the ability to make important choices. I don’t want a man to hesitate before he says, “Oh, okay, save the mother if nothing else can be done.”

A reporter in Afghanistan once asked a man why he hesitated to bring his struggling, pregnant wife to a doctor so she wouldn’t have almost died. “It’s no matter,” he said, “I can always find another wife.” Many men in America are that close to thinking of women the same way. We are baby machines to them, uteruses with legs. We exist only to gestate, and the fetus’ well being takes precedence, even when it is the potential cause of a woman’s death. That is not acceptable.

And I love babies. I have the three cutest grandchildren in the world, and I respect their mothers’ choices. Moreover, I’m glad they were able to make that choice, that it wasn’t made for them by anyone else. I look forward to the day when no child is an accident and every child is wanted. I look forward to the day when a woman can think long and hard and make the choice best for her by herself, with no recrimination. I marched in the streets for choice, and I thought we’d already seen that day. Now, I see it slipping away through the crass manipulation of emotions by people who hate women, who believe we are incapable of making a choice after a rational, internal debate, that we lie in order to kill babies.

As if this renewed assault against a legitimate, legal, medical procedure isn’t enough, rightwingnutjobs are now focusing on contraception–as in the banning of it. This is their vision of America: Women burdened by constant pregnancy who won’t be able to compete with men in the boardroom, in Congress, anywhere. Their nostalgia for medieval times rivals that of the Taliban.

Yes, I sound angry and abrasive and all those words men use against women who believe in choice. Just understand what choice means in this instance: The woman decides. Not the government, not the minister, not the doctor. The woman. Most of the time she decides to give birth, and that’s perfect because that’s her choice. We cannot take away the other side of that choice because if we do, there is no choice without options. If a woman doesn’t want to give birth, she should have the choice not to, preferably by unfettered access to contraception. As a last resort, she must have access to safe, clean, properly performed abortion.

Anti-choice men need to understand this: We will not go back.

A Writer’s 10 Commandments

Several months ago I found “The 10 Commandments of Fiction Writing” inWriter’s Digest magazine. The list so resonated with me that I printed it out and taped it to a bookcase right next to my writing area. In the months it’s been there, I’ve glanced at the list from time to time, not necessarily for inspiration, but for affirmation. Writers always question why we do what we do, especially when the acceptances are few and the rejections many—or like me, when you find the whole rejection process so ego-bending, you get anxiety attacks when you contemplate submitting work. Glancing at these brief “commandments” helps focus me at times, mocks me at times, but reminds me a lot of the time that I can’t be anything except a writer.
Here they are with a few thoughts of my own.
Take yourself seriously
Sometimes hard to do when you don’t see the success you think you should have. I think part of taking yourself seriously is to do things that successful writers do—read, hone your craft, learn from your failures, continuously study writing. You have to write to be serious about writing.
Act like a professional.
That means not sending snarky e-mails back to a magazine or agent or publisher who rejected you. You can’t burn any bridge, narrow as it may be, you’ve built. It also means not stalking agents at writing conferences, insisting your manuscript will make you both rich. By the way, I’ve never done either of those things, but I’ve seen them happen, and I’ve been on the receiving end when I was an editor. For me, acting like a professional means be a professional writer. Check that spelling, use proper grammar (dialogue involving an uneducated person being an exception), master punctuation. When I was an editor, nothing said “unprofessional” to me more than a misspelled, ungrammatical, mis-punctuated mess. “You’re the editor; you’ll fix it,” wasn’t an excuse I’d accept.
Write your passion.
Note this didn’t say, “Write what you know.” It means write what stirs you, what inspires you, what makes you sit down at the keyboard and write. Your passion is all your own. No other writer will feel about that passion the same way you do. You may share the object of that passion, but yours is unique. No one can write about it as you do, so do it.
Love the process.
For me, there’s nothing like the times I write when the words pour out as if they’ve taken control of my fingers on the keyboard and insist I make them take form. Then, I’m head over heels in love with the process. When the words hide in my head and refuse to stand in the light of day, loving the process is harder. That, however, is part of the process, so perhaps this one should be, “Love/Hate the process?”
Read—a lot.
It never ceases to amaze that people who call themselves writers don’t read a variety of other writers. They stay within a shared genre or limit themselves by reading only fiction or only nonfiction. As I look at the books in my bookcases or on my Kindle, the only word to describe my reading interests is “eclectic.” Some might say eccentric, but I’m going with eclectic. My life is a perpetual struggle to balance the two loves of reading and writing—when I’m doing one, I feel guilty not doing the other. A literary triangle, perhaps? One thing that has disciplined me is joining a couple of book clubs, one in person for nonfiction, one on-line for fiction. Peer pressure does have an influence.
Stick to a schedule.
This is my biggest struggle. I genuinely try to write a little or edit something every day. “Try” being the operative word. When I retired, it was to devote more time to writing, and I have, but it hasn’t been the daily exercise I wanted it to be. I’ve tried setting specific days or times, but other things (i.e., life) pop up. I won’t be content until I’m “working” regularly at writing.
Be critical of your work.
Let’s face it, not everything we write is gold. Trust me, it isn’t. I look back on my collection of short stories published more than a decade ago and realize, though the guts of the stories are good, I wasn’t ready to be published. I won the publishing contract in a contest, it had a deadline attached, and I took that bait and swam with it. I didn’t have the time to be critical about it, and that’s why I need to have something else, something I have been more critical of, published. As much as I’m glad I had the opportunity to be published, I don’t want that one book to be my only writing legacy. I’m about to start a writing critique group, an offshoot of the local writers group I belong to, and I hope that will help not only in being more critical of my work and in receiving constructive criticism but helping others, too.
Develop thick skin.
So, maybe a person who already has insecurities shouldn’t become a writer? I’m still amazed when someone tells me he or she likes what I’ve written. I know I like what and how I write, but I know I’m not for everyone. Frankly, the rejections are why I rarely submit work. I haven’t yet learned to separate the writing from the person. A rejection of a story I’ve written is a rejection of me. Intellectually, I know that’s not the case, but emotionally I can’t help it. The only way to overcome that, I know, is to keep submitting because one day the rejections will stop.
Trust your editors.
When I was a reporter for an aviation magazine, my editor was a frustrated author. He’d published a novel in the 1950’s that won some awards and recognition but had nothing published since. This meant when he was my editor in the 1970’s, he rewrote everything. The first time it happened I thought my article sucked so much that I’d be fired, so I went to him for a critique. Oh, no, my article was fine, good even; he just wanted all the articles in the magazine to sound as if he’d written them. The light bulb came on—I wasn’t a reporter; I was a glorified researcher. That experience makes it hard for me to trust editors, and yet I know the time for me to continue to be my own editor is past. Trust has to start sometime. When I became the editor of that same aviation magazine, I had a “happy to glad” rule—if happy was the right word, I wouldn’t change it to glad without a damned good reason. The reporters who worked for me responded better to that than total rewriting, so I did learn something after all.
There are no certainties.
Ain’t that the truth? Not every manuscript is destined to be published, much less a best-seller, but we still play the odds. That’s because there’s no certainty it won’t be published either. It’s the uncertainty that keeps us writing.