What a busy Saturday I had. The Potomac Review managing editor Will Grofic, interns Morgan and Antonio, and I met bright and early at the Johns Hopkins SAIS building on Massachusetts Avenue. Well, it wasn’t bright, considering all the rain, but at 8:00 on a Saturday, it was definitely early. The four of us were in good spirits, though, as we helped the Barrelhouse and Baltimore Review folks set up for the day’s conference and editors speed dating. Nearly 200 people were in attendance, and the speed dating portion, which Potomac Review managed, went very smoothly; every writer who wanted a professional critique got the opportunity to sit down with a real life editor and discuss his or her own work. Also Will sat on a panel about social marketing and I sat on a panel with four highly regarded editors, including Moon Milk Review’s Rae Bryant, Gettysburg Review’s Mark Drew, Big Lucks’ Mark Cugini, and No Tell Motel’s Reb Livingston. Steve Almond’s keynote was also heartfelt and inspiring, as he reminded us that writing is not a field for fame and glory but for honest revelations about the human condition and the connections we make through life’s experiences. Certainly, the entire day put me in very high spirits. This would change later in the day.
After the conference, while many of us met at an after party of sorts at a local Dupont Circle pub, we debriefed. We praised each other on a job well-done, clapped each other on the back, shook hands, and gave congratulatory hugs and said three cheers to next year’s conference planning. At some point, I was told of a man who had been rude throughout the day. He was pushy during the editors speed dating (he tried to hustle his way ahead of the long line) and he repeatedly walked in and out of a special session Steve Almond gave after his keynote. I had attended that session and couldn’t remember anyone leaving and returning, so engrossed was I in Almond’s insightful prose. “What a real jerk,” someone told me. “Why would he come to a session and walk in and out and then ask Almond about stuff he had already covered?” Maybe he had to take an emergency phone call, I offered. Why wasn’t I more bothered by that guy, someone else asked me. I guess because I didn’t notice him, I said. I wasn’t looking for anything negative, I wanted to add but didn’t as that would have implied negative things happen only if you look for them and it would have revealed a spiritual side of me that has no place in social gatherings.
Some of us ate, played pool, played skee ball, and talked about other high points of the day until it was time to go to another party, the Call + Response art opening at the Hamiltonian Gallery at 1353 U Street. The small space was packed by the time we got there so the energy was definitely way up. The place was shoulder to shoulder with girls with bob haircuts and guys with tortoise shell glasses; in fact, at times it was like looking in a fun house mirror. We negotiated our way through the sea of hipsters to find the curators/hosts, Kira, who was wearing a bright yellow cocktail dress, and William, who was tall and strikingly cool in his white tuxedo shirt. Morgan had interviewed Kira and William for the Potomac Review’s blog, and they were thankful for our promoting the show and were thrilled to meet us in person. The show combines a poet and a visual artist so that the visual artist can respond to the poet’s work; the exhibit puts both the poetry and the visual piece on display side-by-side to illustrate the conversation, the call and response, the pieces have together. The Potomac Review had actually published one of the poets featured in the show — Naomi Ayala — so it was imperative that we meet her too. Naomi was smiling from ear to ear and immediately gave us hugs. She encouraged Morgan to make the most of her internship with a journal like the Potomac Review, and she thanked us for coming then was whisked away but other admirers.
Morgan and I walked down U Street reflecting on the day. “It’s funny,” I began. “To spend part of the day organising one event where you are one of the featured presenters, and where people are coming up to you to ask about the Potomac Review, then to come here and congratulate others on their event and to get excited about meeting them, this is what I love about D.C. Everyone is doing something cool.” Morgan nodded in agreement. She said she was happy we met William and Kira, who seemed so nice during the email interview process, and she was happy that Naomi was so warm and personable with us. I’m a big believer in putting positive energy out there in order to get positive energy back, and the day had proven my belief so far. We had had a busy, and were exhausted by the end of it, but we had gotten a second wind by all the energetic folks at the after party and at the Call + Response art opening (which runs through May 7, by the way). One more stop, though.
I had been invited to my friend Scott’s 30th birthday party at a Columbia Heights’ Mexican restaurant and asked Morgan if she’d join me. The party was smaller and more intimate than the other events we had attended but it was just right for the end of the night. There were about 15 people there, some I knew, many I hadn’t met yet. Scott’s parents were also there, sitting in the corner looking lovely and relaxed, drinking margaritas. The father was broad-shouldered and handsome with a shimmer of white hair and the mother was beautiful in a fitted blouse and highlighted blonde layered hairstyle. We sat in a lounge, hunched over shared dishes of mini quesadillas, taquitos, and bowls of chips and salsa. Scott is white but enjoys Latino culture and Latino men, so there were some people of color at the party too along with his white friends and one white ex-partner. At one point in the evening, Scott said, “Zach, come meet my parents.” This of course is an honor in any culture, so I got up and sat near them to shake their hands. The father’s name was “the real Scott” and the mother’s name was Candy. They spoke with thick southern accents, and Scott looked at me and said, “They are so country.” I smiled at this and asked where they were from. “South Carolina,” said Candy. Of course, I knew that, I said. I had forgotten Scott was from South Carolina. “Well, maybe if your hair wasn’t so tight and high up on your head, you’d remember,” Candy said, took a sip of her drink, and turned away. Several people laughed. I was so tired that in that moment I didn’t realise Scott’s mother had just insulted me, if through some strange logic that says hairstyle is connected in some way to memory or brain power. I excused myself and returned to my seat. Moments later, one of Scott’s friends sat with me to ask if I was OK. Just tired, I told her. A few moments after that, Scott came to tell me his mother had been drinking and had been teasing everyone at the party. And later still, Scott’s ex-partner sat next to me and asked “What did she say now?” Apparently, off-hand comments routinely come out of this woman’s mouth.
It had been a long day. I had served on a editorial panel in which I said I wanted to read and publish stories about social justice, racial tensions, and bullying, because as a person of color I feel it is my responsibility to address these very real social issues. My upbringing and my Georgetown (socialist) education demand that I do my part to make society better (no matter how cliche that sounds). It is with this ethos that I choose the texts my students read and the discussions I lead in my own classrooms. Also, while I have an editorship, I will do what I can to put forth politically provocative and socially relevant literature. I reflected on my message at the panel while I left Scott’s party. At home, I remembered Leonard Pitts’s article “You Also Have the Right to Tell a Bigot What You Think.” In the article, Pitts addresses the music industry’s refusal to comment substantially on Eminem’s hateful lyrics. When asked directly what they thought about Eminem, many artists said, “He has a right to say what he thinks.” This is true, Pitts says, as we are all guaranteed the Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment, but the Freedom of Speech also means we have the right to say what we think of Eminem’s music. His call is guaranteed some protection, and indeed our response is guaranteed some protection too.
When faced with a bully or with someone’s hurtful and hateful comments, I do my best to address the situation in the moment. When I was a boy, a male cousin who was 16 and had just gotten a girl pregnant, confronted me and told me to start being a man. I responded, “Getting a teenage girl pregnant makes you a man?” This quieted him directly and he never made comments about my manhood again. When I was an adjunct at MC I was given a one-semester appointment. Because of limited office space, I was given the office of a professor that was on a sabbatical. One day he opened the door to his office and found me sitting at his desk grading my students’ papers. “You need to leave,” he said. “I need to use my office.” My response: “I need to use it, too.” He left and found another place to do his work. Later, when I was hired full-time at MC, I was making copies in the copy room. There were two machines in this particular room, and both copiers required codes but only one machine could collate; because I was printed my multi-page syllabi, I was using that one. One of the administrative assistants came in and said, “Don’t you have a code for this one?” pointing to the machine that couldn’t collate. I responded, “Don’t you?” She turned to the other machine, punched in her code, and began making her copies. As you may recall from a previous blog post I wrote, I have been called a “fucking faggot” on my own campus by a student, but I was able to walk up to that student and address the situation. As he was on the soccer team, he and the rest of the team were later addressed by the coach on matters of intolerance and hateful language.
Once, I even stood up for a perfect stranger at Carmax in Rockville, Maryland. I was waiting behind a short elderly Latino man at the customer service counter. The man behind the counter asked the Latino man for his car title. The Latino man smiled, nodded his head, and began filing through a weathered Fed-Ex envelope in which he kept some papers. He pulled something out and handed it to the Carmax employee who looked at it, handed it back, and said, “I need to see your title!” The Latino man nodded and smiled again, filed through his envelope again, and pulled out another form and handed it to the Carmax employee. “I need to see your TITLE!” the Carmax employee shouted.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you have a Spanish interpreter?”
“I can handle this,” the employee said.
“No you can’t,” I said. “Your yelling at him, and it isn’t that he can’t hear you, it’s that he doesn’t understand you.”
Another employee came to help me and when I left, the manager ran after me to apologise for the incident. “Don’t apologise to me,” I said. “Apologise to the other gentleman. It was him you offended.”
Standing up to bullies is scary, but it has to be done, so why didn’t I stand up to Scott’s mother? Well, for one reason, it was Scott’s birthday and I didn’t want to make a scene even if for the importance of social change. Another reason, it was clear that the woman had had one too many drinks and addressing her comment while she was in a state of inebriation would likely only exacerbate the situation. Finally, I considered it was probably just this woman’s way of dealing with her discomfort with being surrounded by so much diversity and so many gay men (I later found out it was the first time she had met or been around any of Scott’s gay friends). However, all these reasons would excuse her behavior and would silence me. Being silenced is not something I let happen, so I wrote Scott an email. I expressed how happy I was that he invited me, what an honor it was to meet his parents, but how disappointed I was in his mother’s comment. He replied, “she was simply making jokes, even at your expense – but never intended to offend. I understand your perspective, and I am sorry.” This response helped me realise an entirely different notion I hadn’t fully considered: some people are just mean spirited. To make jokes at anyone’s expense shows a significant disregard for the people around you. If this is how she derives humor, a brand of humor that is “never intended to offend,” how does she enjoy the company of the people she sees on a more regular basis?
Mean spirits are manifested in people who work to destroy the positive energy in the rest of us. We call them bullies. My Native American ancestry reminds me always to be on guard for such people (though I sometimes forget). They are troublesome and coy and exist among us; they walk the halls of our workplaces, hang out with our friends, and sometimes they sit and plot our failures within our own families. There are social, scientific, and psychological answers for bullying, but sometimes it is just as relevant to be aware of the spiritual elements that drive people’s actions. I don’t know the man who disrupted Steve Almond’s talk, and I wasn’t on guard at the time to notice him — later I even gave him the benefit of the doubt — but perhaps someone who did notice his behavior should have asked if he was OK. We are too polite sometimes, even to the point of making ourselves uncomfortable, but all spirits want recognition, even mean ones. Simply addressing this man — “Is everything all right, sir?” — might have made him aware that he was a concern (and a disruption) to others. I didn’t know any of the people at work at the time that they tried to bully me, but by merely reflecting their energy back at them, I was able to quell their mean spiritedness and reclaim and maintain my positivity. When I realised Scott’s mother was trying to make me the butt of her jokes, I moved away, out of her reach, so she couldn’t try to get at more of me. This is a very native belief system, especially the idea of reflecting energy, which is most readily represented by the wearing of masks or the using of talismans. For example, my grandmother believed that sick or evil spirits are only afraid of their own reflections. This doesn’t mean you have to be evil or mean spirited yourself, but it does mean you can reflect back by drawing attention to the language or imagery evil people try to use to destroy or attack you. We are a culture that values taking the high road — based on the theory that bullying begets bullying — but taking the high road doesn’t mean lying down and letting others run over you. Rather it means, not using the same base tactics bullies use; instead we should confront, address, and put a mirror up to the face of bullying directly.
I got an unsolicited email from Scott on Sunday evening. It reads, “Mom says to LOOSEN UP!” Isn’t this what parents of bullies tell the parents who confront bullying? Aren’t we getting too old for this? The disappointing reality is that evil and mean spiritedness have an ancient pedigree and are made real in current events and social issues (think schoolyard bullying, teen suicide, homophobia, institutionalised racism, spousal abuse, budget cuts to public aid, and war). I’ll do my best to hold up a mirror to the evils of society through the lessons I teach, the literature I select, and the stories I write. You can be sure that evil exists. According to Laguna writer Leslie Marmon Silko, for the balance in all things, evil must exist. Evil doesn’t have to thrive though so it must always be kept in check. I’ll do my part through writing. Writing is my talisman.