On white supremacist vegetables and watchful eyes.

On white supremacist vegetables and watchful eyes.

Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times.  Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention.  The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.

Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate.  The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas.  Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.

Teaching poetry in the local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery.  Most people know that the Confederate flag is bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto people’s flesh. 

COs bring twelve people to each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are usually white guys.  It’s pretty common for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist tattoos.  Which doesn’t even include questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there.  Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin and burgeoning designs.

When I’m there, we often read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice.  I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith.  Sometimes these lead to good discussions.  Sometimes our class gets totally derailed.

In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick.  The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction.  It’s a beautiful moment.  The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.

The next time I brought this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right.  Then they went off about sagging pants.  All this from southern-accented white guys whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely comprehend.

We had to quickly move on.

Or there was the time when we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare, stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a similarly constrained lexicon.

Many gone to the grave: men awed

by blood, lost in the black

of all that is awful:

think crack and aluminum.  Odd

what time steals,

or steals time: black robes, awful

nights when men offed in the streets awed

us.

If you read the poem aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.  That’s what I wanted to discuss.

Instead, a few guys latched onto lines like

                                                Black,

Mario, Charles, they all blackened

the inside of a coffin

and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!”  As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own.  Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president.  This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit.  The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.

Somebody else shook his head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”

We moved on.

In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties.  My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old.  But ideology can set in early.  My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.

At the beginning of the year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed.  She then posts these along the ceiling of her classroom.  Several times, she’s had to ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.

So it isn’t terribly surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs.  Right-wing supremacist movements are major terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting.  As our nation has become slightly less horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect.  They maintain a divide between their private and public language.

People who rely upon public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with their hate.

Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect.  But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless.  Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board.  This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States.  Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously.  But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover.  Sort of.  The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document. 

Through assiduous work, a team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.

The activists who had worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate.  They wanted to take action.  But the plan they favored wasn’t very flashy.  They would organize a boycott of that farm stand.  They also proposed that the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.

To stay at the farmers market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and they were making less and less money here.  I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be selling out their stock.

Unfortunately, the tropes of social media have changed public discourse in our country.  I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to claim that social media prizes style over substance.  Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in the attention economy.

As word spread that these farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our market.  People of color now felt unsafe in that space, for obvious reasons.  There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial minority.

The mayor, whose spouse is a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able to sue the city on a First Amendment case. 

Still, people felt that we had to do something more visible.  Passively allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.

Everybody has a right to believe whatever garbage they want.  Do you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic inclination toward greater intelligence?  You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.

The problem is that white supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their asinine beliefs.  Implicit threats of violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are different from “mere” hate.

If these farmers couldn’t be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth.  Eventually, a protester was arrested – the police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her home address was published online. 

She was soon inundated with death threats.

As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town.  Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott.  And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season.  Other farmers were suffering.

Image from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Calm, careful behavior from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’ in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped.  Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts were made to impose consequences.

But then our visible protests made matters worse.  We’ve helped the proponents of hate to make more money.

And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies.  They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.

As this whole struggle was unfolding, my spouse and I participated in a poetry reading.  We shared poems written by people in our local jail.  We were joined by one of the authors, a man who had just been released after five months inside.  He described what it was like to write while he was there – breathing fresh air in the outdoor rec courtyard only nine times in five months, having access to a pencil sharpener only once each week, and feeling forced to confess to a crime that he swears he hadn’t committed because they promised to release him for time served.

Our audience clapped for the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should be.

We closed our set with a piece from M.G.  This poem was written in February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began.  At a moment when so many of us were warily watching that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been watchful eyes gazing at the market.

The farmers market is just down the street from our five-story county jail.

MARKET

M.G.

As I look out this window of bars

There’s a farmer’s market.

People coming and going.

I wonder if I have any friends over there.

The sun is warm and bright.

One day soon I will be at

That farmer’s market.

I hope to see my friends again.

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day and wanting to fit in.

My condolences to those who feel as though it’s their heritage never to fit in.

Growing up, I didn’t fit either.  But I had no expectation of fitting in.  I was an outlier by virtue of who I was, not who my parents were.  And presumably I could’ve learned to talk differently, to act differently, to dress differently, and then I would’ve been embraced by the fold.

9780812993455Whereas the protagonist of Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, like the protagonist of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, perhaps like countless biracial children throughout history, felt himself to be an outcast because he was too white for his mother’s people and too black for his father’s.  He was caught in a bind; in any circumstance he would be judged for attempting to pass himself off as something he wasn’t.  His genetic heritage loomed large in every social interaction, an oppressive weight from his parentage embodied concretely in the form of the shambling, decrepit mansion he inherited from his father and was burdened with the disposal of.

In the initial chapters of Loving Day, the protagonist self-identifies as black.  Yes, through a twist of genetics (I swear I’ll write & post that essay on the evolution of skin color soon!) he is very pale.  But appearance alone should not wipe away his connection to his mother, his family, the history that led to his existence.  His take on identify resembles Danzy Senna’s in the opening to her 1998 comic essay “The Mulatto Millennium.” Here’s an excerpt:

Before all of this radical ambiguity, I was a black girl.  I fear even saying this.  The political strong arm of the multiracial movement, affectionately known as the Mulatto Nation (just “the M.N.” for those in the know), decreed just yesterday that those who refuse to comply with orders to embrace their many heritages will be sent on the first plane to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where, the M.N.’s minister of defense said, “they might learn the true meaning of mestizo power.”

Portrait2But, with all due respect to the multiracial movement, I cannot tell a lie.  I was a black girl.  Not your ordinary black girl, if such a thing exists.  But rather, a black girl with a Wasp mother and a black-Mexican father, and a face that harkens to Andalusia, not Africa.  I was born in 1970, when “black” described a people bonded not by shared complexion or hair texture but by shared history.

Not only was I black (and here I go out on a limb), but I was an enemy of the people.  The mulatto people, that is.  I sneered at those byproducts of miscegenation who chose to identify as mixed, not black.  I thought it wishy-washy, an act of flagrant assimilation, treason, passing even.

The protagonist of Loving Day also does not conform to outsider’s anticipation of what a black man should look like, but throughout the book he struggles in the attempt to erase his father’s legacy.  This despite his “re-education” at a multicultural magnet school where he enrolls his daughter; at the school they first assess his self-identity…


My daughter is turning pages before I am, but I am exasperated before her.  The questions keep coming: What do you eat New Year’s Day?  What card games do you know?  What are your feelings about mayonnaise?  What do you do with these?–and a picture of dominoes.  With every question, with every answer, I become more inclined to grab
[my daughter]‘s hand again and walk out, nearly overwhelmed by this impulse.  I look up at [the love interest / test proctor], standing there in judgement.  I’m used to having my blackness questioned, but never on paper, and never by an Oreo who would damn me for it.  But my daughter is two desks over, just jotting away, unaware of this pretext of just uncaring.

CaptureBy the final question, Name your black friends [minimum three], I answer, Nat Turner, Warren G. Harding, and What T. Fuck? and then get up to hand it in.  All I get is a curt thank-you.

. . .

“You’re black identified,” [the love interest / test proctor / now exam grader] tells me.  She’s barely looked through my test.

“Really?  I could have told you that, but it took me thirty minutes to fill the thing out.  How did you–“

“The last question.  Most white-identified mixed people actually try to list names.  You expressed outrage at the question, a typical black-identified response.  I already saw a few more answers, I doubt the rest will indicate different.  Or you can wait here for the next ten minutes.”  I want to wait.  I want to wait and talk to her and tell her how silly this test is, this mixed-race posturing.  I want to do it in a way that shows her how witty I am.  I want her to be able to tell me why I’m wrong.  I want her to be right, even though I am.  I want to be on the same page in the same space and not feel alone but hinged to someone solid.  Someone just like me, so I can know what it feels like to not be different.

…then in a class assignment on parental histories force him to research his Irish ancestry.  But he rebels in the end.

Yes, he did find a clan that embraced him for the totality of his heritage.  But that didn’t provide the internal peace he’d hoped for.  To my mind, his final rebellion is against the idea of genetics as destiny — simply because he carries his father’s chromosomes, and, yes, his history of living with, being talked to, and being loved by the man, does not mean he cannot embrace, for instance, his seat at the “Urban” section of a comic convention.

The message I took away from Loving Day resonates with what I found so disquieting about Elinor Burkett’s New York Times opinion piece on transgender identity:

burkettI have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.  Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.

That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries.  But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.

People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or [former Harvard president] Mr. Summers, shouldn’t get to define us.  That’s something men have been doing for much too long.  And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a women.

. . .

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year.  The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

The drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine.  While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports.  When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted — Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men.  Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

I understand why Burkett is upset.  As a passionate feminist, her editorial made me feel extremely conflicted.  But: there are differences between men & women’s brains.  There is significant statistical variation, sure, but the differences are real.  You could look at results like those from brain imaging of men & women as they smell things.  This particular study caught my attention when it was published because the researchers announced similarities between heterosexual women and homosexual men for this pathway.  But there are a variety of other results in this vein, many of which are referenced in this review.

(It’s worth mentioning a caveat, though — these studies were conducted with people from single populations.  To identify inherent biological differences, they would ideally use people from a mix of cultural backgrounds, including both matriarchal and patriarchal societies.  There are cultures in which the males traditionally perform childcare and related duties, and you’d need to show similar, i.e. not inverted, gender-specific brain structure in people from those cultures to rebut Burkett’s / Rippon’s claim.)

To my mind, feminism shouldn’t be about claiming that men & women are the same.  That their identities don’t matter.  It’s that, no matter your identity, your opportunities should not be circumscribed.  No matter who you are, you should get to pursue your dreams.  Your identity should not dictate how you will be treated by the world.

150601180629-vanity-fair-caitlyn-jenner-large-169Here’s the final paragraph from Burkett’s editorial:

Bruce Jenner told [an interviewer] that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off.  I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too.  But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

That’s obviously true.  I am a ultra-masculine gargantuan man beast (though perhaps less so now.  I’m my daughter’s primary daytime parent, and childcare seems to lower testosterone level), and I’ve worn nail polish for years.

My hands, circa 2006.
My hands, circa 2006.

But there is a major difference between my wearing nail polish — a self-identified male decorating his body in what many consider to be a feminine way — or Burkett — a born and raised woman — wearing nail polish, and Jenner wearing nail polish.  The latter case is a someone who was raised as a man and felt dread that someone might recognize that her personality did not match the shell in which it was encased.  Nail polish obviously would not make her a woman, but only after being recognized as a woman could she act without fear.

Similarly, the protagonist of Loving Day was always forced to prove his identity before being given the chance to relax and be himself.  Here’s another cutting passage, this from the comic convention at which the protagonist was shooed off to sit at the “Urban” booth:

“Who are you?” the man already sitting in the chair next to mine asks.  He’s around my age, with more gut to show for it.  There’s an eagle on his sweatshirt, its wings spread around his midriff as if it’s trying to fly off before his belly explodes.  The guy’s tone isn’t rude, but it isn’t a casual entrée into small talk either.  He really wants to know.  He looks down at my seat as if some invisible, insubstantial Afro-entity had already laid claim to it, and really wants to know why I’m motioning to sit there?  Why am I at the black table?

“I’m a local writer.  Just back in town, you know, peddling my wares,” I tell him, and then babble on a bit more, eventually getting to my name and the last book I worked on.  The words don’t really matter.  What I’m really doing is letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance.  Let the bass take over my tongue.  Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.  It’s conscious but not unnatural–I sometimes revert to this native tongue even when I have nothing to prove.  Often when I’ve been drinking.  I refer to my last graphic novel with the pronoun jawn.  I finish what I’m saying with “Know what I’m saying?”  He nods at me a little, slightly appeased, because he does know what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is, I’m black too.  What I’m saying is that he can relax around me, because I’m on his side.  That he doesn’t have to worry I’m going to make some random racist statement that will stab him when he’s unguarded, or be offended when he makes some racist comment of his own.  People aren’t social, they’re tribal.  Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real.