Of Faulkner and polar bears


Image from endangeredpolarbear.com

A writer who I don’t know but follow on Twitter posted this William Faulkner quote today: “The only thing worth writing about is the conflict in the human heart.” And my first thought was, “Wait, is that right?”

I like quotes from writers and quotes about writing, but the thing about quotes is they sound like edicts when, in fact, they’re just the musings of creative people who, like the rest of us, are making it up as they go. Continue reading

The squirrel knows but isn’t telling (micro fiction)


Photo from society19.com

There’s a house on Kimberly Avenue. There are many houses, but this one in particular is the kind of house that exudes style and dignity and the kind of manicured calm that comes from proximity to wealth. The whole street is like that — wide and well-maintained with grand old shade trees casting cool green over sidewalk and tended lawn.

No one is ever tending this particular lawn. Landscaping crews piloting tractor-sized mowers are for the nouveau riche; the truly wealthy have yards maintained by elves who show up, soundlessly, after midnight, and pluck every clover and sorrel by hand so nothing remains but a uniform blanket of St. Augustine sod.

This lawn is a serene bay of grass swimming away from stately maples in whose shadows are planted dense beds of ivy. A brick wall snakes the property line, with a wrought iron gate left open to suggest a sleek town car will soon pull onto the crescent of driveway.

There is never a car, though. There’s never a flutter behind the drawn curtains or a porch light flicked off or on. There’s only the lawn and the trees, the gate and the wall that pens in the house, meeting at stocky stanchions in each corner. The stanchions are sober as centuries, entertaining only the occasional squirrel.

And one black sock.

That’s what this story is about. There’s a sock on one of the stanchions that has been there for weeks. Probably a month. It’s an athletic sock, and it’s without a mate. It grows more faded, more worn, more fibrous and less sock-like with each passing week.

The mystery of the sock is both that it’s there at all — why would someone walking down shady, elegant Kimberly Avenue suddenly stop to take off a single sock and then leave it on the nearest wall? — and that no one has removed it. Not the house’s occupants, not the gardeners, not the late-night lawn-care elves, not the neighborhood association, not one of the dozens of professional dog walkers, not a do-gooder passer-by.

So the sock remains, weathering birds and squirrels and thunderstorms. It’s mysterious and out of place, a story that staunchly declines to tell itself, a mislaid object that refuses to be relaid in its proper place.

Arts, equity, and the whitewashing of Riddle Fest

I learned something this week: There are no artists of color performing at the upcoming Riddle Festival, an annual event celebrating Lesley Riddle. What you need to know here is that Riddle was an African-American musician from Burnsville who greatly influenced the Carter Family. So think about that for a minute: The first family of country music has a black musician to thank.


Lesley “Esley” Riddle, right, with guitarist Brownie McGhee.

This is not the only story where mountain, Appalachian, country, folk and roots music — much of which seems so of the domain of white folks — is actually closely tied to and even originating from the creative efforts of people of color. But because the white narrative has long been the dominant narrative, people of color tend to be diminished or overlooked or left out altogether. Or not invited to participate in a festival commemorating a person who looks like them and represents the history, hopes, talents, and ingenuity of their community.

I don’t think the organizers behind Riddle Fest intended any harm or slight, but I do think these kind of oversights pile up, one on top of the next, until we really can’t see past them anymore. Words like “appropriation” get bandied about — for good reason — but I see a greater harm. Yes, when white musicians record and profit from the songs of unrecognized musicians of color, it’s plagiarism and intellectual theft. If the original artist isn’t being uplifted and his or her family compensated for payment that the original artist never received, the crime is compounded. But there’s also a social implication: Not only are we white folks complicit in perpetuating white supremacy (I know: The term calls to mind Klan robes and skinheads in red boots — it actually means maintaining a narrative and system wherein the needs of white people are valued above, often at the cost of, the needs of all other groups), we are deteriorating the rich tapestry of our collective human story.

By writing some people out of that story, we lose track of their contributions, their talents, they unique points of view, their voices in the choir. We paint with fewer colors, sing with fewer notes, dance with a limited vocabulary. I could go on. But think of all the musicians we don’t know about because they were be written out of our collective history in order to maintain a prominent and dominant place for white artists. Think about this: Old-time music wasn’t only made by white folks. But can you name a black artist (other than members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) in that genre? And aren’t you curious to know who those under-recognized artists are, what they sound like, what tunes of theirs could be shared right now?

So it’s important that Lesley Riddle was a black man, and it’s important that the black community is part of any celebration of him, and any carrying forward of his music. It also matters that while Riddle was key to the Carter musicians becoming The Carter Family, the Carters were early inductees to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, but Riddle has yet to receive that distinction. In fact, only one artist of color — Piedmont blues dynamo Etta Baker — has thus far been inducted into that organization in its nine-year tenure.

We need to collectively care about these disparities and not allow them to stand. There’s too much at stake. Too much art, and therefore humanity, is being lost to the revisionist history we have — even if unwittingly — agreed to.


Weekly reading 7

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“Skull House, Mississippi, 2014,” by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

You guys. I love Junot Díaz and really love both this writer’s use of a Díaz quote and just where he’s coming from in general.

• “Dragons Are for White Kids with Money: On the Friction of Geekdom and Race” by Daniel Jose Ruiz in The Millions: “There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino).”

• “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” by Rebecca Solnit at lithub.com: “Instead of the dictator of the little demimondes of beauty pageants, casinos, luxury condominiums, fake universities offering fake educations with real debt, fake reality tv in which he was master of the fake fate of others, an arbiter of all worth and meaning, he became fortune’s fool.”

• “Let’s Play: Intuition, Imagination, and Black Creativity” by Maggie Millner at PW.org: “There’s a diversity within the black arts community that we don’t always acknowledge. … There’s no one way to be black or to celebrate our lives.”