Category Archives: Quandaries and Rants

Multi-layered Identities

Because I don’t live under a rock, it was probably inevitable that I’d eventually be exposed to the term “intersectionality.” As I understand it, the term was coined to express some of the complexity of our identities. It was originally proposed in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. Like so many terms that can get polarized, intersectionality has sometimes become a catch phrase, used to stigmatize people rather than to empower them. 

Part of me wants to resist being characterized as part of any group—evidence of the individualism, often overdone, that can be both blessing and bane in American society. Because I’m older, I remember that most labels we’ve used on each other and ourselves have changed over time. They can be used for praise or derision, construed differently by different people—European-American, white, honky, cracker, trailer trash; mixed race, African-American, black, colored, Negro, n*****; straight, gay, lesbian, gender-nonconforming, queer, fairy, fag; able-bodied, physically challenged, disabled, blind, deaf, gimpy, crippled; rich, poor, middle-class, economically challenged, worthless, parasitic; young, old, middle-aged, mature, over the hill, elderly, has-been, etc. etc. Especially since September 11, 2001, we’ve too frequently tended to conflate “Moslem” with “terrorist,” and/or to label immigrants as trespassers. 

Some of the labels applied to me put me in a “dominant” or advantaged group; others put me at a disadvantage. It can get confusing and irritating at times. It helps if I can recognize myself as a complex, flawed, redeemable human being. I’m better than the worst things I’ve ever done, yet rarely as good as my best self. I’d like to be able to answer to a characterization as an aging seeker capable of occasional flashes of humor and perspective.   

Having recently relocated to a new physical environment, I sometimes attempt here to go nameless and label-less. If pressed, I tend to respond with my given name, and then to ask, in what I hope is a neighborly way, “Who are you, and what would you like to be called?”  

On Being Undocumented, Uncomfortable, and Racist

Last month I moved from central North Carolina to southern California. I was fortunate to be able to move by choice. Still, moving always poses challenges. Now most of my extended family is in a different time zone from me. Connections from my old location have been broken. We don’t have enough chairs. I don’t have automated payment accounts for local utilities. I don’t have a local doctor, dentist, or even a health care plan. I don’t know any of the local bakeries, take-out joints or restaurants. A good bit of the time, I feel lost. One of the most disorienting aspects of my “new life” is being relatively undocumented—no local driver’s license, no local bank, no supermarket chain I recognize, no voter ID, no links to local media channels. My challenges are minor, but I SO want my current uncertainty to end!  

In my old location, I’d counted myself a white liberal. I thought I’d worked through issues surrounding whiteness in 21st century America. I’d participated in marches and protests, listened to Rev. William Barber’s impassioned, informative speeches about racial inequities, given money and time to progressive causes. In my new location, many people around me speak other languages instead of or in addition to English. I feel vaguely threatened. 

A few days ago, I got a packet of forwarded mail containing monthly magazines with articles examining U.S. historical racism and still unresolved racial and ethnic tensions. One article described the “race card project” started by journalist Michele Norris in 2010. She’d initially asked 200 people to send her their thoughts about race, distilled into just six words (theracecardproject.com). A real challenge for somebody as wordy as I am! What popped into my head was succinct, embarrassing, and accurate: “I thought I owned the place.”  

In school in the 1950’s I’d been taught that European settlers had “conquered the wilderness,” “shown pioneer spirit,” “plowed the prairie,” “expanded the frontier,” “defeated the savage Indians,” “fulfilled manifest destiny,” etc., etc.  Once I began to read and travel more widely, I learned some limits of this Eurocentric viewpoint.

In my new home, adding to my disorientation is discomfort at having to further relinquish my former historical narrative. The version of U.S. history and growth I still partially carry around inside me has been at best incomplete, at worst, deliberately falsified. For thousands of years before the earliest European explorers came to North America, indigenous people lived in what is now the United States. Much of the hard manual labor to create the agricultural and industrial economies of our country was done either by enslaved Africans or by poorly paid Chinese and other Asians. Currently, much agricultural and caregiving work is done by low-paid latino/latina immigrants. I now live on land stolen from indigenous tribespeople.

Some of my ancestors were slaveholders. Even the majority, those who didn’t directly benefit from slavery or subsequent Jim Crow laws, had access to financial support and government programs that were effectively, if not officially, racially biased. Being “racist” applies not just to members of the KKK or white people who use the “N” word or anyone who makes disparaging remarks about “those people.” A racist can be someone of any background (though in the U.S. usually white) who benefits explicitly or implicitly from a system of arbitrary advantage. That includes me. 

The people in line with me at the DMV yesterday came in all shapes, colors, and sizes, spoke with lots of different accents. Many DMV employees could speak two languages or even more. Might I have to own up to my lingering biases, to adapt and participate in a more diverse culture here? 

What I’m experiencing mimics some stages of grieving laid out in earlier research on death and dying: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression and 5) acceptance. I seem partly to be cycling through the first four stages of grieving, grieving the death of the myth of white supremacy:

1) Who, me, a racist? 2) How dare you! 3) Look, I can show you my NAACP card. 4) I will never get this right.  

Many of my background may be experiencing grief stages as well. If we are ever to coalesce as a fully multi-ethnic society, we’ll have to reject the myth of dominance, white or otherwise. We’ll have to temper our denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. Instead, whoever we are, whatever our backgrounds, we’ll need to more fully accept and embrace the humor, resilience, and graciousness that are also part of the human heritage.    

The Politics of Human Reproduction

As a post-menopausal woman, I’m no longer directly impacted by the twists and turns of abortion debates and legislation. During my fertile years, I was privileged to live in areas where reliable contraception was available and reproductive options were improving. I was blessed with two much-wanted, much-loved children and a long-term partner who helped provide both material and emotional support as we navigated the great adventure of parenting. Once our children were past their most vulnerable years, I chose to end my fertility early, in part to avoid overpopulating an already human-crowded planet. 

Therefore my initial strong reaction to coverage of the “fetal heartbeat bill” passed recently in neighboring South Carolina surprised me. This particular fight has long since been joined by still-fertile women. I have no direct interest. Why, then, did a still photo of South Carolina governor Henry Dargan McMaster, an older somewhat sanctimonious male, white, signing South Carolina’s Senate Bill 1 while surrounded by other mostly older men, mostly white, plus a few women, rankle me so? On reflection, I suspect it’s a combination of personal and societal history.

Until after I was grown and married, I had little notion what abortion was. After a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized abortions under certain circumstances, protracted legal and political battles erupted. Political candidates and office holders were sometimes judged primarily or solely based on their stance on this one issue. Through decades of debate, I’ve been exposed to lots of “pro-life”  and “pro-choice” publicity. Arguments at both extremes disturb me. I lean toward a “pro-choice” stance, but remember, too, the moral ambiguity captured in author Gwendolyn Brooks’ haunting 1945 poem “The Mother” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43309/the-mother-56d2220767a02). 

In early 1975, when my husband dropped me off to get a pregnancy test at a women’s health clinic, to confirm what we both hoped would be true, I had to walk a gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters shouting, waving signs, and thrusting literature into my hands about the sanctity of all life. It did not seem to occur to these zealots that a women’s health clinic might perform services other than abortions. Their brochures contained images of a generic early-term fetus. In decades since, while driving through parts of the U.S. South, I’ve seen similar fetal images on huge roadside billboards. One even advertised a “pro-life registrar of wills.”

The particular legislation just passed in South Carolina does not directly penalize women seeking abortions, but makes performing an abortion after a “detectable heartbeat” (typically between 6 and 8 weeks of gestation) a felony, with possible hefty fines and up to two years of jail time. The South Carolina bill is among a number of recent bills, most enacted in poorer Southern states, circumscribing legal abortions to the point that they become nearly inaccessible to poor and at-risk women.

Globally, both the incidence of abortion and the legal restrictions placed on it have been declining in recent years, with only five countries (El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Malta) placing total or near-total bans on the procedure. Between 1994 and 2014, the incidence of abortion in industrialized countries declined 19%. Rates of abortion are roughly comparable worldwide, whatever a particular nation’s abortion policy—estimated at between 34 and 37 per thousand women annually. (For more information, see https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(16)30380-4.pdf). What differs markedly are the rates of maternal injury and death resulting from unsafe abortions (see https://www.who.int/health-topics/abortion#tab=tab_2). 

What has often non-plussed me about the abortion debate, in the U.S. and globally, is how much it tries to compartmentalize the period of gestation, making it ostensibly separate from the periods before and after a pregnancy. Though alternative pregnancy options such as surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and even transgender pregnancy are becoming more available in industrialized countries (though hugely expensive), the proportion of such pregnancies is small. The vast majority of fetuses are the result of male/female intercourse. 

What about the fathers-to-be? What are their roles? What legislation impacts them? More to the point, once a baby is born, what support is provided by someone other than the mother, be it another family member or an institution? We can too often seem lax in our efforts to provide the “village” it takes to raise a child. In 2021, I can find myself  juxtaposing fetal images with images of starving children in war-torn Yemen, their heads disproportionately large in comparison to their shriveled bodies (https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-01-04/yemeni-boy-ravaged-by-hunger-weighs-7-kg).

On this International Women’s Day, I can applaud some of the improvements made in fetal, maternal, and child health globally. I can honor SC Governor McMaster’s wife and daughter. I can listen to the beating of my own heart. I can honor women’s choices around the issue of childbearing, while I hope and work for a society that concentrates less on what happens inside the womb and more on what happens in the world into which babies are born. 

The Longest Year

This day last year, March 3, 2020, marked the first reported cases of covid here in North Carolina. It was also the day of our presidential primary. As of today, we’ve logged over 11,000 covid-related deaths in our state, over half a million in our country. We have a different President, after an election process fraught with tension and followed by an insurrection. It seems like a very long year. 

As the pandemic began to impact us, we were told at first not to wear face masks. Hospitals and health workers were short of personal protective gear, so any available supplies were needed for them. Starting March 10, 2020, North Carolina’s governor began issuing a whole string of executive orders aimed at containing or mitigating the spread of the virus. A “stay at home” phase began March 30. Executive Order 121 enjoined residents “to stay at home except to visit essential businesses, to exercise outdoors or to help a family member. Specifically, the order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to physically stay at least 6 feet apart from others.” Schools had closed. Parents and teachers scrambled to come up with alternative child care arrangements and virtual learning plans. Stores sold out of paper goods. Small businesses and communities of color were among the worst impacted. 

Nationally, our then-President predicted that the virus would disappear on its own. Locally, most social, religious and philanthropic groups canceled in-person meetings and began congregating in virtual spaces. Public service announcements advised us to “flatten the curve,” so that caseload spikes did not overwhelm the health care system. As spring limped toward summer, cases seemed to dip, then surge, then dip, then surge again in mind-numbing seesaws. Our regional newspaper printed the statistics of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths along the edge of its front page, a sort of grisly “box score.” Whether or not to hold in-person political rallies became a political issue of its own.  

If it was an uneasy summer for all, it was especially trying for those impacted by extra-judicial police killings captured on mobile phone video. Protests erupted across the nation and around the world. Through it all, even mask wearing got politicized. 

Fall brought additional complications, as jurisdictions tried to come up with safe yet inclusive ways to hold an election during a pandemic. Non-partisan election workers needed to be hired, trained, retrained, and/or retained as procedures changed, election boards jockeyed for adequate protective equipment and supplies, and the elder-skewed workforce from prior elections debated whether to risk possible infection by working in 2020. By election day, voter participation rates had surpassed records going back over a century. In our county, the proportion of absentee ballots quadrupled. 

It took what seemed like forever to ascertain a winner of the presidential race, amid delayed counts, recounts, and multitudes of court cases. The loser refused to concede, opting instead to allege massive voter fraud, unsubstantiated by anything other than his massively distorted ego. Thousands of his most avid supporters came to Washington D.C. on January 6. After he addressed a rally near the White House, some of them went to the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of electoral college results. A few nearly succeeded. Their actions continue to roil our politics, just as the pandemic is starting to be dented by more widespread vaccinations and better compliance with public health measures, just as financial relief for the neediest works its way through Congress. 

It’s my fervent prayer that the next twelve months will seem less endless than the preceding twelve, that some of the underlying societal ills laid bare by the pandemic will be tackled with more than lip service, and that our understanding of our dependence on the natural world will deepen. A small answer and blessing blooms in a tree well near our townhouse—this year’s first daffodils. 

First daffodils, spring 2021

What’s in a Title (um, Prefix)

Recently I’ve been corresponding with my elected national legislators on a more frequent basis than previously. We’re living through rather fraught times. Some of what I have to say, I believe, may be pertinent to getting ourselves through our multiple crises. Some of the time, I cut, paste and customize verbiage that’s been suggested by one of the many citizen activist groups I belong to. Other times, I compose an individual message. 

As someone with reliable internet access and an email account, I can most quickly communicate my views via email—both my North Carolina senators and the representative for my district in the U.S. House have email portals for receiving my missives electronically. The forms they’ve set up begin with basic information about who I am, starting with “Prefix,” (previously known as “Title.”)  There are various choice options, different for each of the national legislators who represent me.

If I write to Senator Burr, I have nine options as a non-military citizen, or over 100 if I am active-duty military. The first available option is “Mr.,” followed in sequence by “Ms.”, “Mrs.”, “Professor”, “Dr.”, “Father”, “Sister”, “Rabbi”, then “Reverend.” For those in the military, the options are alphabetical by service branch (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy) then in descending order of rank within each branch.  

Senator Tillis’s connection page has more options, but also starts with “Mr.” Among the alternatives that he includes are multiple options for couples, starting with “Mr. and Mrs.” and then branching out into “Mr. and Mr.” and “Mrs. and Mrs.” Multiple variations begin with “Dr.”: “Dr. and Dr.”, “Dr. and Mr.”, “Dr. and Mrs.”. Religious leaders may choose from “Reverend,” “Sister,” “Pastor,” or “Rabbi.” Three options indicate possible political associations: “The Honorable,” “Representative,” and “Senator.” Then there are military prefixes, mostly the same and in the same sequence as those for Senator Burr.  

Representative Ross’s list is simpler and shorter, beginning with “Ms.” Given my gender and my political preferences, I find her options somewhat more to my liking. Other choices include “Miss.” (probably not an abbreviation for “Mississippi”), “Mrs.”, “Mr.”, “Mr. and Mrs.”, “Rev.”, “Dr.”, “The Honorable,” and “Rabbi.” Occasionally I’ve wondered whether all the legislators might include a choice of “Other,” with a blank for specifying my preferred prefix, at this point something like “slightly-bemused-yet-still-hopeful-human.” 

So far, I’ve gotten written or emailed responses to nearly every message I’ve sent. Many are explanations of why the legislator disagrees with my views or assessment. All have used respectful language, if they can seem from my perspective to be slightly condescending. 

Instead of using email, I sometimes revert to postal mail, having heard at some point that such “snail mail” was more likely to get read by a congressional staffer, rather than just put into an appropriate category for a standardized response, especially if sent to a district office rather than to Washington, D.C. The most recent response to one of these letters actually had a staffer’s initials plus the legislator’s. Progress?  

Beyond the incentive to have my thoughts-on-paper read, though, there’s a piece of sending a hand-addressed letter to my legislators that I cannot duplicate via email—I get to assign a title to the addressee. My hope is that the legislator and/or his/her staffer will pay attention to that prefix: “The Honorable.”   

Unprece(si)dented

Unprece(si)dented    —by Jinny Batterson

(Meditations on this 2021 edition of “Presidents’ Day”) 

It’s been a couple of weeks now since 45 left D.C.
I’m still not sure whether it’s safe to breathe.
This was a President who associated America with his brand,
Singed most forcefully into those least able to resist.

Early in life, he grew to resent others, so during
His term, he fueled resentments among us, gambling
That he could incite us to hate each other, rather than see
Through his redundant rhetoric of distraction.

In the farce of incompetent governance, he played his
Role to a T. Now he sulks, snarls and plays golf
At his crumbling Florida palace-by-the-sea,
As the Atlantic laps ever closer and his neighbors protest.

My coming of age in the 1960’s was punctuated by
Political assassinations–a President, a candidate,
Multiple civil rights leaders. I came partially to absorb
A mantra of the era’s aftermath: “Need leaders less.”

I do not believe we must do without leadership, but rather
That we each need to assume some small part of its
Mantle, leading from where we are. That way, we may
Be able to climb out from this slough of despond

And disunity, to continue the hard, joyous, needful
Work of reworking democracy for those coming after,
Many who know already about the hills we must climb. We can
And will rise. We will not subside into the once-shining sea. 

 

McCarthy’s Ghost, Slavery’s Ghosts, Learning All the Verses

I write this on the morning of January 7, 2021, after a 24 hours that tried American democracy in ways not seen for a while. Our electoral system has survived a challenge. Once an unruly mob was finally cleared from the U.S. Capitol, both houses of the U.S. Congress debated and then certified the electoral victory of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to become the 46th President of the United States. However, challenges remain. Amid a global pandemic, social problems abound. The reputation of the U.S.A. as a beacon of democracy has been badly tarnished, if not destroyed.

I was born into a United States of America reeling from World War II plus the dawn of the nuclear age. My childhood was spent in the shadow of possible thermonuclear war. Our family lived close to Washington D.C.  A nuclear attack on the U.S. capital city would lead to our deaths—from the blast itself or more slowly from radiation poisoning. Nuclear danger from our postwar rival, the communist Soviet Union (USSR), was real but hard to gauge.

Postwar tensions had helped change the make-up of the U.S. Congress. During the early 1950’s, a first-term Senator from Wisconsin made headlines about the alleged presence of “Communist infiltrators” in American government and media. Joseph R. McCarthy’s initial list of possible infiltrators and spies grew, leading to the blacklisting of many left-leaning writers, artists and civil libertarians. In early 1954, hearings about McCarthy’s attempted meddling in the U.S. Army were broadcast on television, a TV first. The senator was shown, per multiple sources, as “bullying, reckless, and dishonest.” (See partial transcript, including Army Special Counsel Welch’s “Have you no sense of decency?” quote at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6444/).  In retrospect, we realize that the distortions introduced by McCarthy made it more difficult to distinguish actual threats from malicious character assassination and misinformation. Later in 1954, McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate. Although he remained in office, his influence waned. He died of liver failure in 1957. 

One of McCarthy’s chief advisors, Roy Cohn, went on to mentor real estate developer and 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, a master at social media. We still live with McCarthy’s ghost. Late yesterday, two prominent social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter, belatedly and temporarily deactivated Mr. Trump’s accounts. His posts had helped incite what became a full-blown riot and assault on the United States Capitol. He continued to spread false allegations about the election’s outcome.

Our country’s Declaration of Independence proclaims as self-evident that “all (men) are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We are taught from an early age to revere this founding document. What we are not taught, or taught only much later, is that about a third of the signers of the Declaration, including coauthor Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders. 

We still live with slavery’s ghosts. The inherent contradiction between professed equality and the myth of white supremacy poisons our civic life. This past summer, widespread multiracial demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice highlighted flaws in our criminal justice system. Since the outbreak of covid-19 related illnesses in the U.S., disparities in their impacts on communities of color have spotlighted lingering health and economic imbalances. Our education system’s attempts to adapt to remote learning further implicates the divides we’ve created in information access.

 I was brought up in a mainline Protestant congregation, taught the importance of loving our neighbors and ourselves. During the 1950’s at our small stone church, I was also exposed to lots of MAGA-style American exceptionalism and triumphalism. We frequently sang a hymn that I grew to dislike as I became a young woman, though its ghosts persist. It seemed sexist and militaristic and badly out of date:

Lead on, O King Eternal,
the day of march has come;
henceforth in fields of conquest,
thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
thy faith has made us strong;
and now, O King eternal,
we lift our battle song.

(In my initial interpretation, the third verse, about crowns and conquest and a mighty God,  seemed also to revert to militaristic themes.) 

What I much preferred was the second verse:

Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

This morning I delved into the origins and evolution of this hymn. The lyric was composed as part of a seminary graduation ceremony, a rousing send-off for newly minted ministers. Ernest W. Shurtleff, its author, was among the graduates from Andover Theological Seminary in 1887. He served several American congregations before moving to Europe in 1905. From 1906 until the start of World War I, he was director of student activities at a Paris school. He then did war relief work in France until his death in Paris in 1917. Subsequent variations of the hymn’s lyric have adopted more inclusive language, such as one referring to the Biblical story of the exodus and “O Cloud of Presence.”  More recent interpretations make clearer that the “battles” Shurtleff envisioned were spiritual rather than temporal. (See a longer explanation in https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-lead-on-o-king-eternal.)  

The inscription on Shurtleff’s tombstone ends with this summation: 

The path of the just is
as the shining light.

May we follow this light through whatever darkness lies ahead. May we react to yesterday’s travesties with outrage, yes, but also with deeds of love and mercy toward our neighbors and ourselves.  

Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined

Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined  —by Jinny Batterson

My early upbringing stressed that I was “white,” as opposed to a few “black” students who began when I was in fifth grade to attend the same Maryland public elementary school I did. Whiteness has benefited me in many ways. For much of my life, it has also partially blinded me to the violence and discrimination visited on those who are “not white.” 

As I’ve aged, the whole notion of “whiteness” has become suspect. Much of the history I was earlier taught “whitewashed” the impact of enslavement and supported the myth of white supremacy, upholding both slavery and its more contemporary descendants—Jim Crow, mass incarceration, jingoism, xenophobia, disenfranchisement.

Partway through my work life, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of years in an African country, as junior member of a project supporting small-scale local consumer cooperatives. I noticed that my African colleagues and neighbors were generally darker skinned than most African-Americans I encountered while living in the United States. Once I returned to the U.S., I was advised by an African-American neighbor that most people who self-identify as “black” in the U.S. have at least some “white” ancestry. 

That got me to thinking. For much of my work life, I lived in central Virginia. The history I’d been taught as a child idolized Thomas Jefferson among the founders of our republic—author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, President of the United States. Several times I made a pilgrimage to Jefferson’s “retirement” home of Monticello just outside Charlottesville. Little of the story of Monticello as it was then told related to Jefferson’s position as a slave holder. Over time, I began to read and learn more about the seamier side of a slavery-based economy. A few years ago, long after I’d left Virginia, an exhibit was mounted describing the life of Sally Hemings, who in addition to being enslaved, was likely the mother of several of Jefferson’s children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/us/sally-hemings-exhibit-monticello.html). The exact nature and complexity of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship remains controversial, but it’s fairly well established that Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson’s white wife, Martha Skelton Jefferson, and that after Martha died, Jefferson and Hemings were involved in some sort of relationship for several decades.  

Jefferson and other white men whose historical contributions I’d been taught to venerate may very well have been engaged in non-consensual sexual relations with enslaved black women. Might I have African-American cousins who were the result of some of my white male ancestors raping their female slaves? It seems not entirely unlikely, though difficult to prove. An African-American friend recently explained that genealogy in black families is hard to do, because record keeping was skimpy and generally did not include enough information to fully identify an enslaved person. 

“Most of us can’t go back further than a couple of generations,” he said. 

By contrast, the most thoroughly documented part of my northern European ancestry traces back a dozen generations to the Dutch tavern keeper who late in life resettled in what was then New Amsterdam, along with several of his adult children. Other parts of my lineage are less clear. Some of my Scots-Irish ancestors were likely outlaws, fleeing across the Atlantic to escape retribution. One of my Southern great-grandfathers (in a family with long generations) was born in South Carolina in 1820. By the time my maternal grandfather was born near Carthage, Mississippi in 1869, his family were former slaveholders. I remember my “Pop-pop” as a white-haired old man who spat tobacco juice out the back porch door and hated his ill-fitting false teeth. I remember stories retold to me by my mother of how frightening he’d found it as a small child to live in a Mississippi home that also billeted federal troops.  

During the 2020 election season, there’s speculation that an African-American woman will be named as a vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. Certainly, there are many highly qualified African-American women politicians—Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago; Kamala Harris, U.S. senator from California; Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta; Stacy Abrams, voting rights advocate and former Georgia legislator—to name a few. The challenges faced and overcome by such women have helped forge a strength that most of us “white”  women have rarely had to summon. The mythology long fed to “white women,” especially in the American South, that white men were needed to “protect the sanctity of white womanhood” was hypocritical at best, if not deliberately misleading and damaging. 

A white woman of my parents’ generation, Anne Braden, whose work I recently discovered, put it eloquently. In the early 1950’s, after reporting on the execution of a black man, Willie McGee, for the supposed rape of a white woman, Braden wrote:  

“I believe that no white woman reared in the South or perhaps anywhere else in this racist country can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls – absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white – absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.” 

The work of freeing ourselves of preconceptions and misconceptions is the work of all. However, in this era of divisiveness and government sanctioned disinformation, it is especially the work of “white” women. May we dedicate ourselves to continuing this work. 

 

Checking Our Sources, Knowing Our Contexts

Checking Our Sources, Knowing Our Contexts   —by Jinny Batterson

As the pandemic caused by the corona virus drags on, amid increasing conjectures about how to respond, increasing finger pointing about whose “fault” it might be, I can feel emotionally overloaded. So far, no one close to me has died of the infection, though several friends and relatives have had cases of varying degrees of severity. The small enclave where I live stays mainly quiet, those of us retired or furloughed staying pretty close to home, those still in the paid workforce adjusting work routines to stay as safe as practical.  

More of us live more of our lives in virtual spaces—emails, virtual meetings, social media posts. It can be tempting to get all of our input filtered through some electronic medium or other. My biological and intentional families are politically diverse. In these fraught times, we sometimes avoid discussing politics, but it can be nearly impossible not to be influenced by what we see, hear, and read. When discussions get especially heated, I try to remember some of my history teachers, including my part-time historian mother. 

“Check your sources,” they would repeatedly caution. “Everyone has an angle. Why did this particular source frame this particular event in this way? What advantage did they gain from telling their story from this viewpoint?”  

It’s disturbing to me that a fair amount of “information” these days is murkily sourced, if sourced at all. Lots of groups with high-sounding names have turned out to be unreliable at best, malicious at worst. Conspiracy theories abound.

It’s unclear where the virus causing covid-19 originated. It’s unclear exactly when it first spread among humans. It’s unclear all the ways the virus may be transmitted. It’s unclear why some people have few or mild symptoms, while others with similar backgrounds can be severely affected.  Given these uncertainties, it’s natural for us to form theories about what’s happening. What’s not natural is for so many of us to be so adamantly certain of “answers.”

I try to vary the sources of information I review, to filter out the obviously bogus. I know, too, that I respond to content in part from the contexts in which my life has unfolded so far. During my childhood, polio was a crippling pandemic that tended to reappear each summer, impacting both children and adults in seemingly random fashion. In some years in the early 20th century, as many as 6,000 Americans had died. Most Americans knew that president Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio as an adult during the 1920’s and never fully regained the use of his legs. At its maximum in the U.S., in the early 1950’s, there were nearly 58,000 U.S. cases annually, with nearly 3,000 deaths. Swimming pools closed. Parents restricted their children’s friendships. 

Eventually, medical researchers tracked down the source of the illness and developed successive vaccines. I remember when I was in elementary school being part of a large-scale medical trial in which many of us got doses of an oral vaccine. In 2020, polio infections exist in just three countries globally, with fewer than 200 annual cases. Global health workers do their best to detect and isolate pockets of infection, often in war-torn areas, and to make sure at-risk children get vaccinated against the disease. 

At some future point, this novel corona virus that is spreading illness and death will yield to research and to more effective responses. Until that happens, it behooves us humans, whatever our political leanings or backgrounds, to check our sources and to be as aware as we can of our contexts.   

   

Democracy Is Not an “Ism”

Democracy Is Not an “Ism”  —by Jinny Batterson

We’re living in a strange season, locally, nationally, globally. First came a novel corona virus to which few humans have immunity. It has spread fear, illness, disruption, and death to nearly every country. So far efforts to contain, cure, or prevent it have met with uneven success. In many parts of the United States of America, the outbreak seems to be worsening.

As people everywhere began to cope with the pandemic, it quickly became evident that self-isolation and social distancing were the best ways to slow the virus’s human spread. In the U.S., those at the “bottom” of society were least likely to be able to self-isolate. Most lived in crowded conditions. Those who were employed mostly worked in low-wage service jobs necessary to society’s functioning—“essential workers,” they were suddenly called, as if a dignified label could make up for generations of poor pay and poor living conditions. Others chose not to isolate or distance because these practices seemed an impingement on their liberty.  

To add to the trauma of the pandemic, we’ve recently been confronted with other examples of our inequitable society. Video footage went viral of a white police officer in Minneapolis squeezing the life out of a prone, handcuffed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers looked on and bystanders yelled for him to stop. It became less and less possible to talk about “resisting arrest” or “a few bad apples.” The systemic corruption of America’s criminal justice system was broadcast worldwide for all to see. 

And we have an American election coming up, one that’s poised to be expensive, divisive, and prone to distortions at many levels. Is it any wonder many of us are disturbed?  Whatever happened to the “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere? Whatever happened to our democracy?  

I’m not exactly sure, but I think part of the difficulty is that we’ve confused democracy with ideology. Many of us self-identify at least partly using a series of “isms”: conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, socialism, libertarianism, federalism, communitarianism, environmentalism. Every week seems to bring a new label.  

Democracy is not supposed to be easy. It is always a work in progress. Some guidelines our U.S. founders laid out have generally held, but there were huge blind spots in our original framework of laws. Some of those blind spots have persisted, as the George Floyds and “essential workers” of our country have recently reminded us. 

Democracy requires that each human has some say in decisions that impact him/her/them, regardless of circumstances. In small settings, that say may be direct. As groups get larger and more diverse, it becomes necessary to have “representative democracy,” where officials are elected to represent a neighborhood, town, city, county, state, or nation and to champion the interests of their constituents. 

Democracy requires that each human be willing to listen to perspectives that differ from his/her/their own, to acknowledge the humanity of others, to be humble about the limits to any individual’s knowledge or judgment. Whatever “isms” we subscribe to, we all breathe air, we all drink water, we all eat food. While we’ve been busy discounting and insulting each other, our air and water are getting dirtier, parts of our food supply are at risk, and more of us are becoming sickened by the corona virus. 

A few of our political leaders have stressed our connections across our divisions: “We’re all in this together. We’ll get through this together.”  Too many of us may not get through at all unless we start acting as if we believe that, meeting each other beyond our “isms.”  Happy In(ter)dependence Day!