These are responses, edited slightly for clarity, to “The Backsides of White Souls:”
If you needed years and 26 drafts to process and eventually produce your piece, I can imagine that Black readers will also have to process the essay for a very long time in order to be at the same time truthful to their deep-down feelings, while taking into consideration the very honest and respectful way you handled the issues, while keeping yourself in the picture. It is a very good piece but impossible to dismiss the horrifying facts it is about. Trying not to be offensive to you and having to face the negative feelings is a real challenge. But you know all that… An Australian Aboriginal reader wrote to me, “A good read about a brave and decent bloke, but a disturbing feeling lingered with me. The KKK, ugghhhh.” It’s interesting to see how much you and Susan had to re-attune yourselves. Now that you have written with her, perhaps a similar dialogue would be possible with Black writers. Might be risky for sure.
I finally had a chance to read your piece. I think it’s excellent; very well written and riveting at points–necessary at this time, as well. It’s an important revelation that the politics in the States are dividing families as well as a nation.
I’ve read your essay and to my mind it’s an impressive work. I think you’ve achieved the literary style you were going for, and framing it with the dreams is highly effective. This is a sweeping, layered story but the reader doesn’t get bogged with complex family trees or extraneous details. In fact, it is the casual telling of these details such as your choice of jeans—Lee vs Levis, for example, that give us a closer look at the family landscape. You have a strong storytelling voice and it comes through here, the tone luring us into a seemingly innocuous family narrative. This essay reveals a lot about beliefs, and made me wonder about acquired beliefs (passed on through families) and those we seek out on our own. This also goes some way towards explaining how entrenched beliefs like those of your grandmother, and of your sister become enmeshed in political discussions. _____ said it has a literary tone and especially liked how you wove the dream sequences into it, and the irony of when you had to apologize to your grandma about writing KKK on her doorstep, your small-boy view realizing that her Christian beliefs would have kept her from such a group, when they in fact they claim their ideology is based in Christian beliefs.
This is a powerful piece of writing, Ron!! I had goosebumps through the final page. You have been as careful and objective as possible, and it would be difficult to imagine family members taking exception. But, then, families are families, and there can be long, convoluted emotional histories that defy reasonable intercourse.
Thanks a lot for sending this. Good to read your own heart-wrenching account of the personal impact of public/political circumstances. Liked the way you weaved the historical and current threads into the family story. Powerful.
In terms of content, I never, ever thought about a woman’s branch of the KKK; didn’t know there was such a thing. In fact, I wondered for a half-a-second if this part of the story was true! As a “family secret,” it goes back so many generations, it seems like a timely reveal for 2017. There were turns of phrases, of course, that made me chuckle, not knowing where they were headed–the kid writing KKK in the dust, staggering under the weight of confederate ancestors, the sign on the gate.
I find myself, once again, really enjoying (maybe that’s not the right word) but getting into “Sleeping with the Author.” I am still amazed and envious in the way you two work through issues. I find myself identifying with both of you, maybe jumping in on both sides of the discussion. I catch myself thinking, “Ah, good point.” Also I have to say that I’m glad I’m not on either side. It would be difficult. Susan makes a number of points that are to my way of thinking. AND Ron I believe in what you are trying to accomplish. No easy task. I think Susan says editing is probably easier when you are not familiar with the writer. Well that was just amazing. I love the dynamic between you two. Also, I now have to go back and re read the essay to see if I think it’s in your voice. I must have thought it was because I sure was caught up in the thing.
Wow, a fascinating exchange with Susan you dish up here! A family story not unlike yours has turned up many times, hasn’t it? … And in some of the damnedest places … Is there something special, unique, something keenly compelling and singularly revealing about your version? There must be for you. What is it? Make it in some gripping way the focus of your attention …. God, forgive me for saying what I have, but I had to say it.
I like your piece a lot and it certainly is timely. It is solidly provocative in all the right ways. Formally, I very much liked the way you evoked and layered different narrative positions and time frames. My hesitation was that it lost a bit too much of its momentum in the later part. Seemed to narrow it’s focus a bit too much? Quite possibly this was due to the constraints of the word count limit. Seemed it either needed to be longer or needed to not cite so many details about the Klan. That said, I am indeed happy that it is being published! And I wholeheartedly support you in doing more of this “kind of writing.”
CNQ is a perfect fit, a publication that supports critical thinking and would ‘get’ your essay. We need more of these thoughtful, probing pieces floating around in the public sphere for there is certainly enough that is nowhere near reflective or thought-provoking. Congratulations on seeing this through from a seed of an idea to a published thing in what would be considered lightening speed in most publishing circles. I think that’s called focus and perseverance.
A real value of your item, Ron, resides … I think … in your depiction of your young self, and your admiration of your grandma. Like a robin teaching a youngster its song, our folk teach us about the “objective,” the “real” world. And later, if we are lucky or persistent or of a certain character, we pull back the veil, just a little bit. Otherwise – this is the world as it is. And I think you illustrate this mightily well.
Congratulations on getting your piece published! Perfect timing, and perfect place for it to come out. (Too many p’s.) I found it on the CNQ website and I’ll share it with my social media friends (and the others who wisely stay away from that stuff). It’s a beautiful essay, a reminder that the roots of prejudice are deep, and often hidden from us as we receive the “wisdom” of our elders. As you describe in your own family, for many it is too dangerous and uncomfortable and too much work to question that wisdom. As if life should be easy or the world unchanging.
So pleased and honoured that you sent this to me. Thank you. You really did get your shit together. And how beautifully. I hear your voice so clearly. That great, raw, powerful honesty and thoughtfulness of yours. And the touch of your beloved editor, I hear that too. I know how talented she is as well.
Thank you for sharing the essay with me … I loved reading it so much. I learnt so much about Ron growing up and having been lucky enough to have met you and knowing what a wonderful person you are. I can’t wait to see you and ask you some questions about the piece and about Rituals you teach at university. I thought it was very brave and important story to share with the world. I love seeing the photos of you as a child. I loved the interview with Susan and you … I imagined both of you sitting at the dinner table drinking tea (coffee) and eating date squares as the interviewed rolled. Anyway, Congratulations on a great essay and I can’t wait to read more of your work. I like the way you tell a story and your writing voice, you kept me engaged all the way through.
Thanks for sharing. I read the essay and the dialog and can certainly empathize with many thoughts expressed in each. I can recall my first knowledge of the KKK that happened in 1964 while our family was on a brief cattle buying/ family vacation to my mother’s home state of Arkansas. Shortly after lunch hour my father took us to a small town diner for our lunch break. The tables were all dirty when we arrived , but we sat down at one while our parents went off to the washrooms. On the table was a meager tip and a small white card that I mistook for a business card. I read it briefly then slipped it into my pocket. I was ten years old and somewhat “well read” for a child from “Forked Island” but extremely sheltered from the racial tensions of the day. I was sharp enough to pick-up on the tone and purpose of the card so I hid it for several days but would secretly study it at any private moment that I had. I contemplated what type of person would intentionally leave a note like this that was designed to “threaten” the recipient and at the same time it was part of what was left as a tip to thank the server. The message on the card was simply. “You have just served a member of the KKK.” There was a USA flag, a confederate flag and an illustration of a burning cross on it. After returning home and some time had passed, I showed it first to Mom who At first told me to get rid of it then she told me that my father could explain it to me better. So I took it over to Dad and he did tell me a bit about racial hatred and that the KKK was a thing of the past and that our country was beyond such organizations and individuals who harbored such hate! Boy did the events of the next few years ever prove him wrong.
I have sat down and re-read the article twice since you sent it. I find it revealing and important and it leads me to question deep, hidden prejudices that I have inherited. Makes me think and leaves me uncomfortable. What will you do with the ritual manual? Will there be a family ritual were it is burned. Perhaps the life you have lived and the integrity and struggle that you have brought to these questions has already burned the book.
A friend of mine, sent me your essay, “The Backsides of White Souls,” and recommended I read it. I live in Australia and have not seen any writing on the subject before. (Nor have I come across any writing by white Australians whose ancestors took part in the massacres and other depravities suffered by the indigenous people here, though some may well exist.) I found your essay most interesting. The dialogue between you and your editor/wife was fascinating, too! Thanks for sharing your musings on what you have been grappling with.
This morning I found the time, at last, to read your “Backsides.” I think there’s a good novel in the family history you sketch here. Have you ever thought of writing it? One passage stirs me to comment. You write, ” Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.” These, I think, are not two different forms of racism but overlapping ones. Racism is the default position in the USA; and your essay suggests it may be about the same in Canada. As I see it, no one in the US is free of the infection of racism, the expression of which is white supremacy. Some people (whom we call overt racists) know this and dig in to maintain white supremacy. Most non-black people since the Civil Rights Movement deny it. A minority know it and work against it. But no one, whatever their color, is free of it. Perhaps I should avoid that last, absolutist statement, but if there are exceptions they are very few. The currents of culture and history run very strong. I guess that’s what your essay is about.
Thanks so much for the article. It’s certainly a great and timely piece for Black History month. It’s also a gracious offering of your own troubling experience to help others ‘shut up and listen’ and ‘get their shit together’.
There’s a great need for poop in a group behaviour, with the White House providing leadership sound bites like, “a nice guy like Rob Porter wouldn’t do that”, comments about mud huts in non-white countries, immigrant are what’s wrong with America, yada. And don’t we all love a great military parade! Especially when there’s little aid for Puerto Rico…
I just heard a podcast where they called the inevitable and future process of disinfecting America from the virus of the alt right as “detrumpification.” Yeah, we will need a great deal of this – miles to go before we sleep…. Let your article strike the first blow for detrumpification with your strong dose of penicillin! I guess the other problem is building a better immune system for the future.
I also appreciated the opportunity to understand the process you went through in writing it. Oh, and I liked the title and the related quote.
Something else I liked was that you didn’t assume a position of superiority or moral authority when you differentiated your views from those of your right wing family members. I would have found that challenging if I was writing the article, because I tend to equate the left with moral authority. However, I realized that your neutrality added to the quality of the article.
Can’t think of anything that I didn’t like or that even made me go hmmm…
On a personal note, I have wondered about your experience of writing the article. I assume that there was a pain factor in writing the article and in releasing to the world. Not that you need to share with the group, unless you are so inclined. I recognize that some of that is included in the article, but I figured there was a lot emotional work that went into decisions about what to include and what to omit.
I also had a thought that somebody like Sam Harris might interview you on his podcast if you sent the article to him. I know you have much better gigs than this but I would love to see your article and thinking get out to the common folk. I think this is such an important article.
Having come this evening from seeing a live performance of Antigone here in Montreal, which, though not as much about racism as it is about gods, ghosts and grief, I might just have been in the perfect frame of mind to read you “Backsides of White Souls” piece, which I have just done. I hope you’ll take the following criticism as constructive, and maybe healthily un-Canadian in its risking not being nice. I take your word for it when you say it is a seminal, even dangerous testament for you, a vital interrogation/unveiling of your family’s dead. But how deeply, really, has it scoured your own soul? Examined or exposed thoughts or actions of your own that might not have been as noble as you’d like? Troubling dreams of visitations, and a knife on the bedpost, don’t tell me very much at all about the darker sides of you. You stay pretty safe, hidden like what was inside the Life magazine envelope. A less weighty thing: the single paragraph on white nationalism in Canada, though that phenomenon is unarguably terrible, true, and growing, feels gratuitous, (an add-on for your TNQ editors ?), who, if so, should have told you that your own American family’s story was enough of a bitter tonic in itself. It is a real shame, and I suppose telling about this time, that you weren’t able to find an American publisher. Don’t give up on that one. All that said, I do feel I know you a tad better, after having read your piece. And that’s to the good.
I find the essay inspiring, comforting and sad. Sad because of the chasm it opens to the readers’ face and the melancholic longing to transcend it, knowing transcending is impossible. Comforting, because your essay does not conclude to chasm but keeps alive the longing. Someday the chasm might be transcendable, although probably not by us. The longing is a thread, a runway, a beckoning for a generation to come. I find the essay inspiring, I felt it makes sense to word your emotions and carry your thoughts. They have become digital paper planes across the divide. You ask questions, your sister prays. You might not get back your planes in plain paper, they arrive transmuted in a different shape, out of a strangely similar longing. You have transcended the gulf that divides you and your family by taking up your pen. The wide gulf is still there, but you have painted a picture that holds everyone together.That is the magic of writing. Thank you for that.
Thanks for your brilliant essay. From my understanding, it showed the knit relationship and events that have taken place in your family. To me, it was a good narrative and an intermarriage between oral tradition, historical events and sound memory. I enjoyed every bit of it. As they say, history is the study of the past in relation to the present and which serves as basis for understanding the future. I am beginning to think about how to weave and craft the many things my deceased grandmother and other loved ones told me before they passed on. I think that I will share it first with my children and see their reactions.