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My Nixon Years

I was thrilled to place this essay with The Rumpus. It had been bumping around in my brain for awhile — something about how Watergate hit me as a child, right at the time our family was splitting up — and the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation made me realize I had to write about it.

This is also the most personal — and sort of embarrassing — piece I’ve published. Revealing disgusting childhood habits isn’t easy but it was easier than I had feared!

 

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On Doc McStuffins, Crossover Hits, and Race

Here’s a piece I wrote for Alternet in the wake of a New York Times article on the surprising “crossover” success of a Disney kids’ television show, Doc McStuffins. The show’s protagonist is a black girl; its popularity among kids who aren’t black and aren’t girls is notable.

My take is (I hope) a bit more nuanced: what do we mean when we say something is a crossover hit? Whom does it help when little white kids like watching shows that star little black kids?  I open with some history:

When Thurgood Marshall argued for the desegregation of public schools before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case known as Brown v. Board of Education, he drew evidence not only from legislative history and legal precedent, but also from research in the social sciences. Among Marshall’s most powerful and convincing arguments involved dolls.

The so-called “doll test,” pioneered by Mamie and Kenneth Clark, a black married couple who were both psychologists, presented black children, aged 3 to 7, with identical baby dolls, different only in their color: half were white, half were brown. When asked to select which doll they liked best, which doll was the nice doll, which doll looked bad, a majority of black children – in tests conducted throughout the country – said they preferred the white doll, that it was nicer, and that the brown doll was “bad.”

Read more.

 

Housewifery, Accidental and Not

vintage-housewife

So, a piece I wrote a few years ago was published last week in Dame Magazine, then picked up by Salon (which I think added a whole “housewife” section for it!)

I’m really proud of the essay, which I first wrote before I got a regular book-reviewing gig with the Globe. Even though I work more now than I did then, my primary jobsite is still home. As the only person living here who packs lunches, fills out camp forms, and gives the dog her meds, I think I still qualify as housewife.

That said, the responses have been interesting, and I think it’s important to acknowledge why so many of us hate the term, and how much it sucks that in most families the domestic drudgery still falls firmly on the XX member of the household. A couple of days after Salon ran the piece, Slate ran an article by Jessica Grose that led with it. Grose ably argues that real policy changes are required before women will be able to comfortably work and parent with anything like the same freedom as men have.

One thing that seems certain is that, despite the second-wave feminist dreams many of us grew up with (and still hold onto!), a woman’s work life is still frequently limited by her reproductive life. Whether this will change by the time my daughter is making those decisions — and that time is coming soon, as she turns 21 next week! — I can only guess.

The AJC on how our nice little liberal town is more racist than it thought

I’m posting this on my blog so I can point to it for folks who aren’t registered with the AJC. The story is behind a paywall.

As much as I find it a very sad story to share, I’m also heartened to see that the AJC covered it — this confluence of profiling, gentrification, and racial ignorance is really marring what in so many other ways is an ideal town.

 

Racial profiling allegations cloud Decatur’s liberal image

Updated: 3:55 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, 2014  |  Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014

BY BILL TORPY - THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Decatur, one of the metro area’s hottest destinations in recent years, is renowned as a bastion for Southern liberalism and probably has a concentration of more white guilt than any other Georgia locality. So it’s with a sense of anguish and surprise that leaders here are wrestling with charges the city’s police force racially profiles black men.

Don Denard, a soft-spoken 63-year-old former school board member who works at the Carter Center, last week told the City Council he was singled out because of his color. On Dec. 15, police stopped him as he walked near Agnes Scott College, thinking he might have burglarized a house. However, it turned out to be the brick bungalow where he has lived since 1987.

+BILL TORPY

Decatur resident Meredith Gordon said he was stopped by police after a resident called in a case with “man with a … Read More

Police, after an internal investigation, denied Denard’s contention that he was targeted for “walking while black.” Both sides largely agree on the facts of the case. The difference is in perceptions and attitudes, about what’s in people’s minds and why exactly police targeted Denard for questioning.

More troubling for city leaders is his accusations have brought out several other complaints that Decatur’s finest target black men for extra scrutiny and interrogation.

“Since this happened to me, there’s been a flood of anecdotal evidence of people who were victimized, as I was,” Denard told the council. Then several more residents followed Denard to the podium to say black friends or acquaintances felt ill at ease walking or driving through the city’s residential streets.

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Decatur resident Don Denard believes he was the victim of racial profiling by the Decatur police. Denard, a former school board … Read More

Mayor Jim Baskett, who has lived near Denard since the 1980s and has known him for decades, was visibly troubled by the situation.

“My heart from the moment I heard about it went out to Mr. Denard,” he said at the meeting. Still, Baskett added, police have done a good job of cracking down on a rash of break-ins in that area. “We asked them to watch very carefully, to see anything suspicious and follow up on that. It’s very hard to balance these competing interests.”

It started as a Sunday afternoon stroll. Dressed casually, Denard walked down his driveway and then north on Candler Road toward downtown Decatur. A couple of blocks later, a squad car pulled up. The officer asked where he was going. Denard said he lived nearby and did not have to answer where he was headed. The officer got out of his car and demanded to see Denard’s ID. Denard initially refused. He said he had done nothing wrong, telling the officer, who is black, he felt he was being racially profiled.

Two more squads arrived as the officer continued his questioning. Denard noted that several cars, some possibly with neighbors, passed by on the busy street.

“It was humiliating,” said Denard, the associate director of finance at the Carter Center. “There’s a method to this tactic: They want people to see it. Whites will think, ‘They’re really on it.’ Blacks will think, ‘Watch out.’”

It turns out an undercover officer said she saw Denard walk from the house, adjust his jacket and look around before walking away. The officer did not see any cars in the driveway, so she knocked at the front door, walked to the rear and noticed the back door was slightly ajar. She called for another unit to stop the man walking away.

Denard was never under arrest, police said, and the encounter was brief. An officer told him he should be glad they were diligent.

“If it wasn’t a cool-headed guy like me, it could have gone out of control,” Denard said later in an interview.

In a letter to Denard, Police Chief J.M. Booker wrote: “Given the totality of the circumstances, Inv. (A.) Hall had a reasonable basis to issue a suspicious person look out. Officer (Tavius) Brown had reason to stop and contact you. In hindsight, your actions were entirely innocent, but neither Inv. Hall nor officer Brown had that knowledge.”

“Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of that effort was we caused you to lose faith in the police department,” the chief added.

Decatur has long touted a narrative of being a progressive, diverse, forward-thinking city, a place where residents black and white, gay and straight live in mutual tolerance. The mayor, in an interview, joked that the neighborhood where he and Denard live used to be known as “The People’s Republic of Winnona Park” because of its residents’ leftist leanings.

In recent years, the success of Decatur’s small school district has been a beacon for the city, increasingly drawing well-healed couples who are tearing down small homes and building $700,000 to $800,000 dwellings. Winnona Park is dotted with them, and with that, the mayor said, “the character of the community is changing.”

Older residents have moved away, as have many working class and black families. The nearby neighborhood of Oakhurst went from about 70 percent black in 2000 to 30 percent 10 years later. The loss of racial and economic diversity is changing the city’s character.

The Rev. Nibs Stroupe, pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian, has been in Decatur 31 years and has seen the change from a community struggling from white flight to one economically booming.

“The younger whites moving in think race is over; that it’s a chip on (black people’s) shoulders,” said Stroupe. “Sometimes, it’s harder for white liberals to deal with (issues of racial bias) than conservatives. We’re so invested in not being called racists.”

Stroupe said when the church hired a new associate pastor, a 34-year-old black man, he warned him to watch out driving through Decatur; that police will stop him.

Despite being seen as a liberal “oasis” in a red state, several people say residents are quick to call the police on “suspicious” persons — meaning black men walking.

Meredith Gordon, a 48-year-old actor and professional clown who is black, knows this first hand. While taking his morning walk a year ago, the Winnona Park resident was accosted by three police cars. The officer was polite and quickly determined that he had a non-emergency on his hands.

“He told me someone called 911; they thought they saw a person with a gun,” Gordon recalled.

Gordon was carrying a coffee mug from Disney World. Later, he said he wrote “an open letter to the person who called and to the community at large. The point was, ‘I’m your neighbor. I’m the guy with the coffee mug.’”

Dennis Linn, a lifelong Winnona Park resident who worked as a sign painter, has seen longtime residents like himself move on, replaced by young professionals building expansive homes.

The self-described “left-leaning” Linn said his attitudes on race have evolved, adding that most people carry some sort of bias.

“Everyone has prejudice; I don’t think anyone is as liberal as they think,” he said. He said the area has had waves of break-ins, putting neighbors on edge. Several reports from a rash of burglaries in the area last summer listed descriptions of the suspects as African-Americans.

Linn was not surprised hearing of cases like Denard’s and Gordon’s.

“This neighborhood is virtually all white,” he said. “There might be calls by people just being vigilant. It’s just reality.”

Mayor Baskett said residents get upset by reports of crime, especially as people are increasingly connected technologically.

“There’s been an aggressive checking up on anything that catches anyone’s eyes,” he said.

Baskett said the evidence indicates the Denard incident wasn’t racially targeted. But, he added, “motivation is a hard thing to get at.”

“If (Denard) says he felt embarrassed, then I believe he felt devalued,” the mayor said. “If people think there isn’t racism in our culture and community, then they have their heads in the sand. The question is what do we do with our biases.”

The last major racial controversy in Decatur, Baskett said, was in 1997 when the school board hired a new superintendent. The board hired Ida Love, a black woman from Kansas City, but ignored public demands to widen the search. The 3-2 vote hiring her was along racial lines.

Denard also mentioned that controversy. “They like their diversity but they didn’t want Dr. Love,” he said. Months later, he and another black board member were voted from office and the panel became 4-1 white. “There’s always been a tale of two cities here,” he said.

Denard, who rejected the police department’s review of his case and remains unhappy about it, said he will return to the council with ideas of what the city should do to move forward.

“We need to work on making our community true to the image that we project,” he said.

Lauren Slater’s Playing House

One of my recent stand-alone reviews (as opposed to the capsule reviews I do for my regular column, In Brief) was of Lauren Slater’s book Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother.

Slater is always an interesting writer — so smart, so elegant, readable without ever feeling dumbed-down. And yet the persona she reveals in this book (of previously uncollected essays about everything from buying a house to meeting her husband to having her kids — basically, becoming an adult in a family) is often stupid, stubborn, and difficult to like. And she’s relatively unapologetic for some things that typically do demand an apology — writing about how little she desires her husband, for instance, then writing about how that makes him cry.

So. This was a difficult review to calibrate, because on the one hand I’m filled with admiration for the prose and the brain behind it. And at the same time, kind of awed by the courage to write about things I would feel shy to uncover. But on the other hand, this is a memoir whose main character is often deeply unlikeable. I did my best with it.

 

Talking Book Reviews

Book reviewers don’t get out much. We tend to spend a lot of time at home, reading and writing, and when we do get out it’s for writerish cocktail parties and such — fun, but there’s nothing like running into someone whose book you trashed (or worse, ignored) to make you feel like the ant at a picnic.

So I’m happy that this weekend I’ll be participating in an event all about book reviewing. To wit, this panel at the Decatur Book Festival (details below). Panelists will be me, Lev Grossman, Charles McNair, Teresa Weaver, and Gina Webb.

Old Courthouse Stage Sunday, 12:00 pm – 12:45 pm

Tracks: Writers Conference

In an age of Goodreads and Amazon, when most newspapers are slashing the space in which they formerly reviewed books, whither the book critic? Now that everyone shares their opinions via social media, what is left for the professional book reviewer to do? Should American reviewers be more willing to go negative, as our colleagues in England are famous for? Join five critics and editors as we discuss and debate the art and craft of book reviewing – including questions about its continuing relevance today.

Decatur Book Festival!

So here’s the deal: this year’s Decatur Book Festival features a new track on Parenting, Education and Family, and I spent a lot of time helping to put it together. I hope these are well-attended. I could use support!

For more information about the festival in general, its website is here: http://www.decaturbookfestival.com/2013/index.php

and its app can be found in the iTunes app store.

11:15 a.m. Saturday 8/31, Decatur HS Stage

What American Parents Can Learn From Overseas, featuring Amanda Ripley (“The Smartest Kids in the World”) and Christine Gross-Loh (“Parenting Beyond Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us”), moderated by AJC’s education writer Maureen Downey.

12:30 p.m. Saturday 8/31, Decatur HS Stage

“The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth and Baby Before Their Bottom Line” Jennifer Margulis, introduced by Kate Tuttle.

1:45 p.m. Saturday 8/31, Decatur HS Stage

New Therapies for Today’s Sensory Kids, featuring Kelly Dorfman (“Cure Your Child With Food: The Hidden Connection Between Nutrition and Childhood Ailments”) and Carolyn Dagliesh (“The Sensory Child Gets Organized: Proven Systems for Rigid, Anxious, or Distracted Kids”), moderated by Kate Tuttle.

3 p.m. Saturday 8/31, City Hall Stage

Contributors to the anthology “Where Did Our Love Go: Love and Relationships in the African American Community” in a panel discussion, including Edward Garnes, Lita Hooper, David Horton, Gil Robertson IV, and Cassandra Wanzo.

4:45 pm. Saturday 8/31, Children’s Stage

“Common Core Can Be Cool”: In a moderated discussion, popular authors discuss the relevance of historical fiction in the changing classroom; features Gennifer Choldenko and Kirby Larson, moderated by Eric Carpenter.

5:30 p.m. Saturday 8/31, Decatur HS Stage

Book launch and readings from “This Assignment Is So Gay,” an anthology of poetry by teachers confronting homophobia in education.

12 p.m. Sunday 9/1, City Hall Stage

“When Will My Grown Up Child Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult” by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett; author Arnett is the world’s leading authority on emerging adults and a psychology professor at Clark University.

3:45 p.m. Sunday 9/1, First Baptist Decatur Stage

“Talking Toys Are Satan’s Gift: Writing About Fatherhood,” featuring Clyde Edgerton, author of ten novels and a new memoir about parenting, “Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers.”