Collide, Spin, Wobble, Steady

You might have noticed, or perhaps not, that my blog posts have become fewer and farther between. They have also been pulled closer to my personal life and less about the world around us. This is not only true of my blog posts, but also Twitter and Facebook.

I am an activist at heart, literally being led by my heart to do what I do and say what I say. Do I expect all the cookies? No, not even *a* cookie. But, for those gathering receipts, you should know I was writing about religious tolerance and diversity back when I had to write letters to editors with a pen and paper. I didn’t do it constantly, and I didn’t do it perfectly. But I have always believed that by pointing out the flaws that exist in our society, even exposing my own flaws, I was helping people understand their part in the harm that resulted from them.

Words mattered because they had power to change people’s hearts. Words could show people of different races, religions, geographical locations, sexual identities, etc. that they are not opposites but similar. Words could show you the humanity of those often seen as a only label.

I believed that about words. And then I didn’t.

On June 4th I released a novella entitled Silencer. It was inspired by a man who set himself on fire to try to change the hearts of the people in the racist town where he had grown up. He had done so almost exactly one year to the date I released the book. I took from that real life tragedy a need to address two issues: racism and mental illness. In Silencer, there was also a corrupt police force.

The following day, on June 5th, the McKinney, Texas Police Department was called to a neighborhood pool just a 20 minute drive from my house. There, a police officer was caught on film throwing a young Black teenage girl to the ground and pressing his knee into her back, then drawing his gun on other Black teens.

Social media lit up and I lit up with it. I was so tired of White people claiming they weren’t racist when I heard, with my own ears, those very people saying racist crap. So, I took to Twitter to lay bare every racist thing I’d heard since we moved to this part of Texas two years ago. That caught the attention of someone working for World Have Your Say, a radio talk show hosted by BBC. He contacted me and asked if I’d like to be interviewed on that Monday’s program.

Initially, I panicked and wanted to throw up. I didn’t want to do the show for these reasons:
1) I am from southern Appalachia with an accent often associated with ignorance.
2) I am not an expert on ANYTHING.
3) I am White and did not want to take the place of Black voices speaking on this issue.

But I finally decided to do the program because:
1) I live in the area near the pool and I have insight to how racism presents itself here.
2) There would be a Black lady on the panel, so I was not the only voice.
3) I was an author with a newly published book dealing with racism. Not doing the show would be saying to myself, “You aren’t serious about your work; you might as well quit writing and get a job at a Dairy Queen or something.”

So I did the show, but I refused (and still refuse) to ever listen to myself on it. I *still* feel all the things I felt about not wanting to do the show. And I was still feeling them a week later when Dylann Roof, a young White racist, shot up an historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. He killed nine people.

I talked to my mother the morning after. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs, couldn’t make my body move the way it should, couldn’t not cry. I said to her, among many other things, “I feel like I didn’t do enough. I was silent when I shouldn’t have been. I know I’ve spoken up a lot, but it wasn’t enough. I think we have to do something. We can’t keep thinking it’s just good ol’ boys being good ol’ boys when they say racist things.”

And I could have taken to social media right then and pushed for what was in my heart, because I felt it was FINALLY time for every single White person to examine themselves and realize they were complicit in the murders of those Black church members. In some way, we had all stood by and allowed racism to be part of our culture even when we knew it was wrong.

But then the third strike hit me and rendered me mute. Something I did not expect took place, leaving me feeling so alone and worthless. Most of the people I grew up with, most of the people I knew from the south, began to rally around the Confederate Flag. Soon protecting that flag was all anyone cared about. They cared with fervent hostility and borderline paranoia. In the heat of that melee, nothing I said would have mattered.

What I needed to do to was speak out against systemic racism. What I needed to do in my very core was point out the harm people were doing in a way that would make them want to stop doing it. But no one was listening.

For a while, I simply posted images of beautiful Black faces to my Facebook wall, not only those beautiful physically but also those who had achieved great things. I know my Black friends and those with multiracial families appreciated the gesture, but I don’t know that it had any effect on the overall problem. By that time, I’d already slipped off the ledge.

Speaking of mental illness, there have been many times in my life when I struggled with anxiety and depression. At age 42, I’ve come to be very self-aware about what is going on inside my head chemically. I no longer panic because I’m panicking. I no longer become sad because I feel sad. I just wait it out, optimistic that it will pass. Eventually.

I was so sure it would pass that I didn’t even make it an issue. I was sad. Okay. Fine. Life goes on. Right? I put one reluctant foot in front of the other reluctant foot and I did what was necessary around the house. But I gave myself permission to withdraw from social situations as needed, and that included social media. The world would go on without me, and it did.

Now, I am trying to come back, thoughtfully. I have spent many weeks analyzing my own actions over the years and contemplating ways to prevent similar failures. I have come to accept that I am part of the problem, but to also see that I am trying not to be. And if I am trying not to be the problem, then perhaps I have some value among others who are trying not to be the problem, too. I once again believe my voice matters, in a small enough way to break me out of my silence.

So expect to see my name come up more often on WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook. Expect that I will once again share my observations and thoughts about the ways we treat each other. Expect that I will try to inspire us both to be better people.

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

Preview Silencer on Wattpad

I am still finalizing my formatting and editing my final chapters of Silencer. I will be uploading my final draft to Amazon on May 25th. In the meantime, I will be sharing some of the first chapters on Wattpad. Today I added the first chapter. This weekend I will add the second. Click here to go to Wattpad and check it out. Be aware that it may be triggering as it deals with suicide.

For those not familiar with Silencer, it is my third book, a novella. Details:

Suicidal thoughts had comforted Rhoda since she was a child. She never actually wanted to die. But that changed on a cool autumn day in 1969 when the lifeless body of her infant daughter was pulled from the banks of Clinch River. Distraught, Rhoda set out on a journey to get as far away from War Gap as she could. With bus tickets and the use of her exhausted legs, she made it all the way to Grand Saline, Texas. She fell on the ground in the middle of nowhere and placed a gun to her head. Only, it wasn’t the middle of nowhere. It was one of the few farms owned by a Black family in all of Van Zandt county. It was also the location of a recent murder fueled by racism. Rhoda was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was she?

Until June 4th, the book is only 99 cents! After the release date, it will be $2.99. Pre-ordering will save you money and help push Silencer up in rankings. I appreciate every bit of support.

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Silencer Cover Reveal

Silencer is my third published book and my first novella. Here is the description:

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Suicidal thoughts had comforted Rhoda since she was a child. She never actually wanted to die. But that changed on a cool autumn day in 1969 when the lifeless body of her infant daughter was pulled from the banks of Clinch River. Distraught, Rhoda set out on a journey to get as far away from War Gap as she could. With bus tickets and the use of her exhausted legs, she made it all the way to Grand Saline, Texas. She fell on the ground in the middle of nowhere and placed a gun to her head. Only, it wasn’t the middle of nowhere. It was one of the few farms owned by a Black family in all of Van Zandt county. It was also the location of a recent murder fueled by racism. Rhoda was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was she?

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When I began writing Silencer, it was intended to be a novella. But as I got to know my characters, I really hated to part with them so quickly. The what if scenarios plagued my mind night and day until I was convinced I could stay true to the original idea while expanding their storyline.

After months of trying out different plot twists, I became frustrated. I almost shelved it, thinking I may never finish it. But then the most obvious solution hit me. I would pick it up again and finish it as the novella it wanted to be. Let me assure you, it is a much more edge-of-your-seat ride as a novella than it ever could have been as a full length novel.

My cover artist, Mr. Brown, had completed the cover design months ago after I assured him in December that I’d have the novella finished by February. So once I decided to stick with the original plan, everything was ready to fall into place. Today I listed Silencer at Amazon for pre-order. I expected it to go live tomorrow, but it is already live and ready to order!

If you buy it now, you will not be charged until it is delivered on June 4th. Also, if you buy it now it will give Silencer a boost on the sales charts on day one which will really help in promoting it. So, thank you so much if you pre-order before the release date!

So enough with all these words, here is the cover reveal to Silencer (click the image to go to Amazon and buy it!):

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Fundamentalist for Social Justice

Charles Robert Moore was nearly 80 years old. He grew up in Grand Saline, TX which held a corner of town known as “Pole Town”. It was named that because they lynched Blacks and placed their heads on poles in the 30’s and 40’s.

He would later become ashamed of being raised there.

He became a United Methodist Minister and was serving a church near Tyler, TX when the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that racial discrimination was illegal in public schools. He openly agreed with the Supreme Court decision. His home church in Grand Saline condemned him, called him a communist, and never invited him to speak there in his entire 50 years of service.

Over the years he became even more active in promoting racial equality. In one of his sermons, he labeled himself, “a fundamentalist for social justice.” Eventually he would also stand up for the equality of gays. In 1995, he went on a hunger strike to protest the United Methodist Church’s treatment of gays.

On June 23, 2014, after much contemplation, he decided to do the most radical thing he could think of to make the world wake up to the pain and suffering inequality causes.

He left his Allen, Texas home and drove to Grand Saline, Texas. He parked in a shopping center lot and left a note on his car, knelt in the parking lot, poured gasoline on himself, and set himself on fire. He died that day after being flown to a Dallas, Texas hospital.

Only three newspapers have reported this. One was the Grand Saline Sun which described him as a “troubled” man, the Tyler Morning Telegraph asked if he was “Martyr or a Madman”, and the Dallas News (which is where I read about him last night). I heard about this man two and half weeks after he took his life, despite that he lived in my own town.

There was no indication in this man’s history that he suffered from mental illness. You can click on the link here and read his suicide note. What he suffered from was the pain of oppression and the helplessness associated with fighting it in a part of the country which prides itself on maintaining inequality. He wanted, more than any other earthly desire, more than life itself, to change the world, or at least his hometown, for the better.

And for sacrificing his life, all that came were a few speculations about his sanity and the insistence by residents of Grand Saline that they are the perfect example of diversity. Today, twenty Blacks live in Grand Saline, that’s 1% of its population.

But that’s what we do. We like to believe we’re in the right and everyone else is crazy, deranged, insane, and psycho.  We believe that people acting outside our idea of normal must be walking around in delusion.

The words for mental illness are applied to people who commit crimes.

These words are applied to people who disagree with us politically or religiously.

These words have been applied to me and others simply because we show emotion when we are hurt or passion when we hope to prevent it.

We use the words of mental illness to silence the intensity around us. We think we don’t have to care about crazy. But we have such an arms-length view of mental illness that we no longer understand what crazy really means, or how mental illness is more likely to make a person a victim than a perpetrator.

We have come to believe that insanity actually means “acting weird”. Our society in general has butchered the language of mental health, sometimes intentionally, because it serves to silence those who differ from us. It absolves us of any responsibility to be empathetic.

We shrug off vile acts like mass shootings and domestic abuse as just part of a mental illness.

We shrug off passionate pleas from victims’ advocates and the tears of the injured as a sign of mental illness.

We shrug off the need for better mental health services because we wrongfully view mental illness as an emotional state and not the persistent struggle it is. To us, mental illness is just a crying woman. Mental illness is just an angry man.  It isn’t.

We need to acknowledge that passion is not a mental illness. We need to view passion as a sign we need to listen, to ourselves and others, even if we don’t agree. We are accountable for how we are affected by our passions.

Rage is not a mental illness. We need to view rage as something that needs to be managed. It is the antithesis of thoughtfulness. It is ignorant and dangerous, but it is not in itself crazy. We are accountable for what we do with our rage.

Emotions are not a mental illness. They are what make us human.

Sometimes drastic things are done by choice, both to save lives and to kill. Those choices may not be correct, and we are to be held accountable for them.  Charles Robert Moore is to be viewed as a man of intent. Whether you agree with him or not, whether you believe what he did was helpful or hurtful, to call him crazy is to silence a man on fire.

Every criminal sentenced to execution is given a chance to say his final words.

Charles Robert Moore was not a criminal. He hurt himself and his family and those who loved him by leaving them too soon. But he is not a criminal. He is not crazy. And his final words should matter. If you did not read them at the link above, please read them here.

UPDATE: May, 14, 2015

I have written a novella set in1969 Grand Saline, TX. It is partially inspired by this story. The novella is titled SIlencer. Click the image to find out more about it.

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Dear Well Meaning White, Ableist Friends

It happens every time the media highlights racist comments made by “good” white people. Every time.

Those friends I have who don’t care much for social media, who don’t post a lot, and generally like to do other things with their time, suddenly come out of the woodwork to post things similar to this:

“So the media says wealthy and good Bob White is a racist because he said something in private that should have never been made public. But, the media never want to tell you about Joe Black, hater of White people who shot 14 White babies with a stolen gun, called the judge a Looser-Face Cracker before showing his underwear all the way down to there, and he even had an iPhone that I know he bought with FOOD STAMPS!”

And then, after they make their There-I-Said-What-Everyone-Was-Afraid-To-Say post, I see all these well educated, kind, and meek friends LIKING that post.

Dear Well-Meaning Friends: WTF!?

Where is your pain? Show me your pain and I will punch you right there so you can feel what it’s like. But, I don’t even know if they have any pain, not like that. Most of the people commenting things like that just borrow pain from someone they heard say something one time about a Black man getting something that should have gone to a White man.

You don’t get to say what should and shouldn’t hurt somebody based on what does and doesn’t hurt worse than their complaint. If someone is hurt by something and all you care about is that it might make you look bad, then your flaw is bigger than racism. And trying to excuse “good people” racism by pointing out a few assholes from the offended race is, yes, IS racist. No race is short of jackasses, check the mirror.

Do you actually intend your message to be: “It’s okay for Bob White to say bad things about Black people as a whole because there are Black people worse than Bob White?” <<<<< News flash: There are also White people worse than Bob White AND worse than Joe Black! A-ha! What did I win? (nothing… see that? I won nothing.)

I run into this same disconnect with the word “retard” as well. Such-Good-People will throw that word out there as a punchline and cackle with laughter, then turn right around and share a meme about “Disabled children aren’t weird….”. I just laughed so hard at the joke about “When I said I wanted a man to make me feel special, I didn’t mean for him to hand me a helmet and some crayons.” No, actually, I didn’t laugh… That’s right, now I remember. What I did was think about my autistic son and his disabled peers. And I thought about the reasons why some kids wear those helmets. And I wanted to hurt people. So, come on and show me your pain so I can punch you right there. And I won’t give you a helmet first. Laugh with me, people!

Did I mention just how kind and loving these people are? Family people. Christians. Good American Citizens. Loving Parents. All That. THEY ARE SO SUPPORTIVE OF CHARITABLE CAUSES. There are no better people on Earth.

And oh, Hell yes, you can say whatever you like. You can say so much offensive crap that you’ll earn yourself a “Free Speech Gold Medal”. You can hang that baby up right beside “World’s Biggest Asshole” award. You Rock!

 

Stereotypes and Book Diversity

I’m from east Tennessee, from “the foothills of the Appalachian mountains”. Yes, I know the Appalachian mountains go way north to Canada and come all the way down to Georgia. But, I grew up in southern thick of things,  near the Tennessee/Virginia/North Carolina borders. We pronounce it as Apple-latch-un. If you say “lay-shun” instead of “latch-un”, you might not be welcome anymore.

I grew up with some racists, both the self-proclaimed kind and the in-denial-but-obviously-inclined kind. Generally, it was a distrust of anyone not in the family. There wasn’t a lot of coming and going out of my region, and families were intertwined like royalties, spread across towns. I could walk for miles and miles and still not be too far away from a distant kin’s house in an emergency. As kids, we did walk those miles. Our parents trusted the neighborhood because the neighborhood was family and of course, absolutely, without a doubt, those distant kin neighbors are “just like us”, “safe”, “upstanding citizens”.

Except the few who were drunks, perverts, or both. Shhh, about that now.

Despite the propensity for proclaiming whites to be superior, many of the families in my neck of the woods had mixed ancestry. There were the Cherokee who hid in the mountains to avoid relocation, marrying whites, and having mixed families. There were the Melungeons, a tri-racial people descending from Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. However, there was an ugly time in history when admitting to being anything other than lily white would get your land confiscated. Generationally, we aren’t that far away from the trail of tears. In this regard: My mother can speak to me of her time spent with her grandfather. He was born in the 1866 by an unwed 16 year old girl. His mother told him they were part Cherokee. However, when his mother married a very white man and had other children, she did not reveal the Cherokee link to them. If she did, the information stopped there and the next generation were never told.

Most of the kids I grew up with thought they were of 100% European descent.  We never went to school with a black kid until 6th grade. But, by that time, I had already secretly been in love with Charley Pride and obsessively kissed Michael Jackson’s face on the Thriller record cover. To say I didn’t see a difference between black and white would be wrong. I saw a difference, and I thought dark skin was beautiful, and brown eyes intoxicating. I had family members tell me that it was wrong for whites to marry blacks. This was in the 80’s when I was twelve, because they had to instill the idea early (not early enough, folks). Another family member repeatedly said I would grow up to marry a black man (though he used the N word). In high school, I dressed like Prince because he was what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had girls call out as a walked down the halls, “N____ lover!”

I wish I could say I was a born anomaly, a ray of light in the dark. But every single stereotype I was told about as a child had to be worked out of me by years of observation and self-reflection. I did not instantly deny the truth of racists comments. I had to work out the truth about blacks, Hispanics, gays, the rich, the poor, and myself. But, I was surrounded by generations of the same family network, similar incomes, similar religious and political beliefs. Where would I feed my desire to learn the truth? Or to validate my own differences?

Lately, we have heard a lot about a need for diversity in children’s books because children need to see people like themselves on the pages. The only blacks in my elementary school textbooks in the 80’s had been slaves or savages from Africa, yes… they were portrayed as uncivilized. I have no doubt that these limited representations of black history hurt black Americans. But, I also know that it hurt all of us.

The lack of books representing African American true life stories was a void which was filled by ignorance. And those of us willing to take a stand felt too unknowing to do so. What did I know about African American life? Where was my credibility? I had none. Even knowing I was part Cherokee, I could not tell you anything about Cherokee customs which weren’t portrayed as savage.

When my oldest daughter was born in 2001, I knew I would do things differently. We did not assign race to anyone. People had black skin, brown skin, dark skin, pink skin, brown hair, blond hair, etc. But people were not ever called Black, White, Mexican, Asian, etc. Our neighbors had a daughter from Nigeria. She was “from Africa”. She was never “black”. Now that my girls are older (12, 10, 8), they hear the terms for different races by their peers and other adults.They know what race is. But, because grouping people together by race isn’t something they were raised to do, they don’t hear it the same way as other kids and they don’t use it themselves unless referring to the sordid past of the US.

This doesn’t mean that I deny to my children that different cultures exist or that I think they shouldn’t. It just means that I do not assume that every person who looks a certain way IS a certain way. It muddies the water and makes it harder to see the heart of a person. That is the lesson I want my girls to take away from being raised not to see race first. It might mean everything to a person, or it might mean nothing. The only person who can tell you how much their race defines them is the individual.

The people from my part of Appalachia are often viewed as backwards, racist, dirty, and ignorant. If you read only the first part of this blog post, you might be thinking I haven’t done them any favors. But, they are just another example of the hurt caused by judging by stereotype and not by the heart. Many kids who leave Appalachia find that it comes with them like the color of their eyes. They speak with a slow drawl and are assumed to have been barefoot most of their lives. The stereotype of ignorance overshadows every word they speak, often from their own minds. Their hearts could be full of love and acceptance, curiosity and a desire to change the world. But, they struggle to overcome what they feel the world projects onto them.

A book about Appalachian culture would be true if it included some stereotypes. But, it may not leave room for individual differences which do not fit the stereotype. Diversity acceptance happens when people are presented with a large varying collection of stories from a group of people all previously believed to be the same. It happens one personal story at a time and isn’t achieved until many are heard.  There is no reason not to start writing yours now.

Will publishers publish it? It depends on what people spend their money to buy. You can start showing your support for authors who write about minority characters by buying their self-published works, even if those minority characters do not reflect your specific lifestyle. Readers can’t ask for diversity and then only buy books about themselves.

Be curious. Don’t settle for stereotypes. Find and value authors brave enough to tell a true story.