Archive for March, 2015

Imagination

March 10, 2015

It comes down to this, she tried to explain, a man dead or a thousand dead, the question to be answered is always one man dead no matter how many times – statistic, or mine prop, or slate fall – a man used and discarded who would be alive but for this.  . . . Someone is always in the way.  Its obscenity is that a man does not die because he is a certain person with a name.  The act is as nameless and uncontrolled as it was that night.

from The Scapegoat, Mary Lee Settle

This past weekend I read the Wikipedia entry on Bloody Sunday and wept.  It’s not that I didn’t know racism existed or that the struggle for civil rights continues to this day.  My father’s parents were racists, although my mother struggled to keep her daughters from seeing them that way since the family had taken us in when we desperately needed shelter.  But because my immediate family would have never denigrated or denied someone their rights based on the color of their skin, I’m constantly taken short when faced with the magnitude of what Americans with African ancestry have suffered.  How can hate be based on something so meaningless as this?  How can it be so strong that it can blot out a person’s life?

Is it because I know how easily I can manipulate people with a lie, with my superficial appearance of being normal, that I know that what matters lies below the surface?  One must rely on some other sense to uncover this, a sense that can navigate beyond the culture’s notions of success, beauty, accomplishment, etc.  Or maybe one must have been given a notion of the sanctity of life that doesn’t separate people from each other, as religion often does, but one that envelops all of us?  Or maybe it’s a basic skepticism of a perpetual outsider that helps one move past the herd mentality?

How can we imagine people who are completely unlike us, really?  A person who hates so deeply he would kill?  A person so lonely she would marry just anyone?  A person so insecure that she overspends so she can feel more weighted by possessions her children will cart to Goodwill after she dies?  And yet such people do exist, so we must annex in ourselves the necessary imaginative space or we will be caught unprepared when we see signs of their passing, like scat on the forest’s floor only more malevolent.

I began this entry with a passage from Mary Lee Settle’s novel on the 1912 United Mine Workers’ strike in Paint Creek, West Virginia.  Settle’s books aren’t always the most enjoyable read; her style isn’t the most deft.  But there are fortuitous moments when she hits a truth dead-on, and in the resonance that follows, a space opens for her readers to give those unfathomable mysteries entry into their hearts and minds.

It’s true:  reading novels with pretty people, exotic places, and improbable plots helps us forget about the drudgery of our every day lives, and there’s many times we need this blissful escapism.  Reading a writer like Settle or the history of the march out of Selma pushes us to understand what created such horrible events and provides us the tools to accept the hard truth that much, much more remains to be accomplished.