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Leanne Brown

Sage Cohen

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What Divides Us

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Bette Husted on What Divides Us

Bette Husted, an Oregon writer, poet and teacher, knows poverty and the divisions it can create. And she know financial differences are just the beginning.

"I grew up in a poor family on land taken from the Nez Perce (Nimi’ipuu) People through the Allotment Act — and I was a girl in the 1950s. So there it was, all around me," she explains. "I suppose it was inevitable that my writing has reflected my questions about class, what we call race, and gender issues. Even the titles of my books: Above the Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land, Lessons from the Borderlands, and At This Distance, carry echoes of the confusion I felt as a child. Why are some people marginalized and dismissed as inferior, or perceived as a threat and attacked for their 'otherness'? Or all but erased from our awareness, as I could see that our master narrative had done to indigenous peoples?"

These questions threaded her years, she says, and seem as relevant as ever.

"Now, decades later, we are hearing anguished voices on the news and seeing images we can’t forget on social media," she says. "Eighty percent of Americans think there is a racial divide in our society, I read this morning. Income inequality is at an all-time high. Women still earn less than men and rape on college campuses and elsewhere is all too common; we’re even arguing about who gets to use which bathroom. Can we learn to see through the eyes of others, as our president asked us to do today?"

"If what divides us is fear — and surely the root of hatred and greed and the lust for power over others is fear — telling our truths and seeing ourselves reflected in the stories of the 'other' might be not just the best answer but the only answer to the questions I began to ask as a child."

Bette Husted shares three good books addressing the theme of division:

Citizen: An American Lyric
by Claudia Rankine

What does it mean to be a black citizen at this time in United States history? The powerful stories in Claudia Rankine’s poems are told in second person; everything happens to “you.” And what happens—in stories ranging from the deaths of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson and the deaths in Hurricane Katrina to the most “normal” interactions between people — shocks readers into awareness. Here’s an example: “Your” new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only talked on the phone. When you knock at the door of her home office for your first appointment, the door opens and you hear her yell, “at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”


Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America
edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird

“Kill the Indian and Save the Man” was the motto of the Indian Boarding Schools—and how better to kill “Indianness” than to forbid the use of Native languages? English, “the enemy’s language,” is reinvented in these stories and poems by Native women, many of them known writers, many whose words are published here for the first time. Each writes her own introduction, who she is and why she writes, and then shares her words in her own human voice. Readers look, listen, laugh, cry with these stories. One of many favorites is Dian Million’s “The Housing Poem.” Minnie’s relatives gradually move in with her until the landlord

was surprised to find Minnie, Ruper and Onna, Sarah and
Elsie, Shar and Dar all singing around the drum next
to the big stove in the kitchen
and even a baby named Lester who smiled waving a big greasy
piece of dried fish.

When he goes to court to evict them,

he said the house was designed for single-family occupancy
which surprised the family
because that’s what they thought they were.

All Over But the Shoutin’
by Rick Bragg

New York Times journalist Rick Bragg was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1996 — but this memoir isn’t about leaving the poverty of his childhood behind as he celebrates his own success. It’s about what it was like to be dirt-poor in the American South and how that life affected him and his brothers and especially his mother, whom he honors as the real hero of the story — she picked cotton and did ironing and went without to make sure her children had the minimum she could give them. It’s the most honest account I know of what it feels like to be so poor that you are shunned and scorned and sometimes shamed into behaviors you’re not proud of. It’s also about how those childhood lessons continue to affect Bragg: why, for example, he couldn’t buy his mother a house by making payments, why he had to wait until he had saved the total price of a house. This honesty leads him to laugh, sometimes, at himself, but what moves me most is his respect for and sensitivity to others, especially his family. The night before he leaves for a nine-month Nieman Fellowship for journalists at Harvard, he’s standing around with his brother Sam and a group of Southern men.

“Ricky’s goin’ to Harvard,” he [Sam] said, and I swear to God he said it proud.

There was a long silence.

“Well, one of the young men said, from under the bill of his cap. “That’s good.”

Then they started to talk about the mill, about layoffs and slow-downs, and for reasons I am not quite sure of, I was ashamed.




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