Racism isn’t new. But as I was coming of age in the Sixties — Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when I left for college, and I had recently discovered James Baldwin — I had reason to hope things were changing for the better.
It’s harder to feel that optimism now. Each day’s news seems to carry a troubling story about a blatantly racist incident. Just this week, racist robocalls targeted Andrew Gullum, the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, and of all people Mollie Tibbetts’ father, who had begged people not to politicize her death.
The calls came from a neo-Nazi podcast here in the Northwest.
So I was especially happy to read the August 29 East Oregonian story about local high school athletes who spent a day at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute learning about the culture of the Natitayt, the people of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Rather than issue condemnation for past racial incidents at school sporting events, Aaron Noisey, Chuck Sams and John Bevis chose to help students get to know their competitors from Nixyaawii Community School.
What a good idea, I thought. It’s harder to see people as “other” when you hear their stories. “If I don’t know, don’t belittle me, educate me,” is the way Noisey put it.
At the First Draft Writers’ Series we’ve heard Native voices from all around the Northwest. Bobbie Conner, Jennifer Karson Engum and Thomas Morning Owl reminded us that place names tell stories of their own. Native writers Trevino Brings Plenty, Elizabeth Woody, Ralph Salisbury, Ruby Hansen Murray, Dawn Barron Pichon and Tiffany Midge spoke from the perspective of six different Native cultures, and students from Nixyaawii’s Poetry Club knocked our socks off at the Open Mic.
We have also been touched by the words of Mexican-American poet Xavier Cavazos, Chinese-American writer Alex Kuo, and Japanese-American Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada. Following Sam Roxas-Chua’s ancestral story — born in the Phillipines, he was left on the branch of a tree and adopted by Chinese-Filipino parents who later emigrated to the United States — helped us spin through the loops of the asemic writing he demonstrated for us with his swirling brush and black ink.
Of course, ethnicity isn’t the only focus at First Draft. We hear all varieties of human experience — love and loss, laughter, anger, fear — from men and women of all backgrounds, writers of all ages.
Imagine growing up in a patriotic family at Hanford, sitting on your dad’s shoulders to wave at President Kennedy, and then watching your best friend’s father die from radiation poisoning. Kathleen Flenniken’s poems just might have helped us face our own internal contradictions.
What’s it like to be part of a poor working family in Coos Bay? Michael McGriff’s poems let us imagine. Not many will forget Kim Barnes’ story about a devastating accident that haunts a Northwest logging family.
Though we might have expected Ursula K. Le Guin to take us to a faraway planet, she read poems from “Out Here” while her friend Roger Dorband showed accompanying photographs of Harney County. We love ranching stories. Robert Stubblefield, Rob Whitbeck and Molly Gloss took us deeper into Eastern Oregon, Joe Wilkins into eastern Montana. On September 20, the week after Round-Up, Rebecca Clarren will be reading from “Kickback,” a novel set on a family cattle ranch in eastern Colorado in the midst of a fracking controversy. Clarren has been writing about the West for twenty years — for High Country News, Nation, and other publications — and her debut novel has been short-listed for the PEN/Bellwether Prize.
But because I’ve been thinking about racism, I keep coming back to last month’s featured writer, African-American poet Emmett Wheatfall, whose book “As Clean as a Bone” takes its title from Baldwin: “You want to write one sentence as clean as a bone.” Wheatfall’s response to HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s remark that “Slaves were immigrants coming to America in pursuit of the fledgling American dream” feels bone-clean: “Show me boat manifests listing each slave by name.”
“I’m as shattered as my slave ancestors were back then,” Wheatfall writes. But he adds, “What was broken then is being reassembled.”
I hope so. I do know stories help.