Super chill book review: Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

First, I’d just like to take credit real quick(-ish) for the fact that the King County Library System now has Julie Rodgers’ memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story in their system. Woohoo! This is the first book I’ve requested that the library actually purchased, so it was a very exciting moment for me. 

Also, not only did the library purchase Outlove, but they purchased a whopping FOUR copies of it—and now there are no less than ten holds on those four copies! (Okay, fine, I suppose it’s possible that some of those other people who now have holds on the book also requested that the library buy it…so maybe it wasn’t just me. But I can still take credit.)

Anyhow, I tore through Outlove. Like, in a good way. It was hard to put down. I found Rodgers’ story riveting. 

Her story of coming of age as a queer evangelical Christian is a difficult one, but super important—and also, at least to me, in many ways redemptive. I’m grateful for her willingness to share her journey.

A few random thoughts:

1) Outlove is a story about Rodgers’ experience of youth and young adulthood as a gay person, specifically, in (evangelical) Christian contexts. And it’s also about more than that.

I was struck by how much of her reflection and critique applies to conservative evangelical Christianity more generally—her story is specific to her queerness, but there was also so much I could relate to from being part of the same systems. 

I think anyone who has experienced a significant shift in belief system—particularly a shift away from what Rodgers would call more fundamentalist types of Christianity—would relate to a ton of this book. (Not that reading an awesome memoir from a thoughtful queer person of faith shouldn’t be enough reason to read!)

Rodgers writes, for example, “Fundamentalism was a coherent system that dictated my life to me: it told me who I was and how I was to live, every moment of every day. It gave me a rulebook that laid out a path for me to be objectively good. When one part of the system was called into question, it brought up a series of related questions that threatened to bring the whole house down. The foundation upon which my life and identity were built began to shake, and I couldn’t cope with the thought that the whole house—everything I believed to be true and all the relationships that held me together—might come crashing down” (p. 55).

Yup, pretty much. You start to pull at one thread that doesn’t seem quite right, and before you know it, the whole thing starts unraveling. 

Or, alternatively, you poke with curiosity at an interesting-looking piece of rock, and end up waking a very large sleeping troll that then lunges right at you with all of its terrifying weight—when you had reasonably thought it was just a mound of boulders and you were safe. (I just made that analogy up. You’re welcome?)

There’s something appealing about feeling like you have all the answers to everything. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. For any of us. And probably especially for those of us who tend to think we have all the answers to everything.

I think there’s something beautiful in the mystery of not knowing things—of having to figure things out, together, in community, with the humility that should probably come with being human. But it’s difficult, too. Especially when you’ve been steeped in a belief system that tells you you’re supposed to know things. (And that this knowing things is what makes it a good belief system in the first place—better than all the other belief systems out there. You know, the mindset that we have the answers to everyone’s questions about all the things; we have the whole grasp on the truth that everyone needs.)

2) I hope this next quote isn’t too much of a spoiler. But I guess it isn’t exactly a secret that, when Rodgers was in her tweens and twenties, she was a key spokesperson for gay conversion groups (the kind that try to make gay people straight), including the now-defunct Exodus International. And it also isn’t a secret that she no longer thinks these kinds of groups are a fantastic idea. 

This is how she reflects on some of these experiences:

“The final Exodus conference took place exactly ten years after my first one. For the first half of my time in ex-gay ministry, I would say I was a true believer in the process. The second half was a long quest to escape. First, I tried to run away and then dragged myself back like a scared child returning to an abusive home. For the last couple of years, I fought for freedom for myself and my friends by trying to change the organization from within.

I was, at times, manipulated. At other points, complicit. And in the end, I was brave. It’s tempting to try to squeeze my years in conversion therapy into one of those categories. It would help me locate myself on the spectrum of good and evil. But life isn’t always that tidy. Many of us find ourselves, at various points, a victim, a villain, and a champion.

I’m learning to have compassion for my younger self―not just the sixteen-year-old who knew she had no good options but also the twenty-four-year-old who kept smiling for the cameras, despite her misgivings. This compassion for all the different versions of myself opens me up to have mercy on those I place squarely in the evil category today. Perhaps they’re also victims of a system they have not yet seen for what it truly is. It’s not too late for any of us to change” (p. 82).

I appreciated Rodgers’ resistance to a single narrative of this complicated time in her life. Sometimes manipulated, sometimes complicit, sometimes brave—this feels like it kind of sums up many well-intentioned people’s involvement in manipulative, controlling, and otherwise shitty systems. (Hopefully moving more toward the “brave” part as time goes on; and hopefully, as Rodgers eventually did, getting out when needed.)

Also, Rodgers is SO GRACIOUS. After everything she’s been through in the conservative evangelical world. Compassion for our younger selves, as well as compassion for people doing evil things today—which doesn’t excuse the evil things but does recognize the complicated humans behind them—these strike me as things to aspire to.

3. Rodgers writes, “I wanted someone to acknowledge how shitty it was for people to debate about LGBTQ people as if it were a sport” (p. 124). 

Right?? 

It’s easy to sit around and debate about things that don’t directly impact your life. But I guess I know—you know, mostly from sitting through far too many debates about women in ministry—that, when the thing being debated impacts your life (like, a lot), it’s not a sport. And nothing that impacts anyone else like that should be a sport either.

What is this, anyway—the idea that we can tear literal life-and-death questions out of their embodied context and toss them up in the air to be batted around for fun like beach balls? (I just thought of that metaphor, too. Must be on a roll. Like a beach ball? Sorry.) But really. Nothing good comes from pretending that there’s this purely intellectual realm that can be divorced from actual people’s actual lives.

4. Having heard a few “slippery slope” arguments in my day, I appreciate these reflections:

“The problem with the ‘slippery slope’ analogy is that it implies we’re at the top of the mountain. My friend Peter Choi, a historian and pastor, notes that the analogy assumes we have the truth, the moral high ground, and that any shift toward a different perspective is downward movement. The metaphor doesn’t leave much room for humility, where we consider the possibility that people with different perspectives might be right about some things and we might be wrong or that we might both be a little right, in different ways. I needed a framework that accounted for the ways we might be wrong, especially after bearing witness to the suffering queer people experienced in Christian communities” (p. 127).

When I interned with Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), I attended an FYI-hosted conference for megachurch leaders who wanted to do better in youth ministry. One of the speakers, a Fuller professor, stood up in front of all of them and said something like this: “Have you ever changed your mind? About anything, ever? If so, that means that you were wrong about something, at some point. Do you think it’s possible, then, that you might change your mind again in the future? And that this means that something you believe now is wrong?”

I could see the wheels turning and the minds in the room being blown. It was fascinating. And terrifying. To be fair, I didn’t know these Big and Important Megachurch Pastors personally, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into their nonverbal reactions to this professor’s words. But it really did feel like many of them were just considering for the first time that *gasp* they might currently be wrong about something. Yikes.

I like what Rodgers writes about considering the possibility that you and someone you disagree with might “both be a little right, in different ways.” It’s not always just that someone’s right and someone’s wrong (and we could be either of those people at any given moment!), but also that we all know some things, and we all have some things to learn from one another.

(Thus, community! Ideally, community with people who are different from us in a variety of ways.)

5. Rodgers reflects, “I was seen as one of a handful of unicorn gays who would parrot conservative views and shield them from accusations of homophobia. When Gabe [Lyons] introduced me to his circles and Wheaton hired me, I naively believed their hearts were softening toward the queer community and that they wanted to make room for us.

After nine months of roundtable discussions with Christian leaders, consultations with board members at Christian organizations, and meetings with administrators at Evangelical colleges, I was convinced their acceptance of people like me was a political strategy. Not only did gay people with conservative theology guard them against accusations of discrimination, but we also served as convenient mouthpieces. By inviting us into leadership roles, our presence allowed them to ignore the claims of the greater LGBTQ community that said Evangelical theology and institutional policies were harmful to queer people” (p. 160-161).

Well, there isn’t a lot of sugar-coating going on here. And it also rings absolutely true. 

Not to say that there aren’t evangelical hearts softening toward the queer community. I absolutely believe there are. I know there are, because I know some of these people whose hearts are softening or have been softened. And I also know because I have been one of them.

It’s a different story, though, for conservative leaders who just keep doubling down on their anti-gay stances—who keep ignoring and downplaying the suffering their views are causing, keep trying to discredit those who disagree, and keep trying to use conservative queer people as “convenient mouthpieces” to “guard them against accusations of discrimination.” This is all definitely (still) a thing.

There’s so much in this book. As usual, I’ve really only scratched the surface of it. I’m grateful for Rodgers’ bravery, insight, and thoughtfulness—and for the way she approaches her story with so much compassion toward others while also pulling zero punches about what happened and how she reflects on it now. Give it a read!

Super chill book review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Beth Allison Barr)

I wandered into an Amazon bookstore a couple months ago and saw Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth featured on the shelves. Which totally makes sense, because Barr’s work has been profiled in the likes of The New Yorker and NPR. But it also kind of surprised me, because the book is quite, well, Christian.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because the book has gotten so much mainstream—as in, not specifically Christian—attention, I thought it might be more of a secular historian’s take on women in church history and such.

But Barr, at least in my perspective, stands very firmly both within the church world and within the world of a professional historian. I think that’s awesome. And also a little complicated. 

I could see people who haven’t spent much time in conservative evangelical churches reading about “biblical womanhood” and thinking, wait…is this really a thing? Churches are—still—like this? 

Unfortunately, yes, (many) churches are—still—like this. And yes, this hypothetical reader would be absolutely right to be shocked and horrified. 

And then I could see people who have been quite steeped in the conservative church world thinking, wait…is it really okay to reexamine this? Isn’t male authority just what the Bible teaches? It’s what my church teaches… 

Sometimes you spend so much time around otherwise lovely people who operate from a certain mindset that this mindset starts to seem normal. Patriarchy should not be normal.

All this to say, I think Barr wrote a book that’s well-worth reading. 

Barr expresses regret that she stayed silent so long in her patriarchal church, going along with its practices and theology even though she knew these things were wrong. I’m so glad she’s speaking up now.

A few things that stood out in my totally-biased reading:

1. I appreciated Barr’s honesty in articulating the reasons she didn’t speak up more about gender equality in her (now former) church for a really long time.

For example: 

“I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it” (p. 5).

“I realized the hard truth about why I had stayed in complementarian churches for so long.

Because I was comfortable.

Because I really thought I could make a difference.

Because I feared my husband would lose his job.

Because I feared disrupting the lives of my children.

Because I loved the life of youth ministry.

Because I loved my friends.

So for the sake of the youth we served; for the sake of the difference my husband made in his job; for the sake of financial security; for the sake of our friends whom we had loved, laughed, and lived life with; and for the sake of our comfort, I chose to stay and to stay silent” (p. 7).

“Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life” (p. 69).

I feel like Barr hits lots of nails square on the head here. Beyond the particulars of her situation (like her husband being the youth pastor), there is so much here that I think a ton of women in evangelical churches can relate to.

There are the things we tell ourselves about the changes we might be able to bring about. (Often, not true—people in power are often less open to change than one might hope for…especially from leaders in a religion that, in theory, emphasizes humility and wonder before a God whom we only know in part. And sometimes, true—but at what cost to the people who stay and fight for these changes?)

There are the fears: job loss, loss of friendships, disruption of family life, the pain (or just inconvenience) our decisions might cause to those we love.

There are the rewards: comfort, trust, influence, leadership, respect, security.

Then there are the loves. Barr and her husband really loved youth ministry. They loved the youth at their church, and they loved a ton of people at their church in general. They loved their friends. Speaking up on controversial topics can jeopardize some of the things that give your life a sense of purpose and joy. That isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I appreciate Barr articulating all these things in a way that (hopefully) holds grace for the person she was and the reasons she had.

And, at the same time, she makes it very clear: “I had good reasons. But I was wrong” (p. 7). And, “By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women” (p. 6).

2. It was interesting to learn that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that (at least some) people who now call themselves “complementarians” were openly calling themselves proponents of patriarchy. 

Of course complementarianism is patriarchal. As Barr writes, “Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy” (p. 18). But so many complementarians argue so hard that women and men have equal value and worth—and that headship is a nice warm friendly fuzzy concept that’s really all about serving and laying down one’s life, and that sort of thing—that it was helpful to see the connection laid out so clearly. 

Complementarians, as a group—however nice they might be as people, and however well-intentioned, and I know plenty of nice, well-intentioned complementarians—have taken up the mantle of what was formerly known as patriarchy, calling it by a different name in order to sound, well, nicer and more well-intentioned.

3. I liked this quote, which sums up a lot of Barr’s biblical arguments:

“Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy” (36).

I think it’s helpful to think about the directions early Christianity was moving in—and especially the directions Jesus was moving in—relative to the surrounding culture. If that direction was toward freedom, honor, and equal status for women—and for others, like sexual minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status, and foreigners—then yikes if Christians are doing the exact opposite relative to our surrounding culture today.

4. Since I quoted Barr on the Bible, I feel like it’s worth saying that her strong suit is history. Which is not to say that her stuff on the Bible isn’t good too, but just that history is her academic discipline—you know, like, she has a Ph.D. in history and teaches it at a university level. Which is super badass.

Maybe this is just because I know more about the Bible and women than I know about women in church history, but for me, the biggest value Barr brings to the table is her deep knowledge of women’s history in Christianity. 

The medieval period and the Reformation stood out to me as especially strong points, as well as the “cult of domesticity” from the 1800s. If you’re interested in learning more about women in Christianity in those time periods, this book is totes for you. 

I wish I’d been able to dig more into some of this stuff in seminary. I took a course on Women in Church History & Theology, which was great, but only had some overlap with Barr’s work. I also wish more time was spent on historical women in general church history classes, such that there wasn’t as much need for a separate elective. 

On that note, Barr writes, “the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (84).

I’m bummed that we aren’t farther along in recovering these stories. But grateful for the work of people like Barr toward that goal.

5. I found it maddening, but also really helpful, to learn a little more about the origins of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible translation. According to Barr, the ESV was “a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God” (p. 132).

I kind of figured something like that was the case, but I hadn’t really looked into it directly. Sometimes I feel like I’m being unnecessarily divisive if I try to tell people that the ESV is (intentionally) not very friendly to women, and it might be better to try a more gender-inclusive translation like the NIV or NRSV. 

I never really wanted to be one of those people who had a favorite Bible translation and thought everyone else’s was inferior. That always struck me as something Jesus wouldn’t want to waste time on, when there are people to love, and so many injustices to address. 

And yet. Barr helped clarify for me that the ESV kind of is one of those injustices to address. And it’s probably worth speaking against, even if that’s uncomfortable to do. 

All in all, I think Barr does a great job of showing how the notion of “biblical womanhood” is a load of baloney. I’m here for it. 

Of course, I didn’t really need to be convinced of this. But at another time in my life—when I thought complementarianism was, if not what I personally believed, then at least a legitimate, good-faith, Bible-based way to see things—this book would have been so helpful. And, even though I’m thoroughly in the smash-the-patriarchy-with-the-mighty-nonviolent-fist-of-Jesus camp now, it was still fascinating to learn more of the relevant history from an awesome professor.

Hope you enjoyed this super chill review, and please don’t hesitate to holler with your thoughts!

Super chill book review: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Well, it seems that I took a *totally intentional* hiatus from blogging for most of August. But I’m back, woohoo, with super chill book reviews and more. (Hopefully, more = poems, scripture reflections, prayers, sermons. We’ll see.) 

For now, I’m excited to share some quotes and general brilliance from Ijeoma Oluo’s 2020 book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.

This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year. I’ll probably make a list of top recommendations at the end of 2021; I’m not sure what all will be on it, but I know this one will.  

I’m also a fan of Oluo’s 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race. For me, Mediocre takes the awesomeness a big step further. I’m here for it. 

Here are a few quotes and other tidbits from Mediocre that stood out to me.

1. The central idea of Mediocre, at least the way I see it, is that there are certain ways of being, certain qualities we admire and perhaps aspire to—or, if not admire, then at least recognize as things that tend to get people “ahead” in our society, land people in leadership positions, etc.—that are actually anything but desirable. These characteristics are far from healthy and good for individuals. And they’re far from conducive to the wellbeing of our society as a whole. 

This really resonated with me. I feel like I’ve seen it and felt it, in everything from politics on a national level to people who have been influential in my circles more personally. 

Oluo does a great job of pinpointing what some of these qualities are, and why they’re counterproductive. I appreciate how she ties these qualities to both patriarchy and white supremacy—or, as Oluo puts it, to “white male supremacy.” I think this is a useful term, because it helps us see that everything is interconnected. Misogyny and racism are so deeply intertwined. And we need to recognize this, if we want to have any hope of untangling and detoxing from…everything.

Some memorable quotes, to this end:

While we would like to believe otherwise, it is usually not the cream that rises to the top: our society rewards behaviors that are actually disadvantageous to everyone. Studies have shown that the traits long considered signs of strong leadership (like overconfidence and aggression) are in reality disastrous in both business and politics—not to mention the personal toll this style of leadership takes on the individuals around these leaders. These traits are broadly considered to be masculine, whereas characteristics often associated with weakness or lack of leadership (patience, accommodation, cooperation) are coded as feminine. This is a global phenomenon of counterproductive values that social scientists have long marveled over.

The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with.

And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes (p. 10).

No lies detected there.

As I looked back through our history, I started to see patterns. I started to see how time and again, anything perceived as a threat to white manhood has been attacked, no matter how necessary that new person or idea may have been to our national progress. I started to see how reliably the bullying and entitlement we valued in our leaders led to failure. These are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated (p. 12).

I feel that. Most people don’t want their kids, or the people they love in general, to be “incompetent assholes” who operate in ways marked by “bullying and entitlement.” But I totally agree that these traits are rewarded—you know, if you’re into things like promotions, fancy job titles, high salaries, success in your field, and the like.

The hard truth is, the characteristics that most companies, including boards, shareholders, managers, and employees, correlate with people who are viewed as ‘leadership material’—traits most often associated with white male leaders—are actually bad for business. The aggression and overconfidence that are seen as ‘strength and leadership’ can cause leaders to take their companies down treacherous paths, and the attendant encounters with disaster could be avoided by exercising caution or by accepting input from others. These same qualities also mask shortfalls in skills, knowledge, or experience and may keep leaders from acknowledging mistakes and changing course when needed. They prevent healthy business partnerships and collaborative work environments. These traits can and do spell disaster for many businesses (p. 182).

Oluo backs these kinds of statements up with all sorts of insights from history and present-day experiences throughout the book. I appreciate that. It’s definitely worth a read.

They’re also statements that, to me at least, just feel true. I realize that this feeling is subjective, and we aren’t always right about these things. (Brett Kavanaugh’s nonsense about judging the “truthiness” of his claims vs Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims during his confirmation hearings back in 2018 comes to mind, and it still makes my blood boil.) But still. I think many of us have felt what Oluo is saying and have experienced it viscerally. If nothing else, we’re still reeling from the extreme example we saw in our four years of Trump.

Oluo puts words so well to what I think many of us—especially those on the underside of power structures—know in our gut.

2. Oluo brings out the idea that a lot of the things that seem so wrong (and are so wrong) with the U.S. are actually, as others have put it, features, not bugs. A lot of the things that seem shocking, like they should be unusual, are actually just evidence of a shitty system working as designed.

Oluo writes: 

What we are seeing in our political climate is not novel or unexplainable. It works according to design. Yes, of course the average white man is going to feel dissatisfied with his lot in life—he was supposed to. Yes, of course our powerful and respected men would be shown to be abusers and frauds—that is how they became powerful and respected. And yes, the average white male voter (and a majority of white women voters whose best chance at power is their proximity to white men) would see a lewd, spoiled, incompetent, untalented bully as someone who best represents their vision of America—he does (pp. 11-12).

This might sound harsh. But it also sounds about right to me.

I’m hoping we can move, together, beyond the “this is not the America I know!” reaction to various bad things the U.S. and its politicians do. I’m hoping we can move toward a realization that, downer though it may be, this is exactly the America that lots and lots of people on the margins have always known. 

We need to be able to see the way things were designed, and not be in denial about it, if we’re actually going to change anything.

3. Another memorable quote: 

Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck. It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo. It may not stop until it has destroyed everything (p. 45).

First, omg, the story Oluo tells about the buffalo. It turns out that white men going West to kill buffalo back in the day wasn’t just a dumb, violent-toward-animals, shortsighted, hypermasculinist thing. It was also—primarily—the government’s attempt to destroy indigenous peoples whose lives were interwoven with the buffalo herds. That got me in all the feels. Lord, have mercy.

Second, I may not be a white dude, but I think part of me has internalized the competitive, go-it-alone mindset, where “cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy.” Yikes. 

I want to learn to be my best self in a way that helps others be their best selves too. I want to recognize and live out of the reality that we really are stronger together. The point is not to be better than others, but to figure out how to live in whole, healthy communities together. 

I’m not always there. No matter how many times I might say these things, and how deeply I believe them, there’s still something in me that wants to compete. (In an individualistic, unhealthy way, that is—not just, say, in a swim meet, or a 5k. Speaking of which, Burien Brat Trot, anyone?)

4. Sorry for the long quote. But not really sorry, because it’s a good one:

The idea that women were not made for work is only true to the extent that men have ensured that work was not made for women. Men have designed offices that don’t suit women’s needs, have established work hours that compete with child-rearing, have developed education and training programs that regularly discourage women’s aspirations in male-dominated fields, have formed mentoring and networking relationships on golf courses and in clubs, places where women are not welcome or comfortable—or sometimes even allowed.

Men have used these deliberately structured environments to prove why women are naturally ‘not a fit’ for the workplace. Nursing mothers who cannot work in spaces that don’t accommodate breast pumps are ‘obviously not that interested in the job.’ Women who need flexible hours to care for children, in a society that still expects women to do the majority of child-rearing regardless of employment status, ‘lack the work ethic necessary to put in the hours needed for the job.’ Women who have always loved math but were told from primary school on that they would be better at English and art than science and engineering ‘must not be interested in STEM.’ And men who make all their business connections at the country club or through their old fraternity buddies ‘just haven’t come across any women who are as qualified for a job at their company as men.’

As promotion after promotion goes to men, as men are encouraged to start businesses and women aren’t, as men flow into fields that are more open to them, the definition of an ideal worker and leader becomes even more stereotypically male—even if those ‘ideal’ traits and skills are not the most beneficial (pp. 153-4).

Yeah, that feels right. Not sure I have much to add. Maybe just that I really appreciate the intersectionality of Oluo’s analyses in general. I feel like she really gets at the realities of race and gender each in their own right, very effectively—sometimes focusing on gender, like in the quote above, and sometimes on race. And she’s also very effective in getting at the connections between them. 

5. I think Oluo has a lot of grace and empathy for white dudes, and I appreciate that. They’re not all bad—but they are stuck, as all of us are, in a toxic white male supremacist system.

To me, Oluo strikes a great balance of sympathizing with the situation white men are in—and the ways our society is toxic to them, too—while also not letting them off the hook for the things they are responsible for.

Another long but good quote (again, sorry / not sorry):

White male identity is a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy, successful, and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition…

I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want it for any of us…We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better.

I do not believe that these white men are born wanting to dominate. I do not believe they are born unable to feel empathy for people who are not them…I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.

The constraints of white male identity in America have locked white men into cycles of fear and violence—where the only success they are allowed comes at the expense of others, and the only feelings they are allowed to express are triumph or rage. When white men try to break free from these cycles, they are ostracized by society at large or find themselves victims of other white men who are willing to fulfill their expected roles of dominance…

We need to do more than just break free of the oppression of white men. We also have to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others. We have to value the empathy, kindness, and cooperation that white men, as human beings, are capable of. We have to define strength and leadership in ways that don’t reinforce abusive patriarchy and white supremacy. We have to be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men (pp. 273-5).

Curious to hear white dudes’ (or anyone’s) thoughts on this. I like the sentiment of wanting better for all of us, including white men. White guys aren’t the devil. They just tend to be socialized to play a particular role in an evil construct; and, to the extent that they refuse to play that role, they’re often penalized for it. That makes sense to me. 

Grateful for Oluo’s leadership in naming all these things and imagining a different way. 

Holler if you read the book (or not) and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

When I was at Stanford, there was a beloved dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising named Julie Lythcott-Haims, affectionately known as “Dean Julie.” I didn’t really interact with her personally—I mostly just remember her leading us all in a chant of “oh-ten!” to show our enthusiasm for being part of the great class of 2010—but we’re Facebook friends, and I always appreciate her posts on all sorts of things.

It must have been through Facebook that I knew that, maybe a couple of years after I graduated, Dean Julie left her position at Stanford, went and got an MFA, and made a go for it as a writer. 

Her first book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, published in 2016, seems to have been quite successful. The book struck me as a good idea, but I guess it didn’t really fit with my personal interests enough to read it, you know, since I’m not a parent and all. Maybe I’ll read it someday, if it becomes more relevant to my interests :p. 

I just recently got around to reading (former) Dean Julie’s second book, Real American: A Memoir, published in 2017. It’s fantastic. 

I think that when you know an author personally (or sort of know them, or have some connection with them), it can be hard to tell—am I just into this book because I feel connected with the author and so I’m interested in their life and thoughts? Or would I want to read this even if I had no context for who this person is? 

With Real American, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. But I’m also curious to hear your thoughts, if you read it and didn’t know the author as “Dean Julie” from Stanford back in the day.

Real American is Julie’s memoir of growing up biracial in America, with a Black father and a white mother, raised largely in mostly-white suburbs. 

As usual, a few random thoughts:

1. I think this book brought home for me just how recently race relations in the U.S. have changed dramatically. (Which is not at all to say that in some ways they haven’t really changed at all, or that they don’t need to change, like, a ton more.) 

Julie is about twenty years older than me. When her Black father and white mother married, as Julie writes, “miscegenation” (also known as interracial marriage) was still illegal in 17 states. So I guess it makes sense—but was also mind-blowing to me, because I hadn’t thought about it—that, as she writes, the terms “biracial” and “multiracial” were just starting to become a thing when she was in college. 

I’m glad we now have this language to describe (lots and lots of) people’s experiences. And I’m also chewing on the fact that these words didn’t exist until maybe the late 1980s.

2. I feel like one of the key themes of this book is the idea of belonging. Or the lack thereof. Or how one might find a sense of belonging, and how long that sometimes takes. 

It reminded me of Brené Brown’s work, where she says that true belonging is different from fitting in. Real belonging is kind of the opposite of giving in to pressure to conform. We might associate these two things, but really, belonging requires being loved and accepted for who we actually are, not for an image of ourselves that we’re trying to present because we feel like we have to. (I think this was in Braving the Wilderness. And/or Daring Greatly.)

I appreciated Julie’s vulnerability about her own journey toward finding a sense of belonging. It strikes me as both universal enough to be relatable—don’t we all struggle with things like belonging and vulnerability? That’s why Brené Brown makes the big bucks—and yet also very specific to Julie’s biracial experience. I felt like I could relate, in some ways, while also recognizing that being racialized as nonwhite in the U.S. adds a whole additional layer of complexity to everything, as does being biracial or multiracial.

3. I liked Julie’s reflections on her experience of a college class called The American Dream, taught by John Manley:

“Manley’s class was a mirror that showed me things about myself I hadn’t seen before. I’d known race and racism and America’s preference for whites and whiteness erected a wall between me and whites demarcating white as normal and me as other. But the wall between me and Blacks was there too, though harder to put my hands on or see. Manley’s class forced me to see that the higher socioeconomic class that comes with professional success—the access to the good schools, the access to homes in white towns that can come with such status—

if one so chooses—

is a form of passing out of otherness out of darkness into lightness into whiteness.

I did not choose it. No one asked. But there’s no question these choices lifted me. And if asked, I’d have said yes lift me with these opportunities. Just maybe not this far.

As loathsome as it was to learn that the engine of the American Dream itself—capitalism—was the invisible hand guiding me away from a people, a community, a tradition, at least now I understood the source of much of my dislocation and unbelonging. That being upper middle class had given me more in common with upper-middle-class whites than with middle-class or working-class or poor Blacks. I graduated from college knowing I was not some freak of nature but an easily predicted data point in our macroeconomic system” (p. 116).

All of this is so complicated—the interplay between money, and race, and where people live, and who we live near, and professional success, and education, and color, and capitalism. I appreciate Julie’s thoughtful and honest reflections on these intersections and how she experienced them as a young person. 

4. Speaking of feeling disconnected with Blackness and Black community, Julie writes about how she went to one event at Ujamaa—Stanford’s African / African American focus dorm—and then pretty much stayed away for the rest of her time as a student at Stanford. 

I lived in Ujamaa, sophomore year. I remember being very aware that Ujamaa was not just a dorm made up of about half Black students and half non-Black students, but also, as Julie writes, a hub of Black community on campus. 

People used to joke about living in “C” wing. The dorm only had an “A” wing and a “B” wing, so “C” wing people were those who were there all the time even though they lived elsewhere.

When I lived in Ujamaa, it kind of felt like I got to know, or at least recognize, most of the Black students on campus. (That’s probably not actually true, it’s just how it felt.) I hadn’t really thought about Black students (including multiracial students) like Julie who didn’t feel like Ujamaa was a comfortable home for them, and who intentionally stayed far away.

I felt sad (in a totally sympathetic way) to hear that that was her experience, and also a little oblivious for not thinking about it, and also just intrigued to hear a different perspective on Ujamaa. 

5. It was interesting to hear about some of the changes Julie advocated for while she was dean—for example, trying to make sure the books assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen were as accessible as possible to as many students as possible, recognizing that some students had access to much more rigorous high school academic programs than others. I feel like Julie’s presence in the meetings of Stanford-y higher-ups likely had a huge positive impact on my Stanford experience, and the experiences of many others too, in so many ways, and I only know a tiny bit of it.

I was interested in Julie’s story from the perspective of what it looks like to push for change, and how people respond to that, and how to navigate the pushback and retaliation that you tend to get for it.


All in all, lots of great writing here, lots of interesting stories and reflections, and lots to think about that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. Holler if you read Real American, and tell me what you think!

Super chill book review: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Willie Jennings)

I kind of want to say that this one’s for the nerds out there. But I’m also kind of against the anti-intellectualism that words like “nerd” might carry. 

So…this one’s for anyone interested in thinking about seminaries and other institutions of higher education. Or, really, anyone interested in thinking about any sorts of institutions with roots in colonialist ways of thinking about things. Which is, like, lots and lots of institutions.

The book is After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, written by theologian Willie James Jennings, published in 2020. I didn’t really know what to expect when I checked it out from the library—I just think Willie Jennings is brilliant, so I figured I’d (make an exception to the mostly-women-authors rule and) check out his new-ish book. 

After Whiteness isn’t quite as dense as the other book by Jennings that I’ve read, or attempted to read—that would be The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race—but it’s still not at all easy reading. And, while a lot of it could be applied to all sorts of schools and other organizations, it is also very seminary-focused. So it might be most of interest to people who’ve attended seminary or otherwise have some sort of connection to the seminary world. (If you read it and don’t have that connection, I’d be extra curious to hear what you think!)

Here are a few things that stood out to me:

1). I recently became an elder at my church (woohoo!). This was one of the questions the four of us new elders were asked to answer at our ordination service last Sunday:

“As an elder, will you work to tell the whole story of the Church – its redemptive acts AND also the Church’s complicity in violent oppression, injustice, genocide, slavery and other acts of terror committed against God’s beloved children? And will you lead the Church in repentance of these things?”

I love that this question was included. I feel like it should be top priority in these interesting times we find ourselves in—in general, and in Christian communities in particular. I’m all about telling the whole story of the church. And I feel like Jennings is a leading voice as we all figure out together how to do that.

This is one of the things at the heart of Jennings’ book, I think: telling the whole story of how Christian churches and seminaries have been formed in a colonialist, white supremacist, patriarchal mindset, and how this is killing us. The only way to life is complete repentance, complete overhaul of so many toxic ways of thinking and being. 

2). Jennings writes, “The modern world formed in the bricolage of native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe, and together they formed the cultural baroque, something new and unanticipated. Yet this reality of shared agency and shared creativity was occluded by a white aesthetic regime that refused to share the world of meaning and purpose with those outside the old world of Europe or the colonial West as well as their colonialized subjects.

“Theological education in the West gloried in this refusal, and took as its task forming people who would embody this white aesthetic regime as fundamental to performing a gospel logic and a Christian identity. Western education is designed within a forced affection, shaped to take all of us on a journey of culture additionadd to the great European masters other thinkers who are not white or male but who approximate them, add to the great European artists other artists who are also great like they are, add to the eternal wisdom and universal insights of Europe the wisdom of other peoples that resemble them. Add these nonwhite others as embroidery to frame a picture, or spices to season a dish” (p. 64).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about the possibilities that were present when “native worlds collided and collaborated with the old world of Europe”the possibilities of cultures mixing, learning from one another as equals, collaborating together to build something good. All of these possibilities that were curtailed by Europeans’ colonialism. 

We still see the effects of this way of thinkingwhere European stuff is the cultural standard of awesomeness, and non-white artists, thinkers, etc. can sometimes be added to the canon if they sound enough like those already in itin all sorts of places. It reminds me of my seminary reading lists, so full of white dudes, with the occasional (white) woman and/or person (read: man) of color (rarely a woman of color, yikes) thrown in for good measure (like “spices to season a dish”). 

It also reminds me of the time a fellow student pointed out that part of the reason why there weren’t more theologians of color on our syllabi was because a lot of them weren’t saying the things our (mostly white male) professors wanted them to say. Double yikes. Sure, we’ll include your voice…as long as you don’t disagree with us or challenge us in any significant way.

3). I appreciated Jennings’ thoughts about thinking and feelingabout the “affective reality of Western institutional life” (p. 93).

He writes, “There remains a legion of scholars and administrators who continue to hold a dualism of thought and feeling. The educational space in their way of thinking is a space of thinking, not feeling. Too many scholars believe in rigorous thinking and banished feelings, and they teach students that a thinking subject wars with a feeling subject…

“But institutions feel just as institutions think. To discern institutional thinking is also to explore institutional feeling. More specifically, it is to invite those who inhabit an institution to sense its comfort, its joy, and its energy aimed in a direction, even if it is the wrong direction” (p. 93).

Yes, get rid of that thinking/feeling dualism. It isn’t serving us well. (Does that mean we get rid of the Myers-Briggs personality test too? That’s probably fine…) 

The thought of theological scholars and seminary administrators who think that they should think and not feel is kind of terrifying. But also explains a lot. And then what kind of pastors and church leaders are they forming?

Among other things, this kind of thinking/feeling dualism generally tends to suck for women, who get painted as the “feelers.” Which leads to being devalued in a society that overvalues thinking and undervalues feeling. And gives men a pass on all sorts of things like sensitivity and social concern and community-mindedness, things we all (not just half of us, and the half who tends not to be in power) desperately need.

4). I feel like more and more of the books I’m reading these days mix in some poems and such, and I’m super into it. The first time I saw that, I was like, whoa, you can do that? Apparently, you can. And now it feels like all the cool kids are doing it. It’s great.

I really liked some of Jennings’ poems and poem-like writing that he mixes in throughout this book. Maybe especially because his academic stuff can be so dense and, well, academic, I enjoyed feeling like I got a window into a different (but very much related) side of his (very large) brain. (I know brain size doesn’t actually correlate to intelligence, but that’s still how I picture it.)

I guess it’s also a way in which Jennings is living out his own words about breaking down the dualism between thinking and feeling. If more academic-style discourse tends to operate primarily in the realm of thinking, and if poems tend to operate primarily in the realm of emotion, blending them into one book helps bring the two back together, as they belong.

5). This is one of the poems that I especially liked: 

Could self-sufficiency
be redeemed?
But who would want
such a thing?
Certainly not one who asked
Mary for life, or one
who needed friends along
the way of discipleship, or
one who called on an Abba-God, or
one who fell onto God’s Spirit
like a limp body
in need of support just to
face the morning sun
or one who said, ‘This is my body and my blood,
eat me
because you need me in you.’
Certainly not one who on a cross
killed the illusion of
self-sufficiency” (p. 106).

Throughout the book Jennings critiques the idea of a “self-sufficient man”or of “white self-sufficient masculinity” (p. 8)which is often what seminary education (whether intentionally or not) aims to form. And which is a problem…for lots of reasons that Jennings goes into over the course of the book. One of the reasons being that it’s not at all Jesus-like.

6). Jennings writes about communalist societies (pre-colonization) and how they “were not utopias, nor were they immutable, but they were powerful ways of thinking the one in the many and the many in the one” (p. 144). 

In contrast, “the goal of the colonialist—whether trader, explorer, missionary, merchant, or soldier—was to reduce the many to the one as a point of negotiation, management, conversion, and profit. The goal manifested in every colonial site was to move people slowly but clearly from any kind of group thinking about their wants and needs to thinking like an individual who could enter into exchange over goods and services guided by a rationalist freed from communal obligation except at the level of volition. Such people would form connection through capital and perform a relationality woven first and foremost in utility and aiming at profit. Exchange networks need not be personal, need not be communal, need not be storied, need not suggest long-term obligation or relationship, need not even require names or identities. They only require items and money, that is, commodities” (p. 144).

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the root of all our problems. 

And then Jennings completes the gut-punch (but a really important and much-needed one) with this poem:

1698, in a port city on the west coast of Africa,
near what is now Ghana,
the following conversation took place:
African I: What’s your name?
African II: You don’t need to know my name.
The earth starts shaking.
African I: What are you selling?
African II: This ox.
African I: Where did it come from?
African II: You don’t need to know that.
The birds start crying not singing.
African I: How much do you want for it?
African II: I want guns and alcohol.
African I: I have that.
Many plants and trees collapse to the ground.
African II: Let’s do business.
Two hands touch in agreement.
The world feels ruin.” (pp. 144-5)

I’ll be ruminating on this one for a while. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed these tidbits from Jennings’ thinking—especially if you don’t end up reading the book, which, as I mentioned, is kind of seminary-centered and probably not for everyone. 

As usual, holler with your thoughts about any of this!

Super chill book review: You Are Your Best Thing (ed. Tarana Burke and Brene Brown)

In the last year or so I’ve read four of Brené Brown’s (many) books, and I’m a fan. She has great stuff to say. So much of it. I really think that she has changed (and continues to change) the conversation around things like empathy, shame, vulnerability, connection, and belonging. 

At the same time, as long-time Black activist (and casual creator of the Me Too movement) Tarana Burke discusses with Brown in the introduction to their new book You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, Brown lives a very white, upper-middle class life in Texas, and you can tell. If I remember correctly from some of the stories in Brown’s books, she didn’t necessarily come from money. But she definitely has it now. And no matter how intentional she is about interviewing a diversity of people for her research—and she is very intentional—she also loves to use personal examples and stories, and lots of them. I’m all here for Brown’s stories, while also recognizing that, because of these stories, as Burke points out, Brown’s books tend to skew toward speaking more (and more effectively) to fellow white upper-middle class people.

All that to say, this new book, You Are Your Best Thing, feels much needed. And I enjoyed it, too. It’s an anthology, edited by Burke and Brown together, with chapters written by many different Black writers who work in many different fields, reflecting on what they know about some of the stuff Brown has written on: shame, shame resilience, and vulnerability. 

Here are a few random thoughts:

1. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given the subtitle (Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience), but vulnerability is a key word that comes to mind when I think about this book. Vulnerability, and embodiment. The contributing authors do an amazing job of keeping these things front and center—of thinking and reflecting deeply, and bringing in data and research where relevant, but also never straying far from the reality of how these things show up in their own real-life experience. 

It’s just as Tanya Denise Fields writes in her chapter, Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame: when Fields began to publicly and loudly “rebuke shame…then my sisters came out of the shadows, empowered and vulnerable, sharing narratives of violence, hurt, and the shame that was always right there, not really below the surface but subconsciously always moving the hand that led our lives. I was in turn empowered, and I found a powerful voice I didn’t realize was there. I saw my reflection, what we were and what we could be” (p. 28). 

I feel like that’s the heart of this book. To put words to some of the realities Black people often face when it comes to shame and such, and to help people feel seen—more seen than they’ve felt thus far in Brown’s work, as lovely as her books are in many ways. To tell stories that empower people, and that broaden the scope of this important work beyond the experiences Brown has been able to speak to as a white woman.

I felt like this stayed the focus, and that’s how it should be. I realize this book isn’t primarily written for me, as a white person, and I think that’s a good thing. At the same time, I also feel like I benefited from reading it. I think it has the potential to build understanding and empathy among non-Black people. And I’m thankful for that—for the chance to sit in on and listen to a conversation that isn’t about me and isn’t primarily for me, but one that I’m still interested in and still benefit from hearing. 

2. The subtitle made me a little nervous at first; specifically, the part about “the Black experience.” Is there really just one “Black experience”? (Of course not.) 

So, I was glad to find that the contributing authors come from all sorts of different backgrounds and identities within the wide realm of Blackness, and that they were empowered to write about their own, very personal, experiences. It was good to hear, for example, from women and men, trans people and nonbinary people, younger people and older people, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

If you’re Black, I’d be interested to hear whether or not you agree with this, or what I might be missing; but to me, it felt like, through all of the authors together, the book painted a really rich and nuanced picture of some of the common struggles Black people tend to encounter when it comes to shame and vulnerability, while also making room for SO MUCH DIVERSITY within Black experiences. I thought that was really good.

In her work, Brown writes a lot about gendered shame, and that’s been helpful for me. I often agree with (and deeply feel) her assessments of the different forms shame can take for men and women. And I think that’s important—not because all women are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of gender. 

I feel like this book works on similar lines when it comes to race. Burke and the other contributing authors flesh out the idea of racialized shame, and this is important—not because all Black people are the same, but because there are ways things like shame and vulnerability tend to operate that are profoundly connected with our experience of race and racialization. 

3. At the risk of centering white people too much when writing about a book that’s written by and for Black people, I guess I still want to say that, as a Brené Brown fan, it was cool to see her using her (quite extraordinary, for a social sciences researcher) fame and influence to open doors for Black voices to be heard. 

At my church, Lake B, we’ve been talking recently about gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of those things that can sound pretty negative, and is often used in a negative way, but that can also (in some cases) be transformed and redeemed into something really cool. It’s worth thinking carefully about any or all gates we might have access to or influence over, and worth moving intentionally toward operating these gates in a way that promotes equity and justice. 

There are lots of gates that just shouldn’t be there, and lots of gatekeepers that should rebel and step down. And yet, until we get there, there are still gates, and there are still gatekeepers; given that reality, it’s great to see influential gatekeepers using their power well.

4. On the scale of loaded-with-academic mumbo-jumbo to accessible-and-easy-to-read, I found this book delightfully accessible. Which is not at all to say that the authors who contributed to it aren’t brilliant and highly knowledgeable, so much as to say that I think they’re also really good writers, and I appreciate that. 

My husband Ken read some of this book and said it was slow going for him. At first I thought, really? I’m loving that the chapters are easy to read and don’t get too caught up in academic lingo. Then I realized that he wasn’t talking about writing style so much as the emotional intensity. He was taking time to chew on the feelings, the pain, the weight of it all. Which is something I probably should have been doing more of!

All that to say, maybe this book isn’t necessarily a quick read, but I do think the style is more accessible and less dense than a lot of nonfiction out there, and I liked that. 

5. Since I’ve been mostly focusing on reading stuff by women (with no regrets at all!), it was good for me to read from the Black men who contributed to this book. I was struck by the ways many of them reflected on our society’s toxic ideas about gender, gender roles, and masculinity, and how all this has impacted them. 

It’s helpful for me to be reminded that this nonsense is bad for everyone, not just women. I appreciate these men’s bravery and sensitivity in writing on these things.

6. Like many other anthologies (including This Bridge Called My Back), You Are Your Best Thing is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking for other good stuff to read. Besides the editors (and Laverne Cox), I hadn’t heard of many of the contributing authors before reading this book. But most of them have written and are writing other things, and hosting podcasts, and doing all sorts of interesting stuff. I’m grateful to now know who they are, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

7. I appreciated the diversity of spirituality represented in this book. I feel like sometimes people who aren’t specifically trying to write for a religious audience tend to either ignore religion entirely or only have bad things to say about it. (Not that these bad things aren’t usually true or fair…) 

But, whatever you think of religion, and whether or not you want to participate in it, it’s hard to deny that it has a ginormous (in technical terms) influence in our U.S. society and in our world. Even if it isn’t real to a particular author, it’s very, very real, for lots and lots of people. So I appreciated that this book didn’t try to cut off the religious and/or spiritual realm from the rest of our lives.

In this vein, and because I think about church a lot, I especially liked Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ chapter, Love Lifted Me: Subverting Shame Narratives and Legitimizing Vulnerability as a Mechanism for Healing Women in the Black Church. I don’t think it’s really my place as a white person to critique the Black church, but I did appreciate getting to listen in on Lewis-Giggetts’ experiences and reflections. And so much of her analysis applies to the American evangelical church as a whole—so I could relate to that, and that’s something I don’t mind critiquing :). 

Here’s one excerpt I liked, from Lewis-Giggetts’ essay:

“A long way from the teaching of Jesus, the Christian church too often uses shame as a tool for control and manipulation, but even when we think it’s working, it’s not. In fact, what’s actually happening is that folks who have been shamed by the church have become disenchanted with the faith; what should be safe and holy communities only look like rigid and loveless institutions. American evangelical churches, in particular, cling to law and government as tightly as their interpretations of the Bible, but don’t seem to realize that the Jesus they claim as Savior would have likely broken those laws in order to extend love, peace, and wholeness to those identified as the ‘least of these’ (the marginalized)” (pp. 60-1). 

Amen to that. I wish I could quote most of this essay, really, but I don’t want to keep you forever. 

I hope you get the chance to read Lewis-Giggetts’ essay, as well as the rest of the book. If you do, come back and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: Just Us: An American Conversation (Claudia Rankine)

Apparently Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book (or, more precisely, book-length poem, although a lot of it is fairly prose-y) Citizen: An American Lyric is pretty well-known, at least in some circles, but I hadn’t heard of it until recently. When I went to check it out from the library, I saw that Rankine also wrote a more recent book, published in 2020, called Just Us: An American Conversation. I checked that one out too and ended up reading most of it on the airplane this last weekend.

Here’s a random set of thoughts about Just Us. I really liked it. (I guess I haven’t blogged yet about any books I haven’t liked. I’m sure we’ll get there someday.)

1. If Citizen is a kind of prose-y poem, then Just Us is a kind of poem-y bunch of prose. I appreciated Rankine’s often poem-like writing, in its attention to detail, and its attention to sound and rhythm. She has kind of a cool style. It’s pretty easy to read, too, which I appreciated. Especially on an airplane.

It was also kind of funny reading it on the plane because a lot of her stories happen in or around airports and airplanes. I guess it’s one of those places where you find yourself in close proximity with a lot of strangers. 

Rankine travels first class a lot, and so she finds herself, in that space, often bumping up against white people’s expectations around race, and class, and who does or doesn’t travel in a particular way. It made me look around at the first class section on the planes I was on and contemplate the whiteness of it all, which I hadn’t really thought about before—you know, because I’m white. 

(And because normally I don’t spend much time looking around at people in the first-class section, because I think it’s gross that they paid so much for their seats. I know people’s work often pays for it, and I probably shouldn’t judge, regardless. But it’s hard not to.)

I don’t travel first class, but if I did, I don’t think I’d have to worry about people ignoring me, or cutting in front of me in line, or generally assuming I don’t belong there. Rankine, as a Black woman, encounters all of these things regularly.

2. Throughout Just Us, Rankine includes lots of “fact check” and “notes and sources” sections on the left side of the page, referencing statements she makes in her writing on the right side of the page. 

It’s kind of cool, as a reader, because you can choose to read more about any particular statements that interest you, or any details you hadn’t heard before or aren’t sure about. And you can skim or skip these sections for statements you’re already familiar with or don’t need to be convinced of. It lets Rankine offer a lot more detail where she wants to, without interrupting the flow of her stories and her writing.

I wonder if Rankine feels a need to include these “fact check” sections, more so than a white man would in her place. I wonder if she got so sick of her students (she teaches poetry at Yale) questioning everything she says, that she decided to preempt some of that doubt by including “fact checks” throughout her book. 

Maybe sometimes even being an actual genius—that is, more precisely, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as a ton of other very prestigious-sounding awards—doesn’t protect you from these things.

3. It took me a minute to realize that this is a book about whiteness / white supremacy in particular, not a book about race in general. Maybe as a white person I just tend to expect stuff to be about me, so I didn’t really notice for a while that all the examples and stories were about white people and whiteness, and about Rankine’s reactions to these people and their words and actions?

I think this kind of candid reflection on whiteness is really important. Rankine reflects deeply on so many different kinds of everyday situations in which whiteness rears its head, even if many of us, and especially white people, might be blind to it. 

It’s helpful, too, that the book is from 2020, such that Rankine’s reflections feel very current in a world (and a country) that is changing quite rapidly in some ways even as it remains all too stagnant in others. Because it’s a pretty recent book, we get to hear Rankine’s thoughts on things like Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade, the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, white supremacy in the era of president Trump, and, just in general, all sorts of facts and figures from the last couple of years. 

4. I think Rankine is a brave woman. A lot of her stories involve her speaking up to disrupt something racially toxic that’s going on around her. I know this is not an easy thing, and it can be even a dangerous one. I appreciate her courage, even as I wish things were such that she did not need it.

This book helped draw out, for me, the tug-of-war between my interests in niceness, politeness, and social smoothness, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, my interest in justice and equity (along lines of race, gender, and more). 

I feel like Rankine is a role model of what it could look like to stick out one’s neck a little more than I am often willing—perhaps asking pointed questions that invite people to think twice about what they’ve said, or pointing out racist implications that others might not see or want to acknowledge.

5. Did you know that “critical whiteness studies” was a thing in a lot of universities back in the 80s? I didn’t. 

Apparently, after white people overwhelmingly supported Reagan for president, people got interested in understanding how that could have happened and why that was the case. And so we got a whole area of study, “aim[ing] to make visible a history of whiteness that through its association with ‘normalcy’ and ‘universality’ masked its omnipresent institutional power” (p. 17). 

Sound familiar? Like, from all the analysis we’ve been doing and questions we’ve been asking since the 2016 election? I continue to be mind-blown by all the ways in which a lot of Trump-y stuff is really not new at all, even though it certainly felt that way to me in 2016.

6. As a white woman, I appreciated hearing Rankine’s reflections on some of the things her white female friends have said and done. She even includes in her book some extended reflections they’ve written to her when asked. 

I liked this because I feel like Rankine’s white female friends that she writes about are often both really thoughtful and also really blind. I appreciated that they didn’t feel like caricatures, or like obviously bad examples of white supremacist ways of thinking. It was more subtle and nuanced than that. 

If Rankine is friends with these white women, they’re probably well-intentioned people who aren’t openly, outwardly racist on a regular basis. They were people I could kind of see myself in, at least at some points, and because of that, it was interesting and helpful for me to hear Rankine’s thoughts on where her white friends got it really right, and what they were missing.

Curious to hear if you’ve heard of and/or read this book, and what you think!

Super chill book review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

After most recently writing about a couple of old-school(-ish) books, it feels like a good time to come back to the present. Kaitlin B. Curtice is my age, and her very-much-worth-reading book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God was published in 2020. 

I found Curtice’s reflections on grappling with Christian faith as a young woman of both Indigenous (Potawatomi) and European descent fascinating. I think this is the kind of thing we really need—we, meaning all sorts of people who identify in some way with Christianity or have it as a part of our histories―in order to deconstruct the things that need to be deconstructed and figure out how to move forward together.

Below are a few things that stood out to me. They’re mostly critiques of (white) American evangelical Christianity―which is not at all the only thing the book is about, but I guess these parts stood out to me because they’re things I think about a lot. I’m grateful for leaders like Curtice who can help guide us in a better direction. Some thoughts:

1. As someone who was once pretty excited about Christian evangelism, I appreciate Curtice’s critiques of some of the ways evangelism is often done―or, maybe more precisely, of the mindsets that are often behind it.

Curtice asks, “What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations? If Christianity is able to de-center itself enough to see that the imprint of Sacred Mystery already belongs all over the earth, to all peoples, it would change the way we treat our human and nonhuman kin” (p. 50).

The screaming part reminds me of a middle school youth group service trip I went on, to Spokane, WA, the summer before eighth grade. It was kind of a life-changing trip, in the sense that I experienced a powerful sense of community, belonging, and unconditional love there, with all those weirdo kids and youth leaders, and that stuck with me. 

I also remember, though, being with a bunch of other middle schoolers in the church van on the way there, and―I would never have initiated this, but I may have followed along with the crowd―rolling down the windows and yelling “Jesus loves you” at random unsuspecting passersby. A+ for boldness, but…maybe yelling at people out of a car window wasn’t the best way to actually express love.

That’s kind of a funny story, and probably mostly harmless. But don’t Christians often do this in bigger and less harmless ways, too―that is, in Curtice’s words, “scream the love of God over someone” rather than “honor and respect their rights to live peacefully” in their communities? Saying “God loves you” but then expecting someone to come to your kind of church to experience that love, or to conform to your culture and ways of being―or thinking of them as a sinner or heathen if they don’t respond to this declaration of Christian love in the way you want them to―isn’t exactly love. 

I like Curtice’s idea of Christianity de-centering itself. I think this is challenging, when many of us have been taught that there is One Right Way to get to God, and it involves something like the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Roman Road, or the ABCs of salvation, or the sinner’s prayer. (All things, by the way, that were developed quite recently in the grand scheme of things. No one before that must have known God―including all the historical Christian theologians who shaped our faith as we know it, not to mention all the people in the Bible.)

I think it’s entirely possible for Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, the one through whom we come to God (John 14:6), and for this path to look very different for different people and different groups of people. It definitely doesn’t need to―and, for people who don’t share these cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it shouldn’t―look like historical European-ness, or current white American-ness. White Christians over the years have done so much harm by acting like it should.

2. At various points throughout the book, Curtice comes back to the idea of a God and a faith that is primarily personal and individualistic―and all the different things that are wrong with this, or that could be so much bigger and more beautiful.

She connects an individualistic notion of God to the church’s tendency to ignore the oppression of various marginalized groups of people (p. 49), and she connects an obsession with personal sin and salvation with being “ill equipped to go into the world to face systems of injustice, many of which we helped create” (p. 83). “If we stand on Sunday and sing songs about personal sins,” Curtice asks, “how are we to go out and challenge institutional systems of hate?” (p. 84).

On the flip side, she also connects individual healing with communal healing. She writes, “I thought about how our individual healing is tied to our universal healing and how breaking the bonds of colonization is an essential part of that…I belong to my ancestors, I belong to those who came before, to a vision of all of us that keeps us tethered. The work that we must do together…is to help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate. We must carry one another’s stories with grace and honor, and lead each other toward a kind of healing that heals whole systems, not just people. If we have learned anything from the church, and if we have learned anything from injustice, we know that it is individuals who act as part of systems that continue oppressive cycles, yet those same individuals can band together to create change” (p. 153). 

I like this idea of a communal vision of wholeness and healing. If my healing is tied to my neighbor’s healing, and some of my neighbors have borne the weight of generational trauma that comes from a history of colonization, then all of our healing is tied to our ability to, as Curtice writes, “[break] the bonds of colonization” and “help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate.” 

There’s so much history, and so much present-day reality of injustice, that we have to work on confronting and breaking down in order to actually have real relationships across ethnic, racial, and other boundaries―the kind of relationships that are marked by equality and mutuality rather than further injustice, indignity, unequal-ness, and colonization.

3. A while back, I read a book called Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America by Jeffrey L. Sheler. I think I picked it up cheap at a used book store. Back in 2006, long before the era of Trump as president, Sheler was going around interviewing prominent evangelical leaders about faith and (conservative) politics and that sort of thing.

If I understood Sheler correctly, it seemed like his main point (or one of them) was that evangelical Christians, as a group, have taken a sharp veer toward the right in just the last few decades (since the 1970s), and now there are all sorts of very conservative, very Christian people trying to push the country right-ward in a variety of (sometimes sneaky) ways. If I remember right, Sheler contrasted this with the faith of his childhood, which tended to stick to the Bible and stay out of politics.

I remember thinking, I’m with Sheler that it’s bad that evangelical churches have gotten so right-wing political; I’m not with him, though, that it’s bad that they’ve gotten so political at all. I do think Christians should be involved in politics, and that (some) political things―or things that get labeled as political, which is really all sorts of things that matter in our communities, and especially to the most vulnerable among us―are totally fair game for sermons and other church-y conversations. 

All this to say, I appreciate Curtice’s take: “No matter what kind of work we do in the world, whether we are community organizers and activists or stay-at-home parents, we have work to do, and we can take part in caring for the earth and engaging in difficult and honest conversations. Often, our religious spaces are kept clean from these conversations, simply because the conversations don’t seem important enough, or they seem too political. So we must remind ourselves that even the inner work we do to learn about ourselves and to reorient our souls toward caring for the earth is inherently political work, work that stretches into our families, our social circles, our communities, and our governments. We must ask ourselves what we value and hold sacred, and work from there” (pp. 97-8).

“Even the inner work is inherently political work.” Our individual faith is tied to our family lives, the lives of our broader communities, and of our world as a whole. None of these things can be, or should be, separated from the other. Faith speaks into social issues, and social issues speak into faith. 

To me, the solution to becoming aware that the Religious Right is not exactly the religion of Jesus is not to withdraw from the political sphere, but to learn how to engage in that sphere differently―with less of a lens of imposing “biblical views” on society, and more of a lens of seeking justice, building communities where everyone can flourish.

4. Another related theme that came through strongly in this book is truth-telling. I’m super into it, even though it’s also hard. I think Curtice models truth-telling really well―she’s been courageous in digging into her own past and story, and digging into history, and unearthing the colonizing mindsets so present in the evangelical churches, even churches she is still a part of and loves. 

Curtice encourages the (white American) church to remember: to remember truthfully our own history, a history full of violence and colonization and oppression and white supremacy. And she encourages us to ask questions, to “take an honest look at our own intentions” (p. 45). 

She asks so many great questions of the church throughout the book. I could see church leaders, if they were willing, using the book as a guide for a several week long study, opening up conversations about some of the questions Curtice asks. 

5. Sometimes when churches start talking about justice and multiethnicity and that sort of thing, we start talking about the racial make-up of our communities and how we might diversify. I do think racial diversity, as well as diversity along all other sorts of lines, makes a community a richer, more complex, and more beautiful place. At the same time, though, I think it’s complicated.

Along these lines, I think, Curtice writes, “Approaching Indigenous culture with the goal of getting Native peoples in the pews isn’t an answer—it is merely an extension of colonization.” (Oof.) “Perhaps the church should consider that Indigenous peoples have more to teach the church than the church has to teach Indigenous peoples. Perhaps that would change how the relationship works. The important aspect of this relationship is that it is a partnership, a space in which listening really happens…Indigenous people shouldn’t have to spend our days educating non-Native people, but when we are willing to partner with institutions like the church for a better future, we should be heard” (123).

I appreciate that, oof-ness and all. The point isn’t to get more people from particular ethnic or racial groups into predominantly white churches. The point is to learn how to have healthy relationships, where the church is willing to take a humble―that is, Christlike―posture and learn. This is something I’ll keep thinking about in my own journey of figuring out what healthy multiethnic churches and justice-centered churches can look like.

There was a lot to this book, but these are just a few things I liked and am thinking about. Give it a read, if you get a chance, and let me know what you think!

Super chill book review: Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit)

Rebecca Solnit originally published Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities in 2004, so a lot of it centers on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. I read the third edition, published in 2015, which includes a long and lovely newly written foreword.

The premise of the book is that “The future is dark,” but “with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave” (p. 5). Which is kind of cool.

Also, the title of the book tends to make me start singing “Scars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara: “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark…” Just wanted to share.

Anyhow, here are a few scattered thoughts about the book and some of the things that stood out to me from it.

1. I renewed this book from the library twice before finally getting around to reading it. As someone who wants the world to be better, but who also often struggles to believe that it really could be, I figured from this book’s title that it would be a good one for me to read. But other books seemed to promise more achievable things. A book could teach me about a particular time in history, or about a particular person’s life. But could it give me a renewed sense of hope? I’m not sure. That seemed like a lot to ask.

The book did deliver, though, in the sense that Solnit speaks eloquently, directly, and beautifully to a lot of the defeatist and cynical pessimism I sometimes tend to feel.

I think that Christian faith, at its best, does something like this, too: it helps us look truthfully at the world in all its brokenness, and also have reason to hope, and inspiration to act in ways that bring love and justice into being. Solnit’s book is kind of a secular version of that. It doesn’t downplay the darkness, but does aim to inspire hope and positive action in the middle of it. 

I say this with the caveat that Solnit is an activist on the left of the U.S. political spectrum (strange and totally off-kilter as this spectrum may be). Personally, I pretty much agree with her vision of what progress looks like, so that worked well for me. But if you’re not really the left activist type, I’m not sure how the book would strike you. (Maybe give it a read anyway and let me know?)

2. If the book delivered on the “hope in the dark” part of its title, I feel like it also delivered on the “untold stories” part. There’s so much I didn’t know about the late 1990s and early 2000s.

To be fair, I was in middle school and high school during that time. But I think a lot of today’s (Gen Z) teenagers are a lot more politically aware and engaged than I was at their age, which seems to imply that it would have indeed been possible for me to pay more attention to the world at that time. I think I was mostly too busy trying to build a resume that would impress colleges and stuff, which is not a spectacular excuse.

I also feel like recent history (both U.S. and world) was pretty lacking in my education. I feel like I learned a lot of U.S history from the colonial era up through the 1960s, and then I don’t really remember anything after that. There was so much political struggle, and realignment, and just a lot of impactful stuff going on in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and I’ve just begun to pick it up in bits and pieces as an adult (mostly as I’ve tried to figure out what the hell went wrong in the American church). 

Of course, the early 2000s would have been current events when I was in high school. My high school history/government teacher did give us weekly current events quizzes, and I often did poorly on them. I also remember these quizzes as much more of a “name the major news headlines of the week” kind of thing than a “let’s talk about the implications of all of this, what we think about it, what it means” kind of thing—I don’t remember much deeper discussion of these things.

So yeah, if you’re interested in little-known activist stories—super helpful, for anyone trying to change stuff now—and/or history around the millennium, this is your book. Activist stories, in particular, tend to get written out of school curricula and history books, by people who would rather not have kids grow up thinking they could really change things. So I think it’s worthwhile to seek out books like this, which tell a different kind of story.

3. I thought some of the stuff Solnit wrote about (George W.) Bush was pretty interesting, in that people said a lot of similar things about Trump during his presidency. 

For example:

“The United States is the most disproportionate producer of climate change, governed by the most disregardful administration. This country often seems like a train heading for a wreck, with a gullible, apolitical, easily distracted population bloating itself on television’s political distortions and repellent vision of human life, with the runaway malignancy of domestic fundamentalism, the burgeoning prison and impoverished and unhinged populations, the decay of democracy, and on and on…I spend a lot of time looking at my country in horror.

And a lot of time saying ‘But’ . . . But some plants die from the center and grow outward; the official United States seems like the rotten center of a flourishing world, for elsewhere, particularly around the edges, and even in the margins of this country, beautiful insurrections are flowering. American electoral politics is not the most hopeful direction to look in, and yet the very disastrousness seems something to offer possibility. The Bush administration seems to be doing what every previous administration was too prudent to do: pursuing its unenlightened self-interest so recklessly that it is undermining US standing in the world and the economy that underwrite that standing” (pp. 107-8).

Doesn’t that sound like it could have been written about the Trump era? Disregardful administration. Domestic fundamentalism. Decay of democracy. A lot of time looking in horror. The rotten center of a world that flourishes around the edges with beautiful uprisings, protests, movements. (“Insurrections” may not be quite the right word after January 6, 2021.) And, perhaps Trump-iest of all, an administration pursuing its unenlightened self-interest unusually recklessly.

I think it’s good to be reminded that these things didn’t start with Trump—and sobering, too, because it means they didn’t end with him, either. A lot of them are what America—or at least parts of it—have been for quite a while. And, for quite a while, there have also been beautiful resistance movements that really have made a difference.

4. I liked Solnit’s thoughts on joy. “Another part of the Puritan legacy,” she writes, “is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited…Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection” (p. 24).

I like the idea that “joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.” I also find it hard. It can feel wrong to enjoy life when you know others are suffering. The empathy in me cries out and won’t be mollified. 

On the one hand, this is good—it’s good to feel something about someone else’s suffering. That’s what makes us human. And, hopefully, it moves us to act to try to alleviate that suffering—to try to build a more just world where more people can flourish. 

But then there’s also the “in the meanwhile,” which is, really, as long as we live. This present age, as the New Testament might refer to it. In this age there will always be evil, and suffering, and some people being greedy while others experience pain and even death because of it. If we don’t allow ourselves to experience joy while this is still the case, we will never allow ourselves to experience joy in this life. 

I like the idea of joy as “a fine initial act of insurrection.” Joy is, in itself, a form of resistance to everything that would steal joy—not just from others, but from us, too.

5. Relatedly, I appreciate Solnit’s reflections on perfection and perfectionism. 

She writes, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. Perfectionists can find fault with anything, and no one has higher standards in this regard than leftists…We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its sources and foundation: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never” (pp. 77-78).

I feel like people often talk about perfectionism in individualistic terms. You know, like you’re working on a project at work, or writing an essay for school, or something like that, and you’re having a hard time calling it finished and good enough, because it isn’t perfect. (Hi, fellow enneagram “1”s.) 

I thought it was helpful, though, and more new to me, to think of perfectionism in terms of collective change and progress. It’s not just a personal thing. It’s also a movement thing. Perfectionism doesn’t just mess up our personal lives or our work at our jobs, it also messes up activism and political change.

Just as we might want to learn to stop expecting perfection from ourselves personally, we might also need to learn to stop expecting perfection in the world in general—to work for that better world, and to celebrate any changes that happen in that direction, however incomplete they might be.

Solnit also writes, “Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us….Perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough…The naively cynical measure a piece of legislation, a victory, a milestone not against the past or the limits of the possible but against their ideas of perfection, and as this book reminds you, perfection is a yardstick by which everything falls short” (p. 140).

I feel that. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and critique—to be cynical about everything that looks like it could be progress, because it’s never good enough. It’s never perfect. It’s harder—but necessary—to stay engaged, to refuse to use the impossibility of perfection as an excuse not to do anything, or not to celebrate the good things that are being done. 

6. In Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (also worth reading!), Garza writes about coming together in diverse coalitions, across different groups and with lots of different kinds of people—different groups and people who all have a particular interest in common, even if not a whole lot else. Solnit’s book reminded me of that.

Garza writes, “when it comes to politics, when it comes to governing, when it comes to building power, being small is something we cannot afford. And while I feel most comfortable around people who think like me and share my experiences, the longer I’m in the practice of building a movement, the more I realize that movement building isn’t about finding your tribe—it’s about growing your tribe across difference to focus on a common set of goals. It’s about being able to solve real problems in people’s lives, and it’s about changing how we think about and express who we are together” (p. 136).

Solnit writes—similarly, I think—of “a new kind of activism in which coalitions can be based on what wildly different groups have in common and difference can be set aside; a coalition requires difference as a cult does not, and sometimes it seems like the ideological litmus test of earlier movements moved them toward cultism” (pp. 87-88).

I like this, and I also find it challenging (in a good way). It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about whether we all agree on all the things. It’s harder, but much more powerful, to build alliances across lots and lots of differences, based on the one thing (or set of things) we have in common. Groups that effectively have ideological purity tests for membership often remain so small they never get much done. But there is a lot we can get done if we learn to work together, across our ideological differences, about the things that concern us all.

7. Solnit is not a quick read. I’ve read three books by her now (the other two: Recollections of My Nonexistence, which is her memoir, and her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me), and I find her writing both very beautiful and kind of convoluted. In Recollections of My Nonexistence, she actually writes about this—how she wanted to write in a way that was more nuanced, gentle, complex, and meandering than a lot of the more stereotypically masculine ways of writing that tend to dominate journalism and nonfiction.

I’m not sure how I feel about connecting gender to writing styles, but it was definitely interesting. I think Solnit is brilliant, and I think her writing is lovely. It’s just not easy to read. It makes me stop and think, and sometimes stop and read a sentence multiple times to make sure I’m following it.

So, maybe save this book for a time when you have a bit of spare brain power to spend on it. It’s worth it, I think.

Super chill book review: This Bridge Called My Back (ed. Anzaldua & Moraga)

This one is an oldie, but a goodie. The book is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and it was originally published in 1981. It’s what it sounds like—an anthology of pieces written by lots of different women of color. I read the fourth edition, published in 2015.

A few thoughts:

1. I notice that, sometimes, when (white?) people want to diversify their reading, or predominantly white educational institutions want to diversify their syllabi, and that sort of thing, often the first (and/or only) authors added to a mostly-white reading list are Black. 

This was true of many of my seminary classes. The syllabi were full of white authors, and if any of the authors weren’t white, they were likely Black. 

Other classes featured a reading list full of white people and then, at the end of the quarter, a choice of one book among four or so options—often a Black (male) author, a Latino (male) author, an Asian or Asian-American (male) author, and a (white) female author. What an awful choice: you can learn from a woman, or you can learn from a person of color. And it erases women of color entirely.

But in the classes that actually assigned books written by people of color, these authors were usually Black.

On the one hand, that’s great. The more, the better. Most of us, as far as I can tell—Black, white, or otherwise—could use more Black writers in our lives. There’s nothing wrong—and everything right—about individuals reading, and institutions assigning, more work by Black authors. 

On the other hand, I think there is something wrong when Black authors are the only people of color being paid attention to. As I understand it, different racialized experiences tend to have some commonalities but are also very different. And there are brilliant people from every possible sort of ethnic and racial background, writing brilliant and wonderful things.

All this to say, one of the awesome things about This Bridge Called My Back is that the editors were clearly quite intentional about incorporating perspectives from a mix of brilliant Black, Latina, Asian, indigenous, and multiracial women. The authors of the different chapters that make up this book tend to draw on their own racially specific experience and also have things to say more broadly to women of color in general—as well as to white women, and to men of color, and the world as a whole. The book is rich, full, varied, and complex because of it.

2. In her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “When you pursue creative work, immortality is often held up as an ideal”; however, “there are two ways of making contributions that matter. One is to make work that stays visible before people’s eyes; the other is to make work that is so deeply absorbed that it ceases to be what people see and becomes how they see…Works of art that had an impact in their time sometimes look dated or obvious because what was fresh and even insurrectionary about them has become the ordinary way things are…They have been rendered obsolete by their success―which makes the relevance of even much nineteenth-century feminist writing a grim reminder that though we’ve come far, it’s not far enough” (pp. 221-2). 

I thought of this when I read lots of parts of This Bridge Called My Back. It’s striking how much of it—as in, basically all of it—feels relevant, timely, helpful, fruitful, and much-needed today, even though it was written forty or so years ago. A lot of its authors are saying things that activists and other antiracist and feminist leaders are still saying today. 

The authors say these things really well, beautifully, insightfully, and (appropriately) incisively—which makes the book, on the one hand, a fascinating and very worthwhile read. 

On the other hand, though, it’s one of those books that I very much wish had been “rendered obsolete by [its] success,” as Solnit would say, by now. I wish things had changed in our world such that the authors’ observations from another generation no longer felt so prescient. But here we are.

3. I loved that the editors sought out writing in many different forms. There are poems, mixed in with essays, mixed in with letters, and speeches, and transcripts of interviews. 

I thought a lot of the poems were especially striking. I’m sure I’m biased, because I write poems, but I do think that poetry is absolutely the right form for, well, a lot of important things. I feel like poems belong in books more often than we see them.

Plus, at least for me, it can be kind of hard to read a whole book of poetry all at once. But poems interspersed between essays and other things provide a nice break, a different way of thinking and processing information, a way of helping the reader engage from different angles. I really liked that about this book.

I also liked the interview transcripts. Kind of like a podcast, before podcasts were cool…or possible. By including interviews, I feel like the editors affirm that spoken words are important—that something doesn’t have to be an officially published essay or book to be worth paying attention to. Wisdom comes in lots of different forms. 

4. I feel, sometimes, that the feminist sisterhood—if there is or ever was one, and I know that some women of color would argue, very reasonably, that there has never really been one—is weak. Women of color are often (again, very reasonably) frustrated with white women, and white women often just don’t get it—or don’t want to get it, or aren’t willing to put in the work to get it. 

I think this book is full of the kind of work that can strengthen—or help build, help create—the multiracial (and multi-socioeconomic class) sisterhood. Its authors aren’t afraid to call out white feminists on our counterproductive nonsense. It felt honest, like no one was particularly mincing their words or catering to fragile white woman feelings. 

And, at the same time, I also felt called in—like I was being graciously shown how to embody a feminism that is actually relevant to all women. 

I don’t mean to say that I expect this from all women of color all the time. I hope to listen, regardless, even (or especially?) when what I hear puts me on the defensive rather than giving me warm fuzzy feelings of hope. So, without any particular implied criticism of any other work, I just wanted to say that this is how I felt about This Bridge Called My Back—like I was being shown and taught a lot of unvarnished truth, and also being given hope of a more genuine and fruitful sisterhood that can be built. 

For more on this kind of thing, by the way—on what it’ll take for feminism to be a movement of/with/for all women, not just relatively well-to-do white women—I thought Mikki Kendall’s book Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot was really great.

5. I feel like sometimes (white and/or male) people make excuses about why they’re still just reading and listening to the same old white dude stuff. They say they can’t find female authors or authors of color, let alone female authors of color—for their book club, or course syllabus, or Sunday school class, church group, etc.

I feel like this is the kind of book that takes away excuses. It’s not the only thing out there, of course, or anywhere near it. But it may be a place to start. 

Because it’s an anthology that a lot of writers contributed to, it’s a way to learn the names of some of the brilliant women of color who were writing in a recent generation, some of whom are still writing today. And there have been so many more in the meanwhile. 

There’s really no excuse not to seek them out. We all need their vision for what a freer, healthier, more sustainable world could look like. 

6. One of the essays in this book is The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, by Audre Lorde. This is a phrase I had heard before, but I didn’t know where it came from. Now I know.

 From Lorde’s essay:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference; those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those other identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support” (p. 95).

We can “take our differences and make them strengths,” rejecting all hierarchies and all twisted notions of winning and losing, and instead learn to live as equals and build a better kind of house together. “Divide and conquer, in our world, must become define and empower” (p. 96).

7. In a preface to the 2015 edition of this book, Cherríe Moraga writes, “I watch how desperately we need political memory, so that we are not always imagining ourselves the ever-inventors of our revolution; so that we are humbled by the valiant efforts of our foremothers; and so, with humility and a firm foothold in history, we can enter upon an informed and re-envisioned strategy for social/political change in decades ahead” (xix). 

I think this book does all that really well. I like the idea of reading older stuff—previous generations’ insights and struggles and wisdom—mixed in with recently published books, so that we are not, in Moraga’s words, ever-inventing ideas and practices that previous generations have already developed. We want to build on previous generations’ work. 

Sometimes we tend to forget quickly, to over-value new things and under-value old things, to assume that the progress our society has achieved must have rendered older work irrelevant. And, of course, most of our schools and other institutions actively suppress revolutionary things (or oversimplify, over-sanitize, and otherwise distort them, as has been done to the Civil Rights movement).

We need books like this to help us develop a better memory together. They help us realize that a lot of our struggles are not new. They help us learn from previous generations and refuse to forget their work and wisdom. 

Holler with your thoughts, on this book or anything related!