The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
Loading... 00:00:00 / 00:08:14

On History

In the fifth issue of Clerestory Magazine, writers explore the events, stories, and relationships which shape us.

Listen to this issue’s playlist on Spotify.

Dear Readers,

This new year began not with the usual notes of optimism, but rather, with weariness, in a new wave of the pandemic. I sense beneath our fatigue a deeper current; a desire to build a new, more just, benevolent, and attuned world. Enduring and witnessing pain, grief, and suffering cultivates deeper commitments because pain, grief, and suffering reveal what we value, what is truly important. But in the midst of weariness, we cannot forget to prioritize these values. We must continue to make sacrifices and take daily action to protect the most vulnerable among us.

The pandemic centers the question of care in America. How are we connected to each other? Why do we need each other? How do our actions impact others? How can we better tend to each other’s needs and create communities rooted in belonging, kindness, and justice?

While I see many reasons to feel hopeful about the innate goodness of human beings, I also see many examples of the worst in humanity. Last week marked the anniversary of the insurrection at the United States capitol. A sobering reminder of the fragility of our democracy and the virulence of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny in America.

In 2021, history education became a national, dog whistle issue. School board meetings filled with inflammatory remarks and White parents screaming, “I AM NOT RACIST. YOU ARE RACIST!” Watching clips of this mayhem filled me, a South Asian daughter of an immigrant, with dread. It is history repeating itself. Steps toward justice and progress called “racism” in the matrix of White supremacy.

We live on land which White colonists stole from indigenous people under the banner of Christian empire. Here, White people brought their children to picnics under the lynched bodies of Black people. They made and sent postcards out of photographs of these grotesque, horrific events. If this is news to you, look up the work of “Without Sanctuary.”

A few years ago, I heard an interview with DeRay Mckesson, the civil rights activist. He stated that the work of justice is more challenging because it asks people to imagine something which has never been. New systems, spaces, relationships, communities begin with imagination. To use the example of teaching history in schools, let us imagine. What could school board meetings look like if compassion, rather than silencing, was the first instinct? What might dinner table conversations look like in White homes if families taught their children the history of racism in ways that encouraged resilience, solidarity, and action? How would communities fundamentally be different if belonging did not equate sameness, but rather diversity and multivocality?

On top of hundreds of years of colonialism, racism, genocide, and violence, we lack the collective ability to sit with discomfort and suffering – our own and that of other human beings. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who passed away last month, once said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” It is no mistake that the great spiritual teachers and writers describe compassion as the link – to ourselves, to each other, to God. You don’t do anything important skating on the surface of things or by avoiding pain and suffering. Compassion encourages within us the qualities least expressed on the nightly news, sorry to say. Digging deep within ourselves. Facing our own pain and trauma. Asking for help. Listening to and receiving the stories of others without judgment. Allowing ourselves to be moved to understanding and action. Moral courage.

Thérèse Cator, founder of Embodied Black Girl, shared with us in our third issue, “Story is feeling and healing.” Here, we’re not working on policy. We’re working in another way, practicing the capacity to feel, to heal, to listen, to receive, to be changed, to advocate for change.

In the fifth issue of Clerestory Magazine, writers and contributors will respond to the theme, “history.” Together, we will explore events, stories, and relationships which shape us. Together, we will also look forward, employing this knowledge for good to envision how we might create more loving relationships, more welcoming spaces, and a more generous and just society. In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Our issue image this winter is an archival photo of civil rights activists cooling their feet in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It brings tears to my eyes. It reminds me that the action demands contemplation. The moments of rest, reflection, and peace which restore us honor our humanity and give us the energy to carry on in a broken world. May this image remind you to be gentle, with yourself and others.

Thank you for being here, dear reader. We share these stories not for their own sake, but for building a new kind of world, where the dignity of all human beings is respected, where their flourishing is celebrated, where we listen and hold the suffering of others and act accordingly. Imagine how beautiful that would be. . .

With deep respect and love,

Sarah James

Sarah James is the editor-in-chief and founder of Clerestory Magazine. A graduate of Yale and Middlebury, Sarah is a biracial South Indian-American woman of color and a writer. You can find her work elsewhere in The Porch, Darling, and Relevant, among others, or on her website.

Discover more from Sarah James.
essay Family First

A reflection in ten steps

essay The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me

Last fall, my dad showed me five three-ring binders he kept in his home office. Each was filled with original handwritten letters, many of them yellowed with age and written by my great-grandfather

poem Mr. Cop

On the shelves in the back of room 211, our US History books waited at rest.

poem Questioning Plates

How did you know, dear dish, that you were ready to mend? What caused the old shatters? Is a shard a body, too? 

essay Like No Other Place

Cleveland was the place we went back to. Like homing pigeons or salmon returning to spawn. Cleveland felt like no other place, not home exactly, but something separate and apart.

poem Judgement

It is not always a guilt-and-punishment salve to put over what’s been hurting. 

essay How I Became a Published Author in Prison

At 18 years old, sitting in my prison cell, I was very lonely. I had just been sentenced to 241 years in prison.

poem Day of the Girl

Vicenza became Genevieve when she landed on American soil at the turn of the century.

essay On History

The George Eliot Fellowship greeted my second cousin and myself in Nuneaton with hot tea, biscuits, and a copy of every book that George Eliot had ever written.

essay History Books in Finger Crooks

All that remains of Gridley’s store is some time-curled paper copies of these supposed facts recorded by someone associated with the State of Connecticut Historical Commission for the Historic Resources Inventory and haphazardly shoved in a purple file folder marked “House Documents” by me.

essay Three Strong Women

Tape recorder on, I tried interviewing my 75–year old grandmother for a 6th grade school project. “I can’t talk about it,” my Bubbe said in her Russian-English accent.

poem She Was Invisible

Thrown into a boat to be tossed between two worlds . . .

poem The Anatomy of Grief

That December, the dust did not settle properly on his sister's graveyard.

essay The Art of Loss

Once upon a time… all history books should begin like a fairytale. 

essay Day Three of 2022

On day three of 2022, I found myself giving our Christmas tree the stink eye, its presence a reminder of our Covid-stricken holiday season.

essay Izyaslav

In the summer of 1997, at five years old, I place my grubby little fingers on a thin trunk, the grey bark slightly soft beneath my palms. . .

interview Redefining Our Identity as Children of Cambodian Genocide Survivors

I am the daughter of Cambodian Genocide survivors.

essay The Legacy of Mirabai

In July of 1998, on a high school auditorium stage in central New Jersey, I played the starring role of Mirabai, a 16th century Hindu bhakti poet and mystic, in a semi-classical Indian dance drama.

essay On Activism and Contemplation

I have often felt, throughout my life, that activism was a “given,” meaning that it was something I was expected to do.

essay Counting the Minutes with Tears

Once I was in New York with my partner. The MOMA was closing in 30 minutes, so we decided to pay full price to see Starry Night.

essay Origami: My Personal History with an Ancient Art Form

When winter rolled around and the other kids were busily cutting paper snowflakes, I was drawing circle snowmen and triangle Christmas trees...

poem The night of your baptism

The night of your baptism, your native name sounded like a bullet, lodging itself beneath your tongue...

essay Racism and My Tea Obsession

I am a former refugee, and a tea fanatic, living in Ottawa, Canada. When I rented my first house in the city, I understood that my love for African tea would be a trigger for racism.

essay Digging for My Roots, I Turned to Tomatoes 

The hot, muggy Maryland summers of my childhood were filled with outdoor activity. Some of this time was spent, willingly or not, helping out in the family garden.

poem Celestial Crossroads

In the celestial port of the Soul at the crossroads between Life and Death - or is this just a dream? - she waits . . .

essay Following the Ancestral Trail of Bravery

From the beginning of time, people have faced tragedies. Why do some adapt better than others? It's the history of my family that encourages me.