It was a short book, just 200 pages of essays, followed by about 25 pages of notes, yet our Book Club members found much to discover about themselves from Eula Biss’ 2009 prize-winning “Notes from No Man’s Land.”
The 13 essays that make up this highly readable book concerned race and a young woman’s quest to learn about herself. As we discussed the book in three two-hour sessions, most of us were convinced that we learned about ourselves in the process.
One of the participants, a retired teacher, called it a “book of discovery,” and claimed it triggered a chain of new insights. The others, too, said the book raised other realizations about their own perceptions and understandings about others whose life experiences differed from their own.
Reacting to the author’s own quest for discovery as she found herself as a young white women living in three locations (New York City, San Diego and Chicago’s Rogers Park area) where she was a racial minority, the participants all recognized their own needs to understand others. Several of the participants noted that the Book Club lacked any presence of a non-white person; it was true, yet there was a view that should not stop us from being frank and honest about our own perceptions.
None of us could be described as racist; yet, the book prompted all of us to acknowledge that some of our own perceptions likely were racist.
Consider the question about how you would feel about finding yourself walking down a street and coming upon a group of young, scruffy looking African-American men. Would you be scared? Several of us agreed we would be; as long as fear is rational, we agreed, it makes sense to protect ourselves. Too often, however, we felt fear is based on irrational or myths.
Fear is all-consuming, conditioning much of human behavior, with most of us agreeing with the author’s observation that the things that most Americans fear are things that are least likely to do harm. Thus, as one person pointed out, the repeated news reports of shootings in a few neighborhoods of Milwaukee have prompted many in nearby communities to refuse to travel into the city’s safer areas such as the city’s thriving theater area downtown.
It was the author’s quest to discover herself was found in her own failure to fully identify herself to the reader. We puzzled over the fact that while the essays all reflected her personal quest for discovery she told us little about her personal life, other than it was apparent that she had a husband and was a university professor. No details were provided; yet, the absence of such biographical data seemed immaterial. Her own ethnicity was kept somewhat of a mystery, prompting some of us to believe she may have been multiracial (her photo didn’t seem to belie that belief); yet upon further reading, we soon learned she was Caucasian with obvious mixed nationalities, though she only mentioned that her maternal grandparents were Polish. Several in her extended family, however, were African-American, a factor that often caused her to feel guilty about her own “whiteness.”
Her feelings of such guilt prompted the Book Club participants to wonder whether we whites should have to apologize – or offer reparations – to the African-American community for the sins and failures of our forebears, for the slavery that brought these citizens from Africa and for keeping them subjugated to servitude and for then pushing them into the horrors of Jim Crow and the KKK?
There were no definitive answers offered; some said that sincere expressions of apology might be helpful while others wondered whether something more concrete, such as reparations, might be needed. No, the consensus seemed to be, apologies weren’t needed, but that deeds that addressed the problems of continuing racism were necessary.
That led the retired school teachers to ask: “What next? What can I do? How can I be sure that I am making decisions and acting in ways that ensure I am part of the solution?” It was a good question and we struggled in the few minutes left in our discussion to fully answer it.
For one, we agreed that further book clubs and discussions must do a better job in having true diversity; all of the participants were Causasian.
Interest was shown in the sponsoring group (the Southeast Wisconsin Intergenerational-Interracial Community Connection, or SEWIICC) and its progress in seeking to build greater dialogue on racism in the community that involved an intergenerational approach. Possibly the group could hold more discussions on the topic was one suggestion.
Time ran out on us. There’s much more to say and let’s hope we can keep the conversation going. That’s the goal of SEWIICC, which by the way is expected to announce soon a name change that it is to be hoped will be less of a mouthful.
In spite of what seem to be constantly discouraging trends in our community on race, there’s always hope. We all agreed on that, as long as there is continuing dialogue. Ken Germanson, July 25, 2014