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Rachel Howard: Examine ‘The White Space’ and more with Yuba Lit

Other Voices
Rachel Howard

When Yuba Lit last communicated with the public, we were canceling our March presentation in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

Now we all seem to be living two lifetimes past that event, having endured almost four months of this new pandemic reality, and then the murder of George Floyd, which — captured graphically on video — awakened so many people to the reality of so many unjust deaths, including Ahmaud Arbery and Brionna Taylor but also Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and countless others, names known and unknown.

If, like me, you seek to maintain hope for a better society through these challenging times, I believe we can find hope together in the particular power of books and literature to challenge invisible assumptions, open hearts, and widen perspectives. The recent New York Times best-seller list reads like a crash course syllabus in anti-racism, and that’s good news. The surge of these book sales, to me, holds a truth: to really understand the history of the United States and its current structures and cultures, we need more than social media and news flashes. We need literature and books. And further: We need community spaces where mutual trust is upheld for open and even vulnerable discussion.

Amid the wealth of books, articles, and podcasts supporting constructive conversation on racial injustice, two very different works of literature have been on my mind. The same day George Floyd’s murder was filmed in Minneapolis, Christian Cooper filmed a white woman in the Central Park Ramble making false 911 accusations against him, pointedly describing him to dispatchers as “an African American man.” This took me back to a landmark article by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson published in 2015, “The White Space,” which studies the problem of our entrapment in “white spaces,” where black people perform a delicate “dance” to prove a belonging that can be swiftly and dangerously revoked, while white people exist oblivious to their dominance. Re-reading Anderson’s article took me back, in turn, to Eula Biss’s 2008 essay in The Believer, “No Man’s Land,” in which Biss, a white woman, makes further connections to the eviction of Native Americans from their own lands.

Yuba Lit would like to make a space for reading “The White Space” and “No Man’s Land” and discussing them together, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on July 22.

The two articles with their complex, interconnected truths led me to a conclusion and an open question: Moving beyond “white spaces” is possible. What realities do these articles show us so that we — white Americans in particular — might hold the awareness to make this happen?

Yuba Lit right now cannot produce live, in-person author readings. But we can hold discussions of literature, much as Yuba Lit did back in Winter 2019 with our “Reading Chekhov for Our Times” meetings. And so, Yuba Lit would like to make a space for reading “The White Space” and “No Man’s Land” and discussing them together, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on July 22. This free discussion will take place on Zoom. Those who would like to attend can email yubalit@gmail.com to RSVP and you will be sent connection information.

This will be a community discussion rooted in the readings. I will guide and lightly moderate with a series of structured prompts. The two readings are available free online at these URLS: https://sociology.yale.edu/sites/default/files/pages_from_sre-11_rev5_printer_files.pdf and https://believermag.com/no-mans-land.

I hope that this online discussion will create space for sustaining a conversation that requires trust and openness — a conversation that needs to continue far beyond the protests and beyond Juneteenth (and far beyond this single Yuba Lit event). Again, the date for the discussion is July 22 from 5 to 6:30 p.m., and you can reserve a space by emailing yubalit@gmail.com. It will be such a joy to reconnect with members of the Yuba Lit community, and I look forward to the day when we can also connect in person again at live readings.

Rachel Howard is the founder of Yuba Lit. To learn more, visit http://www.yubalit.org and http://www.facebook.com/yubalit.


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