Admissions

By Kendra James

I first heard about this book during Kendra James’ very funny guest stint on my favorite podcast “Yo, Is This Racist.” I highly recommend the episode, both because the hosts are always very funny and smart and because the stories James tells from the book got me hooked (granted after a few months). It is a memoir of her experience as the first Black legacy student at Taft, a fancy prep school in Connecticut, and the whole thing was a real eye-opener for me. In the early 2000s with nascent internet and social media, her high school experience was wildly different than mine, and it was often hard to parse whether that was due to the time period, the quality of the school, or race. Regardless, she captures this moment in her life with such detail that I really felt like I was getting a clear look into a life much different than mine.

On the one hand, I never really understood prep schools, feeling that at this point, for better or worse, most high schools sort of vaguely aim their students toward college instead of trade apprenticeships. However, James reveals the extraordinarily high level of guidance students at Taft got when applying for colleges, which really hammered home the extra privilege that makes these students much more likely to go to prestigious colleges and universities. (It also made me mad all over again about the college admissions bribery scandal, since they already had such a leg up!)

On the other hand, she was one of a handful of Black students in an overwhelmingly white school (in an overwhelmingly white state), and of course that came with a fairly constant barrage of aggressions, both micro and not so small. James is so funny overall in her writing that it came as a surprise how difficult some parts are to read. She does an equally skilled job at unpacking the oversized responsibility that is piled on all the students of color, who are also still so young and just coming into awareness of themselves and the world around them.

What struck me hardest from James’ memoir was how acutely James and other students of color could distinguish between individual racism, which was often more blatant, and systemic racism, which though more subtle, could hurt them in much wider ways. This really gets at what many white people, myself included, often don’t see: some rando shouting the n-word is disgusting, but a centuries-old institution requiring the Black, Latinx, and Asian students to continuously prove their worth to both their peers and much of the faculty is much more lastingly harmful. James and her fellow students of color recognized that immediately, and I felt bad that it took me so long into adulthood to begin to see the same thing.

I also have to admit that I recognized more of myself than I would have liked in her ignorant white classmates. My own high school was also very white, and while I did not actively hold racist beliefs, I just went with the cultural flow, and the flow in the Texas public school system was most definitely racist. Admissions gives a clear, fairly universal, real world example why not being racist isn’t enough, and why we need to aim to be anti-racist instead.

I only found out in the acknowledgements (for some reason, I’ve started reading them dedicatedly, and it feels somehow very middle aged of me) that James first began to write about her experiences on our beloved defunct website, The Toast!

eNewsletters

I promise that I’m going to review an actual book eventually, but in the meantime, here’s some more links!

We’ve all mourned the closing of The Toast on this blog (though thank god for the archive!), and before it closed, the editors tried multiple ways to make it financially sustainable but not exclusive without success. E-newsletters may be the answer! Both Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg, founding editors of The Toast, have ones that mirror their respective writing styles. Both newsletters are primarily for a paid subscription, though include periodic public posts for people who either cannot afford the subscription or want to read some samples first.

Nicole Cliffe’s daily newsletter, Nicole Knows, lists interesting reads from around the web, including long-form articles, YouTube videos, tweets, advice column letters, and my favorite, particularly juicy reddit posts. She also recently published an interview with Alanis Morissette in Self Magazine, and I’ve never been a huge fan of Morissette’s music, but reading these two smart and compassionate women talk about feminism and motherhood and individuality was a real inspiration.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, is not as regular as daily, but several times a week, and my best idea is that it spans whatever he happens to be thinking of that day. It is often very funny, often very insightful, and sometimes so educational on trans issues that I’m scrambling to keep up.

And finally, this isn’t really a newsletter in the same way as the above, but R. Eric Thomas, an incredibly funny writer for Elle.com, writes a weekly tinyletter, in which he collects his 3-4 articles for Elle.com with some additional commentary or personal anecdote. They are free to subscribe to, and I look forward to them every Sunday as the only thing making current politics even remotely bearable.

—Anna

Hey Ladies!

By Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

Hey_LadiesAfter all my recent disappointments, I decided to go with a book with zero male voices at all. Hey Ladies! started as a randomly occurring column on the late, lamented Toast.

It was one of my favorites – just a series of emails from the most vapid group of friends trying to plan outrageous outings – but it was also a bit controversial on The Toast, with some commenters feeling like it was too broadly satirizing women in general and tipping over into anti-feminism. For the book, which borrows and expands from the original columns, the authors wrote a forward in which they explicitly write:

We’re not making fun of you or your friends or women in general. We’re making fun of ourselves, and how mass emails to big groups seem to bring out the “OMG SO EXCITED!!!!!!!!!” in all of us.

I have to admit that I was skeptical, because while I always looked forward to a Hey Ladies! column, it was definitely a sharply-pointed satire of a certain class of women. And the beginning of the book was exactly the same seven truly appalling women (and one audience-proxy who mostly doesn’t respond) that entertained me so much before.

But, damn me if by only a quarter through the book, I started getting twinges of sympathy for each character: Nicole who is always mooching off her friends, but is clearly scrabbling to maintain the lifestyle that lets her keep her friends; Ali who railroads everyone into her preferred decisions, but is also just trying to a decision made; Caitlin who is on the edge of success as a social media influencer but also really does honestly want to help everyone around her; etc.

I mean, good satire lures you into some introspection on how you view yourself and others, right?

Reading about Race

More and more, I think the best way that a white person can be supportive of the ongoing civil rights battles is to shut up* and just listen (and read) as much as possible to understand what is really going on in a side of society that we too often overlook. I’ve read a few very powerful articles online that I want to recommend; they are not easy reads, but they are really important.

First, Carvell Wallace’s Letter To My Mother After Charleston on The Toast really brings home how pervasive violence against people of color is and how dismissive it is to try to frame the massacre of the Mother Emanuel 9 as a one-off act by a psychopath, as many media outlets are doing.

For those few who don’t know, the South Carolina state flags were lowered to half-mast after the massacre, but the Confederate flag continued to fly at full-mast. The call to remove the flag from all government sites is overwhelming, and you can join over 500,000 signatures on MoveOn.

In the discussion about the Confederate flag, The Washington Post published Five Myths About Why The South Seceded, and debunks the argument that the Confederate Party seceded over states’ rights, taxes, or really anything other than slavery.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

Expanding on The Washington Post’s article, The Atlantic published What This Cruel War Was Over, using the Confederacy’s own words to prove that their flag symbolized exactly what Roof claimed in his own manifesto. The quotes are appalling to the extent that I began to feel physically ill. From Mississippi** Senator Albert Gallatin Brown in 1858, orating on US expansion into Central America:

I want Cuba, and I know that sooner or later we must have it. If the worm-eaten throne of Spain is willing to give it for a fair equivalent, well—if not, we must take it. I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican Stats; and I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery.

And a footing in Central America will powerfully aid us in acquiring those other states. It will render them less valuable to the other powers of the earth, and thereby diminish competition with us. Yes, I want these countries for the spread of slavery. I would spread the blessings of slavery, like the religion of our Divine Master, to the uttermost ends of the earth, and rebellious and wicked as the Yankees have been, I would even extend it to them.

I am ashamed that while I had understood that slave holders viewed slaves as less-than-people and that ownership of them was their right, reading in their own words that they viewed slavery as a cornerstone of civilized society and even a religion to be evangelized boggles my mind. It is disgusting and disturbing, but still better to know the truth than cling to ignorance.

—Anna

*Ugh, this is so difficult. I mean, of course, add your voice to mass protests and such, but there is a real tendency for white voices to try to direct the messaging and that needs to stop.

**Not to single out Mississippi, since there are truly wretched quotes from all the Confederate states, but also to quote Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddam

The Yellow Wallpaper

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Rebecca linked to The Toast in an entry a while ago, and since then, I’ve become a complete Toast convert, going to back and trying to read just about every entry. One of my favorite series is the “Texts From…”, which is imagined text dialogues involving famous authors or characters.

Texts from The Yellow Wallpaper was so particularly good that I was inspired to read the original, a 6,000 word story first published in 1892 and available on the Kindle for free. It was so good! The story is narrated by a woman confined to a room for her health, and it is considered an early feminist narrative, which didn’t actually increase my desire to read it, since I find that capital-F feminist writing can be overly sincere for me. However, the writing and characterization are so subtly creepy that it was really just a terrific suspense story first, with feminist commentary second, and it can all be read in just an hour or two.

Oh, and I haven’t had a chance to properly explore this, but Rebecca insisted I mention it. The Toast recently promoted another website that reviews works that are on the public domain: http://publicdomainreview.org/

It is understandably somewhat overwhelming, since that is a lot of content, but it should also be hugely interesting and worthwhile.

—Anna

Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman

This is going to be a super brief post, because it’s essentially a single link out to someone else’s article:

I got linked this article some time back, and I have no idea why I didn’t post a link here immediately, but I happened to mention it this afternoon to Anna and she assured me that it needed to go up, pronto. Thus, I give you:

Literary Trysts It Gives Me Great Joy To Think About: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman
by Mallory Ortberg
the-toast.net
September 17, 2013

Because mine is an evil and a petty mind, suitable more to wallowing in the sordid sexual goings-on of literary giants than in reading their work, I take every opportunity I can to inform people who may not have known that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde almost certainly had sex in 1882.

You are either the kind of person to whom this matters a great deal, or the kind of person to whom it matters not at all. To the latter I say: yours is the narrow road and the straight, and I extend to you a hearty and fulsome handshake, as well as my sincerest wishes for your continued good health. To the former I say: Want to hear about the time Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde (probably) hooked up??

(For more, click the link that is the whole excerpt, and it will take you to the original article.)