Whose Streets?, Charlottesville, and Activist Storytelling

Last Saturday morning, I headed to the movie theater, eyes glued to my phone as I tried (unsuccessfully) to navigate and check twitter at the same time. I found my seat in the dark, still trying to piece together what was happening and what had already happened in Charlottesville.

Then I shut off my phone to watch Whose Streets? — which is, well… the short version would be to say that it’s a look at community activism in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown. But that’s a sanitized and simplified version of the truth.

A few weeks earlier, my sister told me to go watch Whose Streets. I forgot about it until the 9th, when I read an interview with activist Ashley Yates about what happened in Ferguson three years ago. It reminded me of why I’d stopped trusting my local newspaper, the paper I’d grown up reading: During the protests that continued for years in St. Louis (and still continue), the newspaper said one thing, and my sister said another. The crinkled newsprint said that the protestors turned violent, and my sister said that the police tear gassed MoKaBe’s, a local coffee shop.

St. Louis ArchSo I went to watch Whose Streets?, meeting up with a friend and sidling into a mostly empty theater where only a few older white folks were. It was chilling to watch the documentary and make the obvious connection to the weekend events — how the police met the community in Ferguson with violence, while Nazis in Charlottesville marched freely. How activist Brittany Ferrell was charged with a felony for kicking a car plowing through a protest line (read: a woman trying to drive over protestors, wtf) — and how that morning, a white supremacist had driven into a crowd of anti-racist counter protestors.

I was reminded that (racist) history repeats itself, and that the only way to break that cycle is to learn from it. That’s why Whose Streets? is so important. According to its website, it’s a documentary “told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement” and “an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising.” It’s about what really happened in Ferguson, not some distorted, sensationalist version shown in the news half a country away.

What I want most in this push for diversity in YA lit is for marginalized writers to get to tell their own stories, whatever that may be – immigration, slice-of-life romance, social justice, magic boarding school, you name it. Storytelling is how we connect with others, help people feel less alone, and learn from (and fight) the past. It’s crucial that the people who should be heard, get heard.

Whose Streets? does that and far more. It’s activist storytelling (well, truthtelling) – and we can never have too much of that. You should absolutely go watch the documentary if it’s still showing in theaters in your area. For more on this:
Theater showtimes
Whose Streets? trailer
Ferguson Doc ‘Whose Streets’ Shows The Power Of Black People Telling Black Stories
Non-profits to support in Charlottesville
RIC Teaching, self-care, and resources round-up in re: Charlottesville

Combating Racism Through Literature

Reading-books+empathyIf the month of June will be remembered for one thing (aside from marriage equality), it will be remembered as the month were race and racism were prime topics of discussions. It began with one woman deciding to “pass” as a black woman, a horrible tragedy of 9 lives lost, Trump’s crazy remarks about immigrants, specifically Mexicans, and ending with one courageous woman’s act to take down the Confederate flag. There were some productive discussions that were had, and there were also some folks who double downed on their ignorance. Through it all, I kept wanting to yell, “haven’t any of you ever read a book?”

Now, I understand how that response might seem odd, but that is because I kept thinking about a study released late last year that proved people who read fictional novels actually have more empathy. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that when reading a fictional story, the elements of the brain that you would use when watching someone move, lights up when you are reading too. The article, from Psychology Today, states that essentially, “When you are engaged in reading a fictional story your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level.” Let me repeat, you are living vicariously through the characters. That means that when we read a fictional story, we place ourselves as the characters and live, briefly, a different life other than our own.

The researchers also discovered that fictional reading helps what is called, “Theory of Mind.”  This concept is “the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.” Essentially, we can learn to understand the thoughts, feelings, beliefs of people different from us and come to understand their world view. We become empathetic. Psychologist Raymond Mar states, “that when you are engaged in reading a story that your brain automatically puts yourself in the character’s shoes. Throughout the process of reading narrative fiction, the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.”

It is this reason why having both mirrors and windows for children in their literature is important. Children of color need to be able to see, think, believe they can be the hero, while their White counterparts also need to see how the lives of children of color differ from their own. In her article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Rudine Sims Bishop explains how having both mirrors and windows in literature, children of all races will be able to understand and even celebrate the differences in each other. She even explains how the mirrors and windows could lead to ending racism in our country. She states that children from the dominant culture “need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world-a dangerous ethnocentrism.” I can’t help but think if the folks making headlines the past few weeks had read fictional stories about people from different races, cultures, countries, would they have done/said the acts they performed in June? How would their lives have been different, better if they had just read a book about a person of color?

I just happened to catch CSPAN’S BookTV’s replay of the WNDB panel at BEA in May last night. Both Linda Sue Park and Ellen Oh mentioned stories where folks from the dominant race felt that they didn’t need to read books about characters of color; felt like the books were not “for them”, and that is part of the problem. Books featuring characters of color are for everyone. I know what it is like to live the life of a Black woman in Los Angeles, but Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” gave me a glimpse of what life is like living on a reservation and the struggle to get a good education. That is just one book in the long list of books that have given me a greater world view and took me on adventures in different places. All children need to be able to have the same experiences – to see themselves as the hero while also learning what life is like for children from different parts of the city, their country and their world. I honestly feel that if more books by authors of color and/or books with characters of color were taught in the schools, folks would be more empathetic and open to the diversity of the world around them.