These past two months I have been parenting, writing, teaching, and following the tumult both nationally and in my town of residence, Nevada City, California. To address these times, the reading series I organize, Yuba Lit, moved online to host a community discussion. Below are my letters to the Yuba Lit community about the outcome of that discussion, and the initial call for it.
July 25, 2020
Dear literature-loving friends,
Last Wednesday night, Yuba Lit held our online discussion of Elijah Anderson’s “The White Space” and Eula Biss’s “No Man’s Land.” In the midst of our national tumult, it was an encouragement and a joy to be part of such a thoughtful and searching conversation with an amazing array of community members who each had a special angle of insight to lend. And as we discussed what new or not-so-new perspectives we had seen in the readings, we naturally soon moved to the question: What can we do here in the Grass Valley/Nevada City region to create spaces welcoming and supportive to all? Specific ideas arose, and I wanted to share those with you.
Many of us agreed on the importance of gaining a fuller view of our local history and its inequalities. The following books were highly recommended:
-History of Us: Nisenan Tribe of the Nevada City Rancheria. Available at the Bookseller and Harmony Books. More information here: https://yubanet.com/regional/history-of-us-nisenan-tribe-of-the-nevada-city-rancheria/
—How Much of These Hills Is Gold. More information here: https://bookshop.org/books/how-much-of-these-hills-is-gold/9780525537205
I left the Yuba Lit discussion particularly struck by the importance of supporting the Nisenan tribe. Discussion members suggested writing to government representatives in support of federal recognition, and taking part in the Ancestral Homelands Reciprocity Program: https://ancestralhomelands.org/
At the meeting, we also discussed the challenge of most effectively standing up against racism when we see it, and the possibility of joining with other organizations to offer a Bystander Training. I will look into this and welcome further tips for pursuing this.
And finally but far from least important, discussion members pointed to two vital local groups: Creating Communities Beyond Bias and (a newer organization) Color Me Human.
Another encouraging outcome of the discussion: participants seemed to feel that Zoom worked well and felt salon-like, a good option for continuing our community while we cannot gather large crowds in person. So I will be looking into doing more Yuba Lit events on Zoom in September and beyond, with visiting writers sharing their work, followed by Q and A.
Thank you so much to Wednesday’s discussion participants and to the larger Yuba Lit community. Together we are holding a space for supportive, searching, and even at times vulnerable conversation. This gives me hope.
Yuba Lit will be reaching out in the weeks to come about future events.
Yours in the love of literature,
Yuba Lit Founder
PS: A participant in the discussion also offered a list of “Readily Available Resources Regarding Racism in America,” created by Bill Drake, founder of Communities Beyond Bias. I’ll include this richly annotated list as an attachment.
PPS: Another participant highly recommended Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. As it happens, the Maryland public library system recently held a discussion with Kendi, available free here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VyIemUvoEQ
PPPS: Thank you to the Nevada County Arts Council for all their heroic efforts to support the arts during the pandemic, and for supporting Yuba Lit as our fiscal sponsorship organization. Tax-deductible donations may be made here: https://www.nevadacountyarts.org/donate
July 13, 2020 article in The Union (available here):
When Yuba Lit last communicated with the public, we were canceling our March presentation in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
Now we all seem to be living two lifetimes past that event, having endured almost four months of this new pandemic reality, and then the murder of George Floyd, which — captured graphically on video — awakened so many people to the reality of so many unjust deaths, including Ahmaud Arbery and Brionna Taylor but also Oscar Grant and Michael Brown and countless others, names known and unknown.
If, like me, you seek to maintain hope for a better society through these challenging times, I believe we can find hope together in the particular power of books and literature to challenge invisible assumptions, open hearts, and widen perspectives. The recent New York Times best-seller list reads like a crash course syllabus in anti-racism, and that’s good news. The surge of these book sales, to me, holds a truth: to really understand the history of the United States and its current structures and cultures, we need more than social media and news flashes. We need literature and books. And further: We need community spaces where mutual trust is upheld for open and even vulnerable discussion.
Amid the wealth of books, articles, and podcasts supporting constructive conversation on racial injustice, two very different works of literature have been on my mind. The same day George Floyd’s murder was filmed in Minneapolis, Christian Cooper filmed a white woman in the Central Park Ramble making false 911 accusations against him, pointedly describing him to dispatchers as “an African American man.” This took me back to a landmark article by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson published in 2015, “The White Space,” which studies the problem of our entrapment in “white spaces,” where black people perform a delicate “dance” to prove a belonging that can be swiftly and dangerously revoked, while white people exist oblivious to their dominance. Re-reading Anderson’s article took me back, in turn, to Eula Biss’s 2008 essay in The Believer, “No Man’s Land,” in which Biss, a white woman, makes further connections to the eviction of Native Americans from their own lands.
The two articles with their complex, interconnected truths led me to a conclusion and an open question: Moving beyond “white spaces” is possible. What realities do these articles show us so that we — white Americans in particular — might hold the awareness to make this happen?
Yuba Lit right now cannot produce live, in-person author readings. But we can hold discussions of literature, much as Yuba Lit did back in Winter 2019 with our “Reading Chekhov for Our Times” meetings. And so, Yuba Lit would like to make a space for reading “The White Space” and “No Man’s Land” and discussing them together, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on July 22. This free discussion will take place on Zoom. Those who would like to attend can email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP and you will be sent connection information.
This will be a community discussion rooted in the readings. I will guide and lightly moderate with a series of structured prompts. The two readings are available free online at these URLS: https://sociology.yale.edu/sites/default/files/pages_from_sre-11_rev5_printer_files.pdf and https://believermag.com/no-mans-land.
I hope that this online discussion will create space for sustaining a conversation that requires trust and openness — a conversation that needs to continue far beyond the protests and beyond Juneteenth (and far beyond this single Yuba Lit event). Again, the date for the discussion is July 22 from 5 to 6:30 p.m., and you can reserve a space by emailing email@example.com. It will be such a joy to reconnect with members of the Yuba Lit community, and I look forward to the day when we can also connect in person again at live readings.
Rachel Howard is the founder of Yuba Lit. To learn more, visit http://www.yubalit.org and http://www.facebook.com/yubalit.