There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.-Ann Brashares, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood
I hate dichotomies. It started for me many years ago when a therapist challenged me to stop thinking “either-or” and to consider instead “both-and” as possibilities. “There is a lot of space between two poles,” she said.
I often used the concept of “space-between” to shake college students loose from their rigid judgments. When hot-button issues about race or gender entered the door of the classroom, students’ critical thinking skills flew right out the window. Considering the possibility of “both-and” seemed to help them. But what protected me from slipping into my own brand of inflexible views? It turns out, nothing at all. For many years I lived my own rigid dichotomy of “North” and “South.”
I left my home state of North Carolina after high school, certain I would never return. I didn’t hate growing up in Raleigh. My childhood years were as happy—and unhappy—as most. But whenever I traveled to Washington, DC, or New York City, I felt more at home. I loved the neon lights, my. anonymity in the crowds, and rubbing elbows with other races and ethnicities. In my teenage naivete, I assumed that discrimination did not exist in the North because black people came and went freely, shopping in the same stores as I did, eating in the same restaurants, using the same doors, restrooms and water fountains. Witnessing these stark differences between North and South, I evaluated the South as bad; the North as good.
I of course had no idea about the many ways that racism manifests—still dehumanizing even when less obvious than the visible indignities I grew up around. That’s the problem with dichotomies. They’re convenient, but only in a broad-brush, descriptive way. We understand light by knowing darkness; joy by knowing sorrow. In practical terms, however, those bifurcations are just too crude to capture the complexities of our lives.
Nonetheless, my hatred of the South became a point of reference for my identity. My southern heritage—evidenced by my distinctive southern accent—translated into internalized hatred of my southern self. Unsuccessful at ridding myself of my southern accent, I nevertheless insisted I was not a real southerner. I am not that!
As a positive effect of my bifurcated view, I embraced anti-racist work in my art, writing and teaching—in part, to make sense of my own history. The more I read, worked, taught and lived, the more I saw the complicated muddle of racial injustice and the swarming mess of blind spots in me and in other well-meaning anti-racist activists. My pathway and the journey of my anti-racist work over several decades was long and circuitous, with as much unlearning as learning.
And now I am back in North Carolina, standing in the gap between the North and the South of my imagination, attempting to figure out how not to be trapped by my own mythologies of those absolutes. How do I begin to see this dichotomy—and others—not as empty spaces between two opposite poles, but as spaces filled with branching options and an infinite number of pathways, like the roots of trees beneath the surface? How do I, through my art and my writing, learn to communicate through those pathways rather than screaming across the empty surface space that creates elaborate echoes? surrendering my stance of notthat, do I risk silencing my I am? Furthermore, doesn’t my silence mean that I not only lose my own agency, but I also fail those who are unable to act in their own best interests—those people who literally occupy the complex and circuitous spaces between?
In my search for answers to these questions, I look to people like Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an advocate for girls’ education. Rather than becoming embittered and fearful after the Taliban attempted to assassinate her, shespoke more forcefully. In her book, I Am Malala, she wrote, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” The same spirit that moved her to work for education for girls in Pakistan made her able to find new pathways in other parts of the world to speak her truth. Just as her wounded body discovered new pathways to regain wholeness, her indomitable spirit continued to imagine herself into another life.
With Malala as my muse, I say to myself and to my world, “I am ready.” Ready to fearlessly embrace the in-between spaces to create works of art that are generative and generous. Works that offer the possibility of breaking through our conditioning to think in absolutes, rather than to consider the possibilities of nuance. Works that examine the possibilities of both-andinstead of either-or. Art that does not shrink from acknowledging injustice while offering hope for justice. Violence against women and children in homes and on the streets, gun violence in schools and places of worship, fear and hatred of the stranger: these challenges are real and cannot be dismissed with positive thoughts or magical thinking. But they do not preclude the radical hope that lives in the in-between spaces. My task is to remain aware of the complicated paradoxes of daily life, of the ambiguity and complexity that require courage and vulnerability to embrace.
My radical hope rests in the knowledge that we are all connected, like it or not, by the intricate pathways in the spaces between. The spider web, with its delicate and diaphanous strands, exemplifies those connections. Yes, it can be damaged easily, but there are the fixed points in every web that create a gossamer net connecting the nodes. Can we live in the delicate balance of that kind of ambiguity? My recent works are a reflection of that aspiration.