The other day I participated in one of those book challenges on Facebook, where I had to list ten books that have stuck with me/impacted me the most. I thought it would be hard, but once I sat down to make the list, the books just came to me, and I reflected on just how much the words on a page can strongly influence one’s perspectives and even alter life courses. I thought that the ways in which these books have stuck with me deserved explaining, so I wanted to make space on my blog (that is very much about my changing life and landscape)
(In no particular order)
BLACK BOY by Richard Wright
“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”
“Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness”
“The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives… It made me want to drive coldly to the heart of every question and it open to the core of suffering I knew I would find there. It made me love burrowing into psychology, into realistic and naturalistic fiction and art, into those whirlpools of politics that had the power to claim the whole of men’s souls. It directed my loyalties to the side of men in rebellion;”
“I knew that I lived in a country in which the aspirations of black people were limited, marked-off. Yet I felt that I had to go somewhere and do something to redeem my being alive.”
One of the scenes that sticks in my mind in this book is how worried Wright’s mother and family is about the questions he asks and the things he demands that in that time (and still this time) can find a black person dead on the side of the road. It reminds me of my own mother’s worry that sometimes my speech can be a bit too radical, too determined to push back against every systemic branch of racism that exists, no matter how far one has to go to make that happen. I love Richard Wright’s autobiography because I can FEEL my very existence in his book. I have never known the type of physical hunger that plagues Wright’s childhood, but the way in which he uses his physical hunger as a symbol for the hunger he has to live a life he feels he deserves to live despite all the obstacles he faces as a black man in America, still rings true today. In every line of his prose, I can find myself nodding along, the depths of his journey to learn and use words to validate his existence writing itself into memory in every part of my mind and heart. I’ve seen that seem reaction from students throughout the years, as they see themselves in Wright. And just like him, I’ve switched on to those ‘dangerous’ tracks somewhere in the middle of the night, ready to see where it leads.
THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison
“You looked at them and wondered why the were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The mast had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” “Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty….A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.”
This entire book is a beautiful, yet heartbreaking indictment of our cultural standards of beauty, and how when repeatedly recreated and judged can have devastatingly long-lasting negative effects. This has stayed with me because it made me recall my own journey through childhood on what those standards were, as a black girl growing up in a sea of white faces in real life and in the media. What I took from that first quote, is that the real tragedy is when people are made to feel that they do not fit those ideals and convince themselves that they are in fact ugly and unworthy. Malcolm X has a speech in which he asks, “Who taught you how to hate yourself?” Hating someone is cruel. Teaching them to hate themselves and in turn securing the fate that they may never know how to help their child learn how to love themselves is an unforgivable crime against humanity. The longing to look like anyone but yourself, to see the world through the eyes of one who is allowed the privileges in life you are not…that’s Pecola’s wishes as she prays each night for blue eyes. Eyes that would be accepted.
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy
“Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.” “That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
Roy, like another great author on this list, has only written one full length novel, but as Zadie Smith said, “All that matters is that you leave it all on the page.” And Roy definitely does, as this book took me on a beautifully crafted story of the personal toll it takes on one’s life to live in the spaces that society deems acceptable. Roy’s characters themselves haunted me as their lives unfolded before me and the sacrifices they made to society of their happiness, and how one act of ‘selfishness’ led to a lifetime of pain and wandering. Roy masterfully explains why those moments never leave us and how the telling of the story and how we remember it is just one part in somehow finding a means of living with it and carrying it with you. What I have taken away from Roy’s piece with each read is that in the smallest of actions and words, are built the foundations of our greater life’s narratives, and even in those small actions and words, so much of it is controlled by forces like the Love Laws, that demand to have control over what/who we love and how much, and that it is possible that in pushing back on those that our lives can be destroyed. Heavy tone, but, as Roy says, ‘there are worse things that can happen and keep happening.’
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
If there was ever a hero I came to love as a child and have reread of his actions over and over again, it is Atticus Finch. I am not even mad that Lee never wrote again after writing this novel, as I think this had and has everything that we can ask for in terms of human nature. What has continuously stuck with me is the dynamic between how good the townspeople believe themselves to be–especially in their appointment of Atticus to do work no one else wants to touch–yet they are blind to the ways in which they are willing to treat the people of color right in their own backyard. For Atticus to do what he did in that time period and in the South took incredible courage and the ability to know that one must always do what one knows is right because at the end of the day it isn’t between you and those people anyway–it’s between you and God. I always think back on that, how in sticking by the things that mean something to my character and morals, I may stand alone many times, but I have to be able to face who I am becoming in the mirror each day. This lesson rings truer with each passing year of my life. This is why I reread this book each summer, without fail.
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver
“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.”
“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place. ”
“Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story.”
“The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep. ”
“Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.”
“Let me claim that Africa and I kept company for a while and then parted ways as if we were both party to relations with a failed outcome. Or say I was afflicted with Africa like a bout of a rare disease from which I have not managed a full recovery.”
The great storyteller Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver amazes me with her ability to create such human and developed characters. And I love that Nathan’s demise is told through the eyes of four females–his wife and three daughters, as they all lose something of themselves (and gain as well) in their encounter with the Belgian Congo. This book has stuck with me since I first read it in high school for two reasons.
The first reason this book has stuck with me is because that first quote about how bad things can still happen to you even if you are good and you can be lucky when you are bad helped me get through a darker period in my life. That period was when I was deathly ill coming off of a bout of malaria and typhoid fever, neither of which were fully cured by hospital stays, and I was left for days in a semi conscious state laying in my bed as neighbors came to pray over my ailing body. I was so angry with God at what I thought was a violation of a promise that in doing His work, I would be free from all harm. Through the process of being sick and getting better, I realized that life just did not work that way. That God was still with me regardless of whether or not I was sick, and that it did not mean that I was being abandoned. I will always know someone who may not live a good life who has everything under the sun, and I will always know those who struggle day to day for earthly living, yet who are blessed and caring individuals. Rationalizing the two would have driven me crazy. Trusting that God knows the bigger picture to both, has been the much better option.
The second reason this novel has stuck with me, is that it was one of my first thoughtful encounter with the idea of the colonizer mindset and how it is pervasive throughout history and has lasting effects that we feel even now. The Price family went to Africa thinking they knew better than everyone there, that they would go there and somehow rule over the people because they had some type of divine right to do so. They didn’t realize that it was a different world, of different currencies of life and that arrogance would not win out. The Price family paid in very real ways. At the beginning of the novel, Kingsolver posits what would have become of Africa had the earliest Portuguese just sailed on instead of stopping. What stories would we have of that Africa instead of the ones we have now? The Africa that was raped and pillaged for centuries. There are negative consequences to the mentality of thinking one knows what is better for a group of people that one does not even try to understand. This is the cornerstone of my work in education. It is why I push back on those who DO TO communities instead of DO WITH them. There are things we do not understand unless we become part of it, walk some time in their footsteps before commenting. Only then can firmer foundations of change and mutual respect be formed. I have thought of these reflections many times during my own times in Africa.
A MILLION MILES IN A THOUSAND YEARS by Donald Miller
“I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can’t see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouses, and they go looking for an easier story.”
“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation.”
“It wasn’t necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything.”
“We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.”
“I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims instead of grateful participants.”
“Job found contentment and even joy, outside the context of comfort, health or stability. He understood the story was not about him, and he cared more about the story then he did about himself…I asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it means to be a tree in that story.”
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love thinking of life as a story, with God as the all knowing storyteller. I love thinking of my life as a story because I want to know that I can tell my story–that I have that power to craft my narrative–and if I don’t like the story that my life is telling, I like to know that I am also the editor of that story, and I can always tell a better story for myself. Life is about character transformation, and there is no story without the character changing. When I read Miller’s book, I felt that Miller understood the spirituality to which I feel very strongly to, and how I feel like my parents raised us kids. I don’t expect God to make everything perfect. At least not in this lifetime here on Earth. So I don’t expect my life to be perfect either. I believe that He wants me to tell a good story, one that I would be proud to sit and tell Him one day, and that I would be more than happy to repeat to others along the way. I do think that it is easy to just mope through life, be average, hide under metaphorical rugs. It is much easier than to believe that we can edit our lives, feel as though that story we tell can be part of a greater story, because to believe that would mean that one actually has to get up and LIVE. Miller’s ability to change the things he doesn’t like and find others who are trying to tell a great story with their life as well, encourages me to seek those people out as well, and to continue to believe that even though I am just a tree in a story about a forest, that the part my tree plays is just as important as anyone else’s.
NIGHT by Elie Wiesel
“But because of his telling, many who did not believe have come to believe, and some who did not care have come to care. He tells the story, out of infinite pain, partly to honor the dead, but also to warn the living – to warn the living that it could happen again and that it must never happen again. Better than one heart be broken a thousand times in the retelling, he has decided, if it means that a thousand other hearts need not be broken at all. (vi)”
“Suffering pulls us farther away from other human beings. It builds a wall made of cries and contempt to separate us.”
Wiesel’s account of the inhumane acts human beings are capable of doing to each other is haunting in the very fact that it is not someone’s nightmare, it is very much real. To live through such horror is to know that you are one of the lucky ones and your survival was not because of any one thing you did, but because you were just that–lucky. Wiesel believed that because he lived it was his duty to bear witness to what he lived through, what he saw, and what he knew to be true. This book reminds me that what we forget (in what it was and how it came about), we will do again, and that in remembering we strive to right history and put ourselves on a path to never witness atrocities like that again. It is still happening though. There will be more books like Wiesel’s, and I can only pray that there will come a day when we will not have children living through such unspeakable ‘nights.’
PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED by Paulo Freire
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”
“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”
“One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.”
“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”
I”m just going to leave those quotes to speak for themselves for now. Freire blew up my world in terms of how I think about education. This book changed me when I read it early on in college, and has continued to light the way in my journey to be a leader in the education movement. I do not consider myself an ed reformer. I want to be an ed REVISIONIST, because we need to rethink the entire way we approach the education of black and brown children in this country. More on this as my master’s program develops.
AN IMPERFECT OFFERING by James Orbinski
“I wanted to be able to live in the world so that I could live with myself. I wanted to do something practical to relieve the suffering of others, while at the same time striving to understand the circumstances of such suffering.”
“In this miasma of forgotten wars, torture and the war on terror, there are no easy answers, especially in the face of a very real terrorism. But I can live my questions. As a humanitarian, I can act from a feeling of shared vulnerability with the victims of preventable suffering. I have a responsibility to bear witness publicly to the plight of those I seek to assist and to insist on independent humanitarian action and respect for international humanitarian law. As a citizen, I can assume my responsibility for the public world – the world of politics – not as a spectator, but as a participant who engages and shapes it. The larger force that can push back against the wrong use of power can be the force of a citizen’s politics that openly debates the right use of power and the reasoned pursuit of justice.”
“No scars, no story, no life.”
I read Orbinski’s writings on his work with Doctors Without Borders and Dignitas International during my year working in Ghana. I could not have read it at a more perfect time in my life. Orbinski has helped patients in some of the most harrowing times in history, such as the Rwandan genocide. As he works, he realizes that he has an obligation to mix his humanitarian work with the work of activism and political thought/action, as one can barely be untwined from the other. Throughout his book, he revisits this idea that he always has more questions than answers, does not begin to comprehend the horrors that human beings inflict upon one another in the name of nationhood, religion, and other lines of differences that are also man-made. One thing he says in response to this that I have carried with me as I worked in Ghana and then in Miami, is that we can live through our questions, and that in doing we will begin to see that there is so much good in this world and we need to hold that close to our hearts in order to keep moving forward. Even the title of his book–An Imperfect Offering–continuously reminds me that what I have to offer is my best, and that best may not always be enough, but in offering it, it is enough because I am choosing to become a part of something other than myself. He also reminded me of the beauty of scars (of which I have many), and how they tell the story of your life in ways that your words cannot. And without those scars, we have not been marked in the way life should mark us (throwback to Kingsolver–“to live is to be marked”).
THIS. I’ve taught it, I’ve listened to it over and over again. Again, my love of thinking of life as the art of storytelling. And we battle in life over the power to tell our own stories and some battle for the power to tell another’s story. Creating realities for people, I will always argue, is the most powerful weapon any human can hold above another. And part of what I want to do with my life is help those who have had the pen taken from their grasp, find ways to recapture their own narrative.
I have only recently discovered her, and I could not be more overjoyed. There is beauty, pain, and raw power in Shire’s language. I feel as though her poetry reads me, and especially on her language on love, I have felt recently she captures the very essence of my heart’s thoughts. Here are a few of my favorite lines/poetry from her:
“how far have you walked for men who’ve never held your feet in their laps?
how often have you bartered with bone, only to sell yourself short?
why do you find the unavailable so alluring?
where did it begin? what went wrong? and who made you feel so worthless?
if they wanted you, wouldn’t they have chosen you?
all this time, you were begging for love silently, thinking they couldn’t hear you, but they smelt it on you, you must have known that they could taste the desperate on your skin?
and what about the others that would do anything for you, why did you make them love you until you could not stand it?
how are you both of these women, both flighty and needful?
where did you learn this, to want what does not want you?
where did you learn this, to leave those that want to stay?”
“you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do love
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.”
“It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.”
“I belong deeply to myself”
“I’m not sad, but the boys who are looking for sad girls always find me. I’m not a girl anymore and I’m not sad anymore. You want me to be a tragic backdrop so that you can appear to be illuminated, so that people can say ‘Wow, isn’t he so terribly brave to love a girl who is so obviously sad?’ You think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star? I’ll swallow you whole.”