Writing from marginalized people’s POV

I get nervous about the notion of writing “from the viewpoint of marginalized people.”

Jaquandor informed me:

There’s a lot of discussion in the writing world about the extent to which white people should attempt to write from the viewpoints of marginalized people. Do you have a view on this? Should a white person write, say, a fictional memoir of a slave in Mississippi?

I was unaware of the debate, and I’m rather pleased by it, though diversity should be more than a marketing trend, but a way to get more voices in the marketplace.

This answered is colored (pun intended) by the fact that I lost a friend in 2016 because, in discussions on Facebook and elsewhere, I thought I had understood the specific isolation that someone of a different culture – not white – was experiencing. I was severely upbraided for assuming facts apparently not in evidence. That I was not the only one so rejected was small comfort.

To your question, you COULD write a story about a poor, gay youth in Florida. But it seems to me that someone who had actual knowledge and interest in the topic would be better served to put out something like that.

I do admire the notion that white people recognize sharing the stories that do not get told, such as Rebecca Skloot writing about Henrietta Lacks, is important. Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving is HER perspective on race in America, not an assumption of someone else’s experience.

But I get nervous about the notion of writing “from the viewpoint of marginalized people.” This is because I think it is difficult to “get inside in the skin” of another. It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea to write about another culture, in the abstract; it’s that I’m afraid it would not have a good outcome. It could be seen as elitist by minorities, and if it were a hit, it would likely be seen as successful BECAUSE of the white face involved. If it were lousy, it would be considered insulting.

In Mary C. Moore’s blog, she writes Diversity vs Marginalized: Writing In Tune With Current Voices:

Part of what makes a great writer, whatever background they have and whatever genre they are writing in, is the ability to capture and reflect on truths in society. To dive beneath the surface of the collective and draw it out in your story. These are the stories that resonate and connect with readers… But an unfortunate result is that “diverse books” is becoming something of a catch phrase. And when something becomes a catch phrase, it loses some of its meaning and the truth we are seeking becomes muddled…

Non-marginalized writers may have the urge to say, “but I want to be a part of this, I want to support and represent diversity.” That is a great attitude to have, but do so with awareness and modesty, not because you are seeking pats-on-the-back. The first step? Know the difference between writing diversity and writing from a marginalized point of view.

For that fictional memoir of a slave in Mississippi, is the writer going to use patois? THAT could be interesting for a white writer using “dese” and “dem” from the mouths of others.

I thought the maxim was to write about what you know. Not that canvas can’t get wider. I could write, not just as a black man, but as a father after 50, or someone with vitiligo, a male librarian in what had been a traditionally female profession, or a reformed comic book reader, or a daily blogger, or progressive Christian, or whatever. One can find diversity in many ways.

You couldn’t relate to the Beatles 10 years ago, but you could now write about being a relative novice in Beatlemania. Or any of the adventures/struggles that are specific to your experience, yet universal in our understanding.

Drama: waiting for the bus

At that point, I’d stopped thinking about her until she rapped on the glass of her porch.

cdta_bus_10_downtown_albany1) This happened a few months ago: Getting out of church, I had just missed the previous bus home by seconds, and I had a 20-minute wait, so I sat to read a newspaper in the bus kiosk. There’s a young woman sitting nearby, 20ish, reasonably attractive, and either Hispanic, light-skinned black or maybe Italian.

This young white guy comes over to her, detailing some mournful story of woe, noting how he “needed” someone to talk with. “Could I talk with you?”

“My boyfriend wouldn’t like that.” “We’d just be talking.” But she shut him down, harshly, and he walked to the other end of the kiosk.

Then the boyfriend arrives, and she tells him, in great deal, what had just transpired. Pointing to the guy, “You mean that white n***** over there?”

After she confirms, he goes at it verbally with the other guy, whose apology goes unheeded, until his bus finally arrives.

Wow. An unnecessary escalation of the situation, AND a totally different understanding of the N-word from mine.

2) This happened a couple of weeks ago.

Going to work, I rode my bike from my house to a place I catch a bus. As I approach the stop, I see a bus go by. Is it my bus to Corporate Woods, or the other bus that goes in a different direction?

My ride leaves downtown at 8:03, but takes a few minutes to get to where I am. I ride onto the sidewalk and straddle my bike while getting my cellphone from my backpack. It’s off – it’s almost always off unless I’m using it – so it takes a few seconds to warm up.

The woman from the doorway of the front enclosed porch, who is black, yells to me, “Get off my sidewalk with that bike.” “I’m just checking the time.” “Get that bike off my walk, b****!” I repeat my response, but she escalates hers.

So now I know I haven’t missed the bus – it’s only 8:05, so I get off my bike and start walking, maybe 0.3 mph, to just past the property line, where the bus stop is, and I stop and wait, while she’s busy screaming at her two kids, a girl maybe 10 and a boy perhaps seven.

At that point, I’d stopped thinking about her until she rapped on the glass of her porch and gave me the middle finger salute, which I ignored, as my bus pulled up. She watched me as I put my bike on the bus before it took off.

I’d been to the stop before and never encountered that person. I went back the next day but didn’t see her. Did she even live there, or was she some crazy relative who was just visiting?

Was she really upset that I had the bike nowhere near either the walkway or the driveway, or was something else was afoot? Maybe she thought I was a drug dealer (the gray-haired guy on a bike) or she didn’t like my red and white striped shirt, which looks pink at a distance. I’m just spitballing.

P is for People songs

Plastic Jim by Sly & the Family Stone borrows from Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles.

peopleI had all these posts for Round 15 lined up, either odd words or 70th birthdays, except for a few. After I mucked it over a good while, I said, to no one in particular, “I’ve got nothing, people.” Then suddenly, I did. Songs starting with the word People in the title that I own.

One must start, naturally, with People by Barbra Streisand, her signature song from Funny Girl that went to #5 in 1964 on the US Billboard singles charts. “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Is that true? I was rather fond of the cover version by Nat King Cole) that only went to #100 that same year.

A lot of People songs are inspirational. People Get Ready by The Impressions, featuring Curtis Mayfield, went to #14 in 1965, but was an anthem of the civil rights movement.

People Are Strange by The Doors, #12 in 1967, is a simple song, with a single verse and chorus; I tended to relate to it.

Back to the inspiration mode is People Got to be Free by The Rascals, #1 in 1968.

People Make The World Go Round is a melancholy tune by the Stylistics, #25 in 1972, with a long instrumental outro. I also have a Jackson Five cover of this.

Violent images show up in the odd People Who Died by The Jim Carroll Band, #103 in 1981. The lyrics are serious – and he repeats TWO verses – but the music is pretty straight-ahead rock and roll. I heard this a lot on WQBK-FM, my favorite radio station, at the time.

A more hopeful tune is People Are People by Depeche Mode, #13 in 1985.

The N-word is used in context in People Everyday by Arrested Development, #8 in 1992. I found it unfortunate that it’s so much less hopeful than the song it borrows heavily from, Everyday People by Sly & The Family Stone, #1 in 1969.

I see that Kelly Clarkson had a song called People Like Us, #65 in 2013, on her greatest hits album. I didn’t have that but I DID have a totally different song with the same title, in fact, the title track of an album by The Mamas and the Papas.

Finally, I was pondering the sad tune Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles – “all the lonely people” – #11 in 1966, from which Plastic Jim by Sly & the Family Stone borrowed.


ABC Wednesday, Round 15

Listen to my little pep talk, instead of what that person said

When someone, or several someones, say and do stuff that I think is crazy, I can yell and scream at them, but I have found this to be singularly unhelpful in getting rid of my frustration.

Reprinted from my Times Union blog.

I’m riding my bicycle to work earlier in the month, obeying all traffic laws. When I get onto the main drag, I heard this yelling behind me. There was this yahoo in the shotgun seat of the car, screaming some unintelligible thing to me. Well, not exactly IN the seat, but with his torso halfway out of the window. It wasn’t angry yelling, it had the mocking and somewhat crazed tone of Woody Woodpecker. Since I wasn’t in the car’s way, I can only surmise it was some sort of comment about… well, I’d be speculating.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Once it took place on Western Avenue, but the car stopped at a traffic light, and I caught up with the auto. The car’s passenger and the guy nervously said, “Heh, heh, I was just kidding, man.” But the recent guy was too far away to bother with.

Five seconds later, some guy on the sidewalk, witnessing this interaction, starts jabbering at me, and the only word I heard clearly was what polite society calls the N-word. I had neither the time nor inclination to deal with him and rode off.

In the words of Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie, “But that’s not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about…”


When you’re in a situation in which someone has said or did something wrong to you, and you don’t have the opportunity and/or the desire to respond in kind, what mechanism do YOU use to get past the incident?

Mine came to me about thirty years ago, when I bought the album Keep On Doing by the Roches, produced by Robert Fripp. The last track is Keep On Doing What You Do/Jerks On The Loose, written by Terre and Suzzy Roche. I could only find a live version of the song.

Here are some of the lyrics:

Look who did it to you
Joker over there with nothing to do
Don’t let ’em get through
Keep on Doing what you do

Why don’t you listen to my little pep talk
Instead of what that person said
And now I’m gonna open up the window
And you will come in off that ledge

You work too hard to take this abuse
Be on your guard jerks on the loose

When someone, or several someones, say and do stuff that I think is crazy, I can yell and scream at them, but I have found this to be singularly unhelpful in getting rid of my frustration. It just doesn’t make me feel better, but rather, gives me the sense that I’m as out of control as they are.

Instead, I say to myself, usually shaking my head sadly, “Jerks on the loose.” If it’s one of those drivers going through an Albany green light (i.e., red for less than five seconds) and almost kills someone, I might say, “Be on your guard; jerks on the loose.” SO much better for my blood pressure.

This doesn’t mean I NEVER succumb to a bit of ire, but often I find there’s a better way.

20 to 25 People (or So)

So that’s 25 to 27 people.

Here’s something I dumped on Jaquandor – he’s still thinking about it: “Come up with a list of the 20 (or 25) most important/influential people in your life. I’m particularly interested in those people who may be out of your life now (a music teacher, a lost friend) who you look back and see their impact.”

So, with no disrespect to those not on the list who I love dearly, here’s my list:

My parents
My two sisters
My paternal grandmother, who was my first Sunday School teacher. She also taught me canasta, the first “grown-up” card game I ever played.
My maternal grandmother – my sisters and I spent every day after school with her as well as most of the summers
Great aunt Deanna, her sister- played card games and Scrabble with me, protected me from some of my grandmother’s excesses – I can still hear her say, “Leave the boy alone!” – and loved watching JEOPARDY! on TV
Great aunt Charlotte – my mother’s uncle’s wife, the force behind whatever moxie my mother showed, and the matriarch of many of the people I consider as cousins, having no first cousins of my own.

Two or three friends I’ve known since kindergarten, some of whom may get mentioned here eventually.
Pat – the secretary at my elementary school, she had Friday Night Bible Club at her house, which I attended from the time I was nine until I was 16.
Paul Peca – my sixth-grade teacher, who I mentioned here
Walter – my parents’ godson, and the grandson of MY godparents, essentially handed down to me two jobs, one as a newspaper deliverer, and the other as a page at Binghamton Public Library
Helen Foley – Rod Serling’s favorite teacher and one of mine.

The guy I met the first day of college
Alan Chartock – from whom I took American Government and Politics in 1971
Lynn – college friend in my student government days
Tom Skulan – founder of FantaCo, where I got to meet a lot of interesting people
Fred Hembeck – who got me into blogging

Eldest niece – the avuncular role I had with her spread, as I occasionally took care of my friends’ kids as well
Debbie – good friend in the 1980s, and I know a ton of people through her
Broome – ditto, and there are probably more people I know indirectly from him in the Albany area than anyone
Eric – I could mention almost any choir director, but he was arguably the best at making difficult music seem achievable
Three or four exes, one of whom nagged me to go to library school

Wife – among other things, if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t own a home
Daughter – parenting is just different than being an uncle

So that’s 25 to 27 people. It was my original question, so if I want to cheat a little, so be it.

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