Questions Show How Far We Have To Go
(Illustration by Robert Neubecker / June 19, 2014)
Misreadings of my identity and my life have taken place on college campuses where I have taught, places where one would like to think that critical thinking shapes one’s interactions. Is it a post-racial era when a colleague — who is not only white and male but brand new to the position and barely 10 minutes into the job for which I have hired him — has the temerity to ask, “Are you a single mother?” Did he miss the wedding ring? Did he not hear me use the phrase “our daughter” in response to an earlier, awkward question that he posed?
As he asks this inappropriate question, I watch him leap through the fiery rings of his insistent commitment to social justice and civic engagement. I watch him give himself license to be overly familiar and to speak from a place of unthinking white male privilege. All of this adds to the insult that stuns me at first, enrages me later and compels me to address his lapse when the next work week begins.
Are moments like these evidence of a post-racial society? Absolutely not. These moments also have no “post” qualities to them when the hurt and the bother nags at me long after I leave the scene of these cultural, social and psychic crimes.
Yet, my recovery from these moments is speedier and more possible when I insist on asking questions. My gallant husband encouraged me to push back with questions: “What makes you think I work here?” “What makes you imagine that I’m a single mother?”
Asking “what” rather than “why” minimizes easy obfuscation. The pointedly direct inquiry can call the interloper to task, make him pause and, if it’s a good day, reflect.
When I recently tried this lightning quick turn to questions, it was a thoroughly revelatory exercise because not only did I have an immediate comeback, but in an instant, I got to become an observer — although of still more awkward behavior — and I was able to cut short the experience of becoming scrutinized and unseen. When tackling race matters, it can be wholly transformative to craft queries that can facilitate meaningful conversation, reveal collective and individual aspirations, and encourage civic and political change.
As a woman of color born in England and who came to America when I was 12, my journey into race in this nation has been eased and illuminated by my immersion in American literature and history. As a literary historian who focuses on 18th- and 19th-century American and New England writing about race, place and memory, I have had the chance to study the tumult of living in an America that is post-Colonial, post-Revolutionary, post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction and post-industrial.
New Englanders like the gifted poet Phillis Wheatley, Liberator editor William Lloyd Garrison, historian William Cooper Nell, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, feminist activist writer Lydia Maria Child, essayist Ann Plato, public speaker Maria Stewart and journalist-playwright-novelist Pauline Hopkins have taught me and my students the futility of asking whether any era in American history qualifies as post-racial. These writers and activists witnessed massive social changes, testified to unspeakable crimes against humanity, and used the written and spoken word to imagine better worlds.
Their experiences have underscored for me how necessary it is to examine the stories that shape our nation and to learn from the histories that we still have only just begun to write.
Lois Brown is professor of English and African American Studies at Wesleyan University inMiddletown. She will speak at the Key Issues Forum on “Are We in a Post-Racial Era?” The forum is free and open to the public on Tuesday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m. at the Conference of Churches auditorium, 224 Farmington Ave., Hartford.