Dear Sandra Bland,

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Dear Sandra Bland,

Now, I understand you like I did not before. Now, I know what you were up against.

Shamefully, I have been fighting the same system as you have, and I was colorblinded by Whiteness to believe that I could overcome racism. That if I showed White people how good and how smart that I was, I would break the barriers and gain the same opportunities as them. In my experience of proving myself, I lost touch with my Blackness and began forgetting that Whiteness was affecting me in ways that I fully realized has never went away.

At 10:15 p.m. after having fun at a hockey game with my boyfriend, I was stopped by the local police. We saw flashing blue lights behind us, and we realized that it was my car that he wanted to stop. I slowed down and decided to pull into a KFC parking lot. At the time, I did not know that it would be a safe point. Or maybe a point where there could be witnesses. I never thought of it that way, but it chills me to the bone to think about it now.

I rolled down my window. The police officer asks me…”Do you know why I stopped you?” I responded back in curious shock, “No, officer, I do not know why.” Reason being: I wasn’t speeding through town. If anything, I was going the exact speed limit and being very careful because it was a busy section in this part of town, and it is at night. There are a lot of folks who walk and bike in our town, and I don’t want to be the one responsible for an accident and it on my conscience. I’ve been living in this town for three years consecutively, and I know what the walking and biking population are like. Drivers aren’t usually fond with them sometimes, and I know that it is not always drivers’ fault. Yet, I have started remembering my roots about walking and biking because I was a poor Black kid from a rural country town, and it is hard to track and ride when there are more cars than you in the same area you occupy.

Anyway, the officer continues asking me, “Who car is this?” I said, “Mines.” He asked, “What is your name?” I said in a pleasant voice, “Sophia Flemming.” “When did you get this car registered?” I answered him that I bought the car two months ago, and I had my tag put on there then. And then he asked me for my driver’s license. When he looked, he said, “Your birthday passed. You were supposed to renew your license on your birthday.” I told him that I thought that my registration was good for next year. For those who know me, I don’t play with the law. I file my taxes on time and pay my taxes. I make sure that my registration is renewed on time. In our country, this is what is expected for us to inhabit it.

But what last night taught me is that…it doesn’t matter, does it, to a certain extent when it comes to police authority, and I finally understood Sandra Bland and how her death came about. You see, there are some ways, as a Black woman, I am fortunate. Somehow, that poor Welfare Black girl from a small rural racist and segregated town fought her way to go to college and obtained her BA degree. Somehow that poor Welfare Black girl entered into graduate school and started taking graduate courses. Somehow that poor Welfare Black girl got a job at a well-known university and got a full time job with benefits and is taking doctoral courses now to help her finish her graduate work with her MA degree and to start a PhD program.

However, last night, it didn’t matter. Why? It didn’t matter because as a Black woman I viewed my life at risk. A White police officer stops me. He stops me because he is able to RUN license plate numbers. Police officers even have technology where they can scan people’s tags and get an alert when registration expires (http://www.clatl.com/news/article/13071731/what-is-your-license-plate-telling-police). And what is my point of this?

My point is that there are parts of me that are you, Sandy Bland. You can see our stories are similar in many ways. We both attended college. We both graduated from college. We both are similar in age. We both believed in justice for all people.

Yet, the huge difference is. I am starting to see it. Being fortunate. I am more fortunate than you as a Black woman. I don’t have a record of misdemeanors. I am able to pay for my citation, so I can stay out of jail. Somehow, I have navigated my life in a way that I’ve been fortunate not to be jailed, to be label as a pariah by White people, and to be able to still breathe.

Yet, you and I are still similar in the same. I, too, when I finished my BA degree and attended graduate school, I had a rough time finding a full time job. I struggled, and I was depressed. It was difficult to navigate the waters. If you examine my resume, I have consistently worked since 2000—part time. Some Black folk even haven’t had the consistency as I have. I’ve also had a significant other to help out, but it has come with many prices. Those prices were losing a lot of my self-worth as a proud Flemming. What it really was as a proud Black woman, I discovered that I am not invincible. I am not a Black wonder super woman. I am vulnerable and not immune to the cruelties of Whiteness. Those same White characteristics I’ve adapted: the way I carry myself, the way I talk, the way I walk, and the way I act…doesn’t matter when a White male police officer pulls me over for a traffic violation. I want people to know this is not about me COMPLAINING ABOUT a traffic violation. I get it. I violated the law unintentionally by not seeing in time that I need to renew my registration. Yes, I will pay my fine because it is the law, and Monday morning, I will get my registration and pay for it.

What this is about is bigger than me and is about me. What this is about is that I finally understand that none of us people of color are immune to the dangerous of Whiteness when it comes to its authority. White people have more authority than us. They matter MORE THAN US. They have mattered in this country and even other countries for centuries. Aryan races have nearly decimated cultures (Hitler and the Holocaust) because they know that they have a superiority card. Superiority in human beings is an evil practice because it causes people to commit harmful and even horrendous acts.

The very laws that are supposed to protect all of us only protect and benefit some of us. I was in your place last night. What if I was a little sassy with that cop? What if I began questioning why he was pulling me over? What if I didn’t say good evening office, how you doing?” What if I didn’t comply the way that was expected to not cause harm? I got a little taste of the bigger bitterness you experience on a consistent basis.

I don’t want to keep having this fear…and this stress of being afraid of officers, but I know that if I don’t compile as much as possible, I may be put in a jail cell. Or my life a threat to where I may get a bullet in me. That’s is horrifying. I can’t imagine what you final moments were in that jail cell. I am sure that you were scared, and you felt so alone. Tears are pouring down my face because it hurts. It hurts to know that you died with all kinds of thoughts circling your head. Maybe feeling like no one loved you. In my pain, I understand your struggles because there are parts of me that am you. All Black women are you. We struggle every day to continue to prove over and over again that we exist. That we matter. We have always mattered. Your life didn’t mattered that day, and it was taken. It is sad that you are gone, and I can see you now.

I want to live over a hundred years old and look back at these times as being an agent of change. And I will get there. I claim it, and I will make it. But, I struggle with what happened to me yesterday. A routine stop to give me a ticket so the system can keep making money off my Black body. You were continually stopped and continually had fines on your Black head that you could not pay because you did not have steady income. You struggled with your Black self-esteem because our system continues to take and take until…what…we are tired. Folks are trying to claim us one way or the other: get our bodies and/or destroy our souls. The psychological warfare is deadlier than physical violent one.

Lesson learned: I will keep breathing because it is a part of the destiny that I have determined for myself. Other lesson learned: I have to keep breathing for you, Sandy. You and other thousands of Black women and their lives…I have to be accounted for while I am still breathing. The veil has been lifted from my eyes. I have to do my part and not hide. I have to show that our lives matter. Our stories matter so we can live in a country where we don’t need to hold our breath. That we can inhale and exhale for ourselves, our children, and our country. That Black women are not a threat. We have been exploited for so long, but we belong in this country as well. We are valuable to this country. Our contributions of valuable. I am a storyteller first and foremost. Our stories are important. My story is important and yours is. Our peace is important as well. We want to co-exist with everyone peacefully and live our lives to the fullest. A part of that is recognizing that system of Whiteness harms all of us. Not just Black women. White folks. Black folks. All people of color. How are supposed to become a stronger nation when we continued to be racially divided and certain folks are looked upon as their lives not being as valuable as theirs?

The one that will continue to keep breathing and make it to over a hundred,
Sophia

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Jonathan Franzen & Whiteness

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Hey, B!

What a treat from S! You deserve it. You’ve been working hard.

I’ve seen the Jonathan Franzen article on another author’s Facebook page I follow! I didn’t get a chance to read it, but I skimmed through his interview. Franzen is a fascinating author to me. He would say something as such about him not writing about race, but he does. His race is Whiteness and tends to be Western whiteness.

I stand corrected: it’s mid-Western Whiteness.

Could he really write about Black people or other people of color? I don’t think if he could and do it in an accurate portrayal. I mean in some ways, I can’t help that he is honest but in his ignorance as well. It is White male privilege to say that I don’t have Black friends which means that I don’t go out of my way to make or have Black friends or Black people in my life. Since I don’t go out of my way to make those connections or friends, I cannot possibly write about them. Lena Dunham, the creator of GIRLS, said something similarly, but she actually did make an attempt to write a Black male character…although though she created a Black male character, you can see that if she wants to, she can write Black characters from her perspective as a White woman.

I find it all fascinating as Black writer.

I mean I enjoy watching Sex and the City and GIRLS because I recognize what those shows mean…maybe a part of it is that they are women…

And I can relate to certain situations because I’ve been in similar situations because those characters are female characters.

But I can also relate to Franzen in a way, too, because we are both writers even though he may not be able to completely relate to me. He and I would have to have a conversation about that though.

Hey, B! I hope that your week went well, and you have gotten some time to breathe!!!

I went ahead and read the Jonathan Franzen interview before I wanted to respond to some of the points you’ve made more in depth.

My impressions of Jonathan Franzen is that he does understand his White privilege a lot more than folks think, but I get a hint that maybe he knows that he is egotistical as well. There are some moments in his responses in the interview that I am like…he knows that he is afforded a platform because he is a White male. I am sort of impressed that he actually can admit that he is privileged, and he doesn’t want to do much about it. Maybe some folks would put up a huge argument with me particularly Black folk and people of color about my opinions on this, but I think from his stance as a White male that this is as good as you are going to get it with someone who is not interested in being a social justice activist.

Basically, he knows that he lives in a White male privileged world, and I think in a lot of ways, he doesn’t t want to touch race because he knows that he would do a shitty job of writing about it and mangle it. Basically, in a nevertheless about way, he is saying that he doesn’t seek out Black friends because of the spaces he occupies which means that he is interested in other matters, and they happen to fit into his spaces that he occupies, and this is because of his Whitness.

Does this anger me or make me like…what a prick? No, not really. I think it is because he does admit it from the get go of what he is and what he is interested in. Some folks aren’t going to fight battles that they don’t want to be a part of, and I think that he is more honest than other White males that I have encountered or known. Throughout the interview, he even talks about what he isn’t interested in.

Another thing that interested me greatly is how he sees writing and his writing process which he and I have opposite philosophies on. I like a more involved story in my head which means researching a lot of information to make sure that I have it at more disposal when I write. For me and from my perspective, my fiction is only good when I know a lot of about what I want to know about at my disposal. But his philosophy is write what you know. That’s what William Faulkner did and Ernest Hemingway did. One could argue that this maybe a fundamental trend of principles of White male writers. It is to write what you know because the precedent is already set for you by writes like Hemingway and Faulkner to do that.

So, the two questions are…can Franzen write about other races? More specifically, can Franzen write about other races in a realistic portrayal from his perspective? My answer is that he can only write about them from what he knows from his (limited) perspective of what he knows about Black people. Because maybe he doesn’t like reading criticism and taking it well, and he doesn’t want to get slammed for writing something he may not know very well or can’t represent well.

The other question is…does Franzen write about race? Yes, he writes about his race, the White race. I believe I am interested in his writing and his characters because, like I am with Hemingway, there is truth to his fiction about how humans behave from his perspective. In Freedom, certainly, the characters in that novel are pathetic. There are White folks who are wounded, and they go about hurting one another because they have wound each other in their circle continuously. What I do admire about that novel and how Franzen creates and structures it is that many of us get involved in soap opera dramas in real life, and they play out because we are seeking something that we didn’t have when  we were growing up. We construct our identities, and we really find out that a lot of what we’ve constructed is really shitty about ourselves. I am thinking about myself while we were in our ECHD 8000 course…I thought about how I’ve been complicit in a system where I am getting gains. It is the same thing concerning the characters in Freedom…they are complicit in their Whiteness that results them in getting gains (financial gains, artistic gains, narcissistic gains, etc.). These gains actually drive them to become despicable people.

Anyway, I am going to post the contents of what I’ve written you (my part) on my blog. This is a noteworthy discussion to have for me because I don’t think about Franzen in these ways as Black female writer, myself.

What are your thoughts?

S

I am a Jonathan Franzen reader. You are thinking…Sophia, oh hell no, not you, Friend.

The conversation that my friend, B, and I have up above are my thoughts about Jonathan Franzen. Today, I sat in the Barnes and Noble café after I bought a huge lot of James Baldwin books, and I saw a new one published, The Fire Next Time that is edited by Jemayn Ward. As I sat down and read the entire conversation while eating a tiramisu cup and drinking dark roasted coffee, another layer of Jonathan Franzen was peeled in front of my eyes as to who he is. A huge part of that is explained in my comments above. Franzen admitted in an interview done by Issac Chotiner “A Conversation with Jonathan Franzen” (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/interrogation/2016/07/a_conversation_with_novelist_jonathan_franzen.html)  that he is a White male who has benefited from White privilege. He also admits that he doesn’t write about Black people because he doesn’t know Black people or hasn’t been in love with a Black woman. He expresses that in order to write his characters he has to love his characters. I’ve seen responses from some folks from social media that this a cop out from Franzen. That he is writing about race—his race—the White race.

He admits this in the interview to Chotiner that he writes about Whiteness when Chotiner asks him about it, and he doesn’t deny it:

You must know that a lot of the response to you is surely that you are this white guy writing about white guy things.

And yet some people like it, so you can’t please everybody. You should worry if you are pleasing everybody. I write for the people who like the kind of books I like.”

Again, Franzen admits that he writes books about Whiteness even though he doesn’t explicitly admit it in his response. I believe what I am most impressed by with Franzen is his ability as a White male to admit that he does have White privilege. That he does write for a White audience, and that he has been afforded opportunities that others haven’t been afforded such as him.

I guess I am confused about what people are asking for now since I’ve read his interview, and I’ve seen responses about what he said in his interview. What are folks asking for? Are folks asking him to be a revolutionist? Because he ain’t going to do it. He says in the interview that he is lazy and doesn’t believe in much, and he isn’t going to be prompt to action unless it affects him. Hand in hand, this interview demonstrates Franzen’s White privilege—the very same White privilege that he admits to.

I don’t know many fifty something year old White men who will admit that they have White privilege. There is an acquaintance/friend who I no longer have a relationship with who could not handle her White fragility. I didn’t even bring anything up with her, and she unfriended me from Facebook because she could not handle an article that I posted about White fragility that was written by a White female writer. We had a discussion, and she made up so many excuses and was so condescending to me that I blocked her. At least with Franzen, he admits on some levels that he is afforded the opportunities and experiences that he has because of his Whiteness.

I am not trying to make Jonathan Franzen some kind of hero. What I am saying is that folks should not expect him to be an anti-racist social justice activist. Again, he at least admitted that he is White privilege. Even for him, that says a lot to me about him.
S