Transformative Reading

Last week, I shared excerpts from Black writers and thinkers whose work has taught me something. I wondered whether I should — would this be seen as performative activism? Virtue signaling? Maybe. But it was my attempt to respond in grief and sympathy for what Black people in our country are going through without making it all about me. I saw a graphic circulating that talked about how some people are front line protestors, but the movement also needs accountants and fundraisers and people to deliver granola bars and water. The point was to consider how you were most equipped to contribute.

Not for the first time, I was frustrated by my special skills: I’ve read a lot of books and I have done some work to try to understand the critical frameworks that we use to interpret them. That’s my lane. And while I don’t believe that sharing quotes on social media will change the world, I do think that reading the work the quotes came from could be a part of changing the world.

I am white. I was born female and present to the world according to many of the rules of “female.” I am married to a man. I am a mother. I have a PhD in American literature and work closely with economists. I am a homeowner and wealthy by pretty much any global or domestic measure. I am able-bodied and in good health. I understand the world through the lenses of my own experience in THIS body, with THIS history, THIS identity.

Most of what I know that is not based on my own personal experience is likely to be shaped by the experiences and lenses of those in power. Despite being a white woman, I’ve got a pretty decent handle on how white, wealthy, elite men have seen the world over the last couple hundred years: their perspectives have defined “normal.” Their version of history is what’s in the curriculum. They are elected to office. They are the main characters in children’s books. Their preferences even determine the temperature of my office.

So, I’m pretty well acquainted with two perspectives: my own, and that of the power structure that controls official narratives and writes the rules. Sometimes those perspectives are aligned and other times they are not. Where they are not, it is usually because I have had specific experiences that revealed problems with the official narrative. I have personally experienced the cognitive dissonance of an official narrative that says “sexism is a thing of the past and we’ve progressed beyond it” and being the only woman in a meeting and being expected to take notes. The story doesn’t match my experience. I have counterevidence to present and argue that the narrative is BS.

If I am wise, I will allow my own experiences of the BS of the official narrative to open me up to the possibility that other pieces of the narrative might also be false — even when I myself have not experienced them.

This is how I escape the limitations of my own perspective: By allowing myself to trust that other perspectives — informed by other identities that result in alternative experiences — have something to teach me. I will not learn much about what it is like to be Black by going about my daily business. I will not learn much at all about being Deaf or chronically ill or transgender or poor or a refugee. But who will teach me about these identities and experiences? The messenger matters. I can learn something by listening to official narratives — but it’s likely to be suspect.

When my understanding is mediated by official narratives, I get their version of the story. It’s why even after getting a bachelor’s degree, I knew about (a version) of Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois but not about Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. It’s why, when reading Stamped with my 7th grader over the past few weeks, I am still shocked — even now! — by the extent to which my education conditioned me to privilege assimilationist voices over anti-racist ones.

So I ask you — and myself: Who are the people whose authority you have been placed under — due to their official positions or roles in your life? Who have been your influential teachers? Moving beyond that, which people have you chosen to allow to school you? Under whose authority do you place yourself? Which voices have you allowed yourself to learn from and be challenged by? Whose ideas have seemed confusing and disorienting but — because you were curious enough to hang in there or because you had paid for the class or because they were your actual boss or because it was the only book you had to read at the moment — you persisted through the part where you were confused and disoriented and came out on the other side with understanding you never would have gained on your own or from the official narrative?

Family. Clergy. Writers. Artists. Professors. Teachers. The social media you follow. The movies you stream. The music you listen to. The seminars you attend. The elders you consult. The books you read.

Do they mostly look and live and love like you? Do they mostly look like the people in power? Whose experiences are you missing?

The miracle of right now is that even if your relationships with people having these experience first hand are limited —and despite the fact that the official narratives are still narrow and limited — you have unprecedented access to other teachers. Allow yourself to be taught.

collage of excerpts from Black authors’ writing

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Kerry Searle Grannis

Kerry lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and three children. She's a think tank administrator, elder in her church, and holds a PhD in English.