Owning Our Words

Posted July 29th, 2019

The person currently occupying the White House has a penchant for spewing hate speech, as we have been reminded with his racist tweets suggesting that four outspoken Congresswomen, who happen to be people of color, should “go back to where they came from,” never mind that three of the four were, in fact, born right here in the U.S. of A, while the fourth, born in Somalia, has been an American citizen since the age of seventeen. POTUS’s racist comments, while familiar, are nevertheless disturbing. Worse yet, this particular speaker often refuses to own the words that have spilled from his lips five minutes after they’ve hit the air—unless, as in this case, he decides to double-down, which is a subject for another day.

As an author, I’m acutely aware of the power of words to heal or harm, to build up or tear down. I believe it’s imperative to choose our words carefully, and to own the words we choose, as well as the intention with which we use them. POTUS rarely does, of course. I wonder, though, how many others of us consider the words we use.

I’m particularly sensitive to the word “abandon,” or any of its derivations. I see it thrown around a good deal, these days, in connection with children forcibly separated from their parents at the border. To be clear, when a child is ripped from a parent’s arms, the parent can hardly be said to have “abandoned” that child. Yet, this is the language being bandied about.

I’ve noticed how frequently the word “abandoned” is attached to the commonly held narrative of the black father, and I wince every time. A man’s absence from a home is usually far more complex than that word would connote, especially if that man is black. His absence might be due to military assignment, work out of state, balancing multiple jobs, incarceration, or a contentious divorce. None of the above constitutes “abandonment.” No matter the reason for a man’s absence, he may, in fact, remain active in the life of his child without sharing the child’s home.          

While writing my memoir, Ordinary Hazards, I had to address my own father’s periodic absence from my life. There were certainly moments, as a child, when I might have felt abandoned. But looking back, I know the label does not apply. My father’s absences were more complicated than that. He never gave me up, blocked me from his life, or left me with the intention of never returning. Nor was he ever emotionally unavailable. On the contrary, over the course of my childhood, he was quite present, and in critical ways. I would not be the person I am otherwise.

James Grimes, Jimmy to his friends.
I called him Daddy.

It was my father who gave me my early arts education. He introduced me to the ballet, theater, and classical music. He escorted me to my first art exhibit, featuring artist Tom Feelings with whom I would one day collaborate on a book. My father signed me up for, and attended, my first poetry reading at thirteen. He was the person who exposed me to literature by and about writers of the African Diaspora. He took me for weekend jaunts to New Jersey and Washington D.C. He took me shopping for school clothes. We hit the occasional movie theater together and went for pizza runs during my weekend visits. Does any of this sound like abandonment? And yet, the casual observer, falling back on the common narrative of the absent black father would look at my story, note my father’s periodic absences and would say two+two = abandonment. Wrong.

We must carefully weigh our words and own them, whether we’re talking about absent African American fathers, or immigrant parents detained at our borders, weeping for the return of their children, or the Congresswomen of color who are full citizens with the right to serve their beloved country, regardless of the dark complexions and surnames that mark them to some as “other.”

It’s too easy for our narratives to casually be reduced to a few handy catch-words and phrases. When they are, we need to reclaim and reframe those narratives using language that encompasses the nuances of our truth. And we must do so over, and over again. It’s not a one-time proposition. Just ask the four Democratic Representatives targeted by the racist tweets from POTUS. This isn’t the first time someone has told them to go back where they came from and, sadly, it won’t be the last. Others will make false assumptions about them, and they will have to reclaim their narratives afresh, choose their own words and descriptors to set the record straight. And when they do, something tells me they will own their carefully chosen words, every single time.

Lessons from Charleston

Posted June 22nd, 2015

Bronx MasqueradeAn unarmed black person dies at the hands of, or in the custody of, white policemen, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?”

Nine black souls are massacred in a house of worship, in a state where the Confederate flag, symbol of hatred, flies proudly, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?”

I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I certainly can suggest a few, the most important of which has nothing to do with gun control, and everything to do with empathy. We need to teach our children empathy. It’s a lot harder to murder someone you have empathy for than someone you don’t.

The perpetrator of this latest atrocity was not mentally ill, as some wish to suggest. (Please don’t insult me by suggesting every white person who kills a black person is mentally ill. I grew up with a parent who was genuinely mentally ill, so I, for one, know the difference. Oh, and, I should note: she didn’t kill anyone.) Nor was this perpetrator born with hate in his heart. No one is. Hatred is a seed that must be planted, watered, fertilized, and nurtured. The ugly fruit of hatred is not produced in a single, sudden moment. Rather, it ripens over time. It is not inevitable. I repeat: race hatred is not inevitable.

As a seedling, hatred can be uprooted early on. Or, it can be left untouched in its own environment and allowed to produce a head and heart both poisoned, and poisonous. While children are yet children, and still under our care, we adults get to influence which of those two things happen.

Instead of looking the other way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empathy. Teach the young to feel the heartbeats of races and cultures other than their own. Replace any possible fear of the unknown, with knowledge of the knowable. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. Teach them that the most important common denominator is the human heart. Start with a book.

Give young readers books by and about peoples labeled “other.” I’m not talking about one or two books, here and there. I’m talking about spreading diverse books throughout the curriculum, beginning in elementary grades, and continuing through to high school. Why? Because racism is systemic and teaching empathy, teaching diversity, needs to be systemic, too.

You say you want to change the dynamic of race relations in America. Well, here is a place to begin—unless, of course, you’re not really serious. In that case, by all means, keep running around like your hair is on fire, screaming, “What can we do? What can we do?” every time an unarmed black person is killed by a white policeman, or a group of innocent black people is massacred. Just don’t expect me to keep listening. I’ve already told you where to begin.

The Gift of Story

Posted October 21st, 2014

A recent blog by Sally Lloyd-Jones got me thinking about a question we authors hear some version all the time: Where do you get your ideas, or how do you come up with ideas for your stories? The question would suggest that there’s a treasure trove, somewhere, packed with stories ready for the taking. Or that there’s a place one could go, a repository one can simply dip into, at will. But, the truth is, story ideas are more elusive than that. Their source is far less predictable, more a matter of magic, or of serendipity. An idea might spring from a period of fasting, or flash of insight during a meditative state, or result from literally tripping over an object that brings that idea to mind. No matter the origin of an idea, or the vehicle that brought it to you, that idea, that story, is a gift.

Chasing FreedomI’ve been thinking about my newest title, Chasing Freedom, releasing in January 2015, and trying to trace it’s origins. The initial idea came to me while I was busy working on something else. The something else was a series of dramatic monologues for a theater production to be performed in China, in 1988. The theme of the show was American History, and so I chose as my subjects Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony. In the midst of researching their stories, and crafting their monologues, I became excited to learn that they not only lived at the same time, but all knew each other. One day, while thumbing through these histories in the stacks of the Doheny Library at USC, I suddenly thought, “I wonder what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down for a talk.” That notion was the seed that eventually led to my writing Chasing Freedom. I wasn’t looking for an idea, mind you. It simply arrived of its own! A gift.

Words with WingsI turned my thoughts to Words With Wings, a novel-in-verse about daydreaming, and I tried to trace the origins of that story. This task was more difficult, because the genesis of the idea was much less straightforward. Over the years, I’d read or heard comments by teachers about the importance of nurturing the imagination; read or heard Steve Jobs bemoan the fact that children are no longer encouraged to daydream; read or heard nameless others comment on this subject, in one way or another. Somewhere along the line, this train of thought stuck, and I began thinking about my own childhood, and how important daydreaming had been in my own formation, and later success, and I realized how much I wanted that for the children I serve through my work. Out of this thick soup of essays, articles, off-hand commentary, and personal memories grew the idea for a novel about a daydreamer. So there.

The origin of the idea for my next book, Poems in the Attic, out next spring, is a bit clearer, but not much. I watch the nightly news as much as anyone, and I’ve noticed a barrage of stories about our military over the recent years. With troops in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, especially, this last decade has produced miles of videotape about soldiers. I especially noticed the preponderance, of late, of images on television of soldiers returning home, snuggling with their children after long tours away, images of both fathers and mothers in uniform, nearly wrestled to the ground by children so excited to have them home, again. These images stuck. Then, there was the show Army Wives, which brought these themes into my living room weekly. Besides the above, there’s the fact that several of my friends regularly share childhood stories of growing up as military brats. At some point, a couple of years ago, I started thinking about the increasing number of children who have to negotiate the uncertainty of life with a parent in the military, and I wondered if I might offer some small collection of poetry that would speak into that. Hence, the story-in-verse book, Poems in the Attic.

The answer to the question of where stories come from is rather random, isn’t it? It’s mysterious. It’s magical. It’s simple: a story, and the idea that gives birth to it, is—a gift. Yeah. That sounds about right.