Monday, May 26, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: To Kill a Mockingbird & 12 Years a Slave

(In a parallel track to the South African authors we have been looking that, this post reflects on two North American works wrestling with the ugly bigotry triggered by the color of skin.)

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird)

Last week I had the experience of considering two more viewpoints in the significant issue of how we perceive and judge according to color. I saw a live stage play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the movie “12 Years a Slave” almost back-to-back. It was intense: two, powerful first-person stories that unwrap the bandages and show the wounds resulting when we humans descend to discriminating against one other on the basis of skin color. The juxtaposition alarmed me: the simplicity with which both persons saw through the false pretense was painfully obvious. Yet a brutal system persisted because so many “good” people did nothing.

The story tellers in these works are without guile: a white child growing up in the deep South and a free black man from Saratoga, New York, kidnapped and sold in the South. Their stories play out as encounter person after person unable to accept Truth plainly told, preferring to weave explanations and excuses. 

Scout Finch is only ten years old, but her common sense and integrity (being raised by a lawyer with true love of Justice and fellow man) cannot fathom the attitude of Macomb County which legally murders an innocent black man because his accuser is a white woman. Scout watches her father, Atticus, stand alone in the gap of understanding between the colors. The one “good person” who did something, his efforts could not hold back the ignorance and malice of the mob. He is a picture of grace, as he answers Scout’s objections against the white people: he tries to explain their stunted world view. While clinging to justice, he still reaches out in hope to the minds that have twisted it.

Solomon Northrup is the teller of “12 Years a Slave”: a true story about a talented violinist shanghaied while on a trip to Washington, D.C. His brutal treatment at the hands of slavers graphically portrays the dehumanizing process which made people tractable and “useful” slaves. One is immediately reminded of Nelson Mandela’s observation that this type of treatment is as dehumanizing to the perpetrators as the victims, and it is only too evident as the story emerges.

The major factor which keeps Solomon enslaved for so long is fear. When Solomon tries to tell people he is free, he is savaged, and the scars from that beating will give testimony to his status as a slave. After that, when he encounters someone he hopes might be able to help, fear is still the issue. He is afraid to tell people he is free. They are afraid to hear it. They are afraid to do anything about it. No wonder, then, it takes twelve years for someone with the fortitude finally appears. Even that man admits his fears for his own safety, should he do Solomon the favor, but his character is up to the challenge. 

Fear is the thing that keeps many of us from stepping beyond the borders of our lives to make a difference. I kept asking myself as I watched theseheart-wrenching stories: what would I have done? and: what is the injustice going on around me that I am doing nothing about?

When Scout wonders why her father, who is a crack-shot with a rifle, doesn’t use a gun to get his point across or defend his position, he wisely tells her: 

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Atticus knew he could not win against the public tide. But he would not be swept along with it. 

Solomon’s courage is remarkable as his story descends into hopelessness. He fights the temptation to give up, despite failed attempts to communicate with his family and the system designed to prevent slaves from escape. The builder who finally carried the letter for Solomon that led to his release did succeed. His risk resulted in Solomon’s rescue. But that freedom was tainted by the backdrop of the slaves left behind, still victims of an oppressive system allowing people to treat others as property. 

These are stories that we ignore or sideline to our peril. As the human race goes forward in progress, we tend to regress in humanity. Neither of these stories verbalizes the answer, but it is pointed to in every particular: we are people imprinted with an image we have flawed. 

Our work, the work of courage, is to reconcile people to ourselves, one another, and the Maker of our image.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Reunion Reflections

Twenty-three years ago I left Swaziland with a burning desire to return. I had spent four years there teaching right out of college, and had done most of my growing up in that tiny peaceful kingdom. God, in His wisdom, put me among the people most qualified to help me learn about myself and His world view. I felt like I had found home.

Nowadays we missionary kids are called TCKs (third culture kids) and have a greater understanding of the nuances of growing up in a culture other than one's "home" culture. I attended college before TCK was even a term and before anyone was writing books or doing research. I knew deep down that I was different, a bit odd, and basically I could get on with life or not. I chose to get on, but God chose Swaziland.

       Here I am with three of my former students: Hottie, Lynne and Enola.

Most of the issues surrounding the oddness and differentness of TCKs center on this concept of "home." The question we don't know how to answer (because the answer depends on who asked the question) is: where are you from? or: where do you call home?

While I lived with my parents, wherever they were was home. After that, home was a nebulous thing that I didn't have. But in Swaziland I found a sense of home that went deep because I was enmeshed in a culture with my own boundary issues. Both this and that, but neither one. I did not feel Korean, though I grew up there, nor American, which my passport assured me I was. It was that third culture thing.

I taught in Florence Christian Academy which had the distinction of being a school primarily for coloured children. This did not mean "children of colour" but children of a blending of colours--black, white, brown, and ethnicities mingling, too. Swaziland was a type of haven because outside her borders, South Africa ruled with an intense opposition to that mingling, called apartheid. In fact, such an existence was "illegal" as different colours of people were not allowed to marry and have children.

So I began to understand myself as I got to know the delightful people who lived with the constant pressure of not being one or the other, but both and neither--when either side decided not to own them. Of course there were many more issues that my friends had to deal with: the pressures of competition for education, unequal treatment on either side of the border, and even the variations of skin tone within a family. But I found people who accepted me just because I came. They taught me so much about what it means to accept, what reconciliation does and does not look like: and what faith can do in the face of such a harsh world.

I made many mistakes, but was able to learn thanks to grace extended. I also saw what happens in lives that don't have the fortifications of faith, lives wasted and broken on the rack of what others thought. In those four years I went to eleven funerals and only two were older adults. It sobered me. I started to genuinely grow up. But oh, the fun I had in the process, being around so many others who felt, like I did: not a land creature, not a sea creature--not one or the other. But in fellowship, I found community. It was pretty close to "home", probably as close as I'll get in this life.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Who are you? Five Theories about Internet Quizzes.

I was going to title this: “Why don’t we know who we are?” because of the proliferation of quizzes going around on the internet aimed at resolving this perplexing issue:

What character from Lord of the Rings are you?
What character from Downton Abby are you?
What Disney princess are you?
What color are you?
What bird are you?
What animal are you?
What superhero are you?

But I am more interested in a different question: Why do we take these tests? Do we really have so little awareness of ourselves that we need a stranger and a quiz to tell us we are Frodo or Dumbledore or Iron Man or Pocahontas or Snape or purple or an eagle? And face it. sometimes we end up being someone we don’t want to be--so we take it again and tweak a few of the answers that we were ambivalent about. Because we wanted to be Samwise or Voldemort.

Why are we thus engaged? I have some theories.
1. We are in need of entertainment and these somehow qualify as “fun” in our time-space continuum.
If this is the case, I suggest we get a life and BE who we want to be, rather than take a quiz to tell us we are the ringbearer to Mount Doom or the Dowager Countess.

2. We are avoiding doing something important or something we need to so.
In which case, we are taking procrastination to new levels. I recommend we stop taking quizzes and DO the hard thing.

3. We truly don’t know who we are.
And sadly, we think that a ten question internet quiz will shed some light on that? If this is the case, we are more deluded than we know--and internet quizzes will be a panacea even though they won’t answer our question. Quiz on, my friend, quiz on.

4. We hope we are like someone we admire.
Truth be told, we are all aware of how transparent the questions are and where they will lead. So anyone with a modicum of insight can skew the results to make it come out to be whom he or she admires without being in the slightest like that person. (With the possible exception of a colour--haven’t quite figured out how that one works.)

5. We need affirmation.
This, I suspect is the secret underlying cause for the proliferation of internet quizzes which portend to deal with our deep, subterranean identities. Truly we are wading in the shallows if we want to be affirmed by an impersonal multiple choice task that supposedly interprets our clicked preference into the deeper realities of our persona. And then, whoever we turn out to be--the “you are so and so” description will airbrush the character into someone of interest, superlative positive attributes, and tingly sounding affirmatives (even if we turn out to be Loki). But, I have noticed, the character is rarely a person of character; rarely one who makes choices based on honor or integrity. 

So: do we stop taking these quizzes? I don’t know. Are we characters or do we have character?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: A Beautiful Place to Die

As a break from classic “apartheid genre” books, today’s choice is A Beautiful Place to Die (2012) by Malla Nunn. Nunn has written a tight, contemporary murder mystery set in the early days of apartheid (1952) and blends a strident female voice with her message. Anyone enjoying mysteries will find this one no disappointment. Nunn’s plot twists and keeps her readers guessing while interweaving historical fact and myriad complications of apartheid.

Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent to solve the bizarre murder of an Afrikaans policeman, apparently loved by all, in the small town of Jacob’s Rest. His English background conflicts with the Security Branch (the government’s seamy underbelly) set on finding a subversive black communist behind every violent attack. The juxtaposition of colour and ethnic interests is compounded by a curious Jewish couple who figure prominently, giving more insight into the philosophy of the architecture of apartheid.

Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland with the perspective of a person of colour looking across the border into a nightmare of legalized bigotry. Her story rings true, sounding legitimacy in the voices and choices of her characters. She has powerful connection with her female characters: Afrikaans, Jew, and coloured while her male characters tend to be more stereotypical. Mysteries are not as much about character as plot, so her strength in defining women reflects her contemporary sensitivity to the role of women not often found in male mystery writers.

As I read the writers of Subsaharan Africa, there appears a continuum with poets at one end and potboilers at the other. Alan Paton comes to mind as a powerfully poetic voice, while Wilbur Smith is at the other extreme. Paton is to be read and reread, his words savoured and his message taken to heart. Closer to Wilbur Smith,  Nunn’s title is the most poetic part of her work. From start to finish the words pull the reader along, almost breathlessly, with little pause for reflection. If action is your choice, with history as the backdrop, you will learn more than you’ll be comfortable with in Nunn’s description of murder under apartheid.