Wrote this week’s “Roughneck Grace” column after some long talks with my cousins. Thank you to the Wisconsin State Journal for letting me reprint it in full here.
It is the lamest disclaimer, but sadly more relevant than ever: I hack these things out roughly a week before they go to print and public. Today, I feel the keystrokes go stale even as I strike them. What can I say that will be relevant, will be of any use, that will not insult your intelligence by the time you read it? That will sway anyone not already set?
Two days ago one of my cousins—not one given to social media—posted the Dante Alighieri quote “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” You wouldn’t know it seeing him walking down the street or in his office chair at the computer or having me do the driving after a couple craft beer samplers for him and a Coke for me, but he is a seasoned veteran of war, and by “seasoned” I mean combat medals and don’t ask, and I can’t imagine what he thinks when he sees some dough-ball wannabe cosplaying dress-up soldier. But I know when we talked after I read his Dante quote and called, he had just finished cradling his weeping daughter at bedtime. The little girl and I share a matrilineage but not skin tone and she had been watching the news.
This is no time for an old white boy like me to dole out sociology lectures. Some time ago a writer and paramedic named Daniel José Older turned me on to the concept of amplification. That is to say, rather than trot out your take, hand the mic—literal or figurative—over to someone who needs—who has earned—that microphone but wasn’t given access. Amplify: I’ve tried to do some of that of late, whether sharing the book Thick, by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, or the 2017 Sojourners piece by Courtney Ariel, “For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies.” Even here I am taking the easy way out.
That craft beer run was a lark. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to purchase wood stain to finish up some closet trim. We dutifully bought the stain and had all good intentions of returning home but that brew pub was right there across the street and the hockey playoffs were on, and then we got to talking life and philosophy and our rough-and-tumble raisings, and at one point we sent my cousin’s wife a picture of the miniature beers and said we were doing our best to choose the perfect varnish.
Our family is not monochromatic. In fact the beer selection was a decent representation of our extended family photos, from dark to light. That statement in and of itself is problematic because even as I make it to claim credence I risk casting my cousin and other family members as props—or more shamefully, shields. But it is relevant for me to share how it feels—even after only the most superficial or secondhand exposure—to hear their concerns and experiences dismissed. Or disbelieved. Or minimized. I don’t drink, and that’s one reason my cousin asked me to be the designated driver after he sampled those beers. But it wasn’t the only reason.
I am not good at politics. I am not good at debate. I am not good at the last word. My job here week after week is light reflections and dad jokes. But this week, in the name of Dante and my cousin and the little girl who carries my beloved grandmother’s name, I choose to amplify and hope I’m equal to what comes my way.
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