This week has been Heavy on so many levels. I’m in Israel, waiting for the birth of my second grandson, who after 41 weeks has decided he doesn’t want to come out. He’s very content to float in his dark, safe world, and keep us waiting. I’m waiting with his mother, my daughter and eldest child, her husband and my-sun-and-moon-and-stars first and (until his brother changes his mind) only grandson, in a small apartment high above a small town, that looks over the terra cotta roofs of single family homes and neighborhoods that are entirely different from the ones I know at home. Home feels very far away, in time and space. I’m grateful for a few friends and my family, for daily messages, videos, pictures, encouragements, virtual hugs, and “chats,” to keep me company, when I settle in each night. We are all grateful when we don’t hear “how are you feeling,” or “when is this baby coming?” It was never helpful, in the history of women giving birth, but it is more taxing when you’re waiting beyond due dates.
Waiting. We clean and clean and clean some more. The desert dust blows and is carried in on our shoes, and hour coats, and through each door and window we open. A three year old drops rice (oh dear, rice again!), pasta, whatever he’s eating, constantly. A three year old never wears something twice, so the laundry is always waiting. A three year old buzzes and melts down and laughs and chatters and loves and makes us all notice when we shine and when we fall short. A three year old demands that we not be complacent or lazy. I go to the park, and read, and fix snacks, and clean some more, and howl at the Super Blood Wolf Moon with my grandson. We are waiting, and it’s magic, and it’s exhausting.
My daughter has no TV. She doesn’t live somewhere where I can walk out and find easy experiences. Our days start at 6:30am and end when we fall asleep at 11… or later, because I am no longer young, and the hard mattress and air of homesickness hits me most when I lie down each night. So I am walking and reading. A lot. I finished 3 books in my first 8 days here. I would never get that done at home. I’ve written blog posts, something I thought might be done for me. I’ve read the news and obsessed about the news. At home, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, all of these things collided this week, and I have found myself challenged to break open and face some unexpected truths.
If you don’t read/watch the news, and you’re hiding under a rock, then you might not know about Native American elder Nathan Phillips and the students of Covington Catholic High school, an all-male private school in Park Hills, KY. You may not know that these two worlds crashed into each other and have sparked a biased fueled debate that has all sides crying racism, foul play, hate, ignorance, that has everyone tweeting and texting and essaying and debating and accusing and calling: he said/she said/they chanted/he drummed/they maligned/he smirked/ he did it/they did it/ no they did it/ YOU. DON’T. GET. IT. YOU. YOU. YOU. DON’T GET IT.
And somehow my waiting and reading and watching all came crashing down on me and I’ve been yelled out, and retweeted, and praised and slapped upside the head, and called ignorant (and in a particularly troubling meme, called a “stupid sandwich” by Gordon Ramsey), called out as “she” who could be expected to land as a racist, and maligned, and praised some more, and trolled… Be clear, the people I meet on the street here in Israel don’t want to humor me by speaking English, and they don’t care about what happens to three groups of people on our national Mall. I’m on my own with this. And because of one book I broke open and I’m looking at all of this with new eyes.
One of the books I’ve read and then listened to this week is Kiese Laymon’s stunning memoir, Heavy. The title of this book literally sums up every thing this book is about. It’s about a heavy life, literally and figuratively. It’s probably one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, and in light of the timing in which I read it, it has shaken me to the core.
Dear God, such stunningly exquisite pain. That could be my briefest of reviews on GoodReads, if I was brief.
Heavy is not a book I can easily write about, because it’s not a book that’s easily read. It isn’t meant to be easy for anyone… but certainly not for white readers. “I wanted white Americans who had proven themselves even more unwilling to confront their lies, to reconsider how their lies limit our access to good love, healthy choices, and second chances.” In this sharp, direct opening, Kiese Laymon’s poetic words–– because, despite all the don’t-blink moments, all the raw truth and raw pain and raw raw, all the history, and racism, and body shaming, and body loving, and family abuse, and family love, and self hate and self love and raw raw raw Heavy storytelling here–– Laymon’s words, his use of words, his phrasing and construction of sentences, brought me to tears over and over. I was mesmerized. I was triggered and shaken. I was humbled. I was educated in such a truthful and direct manner, that I felt burst open and provoked (inspired would be too easy) to look deeper and digest each word he wrote. I am afraid to write my own words because I know they will fall short and will not be worthy of his.
I read that this book was the #1 Audio book on Audible for 2018. So I read this book and then listened to it. If you want to really get it all, and integrate the issues here, then reading is (I believe), always the way. Laymon is a write of stunning clarity and power; it’s worth reading. However, if you want to be haunted and shaken on a whole other and equally deep level, listen to Kiese Laymon read his memoir to you. Listen to his voice as it shifts and changes with each life experience. Listen to Laymon tell you the truth, in his own voice. I had to check and recheck, sure that there were multiple readers.
I am traveling. I’m far from home, a clear and obvious outsider, and Laymon’s voice carried me along as I walk each day. His grandmama grabbed my ear and demanded that I not waste her grandson’s diamonds. His mama challenged me to be trustworthy, to be worthy of this book and the truths he delivers. There is no listening to this story, or reading these words, and hiding from truth. There is no “white-washing” the raw details he shares. The life he lays wide open to those of us who take up his memoir.
And having just finished this book, I came to the news story with renewed commitment to not make excuses or give these white privileged boys a pass. I saw their hats; I saw the image of one boy standing, “smirking,” in front of a Native American elder, I saw the obvious racism and hate, that the hats alone were indicative of. And I didn’t look any further. I saw a tweet about this, and I added my own. I should have hit pause. I should have waited until I’d read more, viewed more, thought more.
And at first, I was retweeted and I was liked, and I felt righteous and I felt clever. I was on the right side of race, and I knew that reading and listening to Heavy had helped me see clearly. When I composed my tweet, I chose these images carefully, and I still feel they provide a true and powerful comparison, if it were entirely true. But it’s not. Because within minutes the likes and way to go comments were replaced with a barrage of angry, hate comments. They were sharp and hurtful to read. I’m too sensitive; I didn’t have my space suit on. Some made me pause and think. Others made me cringe. Some made me sanctimoniously dismiss and label the sender: Hmm, I see why you have only 37 followers. or What a racist pig. or Well, I certainly don’t care what you think! But a few sent other links and challenged me to look deeper. Interestingly, most of the links came from folks who I stand absolutely opposed to–– with gun toting profile pictures, and outright racist and MAGA slogans that I can’t and will not sit at a table with. But I believe in truth, and I was sure I was right, so it made sense to maybe watch these links, and then be able to dismiss these “trolls” completely. I was sure what I’d find there. Laymon’s words are still fresh and sharp in my head; I would not be a fool and make excuses for white boys behaving as so many white boys always have.
One video put forward and filmed by a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites, films the event even before Nathan Phillips arrives. The irony of the group’s name, bitter and anti-semitic, rose up in me instantly, because (and this is definitely an aside) these men definitely do not represent Hebrews or Israelites–– something I do know a lot about. In fact, these Black men spewed hate in all directions: saying vile things about Jews, whites, gays, gays and more gays, Catholic priests. They said things that should bother us all. They were also spot on and called it out when they noted that the Coventry students were being disrespectful to Nathan Phillips, as he intervened in the conflict, in what he explained was an attempt to bring peace. They, the Black Hebrew Israelites, filmed every bit of it, from one angle.
But there were lots of video cameras there, though few people stepping in or bringing order. Laura Wagner wrote a piece for Dead Spin that includes a video showing behavior by the Coventry boys that is deeply offensive as well. I’ve read numerous articles I still see the Coventry students’ behavior as wrong on so many levels. I don’t feel they can be fully exonerated by explanations and more videos, but I don’t believe they are the ugly, ugly young men I initially saw.
But, the conflict clearly started elsewhere. Nathan Phillips clearly walked up to the now infamous Nick Sandmann, who explains his behavior very differently than I was quick to assume of him. I can’t presume he’s lying, but his smile still haunts me. I never heard in any of the videos I watched (the longest being almost an hour and a half), from any of the many sides who posted versions, the students chant “Build that wall!” or “go back to the reservation!” I never heard them call out racist slurs. I did see their group surround Nathan Phillips after he begins drumming in Sandmann’s face. I did see the Coventry students openly mock his chanting and make chopping hand motions. In the video that Laura Wagner posted, I see blatant escalation and mob mentality, that expands the incident further. In all of the videos, I see two groups clearly out of control.
I wondered over and over, why no one was intervening in a situation that had clearly gone entirely awry, and could conceivably escalate into violence. Where were the police? Oh, right government shut down. Teachers? Where were they? Parent chaperones? Didn’t parents see this as potentially dangerous, and clearly disrespectful, once Phillips was on the scene. Where were any adults who should have ushered these kids away, and told them they were behaving disrespectfully (I saw that in every video), that this was not a fight worth fighting (the Black Hebrew Israelites will only continue to engage), that when an Native American Elder approaches you and is drumming, and you don’t know what it means, or you don’t agree with him, or you are confused and feel challenged or threatened (all statements made by Sandmann), you don’t stand there smirking while your classmates cheer and yell in the background, you move on.
A day later, when I engaged in a discussion on a blog friend’s FB page, and tried to explain that the initial news soundbites were biased, and that while I believe their behavior was disrespectful I wasn’t sure it was the racism initially reported, or that there was inevitably bias on both sides, I was slammed again. The woman whose page it is is a Black woman who is a powerhouse business woman, out there letting all men know that woman can do it themselves, and do it well. I admire her and I follow her posts. We are usually on the same “side” of issues, and so I took my white privilege right in there and expressed my views. I should have hit pause. I should have waited until I’d read more, viewed more, thought more. A Black man (M) who read my opinion hit back with a comment that cut me much deeper than “Idiot Sandwich” had. “love how she gave a long drawn out precursor to ultimately land where we knew she was going with her statement, which was to give an excuse for his/their actions. Comical.” She being me. She being an implied racist. MAGA tweeters were mean and ugly, but this hurt more.
My blog friend explained that M is direct and that we could both express our views, but she left a heart on his comment, and I felt doubly stung. I found his comment as prejudiced as I was being accused of. I wanted to defend myself, but Laymon’s words kept echoing in my head. I didn’t want to inflict any more pain or be insensitive. I didn’t want to lie, but I knew that calling this man out was a sticky mine field. My father raised me in the 60s to see people, not race. He was a product of his times, and didn’t understand that you can’t look past race. You can be on the right side or the wrong side. M labeled me the wrong side, and it burned.
Still, when I sent my tweet out, I don’t believe I was entirely on the right side there, either. While I think that the behavior of Coventry students was racist and disrespectful, I don’t believe I should have equated the image of Nick Sandmann standing face to face with Nathan Phillips, with the truly violent and hateful white faces screaming at the Hazel Bryan and the Little Rock Nine. They are similar, but they are not the same. I was wrong. I was biased. Reading David Brooks’ How We Destroy Lives this morning, I saw the truth even clearer. The Coventry/Phillips video flies in the face of the Gillette ad that had everyone buzzing and slinging words last week. In my mind, Gillette landed on the right side there, and there is no doubt in my mind that we the Coventry students were bullies. There is no doubt in my mind that this week, I have fumbled with right and wrong.
“I wanted to tell I lie. I told a lie… I want to tell the truth.” Kiese Laymon whispers in my ear. I have to believe that racism and hate and bias can only continue to thrive, when we hold them up as truths. When we are not willing to look at all sides and dig deeper. I was wrong. And I was right. So many others were wrong or right too. I believe that. I also believe that there was racism and hate on the Mall that day, and there is no one story that tells us truth.
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings changed me forever, when I was a college freshman. I’ve read all of her work, all of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin… I studied African American history and experience in my graduate work, to become an MSW. However, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy has demanded that I confront my lies, that I dig for truth and not try to change it when I see it. This week I listened to Kiese Laymon’s Heavy book and I watched heavy news from home and I felt heavy, heavy, heavy. I watched my heavy daughter wait for the birth of a child I will love so much that I burst open again. I felt hopeful and tired and ready to keep seeking answers, so that my grandchildren will be on a right side. That they will speak truth and not turn away or ignore things that should not be ignored. This week has been Heavy, and life changing. This week, this book, this Super Wolf Moon, this waiting, this bonding, this news watching and this truth telling. This is Heavy.
You can read more about the Covington/Phillips event by hitting the links in this post, or reading these. There are countless more, that you can look for and read. I read and watched every link included. You can find Heavy on kindle, hard cover, or Audible. But find it. Share your thoughts, truths, opinions in the comment section; I want to hear what you have to say.
Nathan Phillips’ story, Nick Sandmann’s story, This riveting piece by Laura Wagner for Dead Spin, Catholic News Agency, NYTimes’ David Brooks, Hour+-long Black Hebrew Israelites video which certainly shows the BHI launching foul attacks but also gives context leading up to and long after events, GC gives a well documented account with more video that is indicting of the Coventry students, Indian Country Today, Slate, Gillette
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