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!

Super chill book review: How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)

I was on a hiatus from male authors for a while, but I made an exception for Ibram X. Kendi. I got over Kendi’s gender and read his book How to be an Antiracist because it felt like an important read…and also because it took so frickin long to get it from the library! 

(Side note: I put the book on hold again right after I returned it, because I ran out of time to jot down some notes. The second time around, I was able to check it out within a couple of weeks, I think, after having waited months and months and months before. Perhaps all the white people wanted to read books by Black authors last summer amidst all the protests, and our attention spans are short? Yikes.)

Anyhow, I thought How to be an Antiracist was worth reading. I’d love to share a few reflections on it—kind of like a book review, but super informal, and admittedly (or intentionally?) super duper biased, and without any attempt to summarize the book, because I think you should totally read it yourself if you have time.

Here are some things that stood out to me.

1. I thought it was helpful that Kendi made a distinction between being an antiracist and being an assimilationist. There are lots of ways to be an assimilationist, and I think I’ve participated in some programs, volunteer activities, etc. that perhaps bought into that mindset—or at least, maybe I was buying into that mindset while I was participating. 

Assimilationism often involves the mindset that, when racial inequity surfaces, Black people just need a little more support—a little more mentoring or tutoring, for example. Things like mentoring and tutoring aren’t necessarily bad, Kendi argues, and they can help individuals have a better shot at their educational and career goals, but they also don’t really deal with the root issues. The root issues are all of the structures and policies that keep things so unequal. 

Assimilationist programs operate, sometimes, as if Black individuals are the problem, and, thus, helping Black individuals better integrate into white-dominated society is the solution. And that’s just not true. 

An antiracist mindset, on the other hand, looks for the policies that perpetuate inequality, and looks to change these policies. It looks to figure out who is enacting and maintaining these policies, and looks to hold these people accountable. 

2. I appreciated Kendi’s distinction between being being “not racist” and being antiracist—the distinction between passively trying to stay out of things, keep the peace, and not make things worse, versus actively being involved in trying to make things better. As Kendi writes, “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle” (p. 9).

This might sound kind of harsh, but it makes sense to me, and I think it’s helpful. Passivity perpetuates the status quo, and the status quo is not good. In order for things to actually change, more and more people need to sincerely challenge and push back against the racial injustice that is the current state of things. It’s not enough to just avoid saying or doing racist things. 

3. Kendi describes the history of America as a dueling history of antiracist progress (i.e. things getting better and more equal) and racist progress (i.e. things getting worse and more unequal). On the one hand, he writes, we have “America’s undeniable history of antiracist progress, away from chattel slavery and Jim Crow”; on the other hand, we have “America’s undeniable history of racist progress, from advancing police violence and voter suppression, to widening the racial inequities in areas ranging from health to wealth” (p. 33). 

I thought this image of American history as a duel was really helpful.

When I was growing up, I definitely learned the narrative of antiracist progress, and only this narrative. I learned that things have gotten so much better for people of color over the generations, and, in particular, that the Civil Rights movement happened and everything has been just fine ever since. 

In college, I learned more about the current realities of racial injustice, and this narrative got more complex. It seemed that antiracist progress was slower, and much less complete, than I had previously thought.

In the years since then, as I continued to try to listen and learn, it began to feel like any idea of antiracist progress was a lie. Things really haven’t changed at all. Racism has just taken on different forms—the current ones harder (for white people) to see, but no better, really, than the older forms.

I like Kendi’s take better. American human rights history—for people of color, and, for that matter, for women, too—is definitely not a triumphant victory march forward. (It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah?) But it’s also not exactly a slow and incomplete march forward, and it’s not exactly a total standstill, either. It’s more like a war between two opposing forces, with different battles and skirmishes in each generation. There really has been lots and lots of antiracist progress—and, at the same time, there has been lots and lots of racist progress. We get to choose where we stand in the ongoing tug of war. 

4. I appreciated all the stories Kendi wove in from his own life. I was fascinated to read about his experiences as a Black kid growing up just a few years before I did. I could relate in some ways, and totally not relate in others. 

I grew up in a time and place (1990s – early 2000s, Seattle area) where everyone around me seemed to think that a) racism ended a long time ago, and/or b) racism was something only present in the South. Of course, neither of these things is true, but even though I know this intellectually, it’s always helpful for me to hear stories that put names and faces and real experiences to the particular ways in which it’s not true. I appreciate the stories Kendi tells, and his vulnerability in sharing these stories.

5. Relatedly, I appreciated Kendi’s willingness to share his journey over time, in terms of how he’s changed his mind about various things. He gave a lot of insight into some of the things he used to think, and why he no longer thinks these things.

What a great model of humility and willingness to learn—and also a reminder that we’re all on our own different journeys. If Kendi, as a Black person (who had to think about race a lot while growing up), can admit to realizing he was wrong about a lot of race-related things and needed to change his mind, then surely I, as a white person (who grew up not thinking much about race at all, and thus has a lot more to learn) can do the same. 

I appreciate Kendi’s courage, openness, and clarity about his own journey. Something to aspire to, for sure.

6. I appreciated Kendi’s attention to intersectionality—for example, exploring the intersections between race and gender, and race and sexuality. Each of these topics gets a whole chapter, and I think that’s great. 

For those of us who experience marginalization in one aspect of our identity and privilege in a whole lot of others, it can be easy to overlook a lot of the complexities of how different kinds of marginalizations intersect and interact. As a woman who’s privileged in pretty much every other way except gender, I’m taking notes.


Hope you enjoyed these reflections. Do you have any thoughts of your own—about these things, or about anything else in How to be an Antiracist, if you’ve read it? Feel free to holler in the comments!

Kimberly Latrice Jones’ video, black anger, and white discomfort

This video by black author and activist Kimberly Latrice Jones has been making the rounds on the interwebs. It’s entitled “How can we win?”, and it’s worth watching.

I’m sure white people are saying all sorts of things about it, and it probably doesn’t need any more white person commentary.

On the other hand, if I can help fellow white people see this video and learn from Jones’ perspective, that seems like a good thing. 

So here are some thoughts―about black rage, and white discomfort, and what building a healthier kind of community together actually entails.

Jones expresses her anger, and there is a part of me that feels uncomfortable with that. There is a part of me that asks the questions white people often tend to ask: is this the most helpful and effective way for Jones to express the ideas she wants to express? Wouldn’t she be better off making her language and tone more palatable to white people, so that we would feel less attacked and defensive and be more open to listening to her? 

I realize that the fact that these sorts of questions form in my mind exposes in me the stubbornness of my tendency as a white person to center my own experience―which is a big part of what white supremacy is in the first place. 

Black people are systematically targeted, humiliated, terrorized, and killed by state-sanctioned violence. There’s clearly something very wrong here if I’m more concerned about white people’s feelings of discomfort when black people speak up about these death-dealing systems than I am about the death-dealing systems themselves. I realize there are things I need to reflect on here, and things I would invite fellow white people to reflect on as well.

I also realize that the bigger-picture goal in all of this, as far as I see things, is Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community, the kinship of all humankind. 

For those who put stake in the Christian scriptures, the end goal is the vision of Revelation 7:9, where people of all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages come together before God as equals, honored and received by God in the specificity of their ethnicities, cultures, and experiences.

In light of these kinds of visions of loving, multiethnic community, it feels worth saying that the community that would rather appear to be at peace than actually be at peace is a sham community. The community in which some people consistently inflict gaping wounds on others and then tell the wounded to speak more nicely about these wounds so that the inflictors will not feel uncomfortable is no community at all.

In the kind of community that I long for―on every level, from church, to city, to region, to nation, to world―no one is willing to settle for the kind of false peace that depends on some people keeping silent about the wrongs being done to them. No one is interested in coercing anyone else into downplaying or minimizing the things that keep them up at night and make them angry every day.

Injustices are addressed honestly and openly, not swept under the rug to keep some people comfortable. Angry voices speak up and are heard, because this kind of honesty is the only way to healing; because everybody recognizes that people on the receiving end of injustice are the ones best equipped to speak about it, to see it clearly, to name it for what it is. 

In the kind of community I want to be a part of, anger itself is seen as a normal, legitimate, important human emotion. It is something to pay attention to―both in ourselves and in others―as a sign that all is not how it should be, an invitation to reflect more deeply and to be open to change. It may be uncomfortable, but it is also crucial.

I do not want to be part of a community that is not willing to see, embrace, and receive all of who I am―my full, authentic self, including my sorrow, anger, and rage. And I do not want to be part of a community that does not offer this same seeing, embracing, and receiving to others, especially those who are hurting most, who have been most abused and terrorized.

The point is not for myself or other white people to feel comfortable. It’s to learn to see injustices that we have been blind to, and to learn to long for justice. It’s to learn how to build more equitable and healthy communities together. I am grateful for the gift of Kimberly Latrice Jones’ words as part of this process.