In service to my coming out as a committed writer in search of a meaningful career, I experienced a setback moment approximately a week ago after certain comments were made regarding a 'byte' I posted to my professional Facebook page.  I thought long enough and hard enough—just short of talking myself out of it—before posting it.  It was a bold move done in the spirit of artistic freedom, in the hope of generating discussion.  The critique, meant to be constructive, was a behind the scenes one that unintentionally punched me square in the viscera.  So, again, I asked myself this old familiar question: Does an artist—a writer, in my case—have a right to any and all attitudes, perceived or real, when it comes to certain sensitive and potentially explosive subject matters, that might cause hurt, pain, misunderstanding? Are we permitted to use loaded language/imagery, or controversial or inflammatory words in the service of our art?


Shortly before that incident, I became aware of the controversy surrounding American tennis' latest female hopeful.  In a publicized interview, Sloane Stephens, rising star, dared to criticize Serena Williams, currently number one female tennis player in the world and fifteen times Grand Slam trophy snatcher with a total of fifty-one career titles.  Sloane has three titles but no Grand Slam—yet—and to get there she has to play and beat the big dogs.  At nineteen years of age and ranked number twenty-nine at the time, she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australia Open this past January, one of the four major tournaments (Grand Slams), the other three being the French Open, aka Roland Garros, England's Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Towards the beginning of the third set, a frustrated Serena was lead to destroy her racket in a temper tantrum.  Sloane did not go on to win the title but she snatched it away from Serena who had been blazing a trail, and put it into the hands of the Belorussian, Victoria Azarenka.     

After her upset win, the twenty-year-old Sloane says Serena stopped speaking to her altogether, sent out a tweet saying "I made you", leaving little doubt in most minds who the target of that tweet was, and then 'unfollowed' her on Twitter.  Sloane caught a great deal of flack from media sages, and cyber fanatics who have nothing better to do than tweet like twits every fissure in a moment they find.  "Whatever you say is going to get blown out of proportion," is what Martina Navratilova had to say.  Maybe I should have provided some context for my Facebook posting, suggested my well-meaning critic—who experienced her own gut  reaction—so that readers could understand better where I was coming from, that I wasn't being "flippant" about the horrific history of slavery in this country.   

Pundit or player?  Scholar or artist?  Is history sacred?  Is art untouchable?  Are pop icons and superstars off limits if we don't share their status?  I spent a lot of time trying to get a handle on the myriad thoughts and feelings that sprung into my head like wildflowers after a wet rain, surfacing around these two disparate occurrences (Sloane's experience and mine), resulting in even more questions to myself:  When does an artist not be true to herself, keep her voice in check, in favor of not appearing sacrilegious? Just putting the questions to page kicks up pesky issues, like shaking a rug out the window dislodges inert particles of existence disturbed into motion. 

I have a tendency to philosophize (which can get in the way of making a point, and the one I'm trying to make here is already evasive enough):  It is human nature to reduce complexities to manageable dualities.  Simplify with contradictions.  Build on binaries.  Make clear decisions based on opposites.  Male or female.  Black or white.  Sane or insane.  Rich or poor. Awareness of the vast expanses existing between two poles becomes mired with the ease of pretending they don't exist because it's easier to deal with extremes, to become polarized, to define something—and ourselves—by what it/we are not.  Crossroads happen, creating murky spaces. Lines blur and bleed.  I also have a tendency to free write, a natural urge, and a tool that many writers use to get their juices flowing.  Both—waxing philosophical and writing off the top—are different manifestations of the same voice.

There it is again.  Voice.  I wrote about it in a recent blog post.  Voice cannot be circumvented. Voice is who you are when you choose to express yourself.

The one sure thing that Sloane and I have in common, aside from being African American women, is we both spoke out.  Each used her voice to say what was on her mind at a given moment under a certain set of circumstances.  

Bill Macatee, sports broadcaster for the French Open, describes Sloane as "bubbly and unfiltered".  This is why she is liked, he explained, for her freshness.  I would add that with that freshness comes a certain political naïveté.  The Williams sisters have many detractors—and Serena is not always 'warm and fuzzy'—among whom you'll find plenty of black people who, among other things, don't like that the sisters are currently dating non African American men.  But they also have a huge support base and following, a great deal of status and respect, and have paid their dues many times over, from being discriminated against on the courts (the blatantly wrong line call in Jennifer Capriati's favor during the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinals that handed the match to Capriati over Serena), to the murder of their sister, serious injuries, a pulmonary embolism that had Serena believing she would not live much longer, and Venus' diagnosis of Sjorgren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue, and drying of tear ducts and salivary glands.  

Putting words into the young players' mouths, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim, commented that "...you don't want us to be oatmeal.  You want us to have color.." And when they do they get taken to task for it.  "You want to be out there.  You want to be open and candid...", he said.  Now Sloane is criticized for being "robotic" in her interviews, practicing circumspection, wary of putting her foot into her mouth again and incurring even greater disdain from mountaintop dwellers.  She has jumped back in line, censored for now. The lesson learned is not to say what she is thinking.  In all fairness, this rule of thumb applies to everyone to some extent, and certainly until you learn how to say what's on your mind without pulling the pillars down around you.

My Facebook posting got little attention but I pulled it anyway.  The visceral response was too strong to ignore.  It settled in for days.  I had taken a calculated, sober risk, to the extent of deciding I wanted to post on my recent 'professional' page rather than my 'fun' page which has been around years longer.  In my opinion, nothing is taken seriously in terms of art on the 'fun' page.  There is way to much going on and, as one Facebook friend recently posted, some people just need to keep a journal.  My posting was a creative inspiration and I thought it belonged on my 'professional' page.

Midweek I began to understand what I was feeling.  Shame.  It wasn't the only emotion, but it was the strongest.  It felt like the time I was told as a young girl of eight or nine to go put on a shirt because I was getting too large to go bare-chested.  It was a hot summer Sunday in San Antonio and I was twirling like a spinning top with my brothers who were also naked from the waist up.  Our chests all looked pretty much identical, but because I was a girl, there was something different about it that I could not see, something that placed a burden on me as a female.  I was made to feel that I had done something wrong because it could lead to other things happening, ugly things, that it was in my control to prevent.  I had done something morally wrong that I did not understand but which had a profound effect on me.  

Shame is a powerful emotion.  Toni Morrison writes about shame.  It is what distorts and deflects the life of her character, Frank, in Home:  "How he had covered his guilt and shame with big-time mourning for his dead buddies.  Day and night he held on to that suffering because it let him off the hook...  Now the hook was deep inside his chest and nothing would dislodge it."

When we allow ourselves to feel shame, we are viewing ourselves through a moral lens.  A powerful lens of inordinate magnitude and power.  When we are marked at a very early age with shame, a trigger later in life can cause it to manifest, often disproportionately so to the trigger.  I'm not a psychologist; I have lived this.  I felt shame that I might have crossed some unspeakable and invisible boundary, that I'd made an awful mistake without knowing it, even after much contemplation.  How would I ever know or be able to trust my instincts ever again?

Taking a chance and succeeding means surviving the risk.  I didn't.  Not this time.

Sloane is toughening up and so am I.

To say or not to say?  That is, however, still the question... 
 
 
My outrage is so outraged it is effectively silenced.

Over-stimulated into a constant state of smoldering, there are no longer any fibers of my being to become appalled at the immoral and egregious atrocities inflicted upon humanity by self-appointed gods on earth.  I'm burned out.  Consumed.  Not quite spontaneous combustion, and certainly not self-immolation.  But who cares when the effect is the same?  When people set themselves on fire, or purposely starve to death, they are crying desperately for help, for someone to take notice, for someone to care.

Many years ago I read Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace: The lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.  I've misplaced my copy—I've moved twice since reading it—but one thing I came away with was a glimpse into how wealthy people live with themselves and watch as their riches engender more wealth while a lack of opportunity, education and means engender greater poverty all around them.  At their feet.  Kozol's focus was on New York City, but the scenario is replicated not just throughout the nation, but globally.  They learn not to see us, to make sure we are off their radar.  This is why the 'master'minds and perpetrators of the slave trade industry chose to dehumanize and reduce to the status of soul-less animals the human beings they enslaved.
 
When I peered down from atop the then Sears Tower in Chicago, people didn't look like people.  They looked like tiny insects.  Ants.  With great imagination and for the purpose of, let's say creating a short story, I could pretend like they were just ants moving about their daily lives.  Others with different agendas could pretend for different reasons.  The farther you 'rise' above others the less they resemble human beings from your vantage point.  What you can't see, why should you care?  What you don't acknowledge, why should you want to?  One could claim these 'vanished' beings have no souls, that they have nothing in common with oneself, that their needs, no matter how real, will pass some day, that they don't deserve anymore than they have or they wouldn't be under the sole of your shoe.  Which is why it would be better for them to be put out of their misery, sooner rather than later.  —Lets have some fun!  Let's play Russian Roulette by placing a fertilizer plant in the middle of a town or allow a town to grow up around the fertilizer plant like they used to do around churches or bodies of water, at the same time creating a natural source of labor that translates into money.  Let them work in unsafe factory buildings for pennies lining clothing while we line our pockets—because there are too many of them anyway—and be put out of their misery when the structure collapses killing hundreds of them, mostly women this time.  Oops!
 
We no longer have aspiring demigods.  We have all out deity wannabes aching to increase their chokehold on humanity.  It used to be a territory, a nation, a continent to be conquered and ruled by ruthless, power-hungry self-appointed leaders and their bands of marauders.  Now it is the planet itself, and damned be any living, breathing spoils!  The days of emperors and pharaohs who would make claim to god-like status live on.  They hold our lives and our futures in their hands.  And they won't stop until they transcend the status of demigods to that of deities.

Mythologies created systems of belief at the center of which was either one God Almighty followed by his rank and file or a family of Gods getting along as dysfunctionally as families on earth typically do.   And among modern mythologies is one that would declare itself ancient, at the helm of which is a single all powerful god, worshipped and torn asunder by three rivaling sets of descendants of the same parent faith.  One branch begot the religious culture in which I was raised.  When I speak of 'God', I'm speaking of the one I was taught about and told to bow down to and worship, him and only him, because he is a jealous god. A vengeful god. Enigmatic and tyrannical.  So I ask, why, if one would be God, why choose those qualities that seem most in line with destroying the vast majority of mankind?  Oh, correct.  You can't plunder ruthlessly with honesty, moral purpose, and a love of humanity as sidekicks.

Earth.  A new iteration of the beehive, the anthill, the plantation.  Hell in the hive, hell in the hill, hell in the fields.  Hell on earth. You might not identify with this view of the world.  The concept might not resonate with you.  However, because we are living in a hell doesn't mean we are 'unhappy', that our goals in life are stripped from us, that we are left without hope even if, in the majority of cases, without means.  Happiness is relative.  Ignorance is bliss.  What you don't know can't hurt you.  We are drone ants, workers bees.  Slaves.  We are expendable. We are ninety-nine percent of the human population.

We have modern iterations of ancient gods.  We have individuals with household names (e.g., the Koch brothers who, by the way, own the fertilizer industry pretty near lock, stock and barrel); we have corporations (like Walmart that has connections to the Dhaka, Bangladesh tragedy), and political entities (the über conservative right wing - the list is far too long) for example. We have those who hoard the planet's wealth while destroying it at the same time, melting its resources—like Vulcan in his forge--into gold with which to line their pockets.  The new Poseidon—the monolith that refuses to  admit to global warming because to do so would mean pulling its hand from that cookie jar—is destroying the environment by conjuring up earthquake after earthquake, violent extremes in weather, floods, tornados and hurricanes where they were once either non-existent or infrequent.  We talk about acts of nature, meaning, generally, destructive phenomena due to no one's fault.  But when the heightened devastation of destructive acts of nature are directly linked to the willful hands of mankind with an ax to grind, then we must speak of destructive acts of human nature.  The banks and financial institutions where the new gods hide their fortunes are the newest treasures of Mount Olympus, the crown jewels of the new oligarchy.    

The trickle down effect of greed and abuse affects our everyday lives in ways our limited ability and resources do not allow us to entertain, to make the connections.  We can see that greed led to the collapse of the eight-story factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, or the crashing of jet planes for lack of proper maintenance.  The stock and housing market crashes, the spilling of thousands of tons of crude oil into our oceans, seas and gulfs.  We can make those connections.    

But how many of us realize that the seeming 'choices' we are given as consumers have been decided on by others as no more and no less of what they want us to consume?  Perhaps this too sounds obvious.  But think about it.  There is no freedom of choice.  We are manipulated and controlled from inception to production to consumption.  

When the rubble is piled so high that the earth becomes a wasteland, the gods will get in their spaceships that only they can afford and sail high above the planet into new territories, leaving the rest of us to rot in a hell created by them.  I know, the scenario is far from original.  It's just that it seems to get closer and closer to the truth.

Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus, to claim the throne for himself as sole ruler of the kingdom of heaven.  Are we really willing to allow it to come down to this? I'm just sayin'...