Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
March 21, 2021
My Fellow Citizens,
I grew up watching Wonder Woman fly across the country in her invisible jet. My grandmother loved Linda Carter in this show. I was very young, and she wanted me to feel empowered by this female superhero.
I thought the whole thing looked like a bad game of make-believe.
I could still tell people my age by holding up some number of fingers on one hand. I already knew that any woman wanting access to the slightest exercise of power needed to wear deep red lipstick if she wanted to be taken seriously.
I have recently thought a lot about how different the world was when my grandmother formulated her ideas about herself and what she might do in the world. Even as I believe that I would have gone completely mad in the confines of my grandmother’s life, I know that our ideas about the female form of power and strength are still too small.
An excellent essay in The New Yorker Magazine helped me see that the stories of American women have always been larger than we think. In “The Pre-Civil War Fight Against White Supremacy,” Dorothy Wickenden tells the story of Frances A. Seward, wife to President Lincoln’s Secretary of State. While William Henry Seward made pragmatic compromises on the equality of freedmen, Frances frequently used the Seward family home to assist travelers on the underground railroad.
While reading this essay, I realized I had never, not once, ever read the history of this period and wondered what any of the women or wives were doing while all the men made history.
Reading Wickenden’s essay, I fell in love with Frances A. Seward and realized I need to learn this part of our history all over again. Wickenden explains that Frances pushed William Seward to “take positions that remained contentious two centuries later.” The problems that had Frances Seward’s attention included:
- The disproportionate number of black men in prison
- The inhumane conditions in those prisons
- Anti-immigrant policies that barred access to full citizenship
Frances Seward knew that the United States of the 1800s could do more to live up to its principles. Today, we have women using this same platform to run for public office in every election cycle. When it came to her ideas about women’s property rights, Frances Seward cut straight to the point:
“Men have framed laws I believe to uphold themselves in their wickedness.”
I’d march with that idea on a protest sign today. Wickenden’s essay, a few classic TV commercials, and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth made me a time traveler this month. With this superpower, I realized that the quote I used for this month’s newsletters has more impact as an open question:
What if we knew how non-compliant, insistent and furious women have shaped our history and our present?
It’s time to think in context. What’s at stake is too important to skip the details of the whole story.
For an excellent example of what context makes possible, read Vann Newkirk’s contribution to The Atlantic’s Inheritance Project. Looking back on his mother’s life, he realizes that her life’s story is the story of American democracy too.
Newkirk compares his ideas of an inalienable right to vote to his mother’s concerns for the “precariousness and novelty” of American democracy. She knew that her right to vote was still new, established in her own lifetime through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“In school textbooks, the black-and-white photographs of civil-rights protests suggested that America had vanquished its demons ages ago… We were taught that Black folks had been granted a fundamental right in perpetuity, but in truth the boundaries and contours of that right were in flux and constantly being negotiated, renegotiated, and sometimes overruled.”
Without context, our assumptions are easy to accept as the full story. Stories in context help us see the acts of resistance and opposition. When we tell a small story as though it’s finished, we participate in our own game of make-believe. We narrow our understanding of who built the bridge to today and how we might need to do our part to sustain it.
Complete stories, with all the complicated details, help us see what would otherwise remain invisible. Seeing how the whole story comes together is how we know that there’s a part for all of us in writing it.
Let’s keep thinking together,
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Questions of Civic Proportions
“I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard..”
—Malala Yousafzai, Pakastani activist for female education
Who is making the best vaccine you can get?
In one of their excellent explainer videos, Vox takes up the question of how to compare the different efficacy ratings on the vaccines available. This question fueled a debate in my own living room, but it mirrored a misunderstanding that led Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to turn down doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The numbers may not mean what you think they mean, and the best vaccine you can get is the one that’s available to you.
There’s good reason to think more about how we talk about the vaccine too. Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP pollster, wanted to develop a message that would convince “vaccine wary Trump voters” to get the shot. There are limits to what we can make of the results with a single focus group, but there is an important reminder. The messenger matters.
Luntz’s results suggest there’s value in reading Charles Duhigg’s piece in The New Yorker Magazine if you missed it. From last April: “Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not.“
Why would you call the police about a squirrel in your house?
This question quickly dominated the conversation of police reform on a recent episode of Slate’s Political Gabfest. It’s actually a great way to share a good laugh while seriously considering that we ask our police to do too much.
When writer Josie Duffy Rice called animal control for help with a hawk and a squirrel that had crashed into her home, she was told to call the police. She learned that her local animal control office doesn’t “do birds.” When she called the Fire Department, they asked: “Don’t you have a husband that can help you with this?” She described that part of the experience as being “very Georgia.”
And all of that reminded David Plotz of what he described as one of the funniest episodes of This American Life: Squirrel Cop.
You can also read Rice’s much more serious work on the question of police reform in Vanity Fair: Abolition’s Promise.
Who gets left out when we tell the story about hard-working Americans??
On its face, the story seems simple. Who could argue against this idea of Americans being a hard-working people? In her book about the history of Reconstruction, Heather Cox Richardson shows how this narrative and the celebration of rugged individualism that accompanies it worked to obstruct reform that remains unfinished:
There is, of course, a tragic story out of Atlanta this week. Many of the victims were at work for the day and the story connects to an increase in hate-filled violent acts directed at Asian-Americans across the country.
I have seen several influential Asian-Americans point back to this conversation on NPR about what it feels like to be an Asian-American right now. These stories will help you see what it looks like to be left out of the story about who counts and who doesn’t.
USA Today offers a profile of one of the victims and the community that’s now suffering this loss.
Good Work: Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field”
There’s a one-woman play, picked up by HBO in 2018, driving a conversation on education reform. In “Notes from the Field,” Anna Deavere Smith uses her own voice (or several of them) to share what she learned from nearly 250 interviews focused on the school-to-prison pipeline.
On her website, Smith explains:
“Many of the stories I heard about what caused even kindergartners to end up handcuffed were especially shocking, because their deeds sounded a lot like old-fashioned mischief.”
She took a short performance and worked it into a more extended performance after the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and all the stories that are now too familiar. For the adaptation that appeared on HBO, she included the voices of women like Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole outside a South Carolina courthouse to remove a Confederate flag. Smith believed there was a “brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” and she had stories she wanted them to know.
Writing for The Undefeated, Soroya Nadia McDonald puts “Notes from the Field” in context with all of Smith’s work and suggests her career provides a “blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.” This skill for using her voice to engage empathy and connect her audiences to calls for action makes Smith a perfect match for The Lincoln Center’s “Activate” program next month.
That series aims to connect “leaders in education and community engagement fields to spark change in classrooms, communities, and beyond.” Smith will participate as a keynote speaker and present a new performance titled “By One Route, and By Another.”
For this upcoming performance, Smith has curated a new chorus of voices to help her audience explore kindness, hospitality, and hope.
Find a link to register for the online event here.
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