Tag Archives: history

The Bible: Part II

“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” –Jeanette Winterson

I am eight years old and I lie on my back on the narrow cot at the rear of my grandparents’ Winnebago and watch the string of the pulley to the cabinet door swish back and forth like a pendulum. I gaze hypnotically and I pray rhythmically, softly, a prayer as a mantra I have come to believe will elicit a miracle.  Our Father who art in Heaven, Lord God Above, Ruler of all Things, please give me a sign.  If you are listening to me, if my life is of any significance to you, if you have a plan, please stop the swinging. Make the tassel stop.  Make it stand still, like the Red Sea, with the walls of water still like unsung statues, like the sun, how you made it stand still in the sky until the nation of Israel defeated its enemies.  Since you can make still the water, and stop the sun, and you can bring your son back from the dead, make this little string stop.  Show me you are listening.  Show me I matter.  Please still the tassel.

I pray this every day.  I am eight years old and I pray this every day in my grandfather’s Winnebago, as we traverse the southern states, performing circus acts as a pre-show before the proselytizing plays we offer for a pittance at Kampgrounds of America.  As I march in these campgrounds, hand out tracts, sing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a little white nightgown every night to crowds in these KOAs, I come back nightly to the cot behind the curtain at the back of the Winnebago. I come back nightly to stare at the ceiling and pray. Please God, give me a sign.

It may be that the Lord wants to test my patience, like he did Job’s.  Maybe I’m not in tune with his words.  Maybe that’s the problem.  I’m not a precious stone, not a precious metal because I haven’t been tested.  I think of what I know of Jehovah, what my grandfather has personified for me, as he sits like a refiner and purifier of silver, burning away the dross.  So I pray, dear God, I will show my allegiance to you and read your book, every word of your book, starting now.  I will read your Holy Book cover to cover.  In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

You are the word.  I am the flesh.  Let your word become my flesh.  Let my flesh become your word.

And so I begin at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God Said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.  And as I begin, I know I will continue, that I will pass this test, that I won’t skip a word no matter how tired I am, no matter how much motion sickness projects vomit into the bag I keep hanging next to the plank bed that nestles against the rear of the Winnebago, where my grandparents Orrick and Ruth snore each on one side of me in their matching nightgowns.  I keep vigil.  When they sleep, I turn on the tiny pinpoint light and I read. I keep reading His words, through the iconic stories in the books of Moses, through the books of laws and judges and chronicles, on into the prophets and the Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon, who the Bible says came from Bathsheba. Her story breaks my heart, that her child died as punishment because the King commanded her presence. Bathsheba lost both her husband and her child because of David, who said he loved her. It seems to me that what he really did was worship her beauty, found her a Muse he couldn’t resist, and God punished him for coveting her, like worshipping a golden calf. The baby dies to punish David and Uriah dies for his loyalty to David. Nobody, not even God, has pity on Bathsheba.

And I read on through Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, which I memorize and use like a chant, the writing on the wall Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, that moves me more than Joseph and his dreams and his colorful coat ever could.  In that year before I turned nine, I read through every he begat in the Old Testament, the lineage of Jesus our Christ, and I note any time a girl is named, because it is so seldom, and this is evident, even to my child-self.  And as I continue on into the New Testament, I wonder why the only central females are both named Mary.  I stare at the names of the sixty-six books I am reading and ask myself why only two books of this tome are named after girls, and I try to justify why these girls are named, why others aren’t, what role they play in the world of men, the only world I know, and I beat myself up for this, but I keep going back to these girls, to these two books, and even though I have to keep reading every other word chronologically,  I also go back.  I mark passages.  This is not what I have been taught.  I have been taught not to question.  I use a highlighter. I don’t write the questions because I can’t talk back to God, but Ruth makes me question.  Esther makes me question.  Hagar and Rahab and Hannah and Bathsheba all make me quiver and I have no idea why. I have been taught that they saved the Jewish nation, and I don’t question that, but it is more than that, what they do, how they do it, their grace and style and this is what I absorb:

Yes, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David and thus worthy of patriarchal mention, but the long line of he-begats informs me that most women in the line of Jesus are unnamed. Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. Ruth was not following tradition.  She didn’t remarry among her own family.  She followed the mother of her dead husband, and who can say why. The Bible doesn’t say why. My grandfather says Ruth is a woman of principle who is true to her husband even after death, that she is true to his spirit and he lives on because of her loyalty. But her dead husband doesn’t procreate with her and doesn’t end up in the line of Christ.  Yes, she stays loyal to his people, but what does that have to do with either him or his God? Is it loyalty to her late husband, or is her love for this woman thick with the love of self, heavy with the knowledge that women are their own people, that our people are the true outliers, the underdogs, the forgotten ones.  She sticks with Naomi and lies on the floor near the bed of Boaz because she knows she has no inherent value.  Her value lies in the comfort her body will provide for a man, and the fruit of a masterful performance can perhaps yield quality food and shelter for the offspring she will undoubtedly bear.  But her pride? Her strength? The triumph of her will is in her loyalty to her true people. And Naomi is her girl, her road-dog, with whom she will live and die.  People say these words at wedding ceremonies and I want to use my voice like a red pen and correct them for taking poetry out of context, for mixing metaphors, for misrepresenting a proclamation of independence as ordinary romance.  

I don’t trust romance.

Like Ruth, and like Esther, who knew the King forbade her questioning and yet, who knows but that she came to kingdom for such a time as this.  She says if she perishes, she perishes.  But she cooks him a meal and invites his friends and wins his heart, and this isn’t romantic, but pragmatic.  At eight, I know this.

Esther doesn’t choose the King.  The King chooses Esther because she is beautiful, and Esther manipulates the King into saving her people. He does this willingly, defensively, protectively, for her.

The King chooses Esther.  He protects her people. She is his family of choice.

I will collect a family of choice.  I will leave my people and find new ones, and my path will not be a clear one, but I don’t know this yet.

Because I know the Lord will come back like a thief in the night,  I keep reading, through Nehemiah and Lamentations, Obadiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and I don’t stop reading, through every single word of his book, the blessed King James Bible, my grandfather’s chosen tome.  I read the letters to the churches they call epistles and the crowning glory of Revelations, which almost chokes me with its numbers and symbols and I draw diagrams to imbibe the vitriol of the Whore of Babylon and to quell my fear of the Beast and the four horses of the Apocalypse. That year before I turn nine, I read the first book I will ever read cover to cover, and I unwittingly set the tone for my life. Every single word.  I read every single word.  

And in the end, after all those words, God did not have mercy upon me.  God did not make that tassel stand still.  We traveled through Texas and Alabama and Florida, through Virginia and Maryland and back through Michigan and into the Dakotas and I sang in my high sweet voice night after night and conducted a poodle on the piano to laughter and applause and the tassel swung side to side every day, obeying the laws of physics.  And God in his infinite wisdom did not send me a sign.

 

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Public and Private Identity

In the past months, I’ve been immersed in thought concerning identity. From my racial, ethnic identity to the way I exploit the sensual nature of my sexual identity. Everything in between, of course, fuses together to make me who I am. My brown skin, my short stature and the width of my thighs and waist invoke some to mistaken me for someone who does not speak English, and others to racially fetishize my body. When I speak, I am soft, unclear, and nervous. I do not yet posses a command or articulation of the ideas and words so grand and powerful that exist mostly at the flow of my pen. Or at the strokes of my keyboard.

Being a “public servant “, a library assistant, I deal with two and often opposing sides of the public. I deal with very white, old and conservative people. On the other side, I deal with everyone opposite of white, old and conservative. Sometimes I feel like white, old and conservative should be an ethnicity on its own. These are the people we fear pissing off. They have power in our communities. They have influence. Most of all, they have time to complain and they will complain.

This past weekend I attended one of our own programs that involved a Pearl Harbor survivor. I wanted to be directly involved because I am a public history student, and to be blunt, I have an ego about it. I am not a master of public history, but I can be bold and proclaim that I know my shit. I don’t know all my shit, but I know more shit than others. I learn everyday. I find flaws in my own thoughts and ideas. Other days I wake up and think, damn I’m brilliant. One thing I know, is that I will never know ALL the shit, ever, but I am ok with that. I am conscious that I cannot grow into a public historian if I do not implement some of the things I’ve learned. I wanted to have some degree of influence in this program. I did not, so I stood on the sidelines as half spectator, half critic.

On a side note: I’ve learned how to control my ego. Although, sometimes I can come off as snobby or conceited, I am not so in person. I love what I do and what I study and it’s an integral part of my identity, but the thing I love the most is learning from others. I love learning from my friends, my parents, my professors, my co-workers, strangers and radically different people from myself. I am open to learning about everyone and everything. I do not always agree with opposing views, but I like to learn why people think differently than me. I love people<<< take note future employers.

With that note, however, two elements of my identity clashed over the weekend that kind of overshadowed my openness to differences and radical opinions.

Our Pearl Harbor survivor brought up the controversial topic of the atomic bomb. He reflected on the fact that over the years, no one had really asked him about what he thought about the decision to drop the bomb. I was surprised and part of me hoped for a less than conservative answer. Immediately, the audience murmured with a resounding, and very patriotic, “yes,” to which our speaker echoed the same.

One of our volunteers asked the rhetorical question to our speaker. The audience became uncomfortable. She furthered elaborated on her question.

“From what I’ve read and from what I know, the Japanese were ready to surrender…”

Me, thinking, “What are you doing. What are you doing. What are you doing.” Not a question, but a proclamation of fear in my head.

“…was there a reason, then, to drop the bomb, if we knew they were going to surrender?

One of the audience members became livid. He could not find a comfortable way of sitting in his chair as he writhed in anger saying, “What is she talking about? No they weren’t. NO, they were not ready to surrender. No. No. They weren’t. NO. We didn’t know. NO”

Afterward, I overheard a group of elderly white people commenting on our volunteer. They were so offended at her question. “I wanted to ask that lady, would you ask the same to a Jew?”

I brought it up to our volunteer, who teaches history at a community college. She was very defensive when I told her she brought up a very sensitive topic. “They need to know the truth. I don’t care. We all need to hear both sides. Whatever, I teach my students both sides. I don’t care I that I made them mad”

Well, I cared. I did not say anything back to the volunteer because I was frustrated at her. I don’t know how to be articulate when I am frustrated. What I wanted to tell her, and what I thought was right, was that she should care because she’s not a community member asking a question. She was a library volunteer; therefore she was a representative of the library. The last thing I want, that we all want, is pissing off the old, white, conservative people that we serve. I get it. I’m a liberal brown girl working in a city that is mostly conservative. I’ve driven by the nearby streets, passing a blown up picture of Obama with a Hitler mustache. I get it. Yes, they do need to hear the truth, but our talk was not a symposium to debate the politics and ethics of dropping the bomb. It was a stage to reflect on public memory, a public memory that is quickly relegated to books, films and documentaries. It’s a living history stage. Yes, history is politics, ethics and horrors, but our stage was a specific memory and experience. An experience of a person we invited and by extension, she was part of as well.

And so, I grappled with this question. I was so angry about our representation and reputation (which is shaky in our community) that I did not really reflect on my own private liberal ideals of change, progress and freedom.

I asked my public history professor on advice as to how to approach this issue at work, and within myself. My public history professor has been highly influential in my growth, but she also scares the shit out of me. I am terrified of letting her down, which I suppose is a good thing. She has a firm and intimidating presence. I know she likes me and has faith in my work and me. She has these beautiful icy blue piercing eyes, that as I speak, I become more vulnerable and second-guess myself. I made it a habit to look into people’s eyes whenever I speak to them, with her, I often find myself looking away because I become nervous. But I love her. I love her in the way people come into your life at the right time. I value her advice on my professional aspirations. I want to be as fierce, articulate and confident as her one day. I want to carry that not only do I know my shit, but also I look like I know my shit attitude. What I value the most, is that she is a fierce woman helping out a not so confident soft-spoken girl. Is it slightly sexist of me to value the approval of my female professors a degree higher than male professors? I’ve had, and continue to have, male professors that are encouraging and influential, but when it comes to female professors, I value them just one little degree more. Their success, along with my mother’s, is what influences me. They made it, so can I.

Anyway, once I finished telling her my dilemma, she told me she had conflicting views on it. She understood where I was coming from. Yet, she said, it’s good to encourage that kind of dialogue. That population of old, white and conservative people need to be shown different and often conflicting sides to all stories. As liberals, we often get complacent about our opinions and we try not to risk pissing people off, but if we continue to do that, then how do we expect change to happen?

God dammit. Who am I?

She did tell me to become more confident in my abilities and to show my work that they need to incorporate me into these programs. Perhaps, volunteers need to be oriented in some ethical issues, and that if they think they cannot keep those questions quiet, then they should not participate as a volunteer, they should be part of the audience instead. She told me to let go of the exchange that the volunteer and I had. I should move forward with all this in mind.

I took her advice and without getting sensitive, I spoke to our program coordinator and now I am part of this project, a project that wasn’t a project before. I made it a project since I noticed a theme in our upcoming events, memory and survival. She loved my idea. I hate to think what reputation I could have started if I went into our coordinator’s office and just had focused on my feelings. I did bring up the incident with our volunteer and I offered some of the insights that blended both my own views and my professor’s views on the topic. I did it in a way where the coordinator and I had a lively and productive conversation about it.

It made me ponder, however, that I am in this odd place. Do I subdue my own views to appease the people of our community? Sometimes I feel like that is part of most jobs. A library setting is different. The philosophy of a library is rooted in democracy and freedom. It’s a space where, theoretically, everyone that walks into the door is one in the same. Not in a socialist way, but we are all there because we love reading, we love learning and we love the limits of our imaginations. And we love free wi-fi, too. It’s a space where we should be able to speak our minds without getting reprimanded. I am no longer confined to city politics, as our library’s management is private. Which is a whole other philosophical issue. I don’t represent the city. I represent my library. I am at a cross-roads because I haven’t figured out what my library represents, or what my co-workers want our library to represent. Do we want to be safe and build up the trust of the old, white, conservative people? Do we want to be radical and build a new reputation, a young and liberal appeal that might attract a diverse community? Or can we work towards a reputation where we are open, free, trusting and sensitive to all sectors of our community? The latter is the ideal, but so often hard to implement successfully.

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