Senior Project: Reflective Introduction

I remember the day that my Dad came out to me as gay. It was the same day that both he and my Mom had sat me down to tell me that they were getting a divorce. Growing up a very sensitive and emotional daughter in a close-knit family of seven, this news was devastating to me. But I was very lucky in the way everything played out in my time of life–I say that in contrast to my older brother and my much younger sisters. Still in high school on that surreal day, I ended up using that year to come to terms with this new definition of family. And college meant I could enter a liberal sphere where I could figure out what this whole LGBTQ thing was all about.

It has been only in my final year at Eastern Michigan University where I could incorporate my interest in these issues with my projects. And I look forward to this, my senior project, digging not only into something I care so deeply about but also exploring it through literature; I hope it to be not only eye opening for me but for anyone who happens to stumble across this blog.

But I couldn’t just read LGBTQ literature, blindly searching for some sort of theoretical/literary focus. So I decided to take a more controversial route because these specific topics weaving together are not just affecting me and my family, but also countless other people in the world. And what is this added controversy? Christianity.

When I hear that word, Christianity, sometimes I shudder. If someone asks me if I am one, sometimes it’s with reluctance that I say yes. I hate that I feel that, since my spirituality is something so deeply a part of me. But it is this dual-identity of the strong Christian LGBTQ ally that makes this war waging inside my body so violent. But that sounds wishy-washy. Let me explain.

While having a considerable amount of privilege in my “normal American life,” I would count myself as someone on the margins because of this dual-identity of the Christian LGBTQ ally. But why, Jane, on the margins? you might ask. Because being a Christian in America is the assumed majority, right? But being an ally–especially among the Millennial generation–is quickly also becoming the assumed majority. See what I’m getting at? For most people, my dual-identity seems to have a conflict of interests. Two “majorities” that seem to hate each other’s guts. And while I often shield myself from attacks by assuming only one identity at a time and keeping the other under wraps, I personally see no conflict by strongly identifying as both. And I am only an ally. Consider now the LGBTQ Christian themselves.

This is what I plan to be exploring in depth. How the realms of Christians and the LGBTQ communities–note here my plural use, as all these people should not be lumped into one “community”–are working with each other (and against each other) and what this does to the LGBTQ characters’ character development throughout the novels I read. While the general context and growth of society and culture are going to be huge components, the pivotal aspect of this exploration through these books is going to focus on what it looks like at the end of the day for the LGBTQ characters’ situations. Because in the end, they are who this is about.

Looking for books that tackle both of these topics were next to impossible to find. But after several weeks of searching, I’ve found four that I feel will become the foundation for this project. They are as follows: Bright Purple: Color Me Confused (Melody Carlson, 2006), Growing Up Gay (edited by Bennett L. Singer, 1993), Keeping You a Secret (Julie Anne Peters, 2003), and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (Jeanette Winterson, 1985).

Katrina’s Apathy

There is no such thing as an easy read when considering any section of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. In searching for a particular part to digest more fully, I couldn’t help but lean towards something with a more clear background. Something factual. Something historical. Reflecting on previous blogs, I decided to center on the four pages devoted to Hurricane Katrina. Being in grade school at the time of the actual event, there were vague images circulating through my head: muddy floodwaters risen to the peaks of houses, people huddled in a large arena, people who have lost their homes or even their loved ones. Nearly eleven years later, I had to look up what FEMA was, the conditions of the super dome, and various statistics, to get a better understanding of what I was actually reading.

The section is made up of small paragraphs full of quotes of anonymous interviewees of CNN. Some are clearly from the victims’ point of view, shedding transparent light on the situation. However others are completely disconnected, from a privileged outsider’s view–a relief worker, a resident of Texas, viewers of the news. Through the contrast, Rankine sets up criticism against not only on how Hurricane Katrina was handled but also how it is treated and talked about between the classes, the haves and have nots.

The first quotation that struck my attention was one that initially reminded me of an impatient white person: “Faith, not fear, she said. She’d heard that once and was trying to stamp the phrase on her mind. At the time she couldn’t speak it aloud. He wouldn’t tolerate it. He was angry. Where were they? Where was anyone? This is a goddamn emergency, he said.” (83) If the man is white, I read his anger stemming from an expectation of justice. If his population is the victim–which he so rarely is–it appears more comic, that he isn’t used to feeling abandoned. And then I thought to myself, but what if I have it backwards? I read it again and the woman character, as she changed from black to white, it moved from hesitance to encourage a white man to fearful of the angry black man. And as a man of color he seemed to now be saying, “Out of all the injustice I have seen, all the pain, all the hurt, this national natural disaster is when I thought someone would notice enough to label it a ‘goddamn emergency.'” It is still a cry out for justice, but not a self-centered one. Just the phrase “where were they?” sounds like a collective question, though in a white voice I hear the same words inquiring after only himself. And it is this collectiveness, this asking for the people around you and not just yourself that also points to class, to a less privileged, individualized lifestyle. With this discrepancy of expectation in mind I read two pages later: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” (85) When looking back on the actual conditions of the super dome, I grapple with the appalling apathy and the inhumane perception of these hurricane victims who just happen to be of a lower class than those working on the relief. In an article posted by CNN last year marking a decade since Katrina, the arena was compared to a concentration camp. Where is the justice, the “working very well for them” in that?

Being so young in 2005, I had no idea there was any kind of neglect that could have been prevented. But in reading Citizen there was so much that read like white authorities washing their hands of the situation. “And someone said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said, FEMA said it wasn’t safe to be there,” (84) sounds like a quick interchange between a CNN reporter and someone in the background. There’s the privileged expectation of the outside reporter–buses should be there–and the underprivileged truth–government pulls out and leaves the people to fend for themselves. And then there’s a lack of followup: “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.” (84). Hearing that I also think, what privileged audience wants to hear that people’s stories haven’t been finished or resolved yet? What government wants to admit their failings and broadcast it? “we are drowning here / still in the difficulty / as if the faces in the images hold all the consequences” (85) These lines of poetry, protruding from a mostly prose text, uses the white space to create the pause, to not brush over the fact of the present term “still” when talking about the difficulty. And “the images,” the victims, are framed for their lack of resources to save face for the white authorities.

Before the section closes there is a part that repeats itself a couple times, something between prose and poetry: “He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come. He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.” (85-86) The speaker personifies the water, preying on the vulnerable, the people it’s easier for other people to forget about. But more than anything is that last sentence: “As if then and now were not the same moment.” This is loudest cry to recognize that while slavery is in the past, while the Civil Rights Movement is in the past, while Katrina is in the past, the failure of our government, our country to maintain justice is the same. It may look different, the waters may have dried up, but the privileged people are as comfortable being ignorant and/or apathetic towards the those they’d rather not think about.

While the criticism of the differing views of classes and the failure of the government’s relief of Katrina’s destruction are more distinct entities to blame, I see Citizen giving the common American citizen their due. First we have a voice from someone more closely affected, most likely a citizen of Texas: “What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas” (84) compared to a victim’s account later down the page: “It’s awful, she said, to go back home to find your own dead child. It’s really sad.” I hear that last sentence and there is no way to imagine the pain in the mother’s face, but I can hear her heaving sobs. And yet, this Texan thinks it is “scary” that people might come to where she’s at and not want to go back home. She takes no time to empathize, to wonder what they might be coming home to, like that mother did. Instead she thinks about her own convenience and what else? Her own safety? Whether the “they” she refers to are underprivileged people or people of color–or, good heavens, both–there is a clear separation of herself from them…from hurricane survivors! Why not open your doors? Why not provide real relief?

From here I read the reactions of the apathetic privileged citizens through the descriptions of the media. “Then his aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate” (85). I read this as someone watching too many violence or horror films and how people become desensitized. That the news is carried through a medium that also feeds the consumer entertainment, the coverage on Katrina grows into a spectacle that becomes less and less important the further you live from it. What can it affect you? If anything, it should be affecting the head, the heart, the human soul. Not only class but geographical distance becomes a privilege and the reality of the crisis becomes foggy as fact looks more like fiction. And then the media turns fact and fiction on its head: “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence, ignorance, lack of intention, misdirection; the necessary conditions of a certain time and place.” (83) “… and the fiction of the facts assumes randomness and indeterminacy.” (85) Citizen repeats this phrase “the fiction of the facts,” calling out the authorities covering for each other, to blind the people, to keep them ignorant and apathetic, to not dig too deep into the chaos of Katrina, to keep the classes apart and disconnected. They may try to wash their hands of it, but Rankine won’t let their hands ever completely dry. The residue of what was left undone remains.


A Citizen’s Social Class

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is woven together with numerous social factors intersecting: race, status, gender, age, geography, and specific events in history. While some pages read high with tension between people, reading it through for me has felt more like an individual experience. And all of the tension is building up in one person. Sometimes that person is me. Sometimes that person is who I’ve stepped into shoes with. Sometimes that person is someone I view from a distance, from across the page, because I feel I have no right to feel what they feel and see what they see. But the tension builds between two shoulders, belonging to the same body.

While having a certain degree of privilege, I have felt what it is to go without. And nothing increases going without like the stark reality of money, or lack thereof. But in comes the world and so factors of class aren’t just based on how much you have and how much you don’t. It’s called socio-economic status for a reason.

Looking through Citizen with this in mind–a Marxist theory lens, if we’re being technical–there are signs not only of race privilege but also economic privilege. Near the beginning there is a passage that gives no specific mention of race or dollar amounts but the reality of social class is evident: “You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences implicitly with ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’ You and your friend decided that ‘yes, and’ attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes…” (8). Where race and class intersect, it can spiral to a fierce reality that the majority of middle and upper class white populations cannot comprehend as they continue to bellow this pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-I-did-it ideology.

Though no specifics of the Trayvon Martin case are given in the two pages of prose poetry dedicated in memory of him within Citizen, in reading it I cannot forget than he was killed while on the phone in a white gated community. Maybe his murderer would have acted similarly no matter where they were, but I feel that there is specific aggression towards an “other” when in the presence of wealth. And why must it be assumed that the wealthy are in more need of protection than those with any amount that is less than? The repetition in “these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart–” (89) in that sentence and throughout the whole passage there is an enlargement of the scope of not just familiarity and love but deep connection, foundation, community, worth. These people are worthy, separately and as a whole, but Citizen shows again and again how society’s skewed perception turns this truth on its head and leads to things like Martin’s murderer being acquitted.

But hardly anywhere in the text did I feel the weight of class and poverty as much as I did in the passage on Hurricane Katrina. On page 85, several voices speak: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them. / You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black. / Have you seen their faces?” Underprivileged anyway? Working well for them? I feel a hit to the gut as I stared at the thin, black letters in a sea of white space, trying to imagine such apathy.

This book is to point out those white “anyways” and the double interpretations of what “some-white-one” is really getting chills from: the poverty or the blackness? This book is for that last line: “Have you seen their faces?” I read it as a call to lift up what has been dehumanized. I read it as an equalizer: I have a face and you have a face, so look your sister in the eye. I read it as an individual empowerment, because no two faces are exactly alike. As the tension builds inside of us because of the ways the world presses on us, we are each made to stand, no matter how we are painted by social factors like wealth and poverty.