Taking a deep reflection on racial diversity in my life
Above Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY
Over the past year, I've traveled down a personal, introspective journey, striving to dig deep, bare my soul, and reconcile with whatever I might find. Writing has been a key vehicle for such reflection.
To improve my writing and perspective, my writing coach encouraged me to read books in my genre, memoirs. While I gathered tips and examples to help expand my writing skill set, I also discovered such a mission could help me be a more enlightened person.
I chose to read a broad array of memoirs which provided some insight into other people, their cultures, and their own personal struggles. Some stories shared some similarities with mine, but most stood in stark contrast.
I grew up in the '70s and '80s in Mountain Brook, Alabama, a rather posh, middle class suburb of Birmingham. We may have been ten miles from the lingering civil strife of the city, but we were a world apart. In the early '60s Birmingham was considered one of the most racially divisive cities in the country. I was born just a few years after the days of "Bull" Connor, SCLC and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. protests that landed MLK in jail, and the KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls and wounded twenty-two others.
Ten years later, Birmingham was still suffering and the only African-Americans in Mountain Brook were maids bused in from the city. Even the schools' janitorial staff was white. So I was quite insulated from the injustice and violence for which Birmingham was a pivotal backdrop. Hence, my personal exposure to African-Americans and race was quite distant.
My family were members of the 4800-person strong Jewish community of Birmingham, perhaps larger than one might expect in the deep South. We were exposed to some bullying, name-calling, and an occasional swastika on the streets or in front of the high school, but the Mountain Brook culture tended to limit most of the blatant displays.
My dad owned a clothing store in nearby Bessemer. Most of his customers were African-American and I believe he was a role model in treating people honestly and respectfully. So I hope some of that affected my ethos as I grew up. Yet the first African-American I probably ever talked to was in college, and likely not reflective of the struggles of most in the South.
As an introverted, shy, reserved man consumed with what others thought, I took solace that my story was simpler than African-American people, since I could walk down the street without anyone recognizing my minority status. Though that didn't solve any problems, perhaps it helped me escape from any awareness of the racial divide or any role I should play.
For thirty years, I worked with others and managed many diverse teams. I believe I was respectful and inclusive, encouraging diversity of experience and thought. Yet it was neither 'politically correct' nor within my comfort zone to open up discussions about race, so I remained largely ignorant.
Recently, after my writing coach recommended Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Garden, I realized this was perhaps the first book I'd ever read by a African-American author. It was so personal and shared such pain, grief, and sometimes anger which pervaded her whole family. I had to read more. Kiese Laymon's Heavy: An American Memoir shared a more modern story of his personal struggles in the 'hood of the South. Charlamagne Tha God's book Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me shared his struggles dealing with anxiety within a proud, African-American society. I expanded my reading to include Alexander Chee's How To Write An Autobiographical Novel about his own raw experiences within the LGBTQ community and, most recently, Terese Marie Mailhot's Heart Berries about a Native American woman's struggle with depression, alcoholism, and recovery.
These are all great books that left an indelible impact on me. I highly recommend each one. I'm not trying to take victory laps or receive accolades for reading diverse books. To the contrary, I found myself confused yet curious...
ESSAY OF TRUTH - 4/24/2019
Confusingly, I’m not sure I should be writing this. But infused with curiosity, sadness, and remorse, I need to explore this with myself.
After reading several pieces by prominent, modern day African-American writers, I am compelled to pick up my pen.
It is perhaps easy for a white male to be racist and sexist in America, even today. It is slightly more challenging to vilify racist words and language in support of diversity and acceptance from a sofa or office chair.
But my reading experience compels me to stand up and try to understand more.
Admittedly, at first these books seemed foreign. Is it really that bad for modern African-Americans or even those dating back to the '70s? Why do these authors remain suspicious of all white people and even label us as “white man” like we must be categorized. Why all the rage?
But if I let my guard down, I must realize first, I will never truly know what they have been through nor what they must still endure. I can read that African-Americans were relegated to the back of the bus or to other water fountains, or even shot in their back, defenseless, for no particular reason. But to feel the denigration of constantly being beaten down, literally and figuratively, must be so traumatic. I can only begin to understand their sadness, their fear, their anger and hatred, and their determination to overcome.
Is that fair? Certainly, African-Americans have a right to feel vindication and satisfaction vilifying whites in general in portions of these books and in our societies. It is their pain. The pain of their families and ancestors. The pain of their daily lives today. But how do we, Americans together, fight white supremacy so we may all live in a better world? A lot of progress has been made since the '60s to move what was once mainstream toward extremism. It is not enough. We must work together to abolish such action altogether.
It is far from fair. This oppression they have endured for centuries still exists, trying to pry their fingers off the ladders of hope they seek to climb.
Though I am Jewish with Special Needs and LGBTQ children and thus believe I can relate to the challenges of the few, I don’t feel qualified to write this about race. Yet progress must be made together. By recognizing and setting aside my own innate prejudices, maybe I can then become aware of the plight of others. Only then can I help to break down walls. My goal cannot be to use big words like “diversity” but to open my mind to others’ experiences and demons. Though history has labeled each other for centuries, we must all extend our hand and our heart and minds to make true progress.
I think it is admittedly hard as a white male, brainwashed for years by society that benefits my life in so many untold and unrecognized ways, to change. But when reading or talking to African-Americans about their plight and frustrations, rather than question their purpose, I should first question my own perspective and efforts to understand. It may be hard to do but, actually, it's the very least I must do.
*As a footnote, my original blog included the term "blacks" instead of African-Americans. I apologize if that offended anyone. I grew up using the term "black" without any intended discrimination or malice. However, I certainly respect that the term African-American is more common and respectful, and that times have changed and I need to update my own perspective, perhaps in many ways.
As part of my journey, I participated in Rev. Dr. William Barber II's Poor People's Campaign when he spoke in Houston this past spring. His message of unity, to fight racism, discrimination not just against African-Americans but poor people in general, and divisiveness was poignant, electrifying, and hopeful. Through awareness and action by all, we may live in a better world together tomorrow.
In Search of Courage - Back Cover Blurb WINNER
Thanks to the many votes for the Back Cover Blurb for my memoir In Search of Courage due out March, 2020, the overwhelming winner is...
Steve Friedman presents a story about his battles to cope with his introversion from an early age. To combat the pressures of adolescence and corporate America, he adopts addictive behaviors that threaten his health and his family life. Steve faces many forks in the road but struggles to make the tough decisions to find peace and happiness. What would you do when faced with such adversity? You will find yourself rooting for Steve while also testing your own mettle. In Search of Courage is a fast read, but the lessons will inspire for years to come.
Thanks to everyone who voted.
As a brief update, along with some gracious, volunteer Beta readers, I'm in the final editing stages of my book. Later this fall I will line up cover design and internal formatting/design before selecting a printer/distributor by the end of the year.
When I started this creative journey over a year ago, my focus was completely on getting my story out of my head and onto paper. However, in the last six months I've discovered the joy of editing/rewriting and publishing. Some may think I say that with a tinge of sarcasm, but I love seeing a blurry, gray set of words come into focus through editing. Meanwhile, this publishing adventure taps my project management skills and brings me closer to sharing my full story with you.
I'm excited to announce our first guest blogger next Thursday... Susan Morton, MSW, LICSW. Susan has over ten years experience working with kids, teens, and families. One of her specialties is anxiety based disorders. She will be talking about the differences between introversion and clinical diagnoses such as social anxiety and depression. Susan will also talk about her personal experience in realizing she was an introvert and how she learned to care for the introvert in her. Don't miss it!
Please join the journey via Facebook or LinkedIn, and subscribe to the weekly blogs at BeyondIntroversion.com, where you can also enjoy the EXTRA goodies this week including a great link to “ Embracing our Introversion", our special day on the calendar, "National Heroes' Day", my daughter Maddie's take on our plans in Maddie's Story - All in for Kili, and our August “Aspects in Art."
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5th GUEST BLOGGER!