Tag Archives: activism

The Good Fight

There’s a category of books I sometimes choose to read. I won’t say that I like them, even though I recommend them to friends. These books never leave me feeling better; most of them lack catharsis or even schadenfreude. They are full of terrible, violent things happening to undeserving people, and these events are so far in the past that no fundraisers or awareness campaigns or angry letters can ameliorate them.

When I was young, this category was manifest through Holocaust literature. There are a surprisingly large number of juvenile and adolescent works about the Holocaust (and the Second World War more generally). Some of the best are Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief. Perhaps so many exist because so many people were affected, so there are many stories that can be told. Though they have good and brave heroes, (including real historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank) all are, at some level, stories of fear and cruelty and death.


Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet - click through for source.

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet – click through for source.

In college I discovered the Soviets. I had intended to introduce myself to classic Russian literature (i.e., Dostoevsky, et al.) and instead got Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And while Russian literature is often characterized by suffering, the writings of anti-Soviets are particularly gut-wrenching because the suffering is a result of deliberate persecution by those in power. The Gulag Archipelago and The Bridge at Andau depict systemic victimization of populations within and outside of Soviet Russia, respectively. They depict a populace hurt, angry, and bitter. At their best moments, they leave me sobbing.

My shelf of terrible books has continued to expand, encompassing more of the world’s tragedies and shames. It now includes more contemporary stories of child soldiers (Never Fall Down), violence against women (Girls Like Us, Half the Sky) and more. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I read these books, not only despite but because of the discomfort they cause me? Why do I recommend them to my friends and family?

I read these books because the horrors they describe need to be known, and they need to be felt. I need to be familiar with this darkness so that I can recognize and fight it in the world around me. I need to see the effects lone people can have through deliberate moral action in the face of injustice. While it is far too late to save the victims of the Holocaust, the world still has cruelty and persecution I can fight.

What else should be on this shelf? What else do I need to read and know? Leave me your recommendations in the comments.

  • Bonnie T.


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Beautiful Scars

We close out the week with a guest appearance from Amy R., writer/editor for the Carnegie Library’s Story Pockets blog.

People with power can afford

To tell their story

or not.

People without power

risk everything to tell their story

and must.

from “Telling,” Laura Hershey

A book of poetry saved my life last summer. It took over a year to write about, because I read it the way I always read poetry: at random, skipping back and forth. More than that, I had to read it gingerly. I know “mirror books” and “window books”–one reflects your life, and the other looks out on a different one. But I can only describe Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability as some kind of malleable verbal sculpture. The poems both gave shapes to disabilities I’d never seen before and felt as familiar as my own skin. The latter was no small thing–when a librarian told me, “By the way, we have this book…,” my body might as well not have been mine.

In “Beauty and Variations,” Kenny Fries wrestles with both his nondisabled lover and a question: “Can only one of us be beautiful?  Is this your / Plan?,” he asks as his lover traces his deformities. Beauty here is synonymous with power. There is power between disabled and nondisabled people, with the latter often bestowing it on the former. People with disabilities are often expected to be passive and grateful recipients, objects that are “done to.” Their bodies become nouns immobilized by other people’s adjectives. Their own words do not figure.

“I am all motion and / this motion is neither weak nor hideous / this motion is simply my own,” states Jennifer Bartlett. But in Sheila Black’s “What You Mourn,” we see that the calm, self-evident truth of living in your body can be shaken. “[T]hat body they tried so hard to fix, straighten was simply mine, / and I loved it as you love your own country.” “Simple” is anything but, charged with fear and frustration as well as affirmation: I live in this body; it’s just me. Why is that so hard for you to understand? From here comes Black’s “native anger” at having her legs straightened so she can “walk straight on [her] wedding day,” her wondering who she’d have been if she were crooked; the nostalgic summer imagery of running in her crooked body proves that disabled people don’t always mourn their bodies or need saving the way nondisabled people sometimes assume they do.

One of the hardest things for many nondisabled people to accept is that disabled people intimately inhabit their own bodies. They–I want very badly to say “we”–learn, sometimes instinctively, how to make the laws of physics work for their bodies as best they can. They interact and react constantly to environments and people that may pose physical or spiritual difficulty. They are immersed.

There’s a reason Beauty is “of” and not “about” disability: disability is also the verb. It’s active rather than passive, influencing how the poets do and think and be. This book is immersion, from the cover photo onward: artist Sue Austin in a bright red wheelchair, hair streaming behind her, breathing underwater.

All rights reserved to Susan Austin.

Retrieved from Susan Austin’s webpage. All rights reserved to the artist.

Poetry is a satisfying form for disability to take sometimes. Narrators in poems are called speakers; here are disabled people speaking for and as themselves, which is still a rare thing among portrayals of disability sanitized to the point of meaninglessness and disabled people who never object or say ouch. It feels like a magical and faintly dangerous act to say the words that transform their experiences into what they actually feel like. I never had either the chance or the sleight-of-tongue, and was full of admiration. I caught myself half afraid, wondering what would happen if the poets were interrupted and spoken over–what they would turn into if the words that went down weren’t theirs.

But that does not happen. When Petra Kuppers describes her wheelchair as an elemental plant with historical and figurative roots and “evergreen forces,” I could smell rain and taste metal; I saw her fingers as vines twining the wheels.

Poetry is also a form of protection, Emily Dickinson‘s “slanted truth” that “must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.” It protects not only the reader, but the speaker. Nondisabled people are not often equipped to deal with the possibility that, according to the social model, they might contribute to the difficulties disabled people face. If they were to take the role of a blind or otherwise disabled person too suddenly, they would realize their own mistakes and become defensive, attempting to discredit the disabled viewpoint. In the time it takes to process a figure of speech, the impact is, if not softened, slowed.

Metaphors and linguistic devices are not, however, euphemisms or misdirection. They are, sometimes, the most honest way to convey the spirit of disability when the literal experience is disbelieved or dismissed. When Laurie Clements Lambeth recounts the MS-related tremors that woke her and her partner, there’s a rhyme for “shaking” every other line. It resonates; it demands and insists that you acknowledge it.

I don’t seek out disability studies books because I want to. I do it because, after the 10th or 20th time someone tells me what to feel or that attitudinal barriers don’t exist except maybe “out in the wider world” (never quite meeting eyes), my bones ache to throbbing–I swear grief goes straight to my knees–and I have a terrible sense that people like me aren’t worth listening to or empathizing with. Disability studies gives me back some reality, as hard as it might be. Beauty is a Verb is considered disability studies as well as poetry, but it is more than either.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that it gave me back the spirit of my body. My hands jerked when I realized I had said the same thing as Bartlett and Black, only sobbing and feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. “But it was mine!” My knowledge of my body, my adulthood and my personal space had been disregarded utterly, so that I couldn’t even move. What fear or hurt I had was inconsequential; I was “asking for it” by having asked for help with something different; I “didn’t understand what I look like.” I became terrified to accept help from almost anyone, wondering what license it granted them over my body. My stick, which I’d come to regard as an instrument and extension of my body, felt ugly and unwieldy. If my feelings meant nothing, then why feel anything? So I didn’t–for some time, I couldn’t. Beauty was a gift of perfect timing, its recommendation a form of advocacy.

This book is nerved; reading it is a sensitive, sensual and sensory act. I’d never seen so many disabled people feeling things at once: even pain, even, deliciously, anger. I felt the words take shape in my own skin like a ghostly set of senses. Only then did I settle back into my body and remember “the melody of crutch” (Petra Kuppers, “Crip Music“).

No one will ever be required to understand disabled people in quite the same way disabled people need to understand or defer to nondisabled viewpoints just to navigate the world. But if you want an education that sings and rages and puzzles and soothes, Beauty is well worth the shock of the plunge. And you might remember something you forgot.

I wish you’d learn better

before we all totter

into our coffins where

there’s no straight way

to lie crooked.

from “Dramatic Monologue in the Speaker’s Own Voice, Vassar Miller

Related reading:

The Disability Studies Reader, Lennard J. Davis, ed.

Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, Georgiana Kleege

–Amy R.

A day of advocacy, a day of giving. Click here to learn how you can support the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on October 3rd.



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While You Were Sleeping

Good morning Pittsburgh!  While you were sleeping, a dedicated group of hardcore library supporters stayed up all night reading to the people…and they’re still reading.  That’s right.  As we slowly inch toward sunrise, and with less than six hours to go, Pittsburghers from all walks of life are reading, staffing volunteer tables, and learning about the Our Library, Our Future voter initiative.

Here are just a few of the overnight highlights:

  • Sci-fi and fantasy ruled the wee hours, from Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams to C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. 
  • Nerdfighters.  Who knew?
  • Poignant readings from The Hunger Games, The Book of Lost Things, and The Fifth Agreement
  • Two words:  David Conrad.  Hilarity ensued!
  • Classic literature from Twain, Salinger and Burroughs
  • Loads of giddy, caffeinated, and/or sleep-deprived laughter and banter

Green with envy?  It’s not too late!  We’ll be reading to the people until noon today, so stop by Main Library in Oakland.  Upcoming highlights include children’s books and family-friendly fun, a visit from some local luminaries, and a grand finale that will knock your socks off.

Hope to see you soon!  If you simply can’t, please check us out, and spread the word, on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

Leigh Anne

blogging and yawning.


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“Bad” Girls Go Everywhere

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

“When I’m good, I’m very good.  When I’m bad, I’m better.” —Mae West

Consider the so-called “bad” girl.  Playing by the rules and coloring within the lines are all well and good, to a certain extent.  But what if your dreams and desires just can’t be confined by the contours of a “good girl” life?  What if your vision of the world is bigger than what the world currently has to offer?  What if you just don’t fit into any of the roles society has deemed acceptable for you? 

The “bad” girl shrugs her shoulders and cha-chas forward.  She breaks rules with impunity, fights for what she believes in, and pursues her dreams, no matter what the cost.  She stands up, speaks out, and tears down anything that stands in her way.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many of the women history remembers fondly today were considered “bad girls” in their time?  Here are just a few of the courageous women who pushed buttons and limits, and left a legacy any aspiring “bad” girl can be proud of.

Edith Wharton bit the hand that fed her in the daintiest way possible by satiring the old New York society in which she was raised. Novels like The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence questioned long-held assumptions about love, marriage, divorce, and women’s rights.  In a time when such things just weren’t done, Wharton rejected her own loveless union  for a life of greater social freedom in Paris.  She was also the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Dorothy Day turned Catholicism on its ear by co-founding the Catholic Worker Movement. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, Day started questioning the social conditions around her and the political structure she believed contributed to them. Day’s long life of activism included housing and feeding the poor, standing up for labor rights, and publicly protesting, an activity for which she served jail time.  In recognition of her efforts to demonstrate that sincere faith and social action are not mutually exclusive, a movement is afoot to have her canonized.

Although Josephine Baker is most frequently remembered for her scandalous singing and dancing career, she also gained fame and renown as a political activist, both in the United States and Europe. During World War II she smuggled intelligence for the French resistance, passing information to the resistance in Portugal via coded messages in her sheet music. She also persuaded officials in Spanish Morocco to issue visas and passports for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. For an explanation of these and many more colorful stories and actions, check out one of the many biographies written about Baker.

These women’s stories are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.  For books, videos, and more information on more notable women, ask a librarian.  Oh, and don’t forget to nurture your own unique gifts and abilities, gentle readers. Once you go “bad,” you never go back…and the world is a much better place for it.

–Leigh Anne


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“Sister Outsider:” Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde and blue jay feather by ni dieu ni maître

"Audre Lorde and blue jay feather" by ni dieu ni maître

Nearly every article on poet and activist Audre Lorde makes use of her self-description: “I am a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work.”   Lorde valued identity as a source of her work, and said, “My poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds.”  Regarding identity, Lorde considered herself a “continuum of women,” “a concert of voices,” and spoke of putting parts of herself to work for other parts in the service of her vision. Critic Pamela Steed Hill wrote, “Her work is both staunchly political and direly personal as she addresses the issues of women’s and gay rights,” as well as racism and, later, her battle with cancer.  “But these subjects, vital as they are, do not define the real heart of Lorde’s creative inspirations as a poet.  Her work often explores relationships between people.”

Lorde was born in Harlem New York to Caribbean immigrants.  As a young woman, she used poetry as  communication, reciting poems in response to questions, and began to write when she couldn’t find the poems to explain her feelings.  She earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961, married and had 2 children shortly after, and divorced in 1970.  After that, she committed to two successive long-term lesbian relationships.

In 1987, Lorde moved to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.  Her home, which she shared with her partner, was among the many destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.  In response to her and the island’s experience after the storm, she wrote several poems, such as the startling and moving “Restoration: A Memorial 9/18/91,” which includes the lines:

“Somewhere it is Tuesday
in the ordinary world
ravishment fades
into compelling tasks
our bodies learn to perform
quite a bit of the house is left
our bedroom spared
except for the ankle-deep water
and terrible stench.”

She also published the essay “Of Generators and Survival–Hugo Letter,” which detailed her home’s wreckage and included scathing criticism of the US government’s inadequate humanitarian response to the disaster.

Her poetry was published regularly throughout the 1960s, and she authored over a dozen poetry collections, a memoir of her experience with cancer, a “biomythographic” novel, and a collection of essays and speeches.  She also founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press and attended numerous workshops conferences and panel discussions as a keynote speaker.  She received numerous awards and grants for her work, and taught at colleges in the US and Germany.

She was deeply involved with various political movements, and was a figurehead in the movements for racial equality and justice, feminism and gay rights.  She viewed the different causes as overlapping and inseparable, and often criticized the movements for their reluctance to accept others who were the victims of different prejudices, arguing that, in order to succeed in the fight for equality, all oppressed people must join together to understand their differences and use them as bridges rather than barriers. Her impassioned message of understanding and inclusiveness radiates from her work.

Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and had a mastectomy.  Teaching at the the time, she chose not to have a biopsy and instead employed homeopathic treatments.  In 1984, she found out that the cancer metastasized to her liver, and she died of cancer in Germany in 1992, working and writing up until her death.  Her words and work remain as empowering and inspiring now as ever, as the movements to which she dedicated her life continue today.

Her activism was inextricably tied to her writing.  In her 1977 essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she wrote, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence.  It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.  Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Themes Lorde fearlessly addresses in her poetry and writings include:

  • racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and elitism
  • violence motivated by discrimination, including police brutality
  • motherhood, parent/child, and other relationships
  • daily life
  • domestic and international contemporary events
  • African mythology
  • love

While she considered herself to be primarily a poet, Lorde also published essays and appeared as the keynote speaker at numerous conferences.  She also wrote many open letters in response to current events, such as national and international crises, events within the activist community, and the violent deaths of well-known figures, unknown African-American women and other victims of hate crimes.  A few of the victims of these crimes reappeared in several poems and writings.  Among them: Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old boy shot to death by a police officer whom a jury found not guilty, and Patricia Cowan, a young African-American mother and actress who was brutally murdered in 1978 by a African-American man after showing up to audition for his play.  Lorde also mentions in her writings personal acquaintances, public figures, fellow writers and activists.  Ideas and phrases recur across formats in her work.

Central to Lorde’s philosophy is her “theory of difference,” which she detailed in many of her speeches and essays:

  • “[Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism and homophobia are] forms of human blindness [that] stem from the same root—an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals. … It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going to as spoils to the victor or the stronger.  So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.” (“Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving: ”)
  • “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.  For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine.’  Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?  Or another, ‘She’s a white women, and what could she possibly have to say to me?’  Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’  Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’  And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”)

Fellow Eleventh Stack blogonaut and poetry expert, Don, said of Lorde, before our 3 Poems By Discussion on her work last week, “Her pacing is impeccable – a strong, powerful stride forward -Her poems always seem like dispatches from the front, every inch of love and dignity fought for, tough grueling battles, but always fought from the center of love, love is always the touchstone and bitterness never gains any purchase.  For her, the political is what it should always be, personal, grounded in humanness.  An outstanding woman and poet.”

To listen to some recordings of Lorde’s powerful, inspiring readings of her poetry and speeches, go to creativecommons.org and search for “Audre Lorde” or check out the audiobook Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work.  Also available in CLP’s collection is her biography, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde.



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