So apparently I'm a blog tease or something...(how did that go, Alisa?). I keep promising blog entries and I just don't quite come through with them. I've decided that's un-Quakerly because I'm not living with integrity, letting my yes be yes and all that. So I decided I'd go through the books I mentioned and write short reflections on them, and then if you're lucky I'll eventually get back to Barclay and the other theologians I was writing on.
I read four of Maya Angelou's books. She wrote autobiographies about her life, starting with her childhood in I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings. I lost that one about half way through the book--I have no idea where it went! But at any rate, I read three other books about further stages in her life. I really like her writing, and she had an amazing life! She was so creative in coming up with ways to earn money, and amazingly determined. Also, she's very lucky to be so talented. She had several episodes in her life where she had to do things she (nor anyone else) would probably choose, but she also was able to learn a living as a singer and dancer, and made it onto Broadway, even touring in Europe.
Her books make me frustrated to be a white American. It's so aggravating to be part of this society that historically has been so terrible to so many people groups (umm...make that "historically and presently"). But it's a challenge to start building relationships with people who understandably don't trust me because of my skin color. It's frustrating because I feel like I personally haven't done anything to deserve people not trusting me, and yet I've received a lot of privileges just because of what I look like and where I was born. I know this, and I dislike it, but I can't change it. And so there is an automatic barrier between myself and any African American, myself and Maya Angelou. I felt a little strange even reading her works because I don't want to just read about her hardships for my own entertainment, or to pretend like I now know something about the black experience. The way she writes about her encounters with white people made me feel like an intruder for even reading her work.
And yet, maybe it's good that she's a well-known author now, that white Americans can read her story and identify, or at least sympathize with, some of her experiences How can we learn to trust one another if we don't share our stories? The problem is if we only encounter the "other" through the safety of the page, where we never have to talk to someone face to face, where both of us can remain in the communities in which we feel normal and welcome.
At seminary I always felt kind of jealous of the African American students who had an automatic community and family when they came to campus, just because of the color of their skin. From the outside it looked like it was so easy to just be part of that group if you just looked right. Ironically, I'm sure that's how many people of color feel about whites: that we're automatically accepted lots of places just because of how we look. I'm sure this is true, and I know I take it for granted a lot. But I think there is at least one advantage to being a minority, and that is that the group tends to band together and build a stronger community that includes everyone because you don't have the luxury of being as picky. In some ways I felt this way at seminary being a female student who was married--there weren't many of us! I think there were six in my incoming class. (They admit 50% male, 50% female, but most of the women apparently are single.) Anyway, I guess we all find our affinity groups, and we all feel excluded by others at various times. I just wish there were better ways of breaking down the barriers we put up between "us" and "them," whoever "they" happen to be at any given point in history.
On a different note, (and don't read this if you plan on reading the book), one thing that stood out to me from "The Heart of a Woman" was a scene where Maya and her husband, Vus, were planning to get a divorce. They lived in Egypt, and when their friends heard about it, they called a palaver, which seems very much like a Quaker meeting for clearness in many ways. They had each person tell their side of the story, and everyone listened. Half the people were there to stand for Maya and half for Vus--not self-selected but assigned to speak on their behalf and decide who was in the wrong and whether the community felt they should continue trying at their marriage or whether it indeed was over. This palaver ended up suggesting they try and work on their marriage for six more months and if nothing changed, Maya had their blessing to leave Vus.
I thought this process was so cool, because although to our American sensibilities this seems like an incredible over-stepping of private matters, at the same time I think it's something we as Quakers think we do but we don't have the guts to really do it when situations like this arise. Many of us go through meetings for clearness when we get married or make other life decisions, but do we go through meetings for clearness when thinking of divorce? Do we invite others into our pain, to know the details intimately enough to help us make a good decision? Do we give our communities the kind of respect and authority to allow them to help us make this kind of decision, and to stick with it even if it's not our first choice?
On the other side, as the friends of ones going through difficult times, do we truly listen to others who are going through this kind of situation? Do we help them listen to each other? Do we encourage them to keep trying and give real help and support? Do we give ourselves permission to really assign blame where it's due--not in a condemning way but in a way that says, "Friend, we truly love you and because of that we have to point out that what you're doing is hurting another"? We may do this at times among our closest friends, but not in the sense of calling someone before a trusted community to make the decision together.
Part of the problem: do we really trust our communities? Are we trustworthy communities? How do we call people to account in ways that still make them feel loved and accepted by the community? This could be done very badly (and often is in the church). But it could be done in a way that helps people make better decisions and feel grounded in the love and care of their community.
If you want to read about how the palaver was conducted it's in Angelou's "Heart of a Woman," pp. 249-254.