Everyone Has a Limit

Here's mine.  I'm tired of the constant harassment. I'm tired of seeing good people dragged through the mud for caring.  I'm currently transcribing the full lecture for review.  But until I do, here is the full letter I received from Jane Resh Thomas, student names within the letter redacted:

July 15, 2015

My dear fellow writers,

As I wrote to REDACTED, damned if I can understand what causes people to think (as she implied) that I don't understand the face of racism. I care what you think about me. Since my lecture has been mis-characterized and I have been misquoted, I need to speak here about some of the things I said.

What I said about anger seems to be part of my having failed to say clearly what I think and believe. As I look back over the past almost-eighty years, I think more people are more angry about more things than ever in my lifetime and less willing to cut anybody else any slack.  I am not talking in a limited way about the real and proper rage of marginalized people who have suffered tortures for centuries and continue to do so. I was talking about the anger I hear from everybody: women, men, PETA, bigots, wives, husbands, practitioners of religions, atheists and agnostics, pro-choice people, anti-abortionists, hipster, teenagers, white people, Democrats and Republicans, people who hate hipsters, parents, environmentalists, citizens who want to kill policemen, policemen who do kill citizens, vegans, billionaires who fear that their huge proportion of the world's wealth might be tapped, anti-environmentalists (some people even want to cut down redwood trees and Sitka spruces)--everybody, in all sectors of society. Look at the anger this lecture has stirred.

Never in my long life have so many people been so angry about so many things. I think that this anger results from hurt and fear. We need to alleviate the hurt and fear. We need to stop calling other people names. We need to turn down the temperature. We need to stop telling other people what they must do and what they can and cannot say. All of us need to examine ourselves.

To what extent are you responsible for my feeling state? To what extent do I get to determine for myself how I will react to the hurtful things people say to me. If somebody insults me, I get to decide how I will feel and do about it. In fact, I have been insulted and wronged this week. One of the things I am doing about it is writing this letter.

Faculty members are encouraging students to "write outside their culture," but when they do, they don't have much chance of being published. I know an editor who would not publish any book about a minority member by any writer who is not a member of that group; too much risk. Nor do writers writing about somebody outside their own cultures have much chance of getting it right. Probably an African American writer would have as much trouble writing about a Caucasian family as Caucasian writers have writing about an African American or a Chinese family. We don't even know how people in other cultures feel about outsiders telling their stories or how they sound in their own houses. Once I overheard a friend I had known for some years talking with others of his own culture, not realizing I heard. I could hardly believe my ears at the difference between his two voices. All of us speak differently at home than we do in public. One of my private students is writing about homo sapiens and Neanderthal characters thirty thousand years ago, in order to tread the minefield without being blown up.

This furor started in a faculty meeting when I mentioned a manuscript that merely plugged in a black character who might as well have been white or green. Moreover, in a scene where the bullies of the small midwestern town where he has been improbably sent into foster care attack him with the racial slur typically directed at African Americans by bullies. We all know what that racial slur is. I (I can't even write the coy euphemism.) I told the writer that, authentic as it may be, in this climate, in either real life or in fiction, that word is unsayable, even in order to dramatize the racism in a story, even to denounce it. Although that word and other slurs are words that I have never used, I quoted the manuscript. (Well, I may have said prick a few times. I wish I had not.)

This matter is an important issue for writers who are trying their best to do the right thing, either to expand the scope of children's literature or to avoid causing hurt through their work. It is a legitimate topic of craft. As soon as I brought the issue up, however, nobody in the faculty meeting heard anything else I said about it, as if I were the bully who had called somebody by that name. Seeing the distress about my even mentioning such a thing, I rewrote my lecture. Twice. In the next two days.

Now I have been slandered and ostracized as a racist or a bigot or an old crock who doesn't get it, either the pain or the modern conversation. The latter, by the way, is one element in the stereotype of old people: we are crocks who don't get it, who can't get it, doddering old fools that we are. A staff member of the program has added fuel to the internet fire. I have been smeared and condescended to this week as a bigot who can't empathize with marginalized people, things that none of my many marginalized friends have never thought of me. My response is to say that I am sorry that people feel hurt, as I profoundly am. And I stand by the ideas I expressed in my lecture. Although I am heartsick (literally as well as figuratively), I am showing up at some lectures. I want people to see that I am neither intimidated nor ashamed. I am not the intimidated sort. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I will not be slandered and libeled and misquoted without talking back. The word racist can be a slur, too.

My mis-characterized lecture also made the point that we are being censored and censoring ourselves in the effort not to hurt others. That effort not to hurt is essential. We need to keep the conversation going, however, not shut it down, or we will shiver ourselves and our country to pieces. In Ursula LeGuin's The Wizard of Earthsea, the greatest fantasy for children of the twentieth century, Ged tries to escape his shadow self, to deny the things that are most base. Doing so, he is in danger of becoming the thing he most abhors. In our abhorrence and anguish about the worst of our history, slavery and prejudice and hatred and repression, we are imitating Ged. I think that we must examine our past and come to terms with it, as we must also examine our present attitudes and hearts and souls. We cannot cleanse ourselves of our history by suppressing slavery as a topic in history textbooks, as the state of Texas is doing, or by removing the confederate jasmine from the Louisiana State University campus, as some students demand. And we must treat one another as human beings and be kind; saying so is not to shut people down about their anger but merely to express it as kindly as they can. Most of us are doing the best we can. As you would want me to treat you kindly, I would appreciate kindness from you.These were things I tried to say in my lecture Monday.

I spent last night in the hospital, because the stress of this week has caused an attack of angina and cardiac arrhythmia--not a heart attack but pain and malfunction that happens to people who have failing hearts, as I do. In the talk about the disproportional power of a white teacher, nobody is thinking about the power of the mob against an individual. As REDACTEDwrote in a letter to me so kind that it moved me to tears, there is something contagious about taking offense. I am heartsick that students and faculty feel hurt and angry. However, my lecture achieved what I hoped for: people are definitely talking. I do not regret it.

Yours ever,
Jane Resh Thomas