Anita DeRouen


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The Morning After

This morning I made my seven year old son cry. He woke up and, bleary-eyed waking, asked me if Hillary Clinton had won the election. I told him that she hadn’t, that Donald Trump had won. He buried his sweet face in the pillow, wiping away the tears. I rubbed his back, asked him if he was sad. He nodded. I asked him if he was scared. He nodded. I told him that there was nothing to be afraid of, reminded him of the conversation we’d had the day before about how our government is made up of a system of checks and balances to make sure that one person can’t ruin the whole glorious mess of a thing. 

I told him that while Clinton had won the most votes, Trump had won the most states, and I was thankful for the foresight to explain the electoral college to him. I told him that meant something: that half of the country thought she should have been elected and that means that half of the country don’t believe that Trump should be and that means that we’re not alone. 

I told him I’d made chocolate chip muffins. He asked if he could have two. He’s seven.

As we got him ready to go to school–no rush to be on time today, why rush to be on time today–he told me that he was scared. I asked him what of. His answer?

“X says that if Donald Trump is elected, he’s going to ship all of the black people back to Africa.” 

I had to pause for a moment at that. X is the child of a former student of mine. I tucked that away for further contemplation.

I told him that was not true. He looked at me scared, and I knew what he needed to hear.

“Mommy isn’t going anywhere. Donald Trump can’t send me or any of our family members anywhere. We were born here.”

He was worried about the Mexican American mother of one of his best friends. I reassured him that she, too, would not be going anywhere. I tried to explain to him the nature of birthright citizenship, but that was a bit more than the morning could bear. We talked, too, about race, about his half-blackness, something he really can’t understand yet. He’s seven.

On the drive to school, he told me that he was going to tell X that Donald Trump may be president, but he’s not shipping anybody anywhere. I’m gonna let him hand on to that for a little while. He’s seven. 

My child was born into a country with a black president. He was utterly shocked to learn that we’d never had a woman as president. He’s seven. He has so much to learn, but at least he’s learned that a black man can be president. That’s got to stand for something. And I have to raise him to be the kind of man who will continue to be shocked that a woman has never been president, that anyone, really, who isn’t white and male and heterosexual and Christian so that he will understand that what is “normal” isn’t always what’s right.


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Tiny Living

slide_4I started the new year by listening to an audio recording of my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels, Persuasion. The story begins, as many of her novels do, with an estate entailed away from the daughters of the current holder. The twist here is that the estate is held by Sir Walter Eliot, a baronet who is, I believe, the most aristocratic of Austen’s parents; he is also tremendously vain and awful with his money, so awful that the first portion of the book is dedicated to working out a scheme by which he can move out of the family home and into smaller digs with no loss of dignity because…well, because he can’t bear the thought of staying in his home with none of the “comforts of life” (like multiple carriages and ice in summer, I suppose). He and his daughters leave the house for Bath, where they can live cheaply while still maintaining their social standing. They let the house to an Admiral, and then there’s a love story that’s awesome and all the usual Jane Austen trappings.

I write the above as a way of saying I’ve been thinking a great deal about the Eliots, particularly Anne, the subject of this particular narrative. I began the new year with a burning desire to slough off the unecessary weight in my life. The largest burden? A rented house far too large for my patience, sanity, and budget. After my husband and I split up, I stayed here for continuity–for my son–but it’s been a year and my pocketbook can no longer take the strain.

But could I retrench? I thought of Sir Walter often, of the sorts of social expectations that encourage us to maintain lifestyles for which we are not necessarily suited at various points in our lives. As I sat on one of three couches in my house and watched a show on one of three televisions, I looked around the room and realized that I hadn’t touched anything in at least 5 of the 8 rooms in my house for a month. The dining room had been unused for at least 180 days. My home office housed an unpassable mountain of boxes. Each of these rooms was packed with stuff, stuff that I was paying to store in this enormous space. That’s when the weight felt heaviest. That’s when I knew I had to get out.

And so I’m out. A dear friend had a spare room and bath, and I took her up on the offer to stay. I put the essentials of starting my next solo household into storage and purged a great deal of excess. There’s still a great deal more to sift and sort, and I’m finding that task easier and easier with each item I release.

Will this end well? Who knows? I can only say that I’m tremendously grateful to my friend and I’m entirely loving the freedom of smallness. More to come…


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Saida Grundy is not a racist

I found about about a little academic drama brewing around Saida Grundy, newly hired assistant professor of sociology at Boston University. Grundy is getting fired upon by conservatives and alumni for tweets that call out whiteness. The one leading most of the headlines reads as follows:

“why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?”

You can read more of her tweets here, at the socawlege.com site that initially “broke” this story. Grundy has since hidden her twitter feed (smart, but sad) and must now suffer the indignity of having the sort of lukewarm back-handed support that only a college can give. Fox News (I know, I know) reports that Boston University has “condemned” her words, if by “condemnation” you mean backtracked from their earlier support of her right to free speech on the pressure of the public and the alumni to state the following:

“‘The University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements,’ Riley told FoxNews.com Saturday.”

Not quite a condemnation–more a bit of face-saving pablum to keep those donations flowing.

I want to sit with the tweet I quoted earlier for a few minutes, though, because it’s the one that seems most under scrutiny, and it’s the one that I think is a conversation starter for anyone working in a college or university setting today. Critics of Grundy question her ability to teach all students, arguing that her statement reveals a natural predisposition to treat white males students unfairly in her classes. I take issue with that for these reasons:

  • She was hired for this position after what I can only imagine was a round of rigorous scrutiny on the part of the university in question, a process that surely included a review of her previous teaching experience, student evaluations, a teaching demonstration, and interviews.
  • She is speaking from a particular context to a particular situation set in a particular context. The tweet in question was discovered mid-March, right about the time that the nation was witnessing a number of high-profile cases of problematic racial and gendered behavior on the part of various fraternity chapters. To make such a comment in that moment seems natural, appropriate, and provocative; we need to talk about this issue in our culture, and that’s a conversation that is dificult.
  • Grundy isn’t the one that made it about race and gender; the white men involved did by their actions, actions that perpetuate toxic behaviors and attitudes. While the general public is shocked by these incidents, it is also quick to move away from them, taking the rectification of the local problem (suspension of a chapter, expulsion of a student) as the ultimate solution without seeing these events as part of a larger problem. By doing so, we make it impossible to discuss the real issue because we let the population in question–and the various institutions (the family, academia) that are involved–off the hook for dealing with the underlying issue.

So kudos to you, Saida Grundy, for daring to say what needs saying. I hope that your tenure at Boston University gives you ample opportunity to challenge and teach the very minds critics say you will try to “indoctrinate.” Education is not about reaffirming beliefs; the best education helps us to understand why we believe what we believe and, if appropriate, change our beliefs and behaviors to better be the people we wish to be in the world. Posing the sort of questions she poses is a way forward to that goal.


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Anthem?

Written January 24, 2013, but wanted to be shared today.

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

–Langston Hughes

I was going to write about Girls and Lena Dunham this week, about how her recent Golden Globe win spurred me to add the show to my "List of Things that I'm Watching Solely So that I Can Legitimately Bitch about How Unrelentingly White They Are." I got about 500 words down before I realized that I was bored–with myself.

So I shifted
around on a page
white as snow
and

I
drifted

and wondered
where my words
should go.

I sat

and

I stared

at

the

wide

open

page

till

this

pain

in

my chest

sang,

this bird in a cage
that was frightened
of me
setting it free
to be what it thought it
should
could
would
might
be.

But, really?

Who am I
to deny
that her wings ever fly,
to hold back from my your our eyes
all her truths and her lies.

So today I’ll just say
what she wants me to say

that I’m hurt when I see my brown margined away,
no big part of the art that we love and award
'less I’m shackled or serving or part of the horde
and the hustle and bustle, the noise of the city.

And Langston was right
‘cause my page is my page
and try as I might
it will 
never be
ever be
cannot be white.

What that means for me now is anyone’s guess
but the weight in my chest feels
that little bit less
so I think
I’ll just do
what I seem to do best

let the bird sing her song
as it shatters her nest.


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Mixed Berries

Alaska Wild Berries

Will wonders never cease?

According to WWL, The Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival has decided to pull this year’s poster from the marketplace, to apologize for the poster, and to commit to diversifying its planning board.

I can live with that. Small town America is where change has to happen, and if it took a public scuffle over the poster design for a small festival in Louisiana to plant the seeds of change somewhere, I’m all for it. People are talking; yes, many are still not understanding what’s wrong with the design or showing their support for the artist and the poster. I’m OK with that. They may not understand today, they may not understand tomorrow, but somewhere in the back of their mind that question will nag: what am I not seeing about this that others are?

So, why are my berries mixed? While I am thrilled that the local NAACP chapter was part of the conversation that led to the decision to pull the poster (along with Kiwanis, the group that commissioned it), I’m troubled by one of their demands: that the artist, Kalle’ Siekkinen, apologize for his work and comments he made about his intention and the audience reception. That’s something that i think goes a step too far.

Let me be clear: I’m not entirely down with this sort of folk art, particularly when it comes from the hands and hearts and minds of white folks. I love Clementine Hunter‘s work; I appreciate what she was doing with what she had, and there’s something that she evokes in her work that is raw, untutored, and real. I’ve seen a lot of casual comparisons between Siekkinen and Hunter, but I don’t think they hold up. For me, context matters, and the way the artist comes to the art and the subject is part of what makes it work (or not) for me.

As a teacher, I know that we each travel a long road where we must constantly revise ourselves as we meet the world. Demanding an apology assumes that he understands where the pain and hurt comes from for the audience reacting so negatively to this image; given that this one image is representative of not only his work, but the work of his mentor, one would be hard-pressed to expect the sort of soul-searching and grappling with life purpose that would lead to an authentic apology could happen within the space of a few days.

Beyond the time-frame issue, though, I have to push back against the notion that we take the artist to task in this case. Would I buy his art? No. Do I want him to quit making art? No, but I’d like him to do the work that we all have to do when people say that something we’ve done has caused them pain. Do I blame him for the controversy? Is it his fault?

No. My frustration with this issue has always been grounded in the selection of the work as representative of community, not with the work itself. Sure, there’s a conversation to be had about the social, moral, and/or ethical responsibilities of the artist, but that’s not the locus of my anger about the selection of that poster. Again: representation MATTERS, and I cannot suppress another person’s right to represent themselves, even if that representation causes me pain.


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Don’t Blame the Strawberries…

As a native Louisianian, I appreciate a good festival. Spring or fall, if you’re in the mood for parades and throws, street dancing and live music, arts and crafts and cuisine, you’ll find them in abundance at any of a number of small-town festivals around the state. Many of the festivals celebrate the local agriculture industries, which assures you of divine one-of-a-kind culinary pleasures that highlight the labor of the local farm.

I grew up in New Iberia, home of the Sugarcane Festival. It’s held at the end of September, which coincides with my birthday, so I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the festival that seemed to celebrate all that sweet about me! 😉 Now that I’m older, though, I appreciate the local flavor of these festivals more and more, and the rapidity with which we can share our experiences in local contexts on a larger stage through social media means that more and more people have the chance to come into contact with pockets of my home state they may not otherwise experience.

Of course, when this is the image that represents a pocket, I temper my enthusiasm.

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In this image you see the royalty and, I presume, planners for the 2015 Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival at the unveiling of this year’s festival poster. The poster was designed by Kalle Siekkinen, an artist from Southern Louisiana who works primarily in recycled materials and claims Bill Hemmerling, a Chicago native who moved to Pontchatoula and found inspiration in the local culture, as his primary influence and inspiration. i say these things so that you can understand that I understand that there is a lineage at play here and an artist who is making the art he feels compelled to make. Having said that…

Festival posters are not single objects. They are commercial products, designed to represent the festival in question. They are collectors items, produced in mass quantity and sold to people who wish to frame them and display them in their homes. The official poster design shows up frequently on official t-shirts, postcards, stickers, programs. It’s an advertisement that doubles as art, and getting a talented local artist to design your poster is a way to celebrate the local culture, a marriage of the thing the festival celebrates and the area that celebrates it. I love festival posters, although I don’t collect them; I appreciate the care that committees and communities take to support local artists and to honor their work.

Having said that, I can neither support nor defend this image for many of the same reasons I’m still trying to calm down from the sight yesterday of this one:

northga

This image appeared on the cover of a continuing education catalog distributed to the community surrounding the University of North Georgia. The brochure advertises community education classes, and the copy surrounding the image (which I believe may be a stock photo) gives you the message the University likely intended to portray: the idea that attending courses offered through this program would better prepare you to win the race for success. There is, of course, outcry over this image, and for good reason; if you need an explication of the image to help you see the problem, leave a comment and I’ll oblige the first request. I trust, though, that you can see the issue for yourself.

In the course of two days, then, I’ve seen two outrageously inappropriate uses of imagery to support what should be positive community enterprises, and I just keep asking myself: how does this keep happening? These are the two today, but I have no doubt that two or twenty or two hundred more will surface or are out there waiting to be found if I’m willing to do a quick google search. At the most basic level of institutional image and self-preservation, why are people in the positions to produce, select, and distribute these images not rhetorically aware enough to at least anticipate that someone in the target audience might be so negatively put off as to harness the awesome power of the internet to expose their organization to undesired anger and ridicule?

Which is not to downplay the really serious issue about these images as representations of organizational mission/character–if you know me, you know that I am outraged by these images because they perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce racist perceptions. Representation MATTERS on so many levels, and being attentive to your representational choices is a critical element of being an effective communicator because I, as your audience, don’t want to listen to anything you have to say if the first thing you do is hurt me or those I love.

It’s not enough, though, to simply represent. Simple representation is what’s happening here: there are black people and women in these two images, aren’t there? I’ve read many responses online to both images, and I’ve read an equal number of laudatory and condemnatory remarks. Those who condemn–well, let’s not waste our time on that. Those who laud? Their arguments range from the sublime (these are artistic or thoughtful creations that celebrate the beauty of the human spirit) to the ridiculous (this type of art is hot right now!) to the strange (don’t you see that the image is actually exposing the way the world really works, that black men and white women are held back in our society, and that the University is acknowledging reality?). There’s also a healthy amount of colorblindness at work (I just see two beautiful children enjoying their strawberries!). Simple minds. Simple representation.

You want to depict black children enjoying strawberries for your festival poster? Go right ahead, but don’t forget that there are entirely reasonable responses to the visual equations:

Black children/people + agriculture = slavery

Very dark skinned black people + very red lips = pickanninies

And for the UNG image:

Black man stumbling + white woman running behind + 2 white guys in suits reaching the finish line nearly simultaneously = a pretty good celebration of white male privilege

Pictures are worth 1000 words. I’ve just passed that mark on this post, and I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. This isn’t the last time we’ll see some employment of these simple representations, and I anticipate that each subsequent employment by whoever is up next for a bit of #representationfail will elicit the same simple supportive arguments that I’ve been reading for the last couple of days, months, years…you get the picture.

Demand better representation, especially from those organizations and communities with which you engage. Just because folks are your neighbors or work colleagues doesn’t mean they get a pass because you know they “don’t mean that.” Chasing after the authentically local is fine, but ask yourself if what is authentic to your locality is healthy or respectful for all of your neighbors. Don’t celebrate your history to the extent that you are willfully blind to your past.

Images trigger stories in our hearts and minds; shouldn’t the ones we invite be the most complex and humane we can conjure?