Time to Learn Our Real History

I’ve frequently observed that my high school history teacher taught us that the Civil War was fought between us and them. Since this was in Texas, you can probably guess which side was “us”.

In the past, I said this more or less as a joke. Not that it wasn’t true – it was very true – but my intention was to mock those history lessons, to point out that the small town where I went to high school was so far behind the times.

Now, though, as Texas and other states pass laws to prevent history teachers from telling the truth about U.S. history, this memory of my education makes me want to cry. While I was fortunate to grow up in a family that rejected the Lost Cause narrative and Jim Crow racism, the rest of the world in which I lived was defined by those lies at every turn.

I saw those lies for what they were, but I somehow managed to both assume that things were changing – it was the time of the activist Civil Rights Movement – and that some things, like monuments to the traitors who led the Confederate Army, would always be with us.

I turned out to be wrong on both counts. We did make some progress on racism, enough that these days there are many powerful African American voices that call it out regularly, but not enough to keep it from remaining a powerful force in this country and not enough to fix all the systemic racism that we are only now beginning to discuss.

And we are finally reckoning with the fact that the Civil War was an act of treason by those who wanted to continue enslaving other human beings. Despite the backlash going on from white supremacists and in some state legislatures, we’re talking about this horrific part of our history in terms I never expected to hear. Continue reading “Time to Learn Our Real History”

Police Brutality and How My Jury Found For a Black Plaintiff

As I write this, the Derek  Chauvin trial is still under way, another Black man has been shot by law enforcement, and a Black Army officer has been brutalized and his life threatened. As outraged and saddened as I am by these heinous events, I also remember a time when I served as a juror on a civil trial that pitted law enforcement against a Black victim. This was many years ago, a time before Black Lives Matter, a time when it was assumed that police actions, no matter how brutal, were acceptable and justified. The case received no notice. It made no difference, except to me and, I hope, the plaintiff. But I think it’s worth telling now.

The events, as I remember as related in the course of the trial, were that two law enforcement officers stopped a car for a broken tail light. It was at night in a fairly well-to-do area. The driver was a young Black man. In the course of the traffic stop, the officers beat him so badly as to leave him with permanent injuries and needing years of recovery. The officers would have had us, the jury, believe that their actions were necessary. The plaintiff asserted that he posed no threat and offered no resistance.

The two officers were white, and they were at least six feet tall, muscular, and clearly fit. The Black man was small, about my size (I was 5’3”), lightly built, well-spoken, a professional. As the testimony proceeded, I found myself more and more appalled by what happened, and more incredulous that two trained officers could not have found a non-violent way of managing a routine traffic stop.

After we heard the testimony, we were instructed as to the law that we must follow, which required that the officers have malicious intent, or something to that effect. We wrestled with the language of the law and with how to interpret it in light of the events. For myself, my conscience and my sense of what is right and just were far more compelling. It was luminously clear to me that the plaintiff had been horribly beaten for no other reason than being a Black man. That the officers, who were supposed to act in a responsible, fair manner, were guilty of a gross abuse of power. Through the deliberations, I argued passionately for justice as I saw it. Some of my fellow jurors were already of my opinion, others were persuaded by my arguments, and a few insisted the case did not fulfill the letter of the law and the officers were justified.

In the end, however, we found for the plaintiff. (A civil trial does not require a unanimous vote.) The jury did not award him everything he asked. There were no punitive fines, but reimbursement of medical expenses and, if memory serves, a portion of lost income. After the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney said she was not able to tell us before, but the award of just a single penny in a trial of this sort meant the plaintiff could now take the case to Federal court for civil rights violations (or a similar next move—I may be fuzzy on the exact details). I will never forget the look on the Black plaintiff’s face after we delivered our verdict. I don’t know if was hope or amazement or relief. In that moment, I felt myself part of something greater: a very small step toward justice.

 

There is more to this story, a post-script as it were. The judge thanked us for our service and then advised us to leave the area as soon as possible. The year was 1992. The jury in the Rodney King case was about to deliver their verdict, and protests were expected. Outside the court house, the streets were almost deserted except for police vehicles. My usual bus was not running because the route had been blocked. Eventually I made my way home on another bus, watching the fires from the freeway.

I’d like to think that what I did, that infinitesimal step towards a more just society, made a difference. The temptation, though, is to become discouraged and stop trying. I’ve learned since that giving up is a luxury born of white privilege. My Black friends don’t get to take a vacation from racism because it’s difficult or terrifying. Today, almost 30 years later, white law enforcement officers are still brutalizing Black people.

I am reminded of a teaching in my own tradition, (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, part of the Talmud), attributed to first century rabbi Tarfon:

“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21)

Let us persist, then, and accomplish what we are able, knowing that the next generation will take up the task after us.

 

Culture and science fiction conventions

I wrote out many thoughts on last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention, but something rather important has come up and I need to talk about it. It’s related to World Fantasy, true, but it’s also related to many other online conventions this year.

People from all over the world dropping in to take tea and chat can be delightful… but can also cause problems. No convention has been entirely without problems and no convention has been entirely without moments when cultures have come together and produced fascinating and useful conversations.

I could cause more problems if I listed the issues each and every convention has had or say nice things about the terrific conversations, but I shan’t do either. Instead, I shall give a small list of quite specific ideas to consider. These are the kinds of discussions that program people have or should have. (I’ve had them when programming. And yes, I made mistakes. The world is a big place and full of exceptional complexities.)

1. How do countries see their own various cultures? We can’t just take our own views and use them as a framework for the description of others. My favourite example of this is that people of Korean ancestry are from the dominant culture in Korea and the opposite in the US: a Korean and a Korean American have completely different experience in terms of prejudice and who society favours.

2. How do minorities see themselves, explain themselves, and why? The example I give on panels is often me, myself and I, for I am not the same Jewish as US Jewish and have some very interesting life experiences to prove it. Ask me about them, and ask me what elements of Australian history pushed me towards my self-description as off-white.

3. In any community, who are the experts on matters of culture? I’ve spent a large chunk of my life working on these things and some con-runners know this and ask me to be on panels or for advice. Others… don’t. The variations on ‘don’t’ can be entertaining but often make me feel like an outsider. I have other things to do than spend more of my life as an outsider (I am one anyway, so I don’t need to accept the gift of more outsider status) and move on to other things. We are all different people. Ask around and find out who knows what. (Ask me what my new PhD topic is, I dare you. It includes the words ‘culture’ and ‘genre fiction’. Ask anyone researching what their research is about.)

4. There are procedures and guidelines for working with so many minority cultures in so many countries. My favourites look a bit like this: https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/writing-protocols-for-indigeno-5b4bfc67dd037.pdf This and a set of writing guidelines have been produced by the owners of the culture in order to make it possible for the rest of us to write without appropriation. While not all cultures have documents of this sort, they often have people who can be asked. It would be very useful if possible panellists know about policies and protocols and politics. It would also be useful if they could explain how one works with people of this culture or that. However, none of us know everything. Panellists should all know their limitations. That’s the bottom line. We need to know who we can speak for and who we should defer to on a given subject.

This is not a list of ten. It could be, but those four subjects are immense and enough to be getting on with.

Juneteenth

There is talk these days about making Juneteenth a national holiday to mark the end of slavery in this country. And while setting a holiday doesn’t end abusive policing or systemic inequality or even microagressions, the history around Juneteenth makes talking about it a useful focus for addressing the racism that white people want to pretend don’t exist.

It could be argued that the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective — January 1, 1863 — is a more appropriate holiday, since that’s when slavery became illegal in the states that were in rebellion against the United States (though not in the slave states still in the Union, such as Maryland). Though the day of ratification of the 13th Amendment, which legally abolished slavery in the United States — December 6, 1865 — is even more appropriate, because that’s when slavery was legally abolished across the entire country.

But I think Juneteenth makes the most sense. First of all, it is a celebration started by African Americans, who, as the people most affected, should set such dates. The Black people of Galveston began holding celebrations on June 19, 1866. Unlike most holidays, which are set by those in power and often for political reasons, this one came from the people affected. That makes the day powerful. Continue reading “Juneteenth”

A Little Bit of Hope

I felt a little hope this week.

The uprising in the streets of our country (and much of the rest of the world) brought me that hope.

Or more accurately, the reaction to that uprising, which for once veered away from the usual tut-tutting about property damage and instead focused on how the police attacked peaceful protestors. The blatant racism and casual police violence that have always been a part of our society are now under serious scrutiny.

There is a call for real and systemic change in how we handle public safety, something I’ve wanted to see for many years and yet never expected to see. Sometimes, despite being a science fiction writer, I lack imagination when it comes to change in my own world. Continue reading “A Little Bit of Hope”