There's a side of my life I'm not overly proud of. A piece of my puzzle with sharp edges that makes it difficult and uncomfortable to work with at times.

I didn't grow up in a very diverse place. Almost everyone looked like me, spoke like me, worshiped at churches like mine, had similar household incomes, shopped at my grocery story, and attended my school. We were white on rice, a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a snowstorm.

Looking back, we were more than homogenized. We were sterilized.

I wasn't oblivious to color or ethnicity. Oklahoma has a rich and celebrated Native American history. My family lines, like so many in Oklahoma, flowed with Native American blood. But we had "Indian" towns that neatly boxed in those who embraced the culture. Venturing into those settlements was like setting foot on another planet to my child's mind.

So I thought that was how the rest of the world was ordered--like hung out with like, same lived with same, and we all got on as best we could that way. If we mingled it was born from necessity or novelty, not a real desire to live alongside one another. And I believed that to be what everyone wanted.

Then, around 6th grade, I read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. For maybe the first time I understood that things weren't always so neat and tidy. I learned the melting pot of the United States was more like an ice cube tray, and some folks would fight like hell to keep the contents of one cube from spilling into another.

A little girl named Scout helped me see with more than my eyes and I became aware of the threads that really bind humanity. Compassion. Love. Empathy. Family. Friendship. We were all very much the same. Yet for some reason, not everyone was regarded as such...

Fast forward to college and my New Adult years. I'd learned some lessons. I forged real friendships with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. I started judging people based upon individual relationships, not blanket assessments based on where they were from or how they grew up.

During my counseling studies in graduate school, I grappled with high concepts like the source of racism and prejudice. It was a struggle, because the more I learned, the more flawed  my very upbringing seemed.

Sure, I grew up in an environment where treating people the same wasn't only encouraged, but expected. But what was practiced and what was felt, or said in closed company, were often two different things. The more I studied, the more I saw there was a subtlety to the prejudice in my part of the world that seemed more dangerous and egregious than any of the overtly horrible things I'd read about in history books.

Then I stumbled upon the book, Night by Elie Wiesel. It's a book many read in middle or high school, but I'd somehow missed it. Night is the story of a boy (Wiesel) and his father as they are shunted off to a WWII concentration camp. It's full of teenage anger and rebellious thoughts, but more importantly, it expertly illustrates how racism and prejudice eats away the fabric of what makes us human--all from the victim's point of view.

There are two more books in the series. They explore the journey Wiesel made from his own hatred of those who treated he and his family so cruelly, and the disgust he had for his own people for allowing it to happen, to a place of understanding and the blossoming fruits of forgiveness.

Two books, and a lifetime of conditioning had been undone--or at the very least, I'd been given the keys to unlocking the mystery.

Words and stories have a way being absorbed by the soul like ointment, and when the tonic is truth, a profound healing can take place.

Prejudice and racism still haunt the United States. There are people crying out to be heard, to be understood. There are just as many who are unwilling or unable to hear.

There's no better way to reach them than through literature. We, as authors, have a tremendous opportunity to speak the painful truths. We can tackle tough topics. We can create diverse casts of characters that people from all backgrounds can relate to. We can illustrate the types of change, acceptance, and love the world needs to emulate. We can shine hard lights on injustice.

Readers can share in the process by thrusting the books that alter their view of the world into the hands of others. We can fight to keep books like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in schools instead of sweeping the ugly parts of our world under rugs.

We can play a part.

Have you had a book or story change how you perceive or interact with the world? Have you purposefully tried to diversify your fiction habits either in writing or reading? Let us know in the comments!




Post a Comment

  1. Well said, E.J. Words in the right hands are transformative. I've always believed that. :)

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  2. What an excellent, thought-provoking post. Well done, EJ! I grew up in such a similiar town, but moving to NYC opened my eyes to the world. And I'm thankful for it everyday!

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    1. Thanks, B! I'm also grateful for the opportunities I've had to 'see' more of the world. :)

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  3. Great article, EJ! I was pretty sheltered until my college years, and your thoughts strike a real chord with me. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. My college years allowed me to grow so much, too!

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  4. I think, for myself, growing up in a pretty diverse area of the country, I never quite understood prejudice. I thought it was an "old time" thing like in TKaMB.
    When I met my first bigot (after I thought the person was joking), I was completely stunned. I didn't understand it. I couldn't even look at the person anymore and walked away.
    I'm not sure books have the power to change some folks. They see their 'way' as somehow different than bigotry. They explain it away and make excuses for it.

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    1. It's easy to get dialed into whatever part of the country you're from. One thing I've learned is that diversity doesn't = acceptance. What is regionalized in less populated parts of the US often takes place at the neighborhood level in larger cities. The big difference to me is the day-to-day acceptance of other cultures and races. In more diverse places, you are simply forced to mingle with people who don't look like you, etc. That didn't happen in my part of the world. Everyone looked like me! LOL :) Thanks for the comment, brother!

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  5. Beautifully said, EJ. I am a retired English teacher, and these are the books I think everyone should read before graduation for those very reasons: A Day No Pigs Would Die, The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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    1. So true, Lynn! We have to protect those treasures. We know people like to do away with things that make them uncomfortable or don't conform with their way of thinking. But those those things often hold the most valuable lessons.

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  6. Well said.
    I grew up in a pretty integrated Philly and now I live in a very integrated NYC. It's what makes the world a vibrant place. Books that changed my worldview? 1984, Alice in Wonderland... recently I've gotten into historical fiction and historical paranormal. Bring on the NA historical fantasy!

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    1. 1984! Such a great story. Definitely makes you reconsider change and social acceptance. And we absolutely need more NA fantasy! :)Thank you for your comment!

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  7. A very thought-provoking post! Thank you for sharing, my friend.

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    1. Always fun to have the stage here at the Alley! :)

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  11. Very well said E.J.! Had a similar experience growing up on the West Coast of U.S., and with a book in high school. In my case it was "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Totally transformed my concept of my country, its history, our place in the world, etc.

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