A part of me feels like we’re supposed to be doing something hard in this time of COVID-19, especially if things aren’t going so bad for us personally. We should be exercising our empathy muscles. When the quarantine began, I thought that we should all do the deep, difficult, once-in-a-lifetime kind of learning we usually lack time for. For myself, I settled on reading more nonfiction. That’s not settling for a fiction guy, a lifelong lover of escapism and imagination: facts and dates and reality, those are heavy lifts. I settled into the task.
I started with a history called “A World Lit Only By Fire,” a look at the upheaval and brutal violence of Medieval Europe, a time also characterized by plague. I paired it with “The Mabinogion,” tales of myth and history from 13th century Wales. I learned enough about corruption and violence and ignorance of the Kings of yore, the Catholic Church, and Martin Luther to be less despairing of our religious and secular cultures today.
Although we still move with agonizing slowness toward that simple gospel message of loving our neighbor, there are choruses — masked, of course — singing out in protest against walls that separate us, against leaders who would unjustly perpetuate violence against the powerless among us, voices weaving disparate America into rambunctious marches of “good trouble.” Leave it to the Inquisition and post-Reformation sectarian violence to make you hopeful for our world lit on fire.
MFK Fisher’s “Two Towns in Provence” and Mary Austin’s “The Land of Little Rain” were next. As I read these intricate studies of two vastly different geographies, I was struck by the many forms of racism arrayed against the Roma of France and the Paiutes of our Southwest. In a study of waiters, Fisher tells of fleetingly seeing behind one’s professional exterior. As she dined, her daughters outside playing with a child (a temporarily exiled African Princess), the waiter says, “Madame is not a racist.”
But she brutally juxtaposes that moment with another conversation, when the same waiter warns her to avoid a Gypsy woman. These essays from the 1960s are full of marginalized people experiencing the social and economic upheaval we see today, whether from the COVID-19 outbreak or generational racism and attempts at cultural extermination.
The commonalities surprised me, especially in Fisher’s work, which I had assumed to be “just food writing.” Acknowledging my reading biases and trying new work proved a good lesson in adding context for racism today and the Black Lives Matter response to it. And it’s one I only learned by getting outside of my comfortable genres and usual habits. As Austin says in one essay, “You could never get into any proper relation with (a place/people) unless you could slough off and swallow your acquired prejudices as a lizard does his skin.”
Finally, I’m currently reading David Blight’s 2018 biography of Frederick Douglass. It has been 764 pages of mind-blowing deja vu and time-unravel segues into today’s news. Blight shows us in Douglass a monumental figure, a flawed giant, who at once escaped slavery, educated himself into the greatest speaker of the Gilded Age and became the voice of an entire people, but at the same time saw Native Americans as competitors and inferior to African Americans, who worked against the passing of the 14th Amendment and advised Blacks to stay in the South and work hard rather than emigrate elsewhere to safety. To read of Douglass’s accomplishments and struggles is to see how much of his life’s work we need to work to regain, to steal back, and to expect from our flawed giant of a country.
This is our duty in a time of pandemic: a challenge and a promise for us to make a new, positive history each day. Your local library has the words, the resources, books and reading lists to help you start that journey.
Michael Riley is on the Latah County Library District board of trustees. He lives in Potlatch.