Friday, June 19, 2020

The Murder of Mary Phagan

I don't remember my parents talking to me about race or racism. It's probable they did; I just don't have a memory of it.

What I do have a memory of is The Murder of Mary Phagan.* My mom watched a lot of miniseries when I was young, and this one was on NBC in 1988. It's the story of a Jewish man in Atlanta who gets wrongly accused of murdering a 13-year-old white girl in 1913. I don't know why that story stuck with me all these years, but I was 7 when I watched it. It was the first time I understood that people generally don't like "otherness." They also don't like unresolved stories.

I suppose that's what's at the heart of racism to me. At the heart of a lot of things, really. Uncertainty doesn't sit well with people, and there's a lot of uncertainty in life: an unresolved movie plot, a new day, an expansive future with countless paths to take, or an unknown person. When we encounter someone who doesn't look like us, we have no reference for behavior. What will this person -- this person unlike any other in my own community -- do? How does this person think? What does this person care about?

That's the essence of "The Murder of Mary Phagan." It's a story of a community that doesn't understand the ways of a Jewish man from New York. Rather than outright ask him, they simply let uncertainty take over their minds until it seductively says, Resolve me. Make me an answer. Imagine the worst, and let me run wild. And run wild it did. The townspeople weren't satisfied with a guilty verdict and life imprisonment; they wanted him dead. And so, in 1915, Leo Frank was kidnapped from prison by a group of armed men and lynched in Marietta, Georgia.

I never forgot that. I never forgot what uncertainty is capable of. Perhaps that's why I ask so many questions when I meet people. Perhaps that's why I know many of my friends much better than they know me.

I don't always get it right. I judge and make assumptions and work off of stereotypes. It's the way the human brain works, after all. Still, I remember that miniseries from time to time and think of Leo Frank, who was just unknown to the people around him.

*It's available to watch on Amazon.

Thing I'm thankful for: good conversation

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

On Reading

Rather than write a long diatribe about what's going on in the world today, I will simply endorse reading. Reading, you ask? Why reading?

Here's why:

There are a lot of people who have been posting comments on social media that go something like this: "To all my black friends: What can I do to improve things? How can I understand how you're feeling? How can I teach my kids about racism? How can I help?"

And then, a typical response: "It's not our responsibility to educate you."

I tend to agree with the response. On a number of things, actually.

My mom says that abortion is the greatest evil in our world today. I'm sure some people would say racism is. Some people would say sexual exploitation is. The list goes on and on and on, and yes, there are a lot of dark and evil things in this world. I would argue, though, that the greatest evil is ignorance, and I don't think it's a coincidence that people are reading less literature and long-form articles now. (See The Long, Steady Decline of Literary Reading.) Rather than pick up a newspaper, people read only headlines on their Facebook feeds. Instead of looking up a definition in a dictionary or encyclopedia, they ask Alexa. And instead of spending an hour or two during the week reading a critically-acclaimed and age-appropriate book, they read the latest young-adult novel that involves a teen love triangle.*

What happened? Was it Twitter and its 140-character limit? Was it the unending scroll of social media feeds? Was it 24-hour TV? All-you-can-eat miniseries on Netflix? I'm at a loss.

I am happy to know, however, that one message I'm seeing over and over again this week is that people need to pick up a book and read. Read! Learn! Educate yourselves! It's important!**

Thing I'm thankful for: my grandma, for teaching me to read

* I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with young-adult fiction -- even young-adult fiction with love triangles, for that matter. I do find it odd that many adults read young adult novels exclusively. I liked Harry Potter just as much as the next person, but I'm 38 for goodness sake. If I can't understand or be entertained by a book that's written for an older audience, maybe I should re-think the focus of my life.
** I used to be more articulate. See Reading and Travel . . . Travel Through Reading?