“My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem

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Subtitle: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies

Recommended to me by: Naomi Ardea

Resmaa Menakem is a Black psychotherapist and teacher. He addresses the ways white supremacy, which he calls white body supremacy, is perpetuated through trauma in Black, white, and police bodies. He says we each have to learn to settle our bodies, individually and collectively. He distinguishes the clean pain of addressing and healing trauma from the dirty pain of avoiding it.

I appreciate the insights and settling practices in this book. African-Americans have a history of trauma from slavery, as well as the day-to-day trauma and stress of racism. White people also had a history of trauma before colonizing the Americas. This trauma is passed down the generations through epigenetics and patterns of traumatizing behavior. He brings up the trauma of inflicting or witnessing violence, which afflicts police bodies.

He says white bodies and police bodies reflexively feel threatened by Black bodies. He talks about police saying they “couldn’t help it” and “feared for their lives” when talking about shooting and killing unarmed Black people, often in the back. He adds “annihilate” to “fight, flight, or freeze,” but never discusses it directly as a trauma or nervous system response.

He does not address the trauma of immigration itself, abandoning all that is known for a wholly unfamiliar place, leaving behind family and social connections. In addition, his emphasis on generational trauma elides individual present-time trauma, letting individuals off the hook.

There are some metaphors and simplifications that don’t work for me. Calling the vagus nerve the “soul nerve.” Saying it causes or holds emotions that are held in the whole body. Saying that it is responsible for activation responses in the body, when those are caused by the sympathetic nervous system. Saying it makes us human. No, reptiles and mammals have vagus nerves.

Most of the suggested exercises in the book are intended to settle the body, or to mindfully and gently address an activating memory. And then, on page 199 of the hardcover edition, at the beginning of the chapter on Mending the White Heart and Body, a sickening, violent act is described with the specific invitation to put yourself in the scene. It is not even marked as an exercise in the same way as the other exercises, and there is no content warning.

I had a teacher in a massage class once who similarly ended a guided meditation in a shocking way. I think some people imagine that they need to show people what trauma feels like, when many of us have plenty of experience with it already. I am disappointed that the book was published with this mistaken assumption included.

The final chapters contain concrete advice for creating cohesive and resilient social justice groups and events.

Overall, this is an important book with important ideas. It takes a step forward into addressing the trauma of slavery, racism, policing, and white supremacy.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Drowned Country” by Emily Tesh

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Recommended to me by: Reading Silver in the Wood

I loved the unusual aspects of the previous novella, “Silver in the Wood.” This one was also well-written, but more stereotypical (selfish young white man protagonist) and plot-driven rather than character-driven. Oddly I found it had less tension and horror, perhaps because it moved faster. The ending is warm and fuzzy, but leaves me concerned for the non-selfish characters. I was not convinced that any redemption arc had occurred, even if I were interested in redemption arcs of selfish young white men.

When I love the world-building and character-building of a first book, I’m noticing that the second book tends to be less satisfying for me, because the author seems to say, “Now that we got all that out of the way, let’s do things.” The characters get moved around rather than developed.

On the positive side, I was pleased by the matter-of-fact inclusion of queer characters. This novella is a good diversion while stuck inside due to pandemic + atrocious air quality from wildfire smoke. I got this as an ebook from the library, and that’s a good way to read it.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Inner Work of Racial Justice” by Rhonda V. Magee

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Subtitle: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness

Rhonda V. Magee is a Black woman law professor at the University of San Francisco. She has studied mindfulness in depth, and uses it to get through difficult conversations about race with students as well as live with ever-present microaggressions. She teaches mindfulness to help people pause before reacting, increase inner tolerance for strong emotions, and to stay connected with themselves and others.

The first half of the book very gently and slowly encourages the reader to admit that racism exists and might be part of their lives. This is the opposite of Layla Saad’s direct approach in Me and White Supremacy. I can see that different approaches work well for different people.

The strongest message of the book is that we need to stay in mindful, non-violent conversation with each other (and ourselves) about race. Not until the last chapter does she add a caveat about retreating from people who threaten violence. I would add a second caveat about people who are simply not listening or engaging in good faith. Most of her examples include students or workshop participants who have chosen to learn from her, or community members who have an existing motivation to stay connected.

With the addition of those caveats, I agree that we are all in the racist soup together, each learning at our own pace, and we can do our best to be kind to people who are not as knowledgeable as we are, just as more knowledgeable people continue to be kind to us. I wanted to see more about reaching one’s limits and reacting with anger and frustration. There is a place for that, as well as a lot of good work to be done in the world with mindful listening.

Highly recommended for people who are new to anti-racist work, or new to meditation, but not both. I think it would be difficult to learn both from a book at the same time. I have some experience with both and the pace felt slow, but I still got a lot from the book.

Meditations and articles at Rhonda V. Magee’s website

Available at Powell’s Books.

“You Don’t Say” by Nate Powell

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Subtitle: Collected Stories

Recommended to me by: a friend

This collection of short story out-takes in comic form was recommended to me for “Cakewalk,” about a white girl who dressed in blackface for Halloween, and “Like Hell I Will,” about the 1921 arson and massacre of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” a prosperous Black community. Tulsa race massacre on Wikipedia.

The Midwestern girl in “Cakewalk” is unaware of her transgression. She wants to be loved like Aunt Jemima, and doesn’t understand why the adults around her are horrified. No one explains it to her, even while she’s told to wash the charcoal off her face.

“Like Hell I Will” lays out the terrible, shameful history of the Tulsa race massacre. It is well-told and well-drawn, and at the same time minimized by its inclusion in this compendium of much less serious vignettes from white people’s perspectives.

Nate Powell is the illustrator for “March,” John Lewis’s autobiography in graphic novel form. That might be a better introduction to his work than this collection, which starts with comics drawing from his own life as a rootless young white man in the punk scene.

Available at Amazon.

“Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong

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Subtitle: An Asian American Reckoning

Recommended to me by: Jesse-the-k

Cathy Park Hong describes minor feelings as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”

In this frank memoir, she describes growing up in LA’s Koreatown in a Korean immigrant family, complex friendships in college, and finding her voice as an artist in conversation with other artists, interwoven with Asian American experiences of racism.

Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.

Cathy Park Hong pulls off that tricky feat, asserting her own reality and showing us her life while also explaining what it’s like to be Korean in America for clueless white folks. Highly recommended!

Random House Books summary

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Gathering Moss” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Subtitle: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Recommended to me by: Reading Braiding Sweetgrass

A lyrical series of essays that weave together fascinating details about mosses and stories about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s life. She is an extraordinary storyteller.

Mosses are the most minimal plants. They survive by carefully funneling and holding onto water when it is available, and drying out without dying to await the next rainfall.

Mosses vary tremendously in shape and habitat. They match at a micro level the macro level of rainforests. Some mosses grow together with the old growth trees they drape along, and will not regrow if the moss is torn away. Some mosses persist along city sidewalks and buildings all over the world. Indigenous people use mosses where water absorbency is needed.

Highly recommended!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad

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Subtitle: How to Recognize Your Privilege, Combat Your Racism, and Change the World

In this book for people with white privilege who want to take the next step in anti-racism, Layla Saad guides the reader on a brilliantly organized 28 day exploration of internalized white supremacy and how to address it.

The first week explores the basics of how we benefit from white privilege while avoiding acknowledging it, including white privilege, white fragility, tone policing, white silence, white superiority, and white exceptionalism. The second week looks at anti-Blackness and racial stereotypes. The third week explores both true and false allyship. The fourth week is a call to action to speak out about anti-racism with friends, family, and others.

The book is accompanied by several supplemental videos, available online. Layla Saad created them during the original 28 day Instagram challenge, encouraging people doing the challenge to be honest, dig deep, and do the work, rather than retreating to shallow cliches. The videos are well worth watching for her clear explanations of some of the pitfalls for white people beginning anti-racism work.

I appreciated her insight that participation in white supremacy requires numbness to all the suffering it causes. That goes a long way toward explaining the dissociation and lack of empathy I see in the world.

Layla Saad uses language carefully and precisely throughout the book and videos. In particular, she distinguishes between people who are white, and those who are white-passing, and therefore are both the bearers and the targets of white privilege. Being white and Jewish is at an uncomfortable border, where I clearly hold white privilege, and at the same time Jews are a target of white supremacy.

While I started with a basic understanding of white privilege, working through each day’s topic deepened my understanding and clarified my thinking about the subtle ways we learn to reinforce it. I struggled the most with the last few days where we are encouraged to confront friends, family, and others about racism. I am happy to discuss white privilege with like-minded people, and mention that I’m learning more in hopes of sparking someone’s interest. I get stuck when someone flatly disagrees that privilege exists or refuses a suggestion to acknowledge their privilege.

I’m sitting with the question of when and how engaging in conflict might be useful. The softer non-confrontational approach always looks more appealing, because it’s hard to break ranks with the assumed camaraderie of white privilege.

Highly recommended! Even though it always seems like we’re too busy to do this kind of deep work, the best time to start is right now. The more each of us learns and unpacks our participation in white supremacy, the sooner it can be fully dismantled.

Available at Amazon.

Please note: The various “Workbooks” now popping up are published by scammers attempting to profit from Layla Saad’s popularity. Make sure you get her book, which was already a workbook even though that is not in the title.

“Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Subtitle: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Recommended to me by: Amy Bennett

A set of essays loosely tied together in chronological order, with themes of sweetgrass and braiding all the way through. Each essay braids together personal memoir, Native American (specifically Potawatomi) ways of living, and colonialist ways of living.

Potawatomi ways developed over generations as people saw what works to live in balance with nature, as a part of nature. Humans are considered the young ones, the newcomers, learning from their more experienced plant and animal family members.

Sweetgrass is harvested in specific ways. Not the first plant you find, because that might be the only one. Take only what you need, up to half of the plants there, either by cutting half of each bunch, or taking whole bunches. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Botany, and one of her PhD students showed in a set of careful experiments that sweetgrass thrives when harvested this way, and fails to propagate if it is left completely unharvested. Humans and sweetgrass have a cooperative, collaborative partnership.

White colonialists disastrously interrupted Native American ways of living by stealing Native Americans’ lands and pushing them into entirely different ecosystems, and by taking their children to residential schools and forcibly preventing them from speaking their own languages or practicing their spirituality. The Potawatomi people and other tribes are gathering together the fragments of what remains, and braiding them together anew.

The book ends on a hopeful note, that perhaps enough of us will turn toward collaborative, cooperative ways of living that we will not entirely destroy the ecosystems of this green earth. Fitting right in with that hope, the current Great Pause of this pandemic gives us time to consider what we want to add back in to our lives, and what we want to leave behind to allow cleaner skies, safer streets, and more sustainable lives.

I read this as an ebook, because that’s what I can get from the library in this time of pandemic. It’s an odd way to read a book so rooted in physical experience, and I would have much preferred to have a physical book in my hands. This is a long book that wants to be appreciated slowly, essay by essay, section by section, exploring how all the parts fit together to support each other.

Highly recommended!

Robin Wall Kimmerer: ‘People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how’ interview by James Yeh, May 23, 2020

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh

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Recommended to me by: Becca

A fantasy story set in 19th century England and harking back further than that, with woods magic and relating with care and ultimately a positive resolution to a haunting past. The story pours swiftly forward with clear, liquid language. The characters could be stereotypical but instead are resolutely, surprisingly themselves.

Recommended!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Outside the Charmed Circle” by Misha Magdalene

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Subtitle: Exploring Gender & Sexuality in Magical Practice

Recommended to me by: Sam L-G

Misha Magdalene (they/them pronouns) asserts that magic is queer. In writing by turns academic and conversational, they explore viewing magic through the lenses of gender and sexuality.

They describe their experience with growing up queer, as well as their gradual introduction to magical practice, including the whisper networks that say, “Avoid this established teacher, he’s creepy.” Of course Misha went and found out for themselves, fortunately without being harmed.

They talk about consent, and how important it is in matters both sexual and magical, and definitely in the mix of both. As a practitioner of the Feri tradition, they directly address some of the deep issues with consent in that tradition.

They list some gender-queer and non-heterosexual gods and goddesses in various flavors of paganism.

In the end, magic is queer because it is non-mainstream, not the default religion, outside a lot of people’s lived experiences.

The book includes practical writing and magical exercises to explore the covered topics.

Highly recommended as an interesting, eclectic, and principled exploration of gender, sexuality, and magical practice.

Misha Magdalene’s blog at Patheos, Outside the Charmed Circle explores some of the same ideas. There are posts that forthrightly challenge the pagan community to address its problems with racism, homophobia, and lack of consent, sexual predation and abuse.

Available at Powell’s Books.