Thursday, March 22, 2018

Race matters, color matters

Recent studies show that African-American women with similar economic and educational backgrounds to white counterparts die more often in childbirth, and at younger ages overall. After ruling out all of the geographic and sociological factors they can, researchers attribute the more frequent and earlier deaths of the black women to the stress and anxiety that comes with having black skin.

In the New York Times this week, an extensive study of thousands of boys concludes that white boys from rich families mostly remain rich; black boys from rich families more likely drop down the income ladder. Latino boys drop as well, but not as many and not as far. Asian boys better their white cohorts—remaining in the same income bracket or moving up.

Although the number of American Indian boys who grow up in rich families is small, their trajectory is like that of African-American boys.

When I explained to an Nez Perce friend that my grandchildren, whose father is from Calcutta, experienced subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—racial slurs in Eastern Oregon, he said that I didn’t have to explain that to him: “I’ve been brown for 80 years.”

And on and on we go, led now by a President who has emboldened talk of race, color, and the “art of the deal.” As far as deals go, there have probably never, in history, been as many crooked deals as those made by those white, westward riding Manifest Destiny jockeys in their carefully worded, often amended, and rarely observed treaties as they gobbled up lands from tribal peoples, and shuffled them around like pawns on a board.

Last night I watched a repeat of the Jackie Robinson story. It all happened in my lifetime! One black man, who could have played professional football or basketball, ran in the Olympics, or commanded troops in World War II, ran, hit, scratched, defiantly sat where he wanted to on the bus, bit his tongue when he needed to, and carried out the biggest breakthrough in racial integration in the 20th Century.

But he was helped. Labor Unions and sports writers and a baseball team owner and manager, and, ultimately, other ballplayers, fought alongside Jackie Robinson.

Today, in a strange reversal, black athletes dominate professional football and basketball, and Latino and now Asian players are the new kids in professional baseball.  But maybe it is not so unusual. It is still white men, for the most part, who are the team owners and financiers—the “Romans” watching the Christians and lions battle it out in the arena, cutting the deals, writing the treaties.

I don’t know what it will take to get past all of this? I put my faith in women and children. Women, including black and brown women, are running for political office. Women are talking about the powerful men who harass and abuse them. Women, having crept through the hole afforded them by Title 9, are becoming doctors, lawyers, executives, plumbers and electricians.

And children are marching against the NRA, taking on one of the most fiercely white-male dominated organizations in the country. (I cannot resist mentioning the draft deferments handed out to NRA exec Wayne La Pierre and President Donald Trump. It is so consistent with reducing risks and handing out rewards to the right kind of white men at the expense of boys and men of color and women in general.)

More importantly, children are fearlessly expressing their sexuality and marrying people from other tribes. And this is the real hope. As more and more of us have openly gay people in our families and among close acquaintances, the tolerance for gays is growing—even evangelical Christians under 40 seem to accept the fact.

More and more of us having rainbow marriages among our networks of family and friends seems the only practical remedy to the reign of white American men.

The trick now will be to get to there without losing the traditions and knowledge held onto tenaciously, against overwhelming odds, by the African-Americans, Latinos, south and east Asians, and American Indians among us. The more important marriages are of modern technology with ancient wisdom, the nurturing of women with public and private leadership, and the health of the public space—indeed, the planet—with the needs and freedoms of individuals.

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Monday, March 12, 2018


When I first heard the news about Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women—especially of Native women writers—I thought immediately of Bill Clinton. Poor kid from wrong side of tracks with extraordinary smarts fights his way up the white male-dominated American ladder of success.  And decides he deserves what those already at the top by dint of birth, family, and place of origin effortlessly have.

But Sherman is Indian, and everything Indian in this country is immediately more complicated. Starting with the name itself—“Indian,” an early European mistake that has been followed by 500 years of them.

Nevertheless, Sherman Alexie, by all accounts and by his own admission, is responsible for demanding sexual favors for career assistance with many women. It’s a charge that has become so routine in recent months that we barely flinch as we go on to the next accusations, the next TV expose, the next admission of guilt.

But Sherman Alexie is not Bill Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s long-ago carefully crafted admissions of extra-marital sexual misconduct and current stunning silence about issues of harassment and assault strike me as huge roadblocks in the national battle for respect and fair treatment of women.

But that is for another day.  Sherman has in fact offered some sort of apology, and, if I know Sherman at all through his writings and brief personal contact, he is now in deep and profound self-examination of how he got where he is.

I am NOT excusing anything; I am exploring.

I just finished listening to his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. The story is painful, from the tortured relationship with his parents—mother especially, to athletic and academic successes in a white world he purposefully pursued from a very young age, and on to a sparkling literary career. I say that because there is continuing pain through the successes. Sherman willed his way off the rez when he was very young and different. He excelled at an all-white close-by school in debate and basketball, had white friends and white girlfriends, found his way to college and literary success. There are periodic visits back to family and friends and childhood torturers on the rez—some of the visits around funerals. All of the visits, the phone calls, and the recollections are permeated with stories of Indian tragedies—failures, breakups, and diseases; deaths by alcohol, car crash, and suicide.  At one point he recognizes that he is the only one in his grade school cohort to still be alive.

The light in Sherman’s memoir is his wife and child. Which make the charges and admissions of guilt all the more painful.  Why would a man with a beautiful, understanding, Indian wife he expresses the deepest love for in his book resort to harassment and sexual demands of other women?

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Sherman came to Fishtrap one time. I got a phone call from Bob Greene, the owner of that fine Moscow, Idaho bookstore, Bookpeople, suggesting that Sherman Alexie was about to explode on the national scene, and if we were going to get him to Wallowa Lake, we should do it now. A story had just been published in Esquire, and two books, The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts and New Skins, had been published by small houses. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was about to come out from a major publisher.

Sherman came, and he delighted. I chided him for not sending a photo, said that I had to cut one off the back cover of one of his books. He laughed and did a quick stick drawing self-portrait in the book in return.

I could not get him back to Fishtrap—he had indeed gone on to major fame, and once, when I saw him in Portland and asked about it, he described an uncomfortable scene in a Wallowa County gas station—he’d been asked to pay for his gas before the attendant would fill the tank. It’s too hard being brown out there, he said.

In many ways, it’s hard being brown anywhere in this country, especially in the current climate that permits overt racism. But Sherman will continue to be a brown American Indian, and in these times when harassment and assault are being openly talked about, he will continue to be known for his abuse.

Can anything good come of it?—he’s one step ahead of Bill Clinton with his acknowledgement and apology. But I am going to expect more from him than from Clinton or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or all the others in the parade of white male aggressors. I am going to look for words from Sherman. Words have been the tools of his trade from reservation grammar school to today. I want to know from him how and why, want an explanation of these terrible infidelities and sexual demands as muddy and clear as Indian humor and Indian resilience are muddy and clear in his movie, Smoke Signals.

I won’t go back and read the old books, but I might have to watch that movie again, remember how much it made me cry even as I laughed. I’m crying for you now, Sherman, and I can wait for the laughs as you spill out the pain that put you into this awful mess. But write it out—maybe show women they’re not to blame, and show white men how to begin making things right.

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