I've got news!
Well, eventually... first I'm going to talk about feeling angsty and then reading a really good quote that made me feel less angsty
Here is a weird way to share exciting professional news.
I’ve been in a real funk the past couple of weeks.
I don’t think that I’m unique there. We human beings like our stories linear, with the hard times all in the rearview and the future bright and full of possibility. We like our pandemics that way too, which, you know, seems fair. But here we are. The Bad Graphs are looming again, the air is choked with smoke, the future is not guaranteed to be bright, and so we’re all left to our million different individual versions of Not Taking It Well.
I won’t dwell too much on my own personal funk (it was pretty par for my course, as I tend to get grumpy about the state of the world when the rhetoric around me feels overly caustic and self-righteous, when everybody is trying to find easy villains instead of investing in long-term organizing and connecting with one another). What I will say, though, is that whenever I’m in a funk, the only thing that is really guaranteed to help me climb out is reading and reading and reading until I’m so overflowing with love for somebody else’s thoughts that I’m less stuck in my own.
The book that eventually did the trick this time was By The Light of Burning Dreams, by David and Margaret Talbot. It’s a propulsive, complicated, affectionate but non-hagiographic profile of various 1960s/1970s radical movements. Near the end, there’s an extended interview with Madonna Thunder Hawk, the American Indian Movement activist who was central to the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. Reflecting on the eventual dissipation of the 2016 Standing Rock protest by government and corporate forces, Thunder Hawk put that defeat in perspective. The veteran activist wasn’t one bit surprised when that particular action was squashed suddenly and definitively— she’s seen far too much in her life to believe that we build a better world solely through easily identifiable victories. That’s not actually how change happens. It’s a generational affair, living primarily in the lessons we hand down to each other.
“Someday soon, I’ll be gone. And we’re only responsible for our life span, what we do while we’re here. We did the hard work, we stood our ground like our ancestors. And now it’s your turn, your time— our children and grandchildren. We had our time. We did the best we could. They can read about me in your book. And then they’ll go, ‘Here’s what she did— now what should we do.’”
This is an extremely roundabout way to say… I’m writing a book, and goodness knows I’m not in a funk about that. It’s called A Race of Strangers and holy cow I feel lucky, particularly because I’m doing so with a dream editor (Yahdon Israel at Simon and Schuster) and a dream agent (Sarah Fuentes at Fletcher and Company) as well as a broader community around me that has me verklempt.
I hesitate to say “what the book is about” because right now it’s about a whole lot of blank pages. I do know that it will be my story, and more specifically that it will be about my relationship with other White people. There are plenty of great books about White people’s relationship to race, racism and communities of color. And goodness knows that there are far too many books that are about White people but that pretend to be about everybody. What I’m interested in is something pretty specific and slightly different, namely how White people relate (and don’t relate) to each other. Put differently, I’m interested in White people’s struggles to be in accountable, loving, critical community with one another— how we don’t actually know how to be our siblings’ keepers. And for me, there’s no way to tell that broader story without first telling my own— my long arc of clinging to the myth that I could outrun both whiteness and other White people before eventually discovering that there is no way out of the mess we’ve made except hand-in-hand.
Here are some things I’m interested in these days, which may or may not find their way into the book:
Land and theft and “home”
Gender and patriarchy, both in general, but also specifically about the various ways I’ve weaponized my whitemanishness over the years
Class divides and the ways that capitalism keeps on snaring us in the same bear traps over and over again
Harm and punishment and forgiveness and grace
Culture and counterculture and the never-ending performance of putting on for your team
Hippies and rednecks and punks and heshers and other types of white people you’d find in and around Missoula, Montana in the late nineties
Eastern South Dakota and how the same tiny chunk of continent could produce Hubert Humphrey, George Mcgovern, Kristi Noem and also my parents
Columbia Maryland, mid-century America’s great planned suburban utopia (and the hope that market forces could bring out our better angels)
Seventeen-year-olds who want to be pastors, and the various Southern college campuses that they get to spend their summers at for free
Crunchy liberal arts colleges in un-crunchy rust belt towns and how, as it turns out, the kids on both sides of National Road are all right
How some buddies and I wore pajamas and had a pillow fight in the streets of New York in an attempt to stop the Iraq War… and also how we very much failed to stop the Iraq War but did get on MTV News
White teachers on reservation schools
Nonprofits and fundraising and the stories we tell ourselves
That one time I had a breakfast meeting with former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and he mostly talked about how much he loved oatmeal
Relationships and “relationships,” and the various ways we make our precious time with other people about ourselves even when we claim otherwise
Parenthood and other things that make us both more and less connected with one another
Donald Trump and our unquenchable thirst for sin-eaters
The politics of pity (or “why do you have to pretend to be a hillbilly to deserve an elegy?”)
Mysterious illnesses that confound your local medical community and leave you bedridden for multiple months (and how I don’t recommend them)
Drinking Diet Mountain Dew in a vacant lot that the city of Shively, Kentucky promises, despite all current appearances, is a memorial to the Braden and Wade families
Why spending the past year on the phone and in video conferences with hundreds of white people across the country has made me more hopeful than at any other moment in my life.
If I can stick the landing, I’m hoping that my story will be useful to White people who aren’t really sure where we go from here. I’m not out to help anybody get another anti-racist merit badge, but instead to make sense of what it means to, whether we like it or not, be stuck in the same boat with other White people. I hope it helps us take responsibility both for the mess we’ve made and our potential to be so much better than that stained legacy. Most of all, though I hope it helps us do that together.
I am terrified, of course, primarily by all those blank pages. I also recognize that I’m another White guy who gets to write a book, and even if I’m striving to write something that benefits from a particular interiority to whiteness, it’s totally fair if folks (especially folks of color) are skeptical about whether any White dudes really need to be writing about anything these days. I don’t know if this book will be useful, nor if it will find its way to the people for whom it can be useful. But darn it, it’s a huge gift and responsibility to get to take a stab at it.
I’m no Madonna Thunder Hawk, but fingers crossed I can keep her words top of mind as I write this thing. Every single chance we get to use our time on Earth to be in deeper community with one another is an immense gift. This book is both no more and no less than one of those chances, and for that I’m deeply grateful.
The book and my attempts to write it will, no doubt, find its way into this space, so I look forward to y’all being a part of that. I will be balancing parenting, writing and my ongoing work with The Barnraisers Project (new organizing cohorts kick off in September, by the way… pre-register here, as I’ll be sharing more news with folks who’ve signed up in the coming week). Truth be told, I’m not sure in what way those pieces will combine quite yet. We’re gonna make that path as we walk it.
Thank you for all the ways y’all have been a community to me, whether you’ve been here for a few years or a few weeks. It is a gift to learn with you, it is a gift to try to put some of that learning in writing, and it is a gift to receive your words in return.