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Monday, April 18, 2016

Jonathan Odell--Feminism and Racism

We moved a lot when I was a kid. This has left me with a mental of wardrobe imperative: figure out what people in your new community are wearing and dress that way, fast.

The problem was, on our first visit here, what I found were tall people, many of them blond, the women mostly wearing pastel polyesters pantsuits embroidered with flowers. I sweat in most polyester, and pastels give me hives. (Not really. That's a figure of speech.) 

Even when we went to the theater, I searched the program in vain for Jewish names. 

Nope, not in this community. Where were the outsiders? Where were, therefore, my people? 

Fortunately, we were staying downtown, which meant we could see a steady stream of tall, graceful East Africans. We even ate at an Ethiopian restaurant in an Ethiopian neighborhood. 

That, combined with the family we both have here, decided us. 

And gradually, our cities have changed. For a time, women sported Wicked Witch of the West shoes. Many people, both male and female, hide their eyes behind geek-chic glasses.  Some wear only black, with haircuts so precise you could slice yourself on the edges. We have Thai, Laotian, Somali, Indian, Nepali, Mexican, Italian and French restaurants that are (though my family rarely gets to eat at them) damned good. And this weekend, I fixed a gluten and dairy-free birthday cake for my child's party. 

Still, there are times when I feel very much the outsider. Like during the dangerously pointy shoes phase. And the crooked-sided hair phase. And almost any time I am around women in pastel polyester. (Or, if I'm honest, people wearing black, knife-edged haircuts and heavy, geek-chic glasses.) 

All this is preamble to talking about the audience at Jonathan Odell's wonderful presentation last night, mostly women in pastel-polyester with a smattering of black/geek chic. 

My bigotry is showing, right? And, like most bigotries--snap judgement about en-masse people--the crowd was thoughtful and passionate and informed. Though, of course, since I haven't mentioned race until now, almost everybody was white. There was white. I like to look at people when they speak. And when I turned around, I saw, in the back, the sole woman of color, like me, dressed in soft, draped clothing--stylish, yet obviously comfortable, (though I bet she didn't pay $9 bucks at Goodwill for hers.) She stood alone, behind the chairs, wrapped in lavender hand-woven dignity. Though she didn't have her arms folded in front of her, I thought her mental arms were crossed. 

I debated getting up from my seat to go stand with her--"that's my wife," my husband said later--but did not, because I didn't want to be rude to Jonathan, who was speaking. 

But later, after the talk, when she walked by me, I asked what she had been thinking. 

She said she had not heard the whole speech. She said she had not read Mr. Odell's books. Then, she said, basically, that the issues involved, in the South and all over, were much larger than race. The divide, she said, was between white males and, well, pretty much everybody else. 

I knew what she meant. Not that I am going to demonize white men--my husband, my son, my daughter's amazingly caring teacher, Jonathan Odell, Fred Rogers. 

And still--the phrase "The rule of thumb," means that according to the law, a man could legally beat his wife with a stick only as big as his thumb. You understand the underlying law here--that a wife was the property of the man, who was legally permitted to beat her, with a stick as thick as his thumb.  If you don't think that's still part of the law looks at women, notice how hard it is, across the country, to protect female victims of domestic violence. Notice the way women--particularly women who murder long-time abusers--are punished for their crime. Particularly if those women are African-American. 

Or think about the phrase, "the tender years doctrine." What this meant was that, in the event of a divorce, the children, (like his one-time wife, property of the father) should be allowed to remain with their mother "through their tender years," i.e. while they are young. 

If you don't think that's still part of the way the law looks at women, notice the actual statistics on how often men are granted custody--even in cases where the mother is as qualified to parent as the father. The bar for a mother to gain custody of her children is much higher than for a father. Fathers who have murdered their wives--(see above)--are still granted custody of the children of the women they have murdered. 

And she said, "Look at my eyes," which were hazel. "Those eyes didn't come straight from Africa. Black men were not allowed to protect their women." 

I pointed to my own light hair, my "All-American" face. "I get it. This probably didn't come from Israel. In Europe, we got it too, the Jews--'bow down to me. I'll cut your beard off. I'll take what I want and you can't do anything about it.'"

"Look at what we are doing now. We have a woman, finally, a woman who is capable of becoming a sitting president. And look at how the press treats her. How the opposition treats her. Look at how we all are blind to it. Deny it." 

I have read Jonathan Odell's books. I have read his Facebook posts in support of Hilary Clinton. I know that the two of them could have a substantive discussion. 

So, I stopped him as he left, and introduced her, making the poor man stand there, holding a box full of flyers, so that she could express her concerns to him the way she had to me. 

It was a satisfying moment. As I thought, a connection between two deeply thoughtful people. And lucky me got to listen. 

(P.S. She was wearing, as I said, bright lavender over turquoise with, at the neck, a small triangle of spring green. And that personal style, that bold mixing of rainbow hues, made me feel very much at home.)

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