I have always turned to books for answers to life’s most difficult questions. For inspiration, I have hung a photograph of one of my favorite authors, Virginia Woolf, prominently in my living room. Her work on gender, class, sexuality, and empire seems in many ways still relevant. But the recent murder and subsequent riots outside of my former hometown, St. Louis Missouri, have stunned me to the point that even Virginia doesn’t seem able to offer sensible help.Her book, A Room of One’s Own, in which she argues that in order to write fiction, a woman must have money and a room of her own, is suddenly meaningless. A private room will not bring back Lesley McSpadden’s beloved son, although it might give her a kind of peace as she grieves in the midst of public riots and private quarrels about her son’s legacy.
One of my favorite essays, “the Death of the Moth,” might be more to the point. In the essay, Woolf describes watching a dying moth that musters its remaining strength as it struggles for life and seems even to play, before it finally succombs to a death that seems inevitable to readers if not to the moth who may not even recognize its own mortality. Are young African American men trapped like the moth in a culture that enables their own death or at least doesn’t fight to protect them from it? Is my friend Camille right to insist that her husband have “the talk” with their sons about the precarious nature of their status, strength, and even identity in our culture? I hope not, but in any case I think that this struggle is larger than this one event and exemplifies the turmoil in our country caused by ambition, greed, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Like Camille, I worry about my own son’s safety and well being, but I also know that my son will not be targeted as somehow suspect or dangerous in the way that Camille’s sons, simply because their skin is darker than my son’s, might be. These three boys have led, in many ways, parallel lives: they went to school and church together, have smart, quirky parents and doting grandmothers, but I worry that the worlds they are entering might be very different.
Of course, if Michael Brown had been white, the odds are that he would be alive today. And if this machismo police officer had not been so frightened of this unarmed young man, he might not have felt entitled to chase him at all, and Michael Brown would be starting college next year. Unfortunately, these lamentations and wishes to rewrite recent history don’t help with everyone’s struggle to move forward from where we are now. Like Woolf, I am a white woman and can only imagine the grief and rage felt by Michael Brown’s family. Maybe throwing my hands up in despair, an inadequate imitation of the infamous “Hands up. Don’t shoot!” gesture is the only viable option.
And yet, another of my favorite writers, Alice Walker, recasts Woolf’s feminist agenda when she discusses her own historical “mothers” who as slaves did not even have identities, much less “rooms” of their own.To emphaze this comparison, I think it is useful to look at Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, in which she describes a party that Clarissa Dalloway puts on to distract her friends from the physical and mental horrors of the first World War. The novel’s first line, “Mrs. Dalloway decided she would buy the flowers herself,” illustrates Mrs. Dalloway’s shallow but privileged existence in the context of irrevocable damage brought on by the war. But the story also highlights Clarissa Dalloway’s own artistic instincts when she plans her own beautiful party, complete with flowers, to which she invites all of her friends who are suffering physically and emotionally because of the war. Alice Walker also turns to flowers to represent women’s artistic, healing strength, but the women she describes are planting and tending their own flowers in the middle of great personal suffering. Even Walker‘s own mother “adorned with flowers whatever shack we were forced to live in.” She remembers people coming to her mother’s yard to admire “a garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia–perfect strangers and imperfect strangers–and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art.” Mrs. Dalloway’s burden is much lighter–she simply buys the flowers herself.
Still, I wonder if flowers–planted or bought–might encourage a connection between disparate social classes, identities, and ethnicities. But if flowers are not enough to forge a common bond, then I suggest we look for connections elsewhere–singing, dancing, reading, writing, sports, whatever. The connections are there. For our children’s sake, we must find them.
Peace and Love,
Anna grew up in Alabama, spending her entire childhood in the same house where her parents still live today. Anna is a retired Professor of English and Women’s Studies from the University of North Alabama, where she charmed her loyal and adoring students for almost twenty years until a bad MS exacerbation convinced her that she should start spending her days playing games on her iPad, reading and writing whatever and whenever she feels like it, and watching the birds feed outside her window.
Cover Photo: A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917 from Wikimedia Commons